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Things That Are

by Amy Leach

About.com Rating 5 Star Rating


Things That Are by Amy Leach
© Milkweed Editions
Milkweed Editions, 2012

Amy Leach's writing has been likened to that of Emily Dickinson (for its poetic qualities) and Lewis Carroll (for it's playful language), but, bite for bite, as one devours the essays contained within Leach's debut collection, Things That Are, what becomes most evident is how much Leach's writing is unlike that of any other writer.

In a prelude that begins with a discussion of humankind's conquering disposition, Leach alights briefly on the topic of gambling - specifically on Kentucky Derby donkeys and the individual digits upon Thelonius Monk's horn hand - before enfolding her readers in an invocation, in which we are invited to join her on a guided trip through the natural world as no other writer sees it.

"Come and miss the boat with me. Come and play some guessing games. We'll read aloud the illegible electric green script of the northern lights; we'll speculate about which star ij the next ten thousand years is going to go supernova. Then we'll listen to a recording of ‘Epistrophy.' I'll wager on his left thumb, you take whichever finger you want, and with the mad currency we collect from each other I'll buy you rain, you buy me snow, and we'll go in together for sunshine for the grass and the clover and the delicious prickly thistles."

And so it is with each of these short pieces. The perception of a particular path down which we are being led is illusion, because just as we become comfortable with the topic, Leach plunges us into a rabbit hole of her own devise, each of which feels far less like something constructed than it does the natural flow of Leach's mind, which must be a wonderful place to inhabit.

In "Goats and Bygone Goats," she posits what a world of sound we'd experience if sound waves did not decay but persisted infinitely in their travels, delivering to our ears the sounds of worlds long past - "extinct toxodons, and prehistoric horses wearing pottery bells, and dead bats chewing crackly flies" - before launching wholly sideways down an inquiry into the nature of goats - Hungarian improved goats, Spanish mountain goats, and fainting goats, all of whom, Leach tells us, learn by chewing - "They investigate by chewing and chew more than they swallow, in contrast to sharks who investigate by swallowing and swallow more than they chew."

Unlike the goats, who are generalists in their diet, panda bears are specialists. Leach likens pandas to celery saints, who eschew all gustatorial pleasures in favor of a single item. In the saint's case, it's celery; in the panda's, bamboo.
"With their carnivorous anatomy and herbivorous behavior, it is as if pandas are pledged to an ancient covenant - as if they used to be bon vivants like other beas, blood and berry juice staining their muzzles, slugabeds all winter, until one day they fell into a trance and received a deep message: ‘You are standing, pandas, on the very borders of the eternal world, but you have become charmed with infatuating food... give yourselves wholly to a bamboo diet, and guided by firm, unspotted principle your lives will become pure and noble.' Thus was formed that radical sect of bears, the Bambooists."

The subjects of Leach's essays run the gamut from the lowliest creature - for instance the caterpillar, who we learn actually only has six working legs (the others are mere stumps that keep its body from dragging on the ground) - to distant stars like the capricious Eta Carinae, which has fluctuated wildly in magnitude over the three centuries since we first became aware of its existence.

She's funny, too. Willie Nelson among Lithuanian peasants is an image used to illustrate camouflage, and a jellyfish out of water is likened to a bridesmaid's hairdo in the opposite condition. Plus, as already mentioned, her playful word choices - including such gems asmouldywarp, mishmash, bladderworts, and mudpuppies (all from a single essay!) are delightful. And throughout, we are discovering the world in the poetic way imaginable. Ostriches, known to run around in circles in the sand, beg the question, "To what purpose do they twirl? Who can twig the intricated soul of the pirouetting bird?"

Still here? Good. You're going to want to pick up a copy of Things That Are. In the meantime, enjoy some of Leach's writing here:
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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