Poetry Seminar: Michele Leggott

[Michele Leggott]

Book Review:
Michele Leggott's As far as I can see

I am losing my eyesight to the condition called retinitis pigmentosa […] much of what is written here is an effort to remember seeing, something to put against the dark while I searched for ways of understanding where it has put me. This understanding is elusive, it vanishes most when I need it. It is the sound of words on darkness, and of words in light. But eyesight is not vision. The rest waits” (Back cover).

As far as I can see, written by Michele Leggott, takes the reader on a journey into the world of a person, who loses their sight after a tragic disease called retinitis pigmentosa. But the true power of her book is to encapsulate the reader into “reading” her memories from a new point of view, and in doing so, it helps Leggott to communicate her search for answers to her condition. She manages to convey her search for other ways to “read” the world around her without the use of her eyes, and to take the reader into that journey with her.

Although the title of the book might suggest we are going to read about something, which is apparent, evident, and external. Instead we experience a very intimate and private world. The author is writing from her inner thoughts that protrude outwards, for the world to “see” her pain and try to understand her tragedy.

She is looking as far as she can “see”, not with the physical eyes, but with the inner eye from her mind and memories, and she is also trying to go beyond, outside her comfort zone, in order to look at her life from another perspective. What she is trying to do, in the end, is to put herself in the reader’s position, and make the reader walk her tragic path.

The whole book is dominated by the author’s pain and grief, which can become quite depressing and suffocating at times. She refers to her condition as a living hell and throughout the book she uses several references not only from the classical metaphoric view of hell, referring to hell as the “world below” but also from a literal perspective of hell, “fire in the sky, torches burning”.

By referring to the word hell, Leggott wants to state her place of suffering, spiritually speaking. But not only does she mention the word fire but also its opposite, water. In several of her poems, Leggott names “water” as a way of salvation or purification “take me to the river, throw me to the water” or she is referring to her tears, her pain and sorrow “rivers, oceans, sea, floating, the myth of the Hesperides island”.

The book is written in three main sections. The first section is a set of sonnets composed in a very unconventional way but still using a classical style. It looks like Modernism meets Shakespeare or Byron. There are several references to the classical myths specially those of hell and they are also composed in the shape of a sonnet, which seems very 15th or 16th century Europe.

Leggott tries to express how she felt after finding out she was losing her precious sight. This is hard for anyone, but specially for someone whose life has been devoted to reading and writing, to arouse the power of words on paper. In the poem Perse, she says: “I go to the libraries because they are the ocean”. I would add, schools of fish, fresh and tasty literature, which she won’t be able to enjoy anymore.

It is also a slow, cruel and silent death of her vision, that is taking away everything she has ever loved, not only her identity as a writer, but also her identity as a mother, a lover, a daughter…as she will never be able to look at those, she cares about, ever again. They will only live in her memories. But even memories are deceitful, for they fade away as years go by, they cannot be kept like a picture in a drawer, ready to be looked at anytime. This is her greatest fear.

The book follows with a second set of only two poems called Oes and Spangs, notice the irony of the word “spang”: looking at someone spang in the eye. These two poems are placed in the shape of a circle (or an “o”, hence the title) and can be read clockwise or anti clockwise. This section serves as intersection between the unconventional and dark first section and the more modern last section of the book.

[Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626)]

The title reminded me of an essay I read back in the day written by Francis Bacon: "Of Masques and Triumphs":

THESE things are but toys, to come amongst such serious observations. But yet, since princes will have such things, it is better they should be graced with elegancy, than daubed with cost. Dancing to song, is a thing of great state and pleasure. I understand it, that the song be in quire, placed aloft, and accompanied with some broken music; and the ditty fitted to the device. Acting in song, especially in dialogues, hath an extreme good grace; I say acting, not dancing (for that is a mean and vulgar thing); and the voices of the dialogue would be strong and manly (a base and a tenor; no treble); and the ditty high and tragical; not nice or dainty. Several quires, placed one over against another, and taking the voice by catches, anthem-wise, give great pleasure. Turning dances into figure, is a childish curiosity. And generally let it be noted, that those things which I here set down, are such as do naturally take the sense, and not respect petty wonderments. It is true, the alterations of scenes, so it be quietly and without noise, are things of great beauty and pleasure; for they feed and relieve the eye, before it be full of the same object. Let the scenes abound with light, specially colored and varied; and let the masquers, or any other, that are to come down from the scene, have some motions upon the scene itself, before their coming down; for it draws the eye strangely, and makes it, with great pleasure, to desire to see, that it cannot perfectly discern. Let the songs be loud and cheerful, and not chirpings or pulings. Let the music likewise be sharp and loud, and well placed. The colors that show best by candlelight are white, carnation, and a kind of sea-water-green; and oes, or spangs, as they are of no great cost, so they are of most glory. As for rich embroidery, it is lost and not discerned.

Again, we see the connection with the classical writers and philosophers, such as Bacon, he was known for his dark works and for a different way of investigating all things natural (the Baconian Method). Notice how Leggott is also trying to search for different ways to her condition by turning her poems into a sort of scientific experiment.

Besides, it’s worth to say how she uses the visual message of these poems to catch the attention of the reader, as if you can actually move them around and make them spin like spirals.

The final section of the book is perhaps, the darkest one. In this section, Leggott comes from the classical method to the post modern. Again, she uses a conventional way as far as the form is concerned, but with a more powerful and stylish content this time.

Once again, she talks about her condition using a very intensified, elaborated and almost biblical language:

“Do you see me? I am falling out of a blue sky where my days were as dancers in a maze, sure-footed and smiling …

Then a pair of taxis went head to head in a distant country so suddenly I didn’t see the difference but it was a wide white threshold. When I couldn’t thread a needle, when I could no longer see the faces of my children or trim their nails, when the colour of money disappeared (and I bare-headed in the midday sun) then falling began and I cried out against it …”

…there is a way, I said, but this is only the first gate. I give what is left of the light of my eyes, I have fallen out of a clear sky.

While on the first part she talked about the loss of her identity as a writer and as a person, and how this affected her memories. Also she talks about the loss of every women she has inside: the mother, the wife and lover, the daughter … She uses the myth of the gates, “gates to hell and the underworld” as a way to make the reader understand how she has had to give away her life and everything and everyone in it little by little.

Does Leggott think some sort of superior being is punishing her? It seems like it: she is depicting herself in a spiritual realm of evil, where her soul is suffering and living in a perpetual fire and pain.

As I finish the last lines of her book, “If this float would take my weight and the words be made of air again”, I come to believe she really thinks she has sinned and been punished for it. Maybe she has abused of her eyes and her words have hurt the Gods. Maybe she has not used her gift as she was supposed to. But this no longer matter to me, as I have come to see the world through her nearly blind eyes and look further away, as far as I can see.

- Carlota Sánchez

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