A week ago last Thursday, the postal service delivered a book I’m sure few people own, Adam LeFevre’s Everything All At Once, published in 1978 by the Wesleyan University Press in Middletown, Connecticut. It’s Volume 89 of the Wesleyan Poetry Program.
The author, the title, the press, the series might be unfamiliar to you, but I’ve owned the book twice. The first time, in 1999, it appeared in a stack left by the school librarian with a post-it note, “To be discarded… any takers?” I don’t remember why I adopted this skinny orphan of a book but maybe I looked at the table of contents. Titles like “Sestina Sestina,” “Scapulae,” “Theoretical Landscape,” “The Difficult Birth of Walt Disney,” “Vampire Bride,” “Nordic Anthem,” “Monologue of the Girl in the Refrigerator,” and “Boots of Guilt,” might have helped me see LeFevre as a kindred title-er who shares my weakness for mordant humor. I love any title that might start a challenging writing exercise.
In any case, it came home and then I felt strangely adopted myself. Within a few hours no poem remained unread and reread. LeFevre’s surreal poems felt dazzlingly creative to me, and I wondered why he hadn’t echoed through the literary world. He seemed to me every bit the equal of Russell Edson, another of my favorites at the time.
That sense of injustice lost me the book. I had just started an MFA program, and I sent the book to my teacher with a note inside, “Why isn’t this book better known and what happened to this guy?” He never answered. He never returned the book. I considered asking for it, but then I guessed my teacher had answered after all. My affection was misplaced. The book was a discard after all.
I’ve researched LeFevre. He was born in Albany, New York and went to Williams and then Iowa. He also wrote plays and produced some. He became an actor. Poetry, it appears, was an intersection he left.
You don’t know it yet, but you’ve seen Adam LeFevre. He’s in that speed dating scene in Hitch and a lot of Law and Order. I saw him on one of those “That Guy” web pages once, the ones that help people discover faces that are recognizable but unnamable. Now that I’ve named him, you may see him everywhere. Someone may come out of the woodwork to say he or she knows him.
If so, please send my highest regards.
Spying him on television two weeks ago led me to second ownership. I wondered about this book I’d loved and wanted to know if I’d been wrong, entranced, seduced, or duped. I longed to smell its musty pages, so I found it on Amazon, used, $2.98.
And fell for it again. LeFevre is inventive, bold, clever. I collect sestinas and his is the funniest I’ve ever read. His sestina is about how horrible sestinas are to write and ends, “This form is a hungry monster. / Repetition wants something else every time. Six / mad kings and you, locked in a cell—that’s a sestina.” LeFevre is fearless in subject matter too. He writes a poem from the perspective of a girl trapped in a refrigerator during hide and seek . She discovers the door to heaven, “opens / just from your side.” In other poems, he occupies the odd space between memory, history, and imagination in poems about an astronaut stuck circling the earth, Matthew Brady, and Charles Darwin, lost and sick from a hangover.
Not one poem seems amateurish, cliché, or bungled by pretention or earnestness, which troubles me—because I still think I must be wrong, because I half-hoped to feel naïve and discover this ex of mine wouldn’t stand up to time.
I half-wish you could dispel my fondness, but I can’t retype all the poems, so here’s one of the shorter ones, “Aubade”:
A big nun is sitting on an azimuth.
Behind her back, the dark opens like hands
released from prayer
Snakes and rodents crawl out
in every direction.
The eyes of the nun are wet with love.
Between her legs the sun is rising.
An aubade is a morning love song, usually about two lovers parting after an illicit tryst—I’ve written one—but knowing the definition doesn’t help here because, well, this is a nun and no mate appears other than possibly the departing snakes and rodents or God. “Azimuth,” I looked it up, is an angular measurement in a spherical coordinate system where the vector from an observer, the “origin,” to a point of interest is projected perpendicularly onto a reference plane; The azimuth is the angle between that projected vector and a reference vector on the reference plane.
If that helps, you’re too smart for me.
Nonetheless, I love this poem. Everything is strange—the nun, her scientific location, the unclasped hands that open darkness, the critters moved as by the divine, the wet eyes of unnamed love, the sun rising in the nun’s sex. Its oddity is more than atmospheric and more than gimmicky aftermath. It evokes sexual love and religious love without conventional causes and mixes miracle and mystery in a curiously funny, nearly southern gothic, way.
Many of the poems are just as evocative and strange. Another poem, “On the Future of Bridges,” communicates the beautiful elusiveness I love in this book:
Bridges will strangle air until
It confesses something terrible
Something no one wants to know.
Then bridges will let go.
Epigrammatic certainty says everything and nothing and, perhaps I’m over-reading—oh, I must be—but LeFevre’s poems feel like those bridges. They “strangle air,” extracting from nothing something haunting, something ominous.
But I can’t shake the feeling I’m wrong. And why do I hope to discover my former affection was faulty, and why do I discount everything I liked once as something I thought I knew? Why can’t my original pleasure live into the present instead of fading like deuterium, its potency ticking until silence?
Was I always wrong, am I wrong now, will I be wrong later?
Too many questions, I know, but lately I find myself staring at my former self wondering who’s right.