I once caught a whiff of a wet woolen overcoat. Before you could say “Sister Mary Magdalene,” I was transported to the winter of 1956 and a grade-school cloakroom hung with leggings still damp from a snowy recess. The poems in Marcellus Leonard’s new collection, Shake the Thunder Down, are strung with this kind of visceral memory, like pearls around the neck of a beautiful woman.
Women figure large in Leonard’s verse; their sexuality, sensuality, and friendship are the sources of joy and pain. Mothers, aunts, sisters, wives, belly dancers, and the occasional muse all have roles to play. Memory conjures matriarchs and lovers like ghosts, but these are apparitions of substance. I’ve heard corporal punishment jokingly called the “board of education,” but Leonard proves that words can also hurt, putting the phrase in his mother’s mouth as a disparaging comment in his poem “I Overheard”: “Here comes the Board of Education,”/Mama said, when I walked up . . . . He’s an information glut — /sitting on his gluteus maximum.” By poem’s end, however, the pejorative has turned to pride: “You see that boy over there,”/ . . . “That’s my son, the professor.” A younger mother appears in “Sunday Powder,” in which the punishment is getting laced into her corset. Her appointment each week of a different son “corsetier” (a nice play on “courtier”) is by turns both comic and tender. That she taught her son to love becomes apparent in “Deep Crevices,” a poem written to his wife on their honeymoon.
The male line is also present in the poems. In “Grandpa Was a Stepper” Leonard’s fast-rhyming villanelle mimics the steps of a grandfather he met only through legend. The haunting sonnet “Oh My Father” will speak to many of us who have looked in the mirror only to see a parent’s face. Most poets turn to the moon at one time or another, often with hackneyed results. But in “My Brother Moon” Leonard finds the image of a brother departed, a mother’s cracked dinner plate, and the redemption of the communion host.
It would be presumptuous of me to talk about the African-American experience, but I can speak to the ability of language to record what comes through in these poems — the universality of emotion. Again and again, Leonard taps such emotion. Some of his richest poems take their inspiration from the African side of his heritage, growing from a trip he took to Egypt. In “Nubian Cousins” he discovers that blood runs thick thousands of miles from home: “Abdullah insists that I take tea/on first sight of me. In an instant/we pick twelve thousand years/from between our teeth with smiles.” In reading such poems I discover that even though African-American culture is “foreign” to me, these feelings that flow so eloquently have nothing to do with the amount of melanin in our skin.
Leonard travels to another time and space for his title poem, “Shake the Thunder Down.” The Shakertown of Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, Ky., has been restored for the education and enjoyment of tourists. Traveling there, the poet is seduced by an idea many of us find appealing: to lead a simpler life. The Shakers were celibate, and the poet finds himself contemplating his own vow to “prelude passion,” an alternative that, by the end of the poem, he finds he cannot make, vowing instead to “shake the thunder down.” The passion that dances in Leonard’s poetry proves the choice a wise one.
A book signing and reception for Marcellus Leonard, associate professor of English at the University of Illinois at Springfield, will be held 5-8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 22, in the MacDonald Lounge, located on the lower level of the Brookens Library, on the University of Illinois at Springfield campus. The event is open to the public. Leonard is the author of two additional volumes of poetry: Nubian Cousins: Adventures in Verse and Cardboard Ears: The Early Poems. He has taught creative writing at UIS for 15 years.