On Things That Are
While “things” may appear to be an imprecise word, it is an accurate descriptor for the subjects and images of Amy Leach’s 2012 lyric essay collection Things That Are (published by Milkweed Editions). Leach is most interested in exploring the significance and complexity of being a thing, one organism in a complex environment, which is in turn one piece of one planet in one wide universe. To make meaning out of little things like genes, peas, buttercups, bamboo, hippos, whirligigs, and people, Leach’s essays focus on essences of existing, like the concept that “[a] fainting goat often serves as special companion to a herd of sheep” because when frightened, fainting goats—which suffer from hereditary myotonia congenita—“sprint away for a second and then freeze . . . So when a coyote rushes from behind a boulder, the goat is stationary, available, and the cream puffs can totter away.” The goat cannot help what it is any more than the sheep or the coyote. Leach also makes meaning through juxtapositions that challenge what we know and expect to know about ourselves and the world. In “Talent,” for instance, an essay from the first section about infant wrens, penguins, ostriches, and takahe birds, only a frog from Borneo can fly, but each of these creatures shares a common method of giving birth: laying eggs.
Things That Are contains twenty-six essays organized in and around two main sections: “Things of Earth” and “Things of Heaven.” The essay preceding “Things of Earth,” “Donkey Derby,” functions as a preface by inviting readers to “[c]ome and miss the boat with me. Come and play some guessing games.” Sixteen essays that range in length from one page (“Trappists,” in which the lily of the opening line thinks “I am a Trappist like the trees”) to nine pages (“Silly Lilies”) comprise the book’s first section. While the essays could all exist independently, subtle images, ideas, and creatures provide links from one essay to another. For example, the creek of “Trappist” (who thinks “I am a Trappist like the lily”) becomes the subsequent essay’s river: “In Which the River Makes Off with Three Stationary Characters.” The water from the river of this essay transforms into the waves of the first line in the next essay (“Goats and Bygone Goats”), which reads “[i]t is too bad that sound waves decay.” Such transitions between Leach’s essays, the subjects of which vary but are all related to nature in some way, are understated and organic. These essays do not progress toward a particular climax, but instead focus on experiencing and highlighting connections between lives, survival techniques, growing patterns, and names (the essay “Love” isn’t about human love, but plants like Love-in-Idleness, Love-in-a-Mist, Love-Lies-Bleeding, and Love-Bind). “Things of Earth” ends on the essay “God,” which points more specifically to human consciousness (“Some evenings as I sit there with all these stony words piling up on me”), an idea that will be explored further in “Things of Heaven,” which Leach establishes as a human construct juxtaposing the gentle naturalness of “Things of Earth.”
A lone essay, “A Memorandum to the Animals,” follows “Things of Earth,” helping the overall collection transition to the human-centric focus of “Things of Heaven” by addressing our manipulation of nature: “This time around we are in charge,” Leach writes, “producing our own cataclysm . . . making our own guest list, which does not include Every Living Thing.” Seven essays comprise “Things of Heaven,” which opens not with the cosmos or something divine, but with the line that “[e]very Monday at noon, in Fry County, the Emergency Warning Sirens are activated for a drill.” Human intrusion in “Things of Heaven” is loud, unnatural, and decidedly un-heavenly. The section’s final three essays focus on scientific ideas about the heavens, such as safe orbits for moons, before “The Oracle” (an essay that follows “Things of Heaven”) reinforces the spirituality of nature: “Now the tree is full of air, and bear, and meadow mouse. Thus does a solid tree become a channel, a medium, an instrument.” In Afterword: The Round-Earth Affair, Leach combines the natural and manmade focuses of “Things of Earth” and “Things of Heaven” by writing that “perhaps nature needs us like a hostage needs her captors: nature needs us not to annihilate her.” The urgency of sentiments like this one is whimsically followed by a Glossary of Strange Beasts and Phenomena. Leach gleans the Glossary’s entries from fanciful terms in earlier essays, invoking the book’s initial “guessing games” and reinstating lightheartedness.
Leach’s essays contain research that is more descriptive than academic, such as noting that shepherds include fainting goats in their flocks of sheep, but not otherwise delving into the scientific reasons why these goats faint or specifically naming their genetic disorder. The theme of environmentalism through Things That Are is more subtle in “Things of Earth,” whose essays represent nature without particularly pointed environmental views, but this theme is more firmly established by the time readers arrive in “Things of Heaven” to the blast of warning sirens rather than angel’s trumpets. Because Leach’s essays focus most on conveying experiences (being in nature, hearing the warning sirens), they emphasize description and connections between described scenes and images and contain much less exposition than traditional essays.
Leach’s structure and images in Things That Are are reminiscent of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, an apt comparison given that Leach’s collection contains epigraphs from poets John Donne and John Keats, thus exhibiting a poetic mindset. Leach’s and Blake’s texts each structurally rely on binaries—Earth and Heaven, Innocence and Experience—but challenge the simplicity of those binaries; Leach’s heaven is human-generated, not divine, and—like Jesus—Blake’s “The Lamb” stands for innocence as well as slaughter. Things That Are also contains illustrations, though unlike Blake’s artwork, images in Leach’s text appear less frequently and are not integrated into the writing. These images indicate deeper meaning while also representing specific elements from the texts. For instance, the picture that opens “Things of Heaven” shows planets, birds, and a quilt (a manmade object) rather than traditional religious imagery, presaging this section’s secular focus. Blake’s “Tyger” is not nearly as fearsome as the poem suggests, but looks tame and sickly, thus undermining the poem’s “dread.” By challenging readers’ expectations through juxtapositions, descriptions, and images, Leach creates a complex, thoughtful book whose essence, like Blake’s, lingers long after a reader has closed its pages