As the Authorized Version of the Bible came off the press in 1611, the poet, Aemilia Lanyer, was not prepared to take it lying down. Her outrageous Salve Deus Rex Judæorum mounts a robust defence of Eve and claims Christ for the girls. She writes ‘But surely Adam can not be excusde, / Her fault though great, yet hee was most too blame; / What Weaknesse offerd, Strength might have refused, / Being Lord of all, the greater was his shame: / Although the Serpents craft had her abusde, / Gods holy word ought all his actions frame, / For he was Lord and King of all the earth, / Before poor Eve had either life or breath’. In Lanyer’s poetic universe, women are the patrons and Christ is their object of desire: ‘So sweet, so lovely in his Spouses sight, / That unto Snowe we may his face compare’. Lanyer co-opts the language of The Song of Solomon, turning the saviour into a hottie passed around the group, just as poets like Donne circulated their women around their friends in the form of fair copies of their poems. It lifts the soul to know that Renaissance women fought back.
Stephanie Leal’s Metrophobia treats the fall of (wo)man to a spunky franchise reboot. In ‘On the discovery of the Orgasm’ , we read that ‘[…] Adam ate the apple and thought of Eve’s red lips surrounding its skin; / breaking into the soft, fleshy sweetness, he thought of other places her lips had been’. Leal, like Lanyer, sees little strength in Adam who, at this defining moment in human history, has drifted into a reverie. After all, men think about sex 8 times a day according to Ohio State University. Leal maintains tight control of her apple eating image and, at this point in the poem, Adam thinks not of teeth but of the eroticism of the apple’s ‘soft, fleshy sweetness’. However, the sibilant quality of the language adds a serpentine subtext to the proceedings. Teeth may be unwelcome in the bedroom, but they’re buried in the apple and, in the brave new post-lapsarian world, Eve threatens the selfish Adam with terrible retribution. Leal’s rhyming couplets progress the story with the nod and the wink of the end of the pier show and set the reader up for the final blow with discipline and patience.
In Boston Tea, Leal displays a similar affinity for the underdog. ‘Sixteen sips from Chinese porcelain / espy the arbitrary day, the decisive act. // History began mohawking the bay: / vulcanizing sand dunes’. At one level, this was a revolutionary act and the damaged cargo of tea, ‘mohawking the bay’ reminds us of the American symbolism of the disguises adopted by the revolutionaries. The leaves washed on the sand dunes have the power to violently transform the landscape, as the Roman god Vulcan was the god of lava and smoke. However, the ‘convulsing welkin / obscures feathered headdress. // The tea still washes up / on the shores of Boston; // nothing was damaged or stolen / except a padlock’. ‘Welkin’ is an essentially English, Anglo Saxon word for the heavens and suggests that, no matter what changed politically, North America was still subject to a continuity of religion and culture. ‘Nothing was damaged or stolen’ in a revolution as unrevolutionary as Egypt’s transition from President Mubarak to Morsi, whilst the Native Americans haunt the margins, obscured by the smoke drifting across the battlefields.
In Metrophobia, Leal experiments with a range of forms, moving from lyrical simplicity to cutting and pasting found objects (JM Barrie’s Peter Pan) via dense prose poems which reflect and refract the light like shattered glass. The poems are unified by a recurring suite of language and images which helps to create engaging points of contact between the fruit in the fridge and the fall of man, for example. This is a demanding, rewarding, refreshingly iconoclastic and earthy collection of poems for the way we live now. Aemilia Landon would be proud.