A Review of
Recluse Freedom: Poems
Paperback: WordFarm, 2012.
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Reviewed by J. Ted Voigt
If you take New York State Bicycle Route 19 four miles north of Houghton College you arrive in the town of Fillmore, NY. Once known only as Mouth of the Creek, it was later renamed for President Millard Fillmore; this is the place where the poetry of John Leax happens. It’s a small town with a Methodist church and post office, which can be found on any map. What cannot be found on those maps, however, is the other place of Leax’s poetry: a place called Flat Mountain.
Flat Mountain, as far as I can tell, is more of a state of mind than a geographic feature. Leax attributes the idea to Thoreau, but if Thoreau ever mentioned Flat Mountain, he didn’t do so on the internet. Here’s the quote from the beginning of the fifth and most compelling section of Recluse Freedom, a section titled simply “Flat Mountain”: “Existing nowhere and everywhere, it rises, as Thoreau said, where ever one is enabled to apprehend within the perpetual instilling of illusion the real.”
In this section, Leax gives a variety of examples of his experiences with Flat Mountain. “Go away or come./ It does not matter./ Who isn’t already /at Flat Mountain/ is surely lost” he explains in a piece entitled “Flat Mountain Lost and Found.” Flat Mountain is not a place. Rather, it is the sensation that there is something about the present moment that echoes having climbed a mountain. It is the sensitivity to the wildness of life, to the thinness of the air when one is with loved ones.
John Leax is not a very well known poet. As an aspiring poet myself, I am having a hard time understanding why not. He is very widely published in journals, has had several poetry collections published, taught at the university level, and written fiction and nonfiction. It seems he has done everything an accomplished and widely known poet needs to do, and yet he still seems to be mostly unknown to the mainstream poetry world. For example, searches for his name on the websites of the Poetry Foundation and poets.org return zero results, yet there are references, articles, and interviews at sites such as Image Journal and Christian Century, publications that have a specific emphasis on faith and religion
Does this mean that a Christian poet cannot be as successful as one who does not write about their religion? Perhaps not, and perhaps some would argue that his work simply doesn’t measure up qualitatively to that of his more well known contemporaries. But having read his work, I do not believe this to be the case. It seems instead that what Leax lacks is nothing more than the ambition it takes to be a recognized and celebrated poet in the mainstream market. Rather, his deep and simple poems are a spiritual discipline, one he is willing to share with us, and one many surely have enjoyed throughout his decades long career.
In a recent interview with the website Antler, here, Leax gives the following advice “Take your time. The poem probably isn’t going to work anyway, so there’s no need to rush.” I have often felt this way, but it is reassuring to hear it spoken by a career poet, one whose poems often do work, despite his modesty.
I’m just not that into nature poetry. I like nature; I just have never really enjoyed reading nature poetry. John Leax writes a lot of nature poetry, and he does it well. But he is at his best when he turns from the trees and birds in front of him and comments on the people next to him and behind him. Perhaps the ability to make accurate and meaningful observations in people is a product of the discipline of making observations in nature, something at which Leax is both experienced and talented.
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