Each Leaf Singing by Caroline Boutard
reviewed by Melody Wilson
MoonPath Press, 2021, 97 pages $16
Available at The Book Mine, Cottage Grove, Oregon
Annie Bloom’s Books, Portland, Oregon
Caroline Boutard’s Each Leaf Singing is a feast for the senses. The cover feels good in your hand, the paper has high rag content, the print is elegant and light. It’s a collection to envy, from the woodcuts on the cover—contributed by the poet’s husband––to her calls back to him from within the poems. This little book is bursting with beauty, love, and first-rate poetry, all without excess. Spare, lean, filled with heartbreak and delight, Boutard’s poems introduce a world we come to know and love.
Because Each Leaf Singing chronicles the life of Boutard and her husband on their Oregon farm, we learn about the condition of the farm when purchased and what it took to get it going. In the poem “Farm,” we discover the couple found the farm’s ill-used ground…glittering with glass, among other insults; but, by the time the poem reaches the present, the soil is repaired.
Still the poet laments the many things we couldn’t mend, including the covenant we couldn’t keep—to stay here on this farm for life. This final sadness introduces the reader to the central problem of the collection: the terminal illness of Anthony, Caroline’s Boutard’s husband. But by this time, we cannot imagine another life for her. Even planting, which she describes as the …bend, step, bend along a five-hundred-foot row has become beautiful. We know it’s backbreaking work, but Boutard recasts it as placing each soft, tan soul right-side up. When her friends ask if she and Anthony miss our city life, she muses, I think potatoes/until the memory rings in my chest like a bell (“A Farming Education”).
Her hands are dirty, her back and knees ache, but she’s never alone. Plants are everywhere, voles accompany her underground, the trees stand sentinel, and the birds watch from overhead. It’s a multi-dimensional world of such beauty that we cannot look away. And just when we think there can be nothing more wonderful, the quail glide by, ...the deacon guiding the congregation,/His plume nodding as he walks (“California Quail”). Quail also appear in “The Garden on Thanksgiving Morning” among a roll call of farm occupants. The poem describes the farm at rest in what must be the year of Anthony’s diagnosis. She describes Brush dragged into piles now shelter quail/Who butter the gloom with their soft chuffs, reviews other miracles on the farm–– visits from eagles, a pheasant, a coyote–– and reflects on the prior Fall when she and Anthony sat together surveying the view but never saw what was coming.
Boutard doesn’t belabor her monumental sadness. She gestures toward it, giving it as little space as possible; but in “You, Then I,” she does grant Anthony’s illness a few lines:
hiding in your bones
Is growing into something mighty,
embracing your spine in a feathered spiral,
curling through your hips,
those gentle twins I know so well.
Boutard’s ability to describe is employed here in just the same way it is applied to cabbages and coyotes, to voles and deer, to the disreputable neighbor, and to the cows she calls sisters of perpetual nurture (“Slow Saints”). All of her observations are crisp, original, beautiful.
Each Leaf Singing contains other poems about family and nature and work—all worth reading––but “Winter Song for Anthony” is among the most poignant poems I’ve ever read. Boutard describes what the couple has suffered:
Illness is a burden you have shouldered for a while.
You do this well, mostly alone.
I help, the way I did
when we brought our first couch up the stairs
and I barely carried the weight of my share.
The analogy is as apt: the poet’s recognition of her own impotence against this foe framed in an anecdote from the past. We see that couch clearly, not because Boutard describes the event (she does not) but because she touches something the reader understands. I won’t take you through the rest of this poem, the really beautiful part, because I want you to see it for yourself. Instead, I refer you to another.
“January Lonely” is a poem built around things Anthony tells the poet about the owl nesting above the back door, about the names of birds—which the poet forgets—about a voice on the radio she cannot identify. What she does recognize is a feeling we experience as this beautiful book comes to its close, that
…today is pounding on the door,
and I am caught
with our forty years in one hand,
and a plea for more time in the other.
Simple, substantial, beautiful. If you’re going to read poetry about rural life in Oregon, or life in general, read this book. You cannot imagine what I’ve had to leave out.
Melody Wilson’s recent work appears in Quartet, Briar Cliff Review, The Shore, Whale Road Review, Timberline Review, SWWIM, and Tar River Poetry. Upcoming work will be in Rat’s Ass Review and Sugar House Review. She received the 2021 Kay Snow Award, Honorable Mention for the 2021 Oberon Poetry Award, and finalist in the 2021 Patricia Dobler Poetry Award.