Review of Leigh Anne Couch's Houses Fly Away

Couch, Leigh Anne. Houses Fly Away.
Zone 3 Press, 2007. (60 pages).
ISBN 978-0978612726

The title Houses Fly Away might initially bring to readers’ minds familiar images of Dorothy and Toto soaring off to Oz, but Leslie Anne Couch’s first book of poetry moves far beyond the familiar. In fact, her layered language and unexpected images frequently serve to make well-known objects and stories startling and new.
     The opening poem, “Beast,” prepares readers to enter this alternate reality with a first-person speaker who seems to be both human and cat. This speaker begins, “I have good friends and a family / only slightly perforated. I eat three / maybe four square meals a day, still / the bird in my mouth.” This cat-like image gives way to further descriptions of birds, and then the speaker goes on to say, “I keep my teeth clean, floss nightly. / My wife and I are tender. I have a dog / who wants to please with tiny blind / animals dug from the neighbor’s yard.” This middle section of the poem suggests human actions, but the speaker immediately shifts back to descriptions of cat-like behavior: “We poke around the grass, the sun warms / our skins, we make more of ourselves, we eat, / don’t get eaten, sleep—it’s enough for a life.” With this last line, the speaker seems to come together into the general “beast” of the title. It doesn’t matter what kind of beast; cats and humans differ little when life is reduced to eating, avoiding being eaten, and sleeping. With this colliding of the human and the feline, and with this statement about life, Couch brings us into the world of this book, where things might be stated simply but are never simple.
     One of the features that Couch regularly employs to create this strangeness in the familiar is the layered simile. The second poem in this collection, “Daughter Dreaming Tornado,” begins with such a layering: “Her ribs might pop like shoelaces but she could hold / her breath in water, warm like August and blood.” Invoking August alone in a description of warmth would be obvious. Describing something as warm like blood would be better, but it’s still not a complex idea. However, pairing August with blood to describe warmth creates something new—the feeling of bright summer with something sinister hidden just beneath. Couch uses this technique again in the following poem, “Trains”:

I don’t know a thing about trains
but their torn call, their melodeon gasping
like polished maple against my skin,
like stage cries of a drowning diva—
maybe no one hears them but me.

In this instance, the layered simile brings tangibility to sound—it is not only heard as a scream, but it is experienced as the tactile feeling of smooth maple on skin. This device allows Couch to complicate familiar items again and again throughout the book; such things become strange and wonderful because they are so fully and disparately described.
One of the most pleasant surprises in this book comes with the poem “Lazarus,” which complicates the familiar on a large scale. The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead has been revisited innumerable times by artists of all sorts, yet Couch’s retelling sheds new light on the narrative. She imagines Lazarus coming back to life after four days: “He tears at the winding sheet, rips it / from the mouth. Spiced air // cuts down to the lungs, choking / with the smell of his own decay.” Her descriptions of the smell and the feeling of being in his skin give the story a more grotesque, gothic feel than usual. The conclusion of this poem shows Lazarus in a zombie-like state:

After he died, he ate regularly,
said little, and watched the windows.
From the sill he picked off a cocoon,
popped it open with a long thumbnail.

He watched the wet opal covered in dust.
It finally stopped squirming.

Couch’s continuation of the Lazarus story forces readers to question the miracle and, ultimately, the very purpose of existence: Is second life a gift, especially when the one who emerges from the death shroud will also finally stop squirming? Is any life a gift when it will end the same way? In this and in the whole of her first collection, Couch takes her readers far beyond the world we thought we knew, forcing us to reevaluate our language—especially our familiar descriptions and narratives—and our lives.

Katie Manning is a visiting professor of writing at Point Loma Nazarene University for the 2008-2009 school year. Her poetry and book reviews have been published or are forthcoming in Ancient Paths, Driftwood, Downgo Sun, Kansas City Voices, New Letters, ONTHEBUS, and Relief. She recently received the Harriette Yeckel in Honor of Ingrid de Kok Award and the Crystal Field Scholarship for Poetry.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761