When the Banshee Howls and other poems (Broken Wing Publishing, 2022) by John W. Leys is a deftly considered collection of poetry and photographs defining an epoch in a man’s life. A palpable sense of returning home. This is a story of death, loss, spirituality and survival.
I can still feel
The sinking in my heart
When I realized
How limited our time really was,
And the crushing devastation
When they told me
You were gone. (I Can Still Feel You)
Not easy to bear, just as life can be crushingly hard, the poet doesn’t flinch from presenting reality even as they hold hope. For someone studying how people can be functional depressives, this is a good study, as there is much that talks to giving up and letting go, but also the continual fight toward making it another day:
I tried to cry,
But I couldn’t breathe.
I tried to die,
But I couldn’t leave
My boy, my light,
The only life I still had
To live for. (Silence Falls)
It is gut-wrenchingly honest, perhaps for some, too much, but for those with the heart of a poet, they will appreciate the candor and determining, even as they also recognize those hollow days, we all endure. The title of this collection is dedicated to the author’s aunt Pat, or Patricia Spoon (1940-2021) who had a powerful influence on the Leys family for generations. She bequeathed the hope spoken of:
I remember never giving up,
Never giving in,
Fighting while there
Was still fight left.
Even when you started
I remember love. (When the Banshee Howls)
There is a negativity in the authors belief that he will soon follow, despite his relative youth and this smacks of the loss of perspective depression can bequeath those in its clutches, the cruel and seemingly endless dearth of peace of mind:
And both my parents are gone,
My own sunset in sight,
The inside of my skull. (On This Day I Completed My 46th Year)
But what we must understand, is this poet is exquisitely sensitive, his emotions close to the surface, his feelings fragile, and as such, though he may live many more years (and I hope he does) the scourge of loss, the legacy of loss, is enough to push him (and most of us) to such despairs. His Jewish faith and his love of others, is the touch stone that saves him again and again, from losing himself to such fears. But who are any of us to say we would not feel similarly when faced with such loss? He recognizes this terrifying temporality when he defines what a poet is:
They are ghosts
that haunt themselves
with melancholy and murder —metaphorically—
for selfish selfless reasons. (Poets).
There is a real grain of truth here. Few writers are without some egotism or self-centered craving for attention. You can also find ways out of fear by writing and that is what John Leys has achieved, even as he thinks he is running away, he is able to endure and thrive:
But you’ll never
Outrun your past
Over your destiny. (Running Away)
He understands the hypocrisy of the human soul, its counterintuitive and torturous waxing and waning, the battles of need and desire, set against fear and loathing:
She sits there alone,
that he left
Just like she told him to. (We Began Breaking Up Before We Ever Met)
And that superlative awareness of our idiocy and brilliance, are what makes us deeply human and a poet, able to translate our absurdity via poetry and surely it is that desire to find peace, despite every surrounding madness, that keeps poets searching for ways to illustrate the world for us:
But you never got up
To dust yourself off,
And see if the rest of
The road was paved. (The Old Dirt Road)
By acknowledging our fledgling lunacy, we can choose to put it back in the box and carry on blindly, or take another road. This is posited through the book as a wish fulfilment, or a fancy, but either way, something possible, should we but allow ourselves that freedom:
See those stupid men,
Moaning dirge-like tunes
Crying, rubbing salt
In their self-inflicted wounds. (Broken Hearts)
I found misery, hopelessness, recovery, faith, humor and snippets of joy in this collection as well as an overarching love of others. I also found hope. Of all the poems, my favorite was one I had already read, a really superb poem in homage to the incredible Leonard Cohen.
I fold my prayer like origami
And stuff it in the crack,
A missive to the almighty
Asking if the Flame is ever coming back. (It’s Getting Darker)
I choose to believe in hope, and a brighter future. The truth of despair and its long walk-through darkness is a reality none of us can escape entirely, and it is definitely the realm of the poet to posit the questions and debate the unthinkable. I wondered at the authors need to be missed or to count, given his intense spirituality and what spirituality tells us of the unimportance of the individual compared to the sum of us all. I suspect he is aware of that, but as we all need, he needs desperately, the validation so often denied us in life. Fortunately, the last part of the collection entitled ‘out of the shadows’ gives me hope that the author has traversed the worst of suffering and once more, decides to choose the light.
Yet no shadow exists
Without a light
To cast it. (Out of the Shadows)
The irony is, it can take something relatively miniscule to make us want to live again, to help us dream of a future, it can be something almost inconsequential but to someone who feels they are drowning, it is the entire world:
Disappearing down the horizon,
Where the path becomes a point,
And the future is born. (Accidental Daughter)
If it is true, as his ‘about the author’ section attests, John W. Leys is the result of: “A chance encounter with a radioactive fountain pen (which) turned him into a ukulele playing poet, a curse he’s had to live with for decades.” Then I say, everyone should seek such a radioactive pen.
Reviewed by Candice Louisa Daquin Senior Editor, Indie Blu(e) Publishing / Psychotherapist / Poet.