Prizewinning New York poet Linda Lerner speaks in what might be regarded as traditionally feminine tones: high-pitched, clearly enunciated, a bit sad, cultured, wavering yet insistent in its maturity, twisting and stressing with the music of a Brooklyn native. For confirmation (and delight), one should listen to Lerner reading three poems online at IndieFeed: Performance Poetry, in a podcast from September 2006: http://indiefeedpp.indiefeed.libsynpro.com/linda-lerner-three-pieces.
In contrast, the speakers in her 2015 collection, Yes, the Ducks Were Real, express themselves in tones markedly less reserved, less politically correct, more in your face. Her poems say what must be said, yet what remains ignored in New York, America, and the world. Lerner’s poems stand up for women and for the little man, the immigrant, the outsider, and the poor, and they do so in a strong, clear, liberal voice, speaking against oppression of women by men and of all human beings by “the man.”
The collection is divided into five loosely organized sections; the first (titled after the poem “The Girls from Hell Come to Collect”) reflects upon growing up female in Brooklyn in the mid-20th century; the second (titled after the poem “The Missing Key: U”) features deeply emotional love poetry. Section III (simply titled “Matisse Poems”) is a lovely interlude containing six ekphrastic poems based on Matisse’s paintings. The final two sections (titled, respectively, after poems included in each, “To Those Looking Down…” and “Without Sound or Sense”) grapple primarily with issues of social consciousness and conscience (the “big picture”).
Lerner’s free verse is wise and sophisticated but not overly opaque or impenetrable; the language remains determinedly straightforward and uncomplicated, sometimes incorporating street slang, always direct and accessible to everyone. Her writing is rich with tactile details and vigorous with action. Despite their clear language and narrative, however, the poems are enigmas, puzzles; the telling is slant, indirect, poetic rather than prosaic. The reader must squint to perceive the poems’ deep emotional and ethical truths.
In “The Girls from Hell Come to Collect,” the title poem of Section I, Lerner’s speaker describes female strength in vigorous, earthy language: “listen hard and/ you’ll hear the raw of motorcycles in their voices/ see them riding on the back of a harley/ flying high above lives nobody owns….” In the narrative poem, “The Thing about Blame,” Lerner portrays an accident during childhood: “blame bloodied the street / splintered like the bones in the girl’s leg/ an iron rod held in place what in time has melded:/ a scar gives no definite clues….” The reader who pays attention, however, finds clues in the following poem, “Lost in a Comic Trying to Be a Graphic Novel,” drawing in the reader more deeply through a clearly autobiographical twist:
I never learned how to drive…
Lerner weaves longing, lust, romance, loyalty, and tenderness into this collection, perhaps most noticeably in Section II. “Unfinished” begins,
this is about dozens of turtles
this is about love sick turtles
The speaker in “Unfinished” confesses memory of a love deliciously sensuous, love deep enough to be unforgettable, hunger slowly appeased yet never sated. Like the turtles, led by their ancient cellular drive to cross concrete toward wetland, the speaker’s lovers recognize each other, knowing their love’s undeniable destination, brushing aside the relatively meaningless altars and restrictions of modern society.
Lerner asks tough questions without flinching in these poems, including in Section IV’s “Those Poems Like Safe Houses”:
death spilled out of words blood mingled screams
someone yelled, does anyone know how
Not simply trying to elicit an emotional reaction by mentioning recent acts of violence, the speaker ponders an important problem of conscience: must goodness be boring? As seen in the 1998 film by Gary Ross, Pleasantville, a society that represses the vibrant colors of human passion (“the outlaw spirit”) is no more than a dystopia. Nevertheless, renegade human passion, without temperance and love, arguably results in horrors, both small and large. There is no answer yet to this and other questions of merit that Lerner raises in Yes, the Ducks Were Real; nevertheless, as a poet of depth and substance, she must continue to ask them.
Lerner’s poems speak out in the voice of Lilith, woman uncowed by men or by authority—the self-sufficient, clear thinking, sometimes bitter but all-the-wiser-for-it voice of the female romantic rebel. The tones are strong, outspoken, and husky with whiskey and reading in smoky venues. This voice will not be silenced; it shares the wisdom of a crone who has experienced a full life while maintaining herself autonomously within, even as she lived and loved deeply; here is her hard-won, mature understanding generously offered to her readers; they ignore it at their own peril.