Dublin, Ohio, USA
On Gary LeBel’s “White Azaleas”
In “White Azaleas,” Gary LeBel employs metaphor and allusion as he leads the reader from a nostalgic tone of time lost to visions of immortality.
The work, written in the present tense, opens, “He wants to return to where he learned to drive, to a dirt road that masquerades as rural Georgia from some fifty years ago.” It is unknown at this point how this person is connected to the narrator.
In the second paragraph, the tone of the prose becomes elevated, as LeBel introduces horses that suddenly appear in a clearing. The poet creates an ethereal scene as he describes their “long cascading manes . . . swept along with the windy grasses” and “the sparkle of gnat-wings piercing their withers' evening auras.” Is this moment real? Or is this perhaps an elderly gentleman’s recollection of the past as relayed to the narrator?
One can infer, regardless of interpretation, that the narrator is reassured by the old man’s statement, “I like it here.” This statement can be read literally or metaphorically. In the prose that follows, the poet shares the narrator’s private thoughts:
. . . and by this I know he's pulled at the 'root of the root,' has learned that certain places have a knack for laying claim to us, and we to them . . .
LeBel never hints at his protagonist’s name or status but refers to him consistently, without further definition, as “he”; this results in a detachment that permits the reader to relate personally to the poem based upon his or her own experience. The statement, “I like it here,” and the narrator’s unspoken response, for this reader, represent very private moments—the dying communicating a fragment of his vision to a loved one.
The work now shifts to a sequence of three tanka. Two ravens appear in the first. The poet portrays these birds as flying “wing-to-wing.” This behavior is typical of mated pairs. However, the writer’s addition of “grove’s enclosing night” and the reference to answering “a standing invitation” introduce these ravens as harbingers of death.
In the middle tanka, LeBel repeats an element from the prose—the horses—and reveals another layer. The poem’s characters now include girl and horse and it is stated that they are “one being.” Youthfulness is conveyed in the word “girl.” Once again the poet does not share who this new character is, but it is clear that the scene is pleasant. The darkened fields previously disclosed in the prose and in the first tanka are now “greening.” In the fourth line of the same tanka, LeBel introduces the reader to Castor, the mortal twin of immortal Pollux. Castor, known for his horsemanship, is in the field and “leaning against a fencepost” with “grass in his teeth.” His casual stance suggests a young Castor, like the young girl, oblivious to mortality.
LeBel expands upon the allusion in the final tanka. The twins became bright stars in the constellation Gemini and the patrons of travelers and sailors. In the first line, the hearth is “listing,” but instead of dwelling on an imminent doom, the poet depicts “a homestead once surrounded,” thereby implying a conquest of the unknown. LeBel acknowledges this family’s generations. All who have come from this place have left their seed and achieved immortality in the fragile blossoms of white azaleas.
The author exhibits extraordinary control throughout the work and reveals himself only briefly and obliquely via his closing line, a quotation from the poet Sappho:
“. . . of you, beautiful ones, my thought remains immutable . . .”
He wants to return to where he learned to drive, to a dirt road that masquerades as rural Georgia from some fifty years ago.
Now and then in sudden clearings, long cascading manes are swept along with the windy grasses, the sparkle of gnat-wings piercing their withers' evening auras. "I like it here," he says, and by this I know he's pulled at the 'root of the root,' has learned that certain places have a knack for laying claim to us, and we to them, however subtly they deign to touch us from a comfortable distance.
Two ravens fly wing-to-wing
a child's height above the gravel
into a grove's enclosing night,
calling as if in answer
to a standing invitation.
Over the greening field
one girl, one horse, one being
. . . and leaning
against a fencepost, Castor
with grass in his teeth.
Beside the listing hearth
a homestead once surrounded,
newborn cries & eulogies
have finally mastered flowering
in white azaleas.
“. . . of you, beautiful ones, my thought remains
immutable . . .”
Sappho of Lesbos
First published in Haibun Today, V5, N4, December 2011.