One Poet’s Notes, Valparaiso Poetry Review



Leafing through the work in Leslie Heywood's premiere book of poetry, The Proving Grounds, one quickly becomes accustomed to uncovering sometimes uncomfortable and intimate details about the lives of the personae, often obviously representing the poet, in each piece's personal narrative. In the process, readers discover a compelling cumulative effect created during the series of revelations by the poems' speakers about private moments and close relationships. Indeed, Heywood, who includes among her previous publications the autobiographical Pretty Good for a Girl, presents in her first collection of poetry a set of mostly confessional poems that taken together resemble a series of memoirs.

Poetry in The Proving Grounds mostly chronicles dramatic moments during various stages of one woman's development from a young daughter in a troubled household through years as an athlete to her lingering difficulties as she assumes the role of mother toward her own daughter. Chronologically, the initial poem opens in 1969, a year of tragedies, including "Altamonte, / All those shootings"–and the narrator is pictured at the age of five with her two-year-old sister, part of a family finding themselves trapped in their own tragic circumstances: "We four caught here in a passion / Of paradise starting to break" ("Pixels").

The poet focuses on a father whose angry violence threatens the other members of the family and eventually creates an estrangement between him and his daughter. Even when remembering scenes one would hope to be tranquil, the speaker recalls: "alcohol in your blood / Was on the rise. And in its rise your rage" ("Canadian Geese"). By the time of the poem "1973," the daughter now about nine–"the oldest, always first"–leads her sister to rescue their mother from a drunken and bullying father who declares: "If you want to get her / You're going to have to go through me."

In another poem, readers learn the extent of the father's ferocity as he believes the "mother, his bosses, / And everyone else had failed him, until the doors / My mother locked to keep him out / Were shattered by his fists. The year / He broke her bedroom door six times / She decided to leave" ("Repair Shop"). Years later, the distance between father and daughter is revisited in "Telescope," where the speaker believes she always had disappointed him: "Me, your daughter, // Never tall enough, smart enough, a rag mussed up, / My skin and voice too rough. You look at me from the end // Of a telescope lens, miles away in that cool gaze."

A second poem that references 1973 (also the year of Secretariat), "Triple Crown" recounts how the speaker discovered her interest in running, physically and metaphorically: "Nine years old, I lowered my head, / Began to run." As she grows older and stronger, the narrator lengthens her runs and gains an ardor for the sport, as well as a desire for the local attention she receives from "newspapers, / Cameras, local news." "But not enough," she reveals and repeats the phrase a number of times in the piece, as her passion becomes obsession and turns into an opportunity for a college scholarship.

A total focus on her sport requires sacrifices. As a high school athlete, she and her teammates "were the girls / Who never went to the prom." Instead, in "Prom Girls," she reports how they prepare for a meet that would lead to making "Nationals." Even when seriously injured and told she'd "never run again," the speaker quickly overcomes her "spinal cord compressions" to win an invitational competition "four weeks later." The persona fears a loss of the recognition attained by winning races, perhaps even displays anxiety about a consequent absence of personal identity: "As soon as you stop / You are discarded / Like the bodies of Christmas trees / Dragged to the edge of the street" ("What Scares Me").

However, at nineteen this runner's body begins to fail. She experiences a series of fevers accompanied by other recurring symptoms: "The joints of my hands, knees, frozen / Like an old machine ground to a screech/ And then a stop." Nevertheless, despite "Mixed Connective Tissue Disease," the speaker needs to continue, since the activity has become her life and livelihood: "I ran like I breathed, / Ran because it paid my tuition and rent" ("Runner's High"). Even as a runner, the speaker in Heywood's poems attempts to please an older male, her track coach: "I ran for him. I'd do most anything he'd say" ("Burning My Virginity by Wendy's"). Nevertheless, she seems destined to fail and to feel she let him down, as she slows when she finds her "steps starting to stutter and shake." She is abandoned again when the older coach drives his "Ford Fairmont" off in disappointment and anger: "I watched its tailpipe shake / As he burned out of the parking lot / Into the street across from / The Jiffy Lube and Wendy's, like the violence / Of anyone's first time."

Later, the poetry's persona switches her physical obsession to power-lifting weights and bodybuilding, training with "the men, the studs, the boys" ("From the Bench-Press Meet"). In some sense, the desire to enhance her strength and compete with men seems a logical extension of an ongoing inner conflict evidenced by some speakers in Heywood's poetry, a struggle concerning feelings of inadequacy with self-esteem due to instances of apparent disregard by others or inequality in treatment because of her gender.

This difficulty begins with an inability to please her father, even as a child proudly bringing home high grades, when he responds to his daughter: "anyone who takes such easy classes would certainly get all A's" ("Telescope"). On the other hand, at school her teacher reinforces feelings of discomfort by publicly using the good grades by her "to mock the boys" ("How I Learned World History"). The lesson taught in her history classroom becomes one about a society in which boys are often informed they should be embarrassed to be outperformed by girls: "losing to one of us / Was the worst kind of shame." At times, Heywood chooses to move beyond personal experiences in her poems to address public situations with similar issues, as she does in "One of Us," a piece concerning the well-known news story about s female kicker's problems with the University of Colorado football program. A lengthy epigraph containing an excerpt from one CNN report of the circumstances precedes the poem, although such work usually lacks the impact of The Proving Grounds' more intimate poetry.

In fact, a group of personal poems near the close of the volume that relate the speaker's loss of a two-week-old infant son are among the most compelling in the collection. Heywood starts "Ethics" offering plainspoken lines filled with intensity: "I am waiting for him to wake up, / I am waiting for him to die." She confides that she "never wanted children really," didn't want "motherhood"; however, later in the poem, as the persona recognizes the baby's dire physical condition, the speaker concludes with an emotionally painful resolution: "His weight, his still face, / His open eyes on mine, I knew" / Knew for the first time that I wanted him / And knew I wanted him to die."

Appropriately, Heywood follows these poems with a few final poems that reflect her eventually, and perhaps at first reluctantly, assuming a mother's role. In "Caelan at One" the poet confesses a tendency to be absent from her young daughter's life: "Ever since my daughter was born / What I seem to do best is leave." Readers even see a parallel to the pattern of poor parenting exhibited by the poet's own father earlier in the book. Indeed, in "Ecology" the speaker acknowledges a similarity: "My mother said / I was just like you." At the same time, she confesses that as a girl she felt abandonment from her father: "you'd left us again, or really, I thought / You'd left me." In the book's last group of poems, Lesley Heywood looks back and also gazes forward. First, she mentions about her distanced relationship with her father: "Friends say I need to call you / Sometime before you die" ("Bringing in Wood"). Then, she re-examines the growing gap in her relationship with her daughter, ending the book with these final lines from "Caelan at Two": "I promise you / In all the ways people do / I will try not to leave."

In this manner, the collection–which began with a five-year-old daughter's perceptions of her parents' marriage collapsing and the consequences for her relationship with the father–comes to an end with a new beginning, as the girl has grown into her own motherhood, vowing not to repeat the mistakes her father made. Thus, Heywood's book provides a hopeful sense of closure, though the word "try" in the volume's final line appears realistically tentative, reflecting the speaker's lingering anxiety and evident uncertainty.

Although The Proving Grounds, like almost all poets' first books, is uneven at times–some stanzas slip in more prose-like lines one might find in a memoir, and a couple of poems are harmed by slightly awkward phrasing, "My lover was a better shot than me" ("Splitting Skeet"), or trivial inaccuracies, "The dialogue on Sex in the City" ("Calaen at One")–this collection's cumulative effect proves to be one of persuasion deriving from a powerful and convincing sequence of poems. As Leslie Heywood's memoirist poetry in The Proving Grounds proceeds to disclose a somewhat confessional narrative, both unique and identifiable, following a deliberate arc from page to page, readers come to comprehend a conflicted woman who even as a young girl had sought in a number of ways to prove her worth to her father and others, but who gradually has begun to gain a greater sense of self-esteem, to understand how valuable she may be, especially as a mother to her own daughter.

Heywood, Leslie. The Proving Grounds. Red Hen Press, 2005.



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