The Mountain Finds All Climbers: On John Leax’s “Recluse Freedom”

The Mountain Finds All Climbers: On John Leax’s “Recluse Freedom”

{in this piece, writer Daniel Bowman and students Hannah Hanover and Robbie Maakested discuss Recluse Freedom, a new book of poetry by John Leax.}

When Antler asked me if I’d review Jack Leax’s new book of poems, Recluse Freedom, I had mixed feelings. I’d written about Leax’s work before, having recently published a two-part career-spanning interview with him here. I wasn’t sure I’d have much to discover that I hadn’t already explored. And yet I couldn’t pass up the chance to write about the new book, which I’d read in manuscript form and loved for many reasons.

First, Recluse Freedom is the perfect follow-up to 2005’s Tabloid News, a book in which Leax dramatically abandoned the earnest first-person poetic persona that had become barely distinguishable from his own voice. In doing so, he broke a contract with his readers—a move that both parties had come to see as a necessary next step.

In Recluse Freedom the poet does not simply return to the earlier personal voice. Instead, the poems in this volume emanate from a richer, wiser voice than perhaps any we’ve seen in Leax’s poetry. The results are delightful and profound—the poet claims a greater territory than ever before, and simultaneously appears right at home.

Also, I appreciated the variety of subjects and forms in this book, a retrospective volume of poems written over the course of twenty-plus years. They are unmistakably Jack Leax poems, yet I find them regularly surprising, in the uncluttered way of his work. Unlike single volumes, Recluse Freedom is no mere follow-up to the previous book or response to what the poet has been reading and living for the past several years. Neither, however, does it have the untouchable quality of Selected Poems, a phrase which speaks finality and accomplishment and invites little discourse other than praise.

This book is wonderfully in between. The poet is not just making another stop on his journey, nor is he finished. In a publishing culture overflowing with both, we are given a rare gift: in music industry terms, we might call this body of work the A-sides from unreleased records completed in the artist’s prime.

Lastly, I’ve been waiting to see what else the collaboration with publisher WordFarm could do for Leax’s work. For many years, Leax published under the auspices of prominent Christian presses Zondervan and Baker. Clearly WordFarm enabled him to go in a much-needed different direction with Tabloid News. Now that he enjoyed less restriction in his work, what else would he do with it?

I think some of the poems in Recluse Freedom may not have fit nicely into the traditional Christian publishing paradigm. The “Flat Mountain Poems,” for example, are clearly influenced by Zen poets like Shinkichi Takahashi, by American nature poetry luminaries like Gary Snyder, and by the Chinese “rivers and mountains” poets like Li Po and Tu Fu. I’m not sure that poems emanating from such religiously diverse sources would have worked as well for a general Christian readership, but they certainly work for literary persons of faith who value excellence above didacticism or church rhetoric.

I love Recluse Freedom for these reasons and more. But still I wondered if what I could add to the conversation would be helpful. I wanted to know how others responded to this new collection, readers who don’t have the same personal connection or context.

I decided to open up a discussion with two young writers, on the idea that the veteran poet’s ability to speak to the next generation would make a compelling conversation. I asked Hannah Hanover, a senior English major at Houghton College, and Robbie Maakested, a recent graduate of Taylor University (English/Creative Writing) and a first-year MA student at Ball State University, if they’d be interested in engaging the text and each other. They graciously agreed. What follows is our collaborative reflection on Recluse Freedom.

DB: In Grace is Where I Live, Jack Leax says of writing poetry: “…it’s not a career to be managed…it is rather a vocation, a calling and a discipline. As such, it does not lead to success. It leads to an involvement, a lived, living relationship with the world. It is an immersion, a baptism…” This seems like a good point of view from which to discuss a book of poems written over the course of twenty years of the poet’s life.

RM: The idea that a poet’s life is an “immersion” or a “baptism” makes sense in light of Leax’s expansive subject matter and differentiation of styles. His poems here hinge upon observation of nature and deep spiritual reflection, and encompass his life experiences, convictions, and beliefs, shaping them into rich verses.

In some sections of this book, he maintains the earthy, natural musings, yet he also ventures into different territories here. Dan mentioned the richness and wisdom in these poems, and I agree. This is my favorite of Leax’s published collections.

HH: These poems show the unexpected sacredness of approaching life with observant eyes. There’s a three-way conversation between the surrounding world, the speaker of the poem, and God. It is an earthy communion. It is refreshing: “A cup of cold water;” it is sorrowful: “A cup of blood;” it is fragile: “Crumbly bread.” Above all, though, this ongoing conversation remains humble through the speakers’ “poverty of hope.”

Leax’s baptism looks like a willingness, an almost masochistic desire, to understand God’s creation—if necessary, even to suffocate himself with the “muffled cry” of dying men, the disfigurement of a mother, the playful love of a rose-breasted grosbeak. Like placing “sugar on the empty tongue,” Leax explores nature and life voraciously. Without bitterness, and certainly without naiveté, he conveys what he knows of life’s pains and the joys of God eloquently, trusting “the world/To be what it will be.”

DB: When I look at the poems in the first section, “Writing Home,” I’m struck by the titles. While the poem “Home” is about the poet’s native Pittsburgh, and “19 Torpey Street” is where Leax has lived in Fillmore, NY for many years, there are also other titles: “Sorrow,” “Marriage,” “The Body of the Lord,” “Words,” “Family Story,” and “The Garden.” We see the poet expanding the definition of “home.”

HH: In Recluse Freedom, home might be any place in which one experiences the transition from innocence to knowledge, to a deeper, more painful, and more beautiful understanding of the world. In “Words,” the poet allows us to walk alongside a boy as he outgrows innocence, not by choice but through deception wrought by a girl’s “feckless pen,” and by the family troubles of young Michael, the speaker’s childhood friend. In “Marriage,” Leax unabashedly and tenderly details a newly-married couple’s ignorance, passion, and foolhardiness.

In these poems of home, the physical surroundings serve as a reflective backdrop for the emotional conditions of the characters, in contrast to many of Leax’s poems that feature setting as the focus of the meditation.

RM: Leax seems to define “home” as a conglomeration of the experiences one has and the places one lives , and suggests that we can be home in both the ups and downs of life in the midst of God’s creation. We see this idea unfold in the last stanza of “The Body of the Lord,” a poem about his confirmation that he nevertheless chooses to appear in the section of the book titled “Writing Home”:

They told us, “Eat.
Drink.” The bread was soft. Rolled into
a ball it was easy to swallow, but the juice
was bitter—like the buckeye tang of summer.
When I prayed, my halting tongue confessed
one word, the lasting savor of Creation.”

DB: I’m always thinking about what poetry is, and what it can do. The composer and writer John Cage once said, “There is poetry as soon as we realize that we possess nothing.” Carl Sandburg, in Poetry Considered, said, “Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.”

These ideas seem to me a jumping off point into observations on the bird poems as well as the Adirondack poems in Recluse Freedom. I’d love to hear your thoughts— if you find the lens of these quotes helpful.

RM: In the section “Recluse: An Adirondack Idyll,” Leax focuses on the natural beauty of the Adirondack Mountain region in upstate New York. Throughout these poems, Leax hints at the reality that people cannot possess the Earth, but are called instead to be stewards of creation. In “Recluse,” he writes:

What name should we give this place we call for so short a time
our home? Shall we call it a wilderness containing a garden walled
against the wild? Or is it the One vast garden holding the wild we
must preserve to know our lives originally?

In “Bright Wings,” the poet explores his encounters with numerous birds he has observed in the wild and creates something of a “journal” of the behavior of winged creatures. And he finds spiritual depth and insight in the birds: in “Spring Herons,” he writes: “Her neck folds back on her breast, / and I am held, as she is in her / flight, by unimaginable grace.”

HH: The desire to understand and experience more than what’s within reach is palpable in Recluse Freedom, because the poet’s faith perpetually hoists his verse upward, beyond the earthly lens. The bird poems provide good examples of this God-seeking restlessness. As Robbie says, Leax gleans spiritual insight from the birds—in part by acknowledging our human folly through his observations. The rascally rose-breasted grosbeak who puffs, struts, and pretends to be injured is one of us, mimicking our preoccupation with romance and play, deception and pride. “All this for love?” Leax asks. “All this for love,” he concludes.

In “A Bird in Hand,” the speaker wonders how a beautiful moment might have been captured, but then yields: “…any photograph we should have taken / would only have held a bird in hand.” Our instincts tell us to claim a moment and yet we know that the experience can never truly be reproduced for an audience. This genuineness of living is reinforced through Leax’s spiritual poems, in which divine communion, “the flashing of God’s acceptance,” cannot be accurately represented through a picture or poem, but only known first-hand.

DB: The section titled “Walking the Ridge Home” begins with an epigraph from the Psalms: “I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (27:13).

Are these “devotional poems”? What does that mean, exactly? How do you see these poems fitting within the arc of the collection?

HH: “Walking the Ridge Home” gives readers another lens through which to view the world. The epigraph indicates that God is not only in His heaven, but on His earth as well.

Those who view creativity as a devotional practice, an acknowledgement of the individual imago dei, may see these poems as highly spiritual, meditative, adoring. They are, in my opinion, devotional poems, alternatives—or companions—to recitative prayer.

We see in “Three” an example of the bold, almost abrupt, worship that takes place:

Where the apples grow
and tart

so good every autumn
strays to bite
that clean flesh

It is as if Leax is so “stilled by ambition’s end” that the words must jut, rather than flow, from his poetic voice.

It is as if Leax is so “stilled by ambition’s end” that the words must jut, rather than flow, from his poetic voice.

RM: In Psalm 27, King David cries out to the Lord, declaring that he wants nothing more than to worship God. Leax’s poetry, too, expresses a soul-deep longing to know God. The poems in this section seem to me much like Psalms, as they express the majesty of creation, worship the Almighty, and groan for a better understanding of God:

O how can I know you
how comprehend what mystery caused
you to speak once in word
and once in flesh
—from “Six”

For me, these poems appear to be the heart of the collection; they signal the spiritual longing that is evident in different ways throughout the entire book.

DB: The very name “Flat Mountain” is a paradox, and its identity seems at once mysterious and yet hidden in plain sight. In “Invitation from Flat Mountain,” we get the lines, “The mountain finds / all climbers. Getting lost / is not an option.”

What’s your sense of Flat Mountain?

RM: The poet introduces Flat Mountain with a quote from Thoreau: “It rises where ever one is enabled to apprehend within the perpetual instilling of illusion the real.”

Flat Mountain seems to be a place where humans commune and find truth together. Ultimately, though, the poet expresses Flat Mountain as a kind of Heaven itself. In “Flat Mountain Folly,” he writes, “His weeping we will know / to be his joy at our inclusion, / and our hands lifted up / will be leaves / in the light of his presence / Oh it is good. It is good.”

Leax concludes the volume by centering on the ultimate “Home.” In the Flat Mountain poems, he looks forward to a time of communion, unity, and rejoicing with God and his brothers and sisters in Christ. In this section, the poet gives the reader a glimpse into the joy of Heaven and brings closure to some of the themes that run throughout the collection: the journey home, the temporality of humanity and life, and the deep desire within every human for an intimate knowledge of God.

HH: I see Flat Mountain as the point at which the speaker may look at the surrounding countryside and choose both to weep and laugh. Perhaps it is the point at which the shadow of divine wisdom solidifies into weary flesh and bone. Flat Mountain is the sacredness of life in “Late Night: Thinking of William Carlos Williams, I Remember the Red Wheelbarrow and the Old Statue of St. Francis in the Shed.” Leax writes, “When I mow the lawn / I pause to urge small toads / from the mower’s path.” Here Flat Mountain becomes savoring of creation by making time to save a toad.

“Waiting for Rain, I Remember Three Old Poets Who Wandered the Slopes of Flat Mountain in My Youth” contains some of Leax’s most powerful lines. Speaking of the Old Poets, he writes, “Each is gone, and I am old.” There’s closure in the acknowledgement of solitude and age, devoid of bitterness or distracting regrets. Here younger readers might glimpse the edge of their own Flat Mountain, where they may stand someday, in wisdom, in calm, looking at the life behind them and the life to come.

And yet the speaker of the Flat Mountain poems has not reached his last summit; he must walk a little further, giving “thanks for [his] old stick” which “bends a bit” but “holds [him] up.” He is wise and sober but humorous. His grey beard may earn the respect of the young, yet he views the entire journey with a bemused smile. “I led the procession of scholars / in my long robe,” he writes. “What a joke! / My only virtue: not dying. / I’ll soon fix that!”

Maybe this amusement can only be found on Flat Mountain, among Old Poets and children snitching berries. Maybe it can be discovered, too, where no human hand need tend the earth, when we “wake to mourning,” knowing we are “made and unmade in the awful/ motion of the Maker’s needless word.”

DB: Hannah and Robbie, thank you so much for this fantastic discussion!


Daniel Bowman Jr. is the author of A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country (Virtual Artists Collective, 2012). His work has appeared in The Adirondack Review, American Poetry Journal, Books & Culture, Good Letters, The Midwest Quarterly, Seneca Review, and many others. He recently completed his first novel, Beggars in Heaven. A native of upstate New York, he lives in Indiana and teaches at Taylor University.

Hannah Hanover, from Chateaugay, New York, is a senior Writing major at Houghton College. She participated in the London First Year Honors Program, Houghton’s City Semester in Buffalo, and will study in Eastern Europe with Houghton’s Balkans program.  As an intern at Buffalo First, Hannah wrote the weekly column for and is currently researching material for her Senior Honors Project exploring ethnoreligious concerns in the Balkans region. She is co-editing Houghton’s literary publication, The Lanthorn, and researching graduate programs.

Robbie Maakested, from Indianapolis, graduated in 2012 from Taylor University with a BA in English/Creative Writing. Robbie also studied oversees in Jerusalem. He has written for Home Schooling Today, and his work has appeared in The Echo and Parnassus.  His flash fiction piece, “Seasick,” recently won Honorable Mention in Marco Polo Arts Magazine.  Robbie is interested in the interplay of faith and writing and desires to teach writing at the college level. He is currently a first-year MA student at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where he was awarded a graduate assistantship.

5 Responses to “The Mountain Finds All Climbers: On John Leax’s “Recluse Freedom””

  1. nicholas says:

    Great thoughts!

  2. Tania Runyan says:

    Getting students involved with a book review = awesome. Really nice work, all of you!

  3. Heidi Phillips says:

    Excellent review, so refreshing to see an author turn a poetry review into a multi-generational collaborative effort. Nicely done.

  4. Thanks so much, all. Tania and Heidi, it was kind of an experiment, but I knew I could trust Robbie and Hannah, and they nailed it. I actually would like to plan another collaborative piece in the future. It was a lot of fun.

  5. Stephanie says:

    A collaborative reflection well done! Thank you for this!

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