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The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva

Source: Purchased
Paperback, 108 pgs.
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The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva is musically New Orleans, but also a collection of poems about learning a role that you may or may not take on.  It takes on the pomp and circumstance of the city and reveals an underbelly of sadness and want, while paying homage to the beauty of the city and its culture. The dichotomy of New Orleans comes to life in Leyva’s poems.

 From "Inamorata" (pg. 5-6)

...
and a funk in the other
     Nola when your bounce
         leaps from speakers

comes the great gyrate
    the whole line
        all heredity backing it up

...

Where'd you sleep
   last night? In the pines?
        Nola you fat and fine

the quick-quick-slow
        that repeats
         like being sick and tired

of being sick
    and tired or late again
            on last week's rent
...

Leyva’s poems are beautiful songs full of love, passion, and sadness. It’s a collection that pays homage to the past and invents a future. It’s about leaning into a bi-racial skin and finding a path that makes the most of an American life that is not always easy and is not always the most glamorous. It’s about breaking out of the molds assigned to us and creating our own lives and incorporating cultures in ways that make the most sense for our own well-being.

Poems like “Ear Hustle” unearth the dark past of an Americanized New Orleans culture in which powdered faces from beignets are unaware of the ancestors who cut the cane for that sugar. There’s that undercurrent of culture that he explores in his poems, but not to seek a rescue but to pay homage to the sweat and the work — to the understudy of society’s labors. These poems are multilayered, while the surface appears playful and musical. It’s a collection that celebrates rather than shames, though some poems do illustrate some of the shames of American history.

One of my favorite poems in this collection, “Sonnet for the Side Eye,” examines nature’s destructive tendencies (like Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans) with humanity’s obsession with naming that destruction. Leyva is tackling a great many things in this collection, but this poem in particular takes our obsession with categorizing things head on. So much divisiveness stems from these labels. But how do we as humans get to the point where we no longer label our fellow humans as a way to harm them or treat them as “other?”

Don’t miss The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva. I heard him read at a poetry event online and had to get my hands on this book, and I wasn’t disappointed.

RATING: Cinquain

Check out this interview with Steven Leyva in ArtsFairfax.

Comments

  1. I do like poems that get serious even though the surface appears playful and musical.

    • This was a really great collection. I heard him read and the poems were playful and musical. I bought it and reading it gave me a deeper look into the culture of New Orleans, etc. Was a great collection

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