"The center of everything," writes Gibson Fay-LeBlanc in Death of a Ventriloquist, "is the mouth." The poem, "Caravaggio's Peter," describes the parted lips of the saint, who has just denied Jesus. But the mouth, and what does and does not comes out of it, has farther reaching centrality in Fay-LeBlanc's debut book of poetry, winner of the 2011 Vassar Miller Prize. His clarion, candid volume explores the vagaries of the speaking of words, of a voice.
As the title augurs, one thread of this collection follows a loose, animated allegory of a man who can throw his voice — can throw multiple voices — and who after a while prefers never to move his lips at all. We learn the arc of his young life in the poem "Notes on Thirty Years in the Life of a Ventriloquist," from his earliest origins ("Stuffed bear cries for milk"), through key learning moments: "There are words one cannot say,/letters to be avoided", and (quoting a 19th-century novel about ventriloquist Valentine Vox, who uses his powers to help the insane) "He found that, in proportion, as the strength of his assumed voice increased, that of his natural voice diminished."
Through literal and figurative voice-throwers, a range of narrators casting words and selves about, Death of a Ventriloquist forthrightly explores the vicissitudes of speaking and listening, of voice and voicelessness. In "Guide," a narrator recalls walking hesitantly with a woman among his cache of hidden "voiceless things," telling her haltingly of their "mechanisms," their "pins and springs." We hear, in "Learning to Wait," of yearnings to write elegies and "mambo ballads" in almost-understood tongues and unplucked tones, to stop and speak only silence, to look to the sloughing eucalyptus bark "so dry it can only mouth its own ending." And a luxury of words is not enough in "Wildflowers of North America," when the narrator, waxing lyrical over flora to his distressed love, ("mistflower," "woodland sunflower") learns that she needs, instead, his ear: "I swear/(petals like little lips and ears, scent of anise)/I thought the names could make things better."
Fay-LeBlanc takes on this rich ambivalence with frankness and humor, in a musical but direct style driven by the momentum of spoken voice. He is agile in both open verse and forms that don't draw attention to themselves — clear-striking couplets and tercets, sonnets made loose and spacious by stanza breaks and enjambments, a self-portrait in a ghazal. His poems are rife in varieties of birds and blooms, and with words for them that turn and transform around vowels, associations, the shapes they make on tongues and in the gut. As simple a scene as a bird rising from the grass, in "Inspiration," is blown open by fortuities of phonetics, the senses, and myth:
. . . scribble down the thumping
in your throat — find where swallow
began: its tiny muscles of flight
that link in our mouths to Philomel,
Puffer fish, blood of Christ.
Words, again and again in these poems, forge visceral and vertiginous connections between physical and psychological worlds.