Teresa Leo’s The Halo Rule centers on a paradigmatic situation familiar in our culture: the woman who ventures to open herself to love, to a man, to commitment, and the man who holds back, holds out, withholds. The archetype embodying this paradigm features Narcissus – so fixated in self-regard, in self-absorption, that the woman whom he ignores and takes for granted wastes into nothing, into Echo – herself so obsessed that her every syllable traces his latest utterance. Teresa Leo up-dates this relationship in a satiric sequence at the heart of her book – her Narcissus, identified as N, attends meetings of Narcissists Anonymous, cruising for affirmation from potential Echoes even there, always on the lookout for “an elegance // he’d chip away at and have, and not have, and have / until it was a broken thing, a bird unwinged” – and this queasy dynamic spills from the Narcissus sequence to impel Leo’s entire volume. The man in these poems “will push / your head back to the bed so you can’t see him // not seeing you”; will answer a declaration of love by replying that he’s “not // all the way there yet”; will, in “Engagement Sonnet,” “take back the ring”; will, after four years, still “say my name wrong, / say it outright without hesitation”; will favor in his women “all that looks good / and doesn’t speak.” And the woman in these poems knows the score, “listens carefully, arches her back, / murderous and sentimental, like a staircase”; berates herself for breaking his rules by letting her feelings show: “Idiot. What I said 7 or 8 times in the bathroom after.” It’s no wonder that his voice on the phone “call[ing] to remind me” of their ended affair in “Anniversary” makes “the three years blow open again”: “there is no witness protection for the lost.”
In tracing this paradigm through The Halo Rule, I’m reminded of Olga Broumas’s more straightforward 1977 poem “Cinderella,” which famously considers the token woman “alone / in a house of men / who secretly / call themselves princes.” A self-appointed prince requires a paramour who is worthy of his eminence, but whom, because he’s the sine qua non, he’ll never see as his equal, never take as his queen – another familiar paradigm, perhaps particularly in the literary world, where we’ve too frequently seen uneasily established male writers condescend to take as lovers young poets whose work they meticulously, punctiliously, will not praise. Leo’s poems acknowledge the powerful attraction of a man who uses words as lures, whether the first crush who “could say stay and always in two languages, // a corrupt tongue and a body I believed,” or the mature poet who “said my hair was a creature / unto itself, a dark and dangerous thing / that could set the world on fire” – and notice how his words here invite the woman to assume he’s complimenting her potent “dark and dangerous” mind while simultaneously allowing him to deny any implications beyond her mere appearance. “Acknowledgments” gives us the aftermath of such relationships, as the speaker finds in fact no acknowledgment of herself in her lover’s book or, by implication, life – “Not a word, a mention, a nomenclature or coda. / No wedding rings, cock rings…” – but feels the diminishment intended in his inscription to her: “W/ Love,” that casual “W/” spotlighting the insincerity of the “Love,” “the innocuous ways / men sign off.” “Poets in Particular” makes the man’s refusal of commitment explicit – “No apostrophes here,” no possessives – “as he rises and falls to the rhythm of / the can’t, the don’t, the yes but, the not,” a sequence nicely providing titles for the four increasingly equivocal poems that follow.
Broumas’s “Cinderella” concludes by rejecting the prince’s castle for “my sisters’ hut.” Teresa Leo doesn’t make that move, and – although I assent to the feminist analysis in the earlier poem – I’m also glad that she doesn’t go there. Leo’s poems grant the neurotic paradigm its full potency, enmeshing the reader in desire, disgust, appalled recognition. If this Narcissus is more conscious and thus more purposively cruel than his classical precursor, the Echo figure inscribed here is also more aware and thus more open to transformation. Indeed, even as The Halo Rule tracks sardonically its paradigms of condescension and acquiescence, manipulation and self-abasement, it reminds us that becoming conscious of such patterns is itself a political process. Even while enmeshed in obsession, Leo’s protagonist recognizes the insidiously seductive “bereft / theft rhyme of desire and seizure / under our skin”; she’s already asking, “How, if at all, / does agency fit in.” By the book’s conclusion, Leo has conjured up evocations of early sexual experiences that gesture towards the origins of “the pull-back caveat // of I like you but”; still more significantly, she’s recalled a grandmother whose “arranged marriage” and “forfeited world” intensify and complicate the meaning of self-abnegation and sacrifice; and in “Love at the End of the 20th Century,” she’s opened her volume to a striking alternative paradigm: “you, // conscientious objector, accident, rapture,” with whom “I may be dangerous but I am not armed.”
This paradigm shift constitutes the significant and satisfying crux of The Halo Rule, but how it’s conveyed: ah, there’s the pleasure. The book’s teasing phrases, its fracturing juxtapositions, its slippery syntactic turns, its potent repetitions remind me often of poets like John Ashbery, but less invested in the surreal effect or the non-sequitur for its own sake, more pointed, more purposive, more excoriating. Here, “harm” – the word, the premise – “fulfills / all of its properties of grammar and rage,” and that idea – that emotion inheres in our very syntax – reverberates throughout the volume, in “the staccato of conjunctions that kept each noun at bay,” in “a little subjugation, verbs / he’d take a shine to,” in “the felonious turned formalist.” I especially like the quick runs of words that crop up variously throughout the volume – “dilapidate, diminish, diffusion, ruin” or “bypass, sidestep, around-the-bend, through” or “stun gun, flame thrower, / harpoon, maimer” or “the ricochet, // the arsenal, the ambushed heart.” And isn’t that Echo’s quintessential tactic – through repetition and rumination to amplify the implications of Narcissus’s well-defended evasions of emotional responsibility?