Book Review: Places the Soul Goes by Daniel Leach

Daniel Leach’s latest collection of poems, Places the Soul Goes, presents the reader with a rich and unique array of places, persons and times, which while perhaps never-before seen or heard of, will appear strangely familiar to the lover of Beauty.

The works in this collection are composed in what may be rightly called the classical or timeless tradition. Percy Bysshe Shelley described the function of poets in this tradition in the following manner:

A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his conceptions, time and place and number are not. The grammatical forms which express the moods of time, and the difference of persons, and the distinction of place, are convertible with respect to the highest poetry without injuring it as poetry; and the choruses of Aeschylus, and the book of Job, and Dante’s “Paradise” would afford, more than any other writings, examples of this fact, if the limits of this essay did not forbid citation.

In the same way that we continue to take interest in the epic battles of warring tribes from the bygone times of a distant Bronze Age, while various works by Leach describe the particulars of a place or time, the works themselves are not confined by any such place or any such time. Rather, regardless of the world and its mutations, Leach’s works resound universally, retaining a permanent place within the history of art, which coincidentally also happens to be the history of man.

An original example of this is Leach’s “The Devil at Woodstock” where a speaker recounts the story of a wandering soul making his way to the earth-shaking events at Woodstock—an event that was supposed to herald:

A spirit free of all the bitter strife
Our parents’ lives had known, and free of all
The forms of tyranny; the little rows
Of doll-houses in suburbs, where the chains
Of smug conformity, in silence grow,
And rigid, time-encrusted old beliefs,
That led the world in mad pursuit of power
To war and to the very brink of doom;

It is at this concert that the speaker meets the mysterious spirit of Woodstock—the Devil at Woodstock—animating the crowds of youth jiving beneath the whirling sweet-scented billows of cannabis:

And I saw many things bizarre and new;
The wild profusion of free-growing hair,
And every possible exotic state
And hue of clothing, or of nakedness;
And people dancing mid the Summer corn
To waves of mystical, hypnotic tones,
And odors of hashish and cannabis
Which sweetly drifted over all that place,
Like incense in some ancient Doric rite;

These were the generations desperate for an escape from the horrors of war, political assassinations, and new forms of twentieth century imperialism. For, as the tumultuous political and economic times created a deep desire for transcendence and an escape from the crippling spiritual effects of the early 1960s, so did these crowds become the perfect manifestation of what some theorists have defined as “Chaos Theory.”

Leach recounts his first meeting with this strange spirit of Woodstock, foretelling a new kind of world paradigm:

And just beyond the tumult of this scene,
Upon a path that led into the woods,
I noticed a lone figure sitting there,
With such a placid look upon his face,
Yet so intense, as if by force unseen,
I was drawn to him, and as I came near,
It seemed as if a gentle light played ‘round
His head and brightened with his widening smile,
And I could not resist a certain charm
That seemed to flow forth from his very form
For he was beautiful in that strange way
That blends the essence of woman and man;
Long, flowing locks and penetrating eyes,
Broad forehead, and that knowing, smiling mouth;

“As if in an opium dream,” Leach’s soul drifts among the crowds whirling in Dionysian trance. He recounts still seeing this spirit to this very day, “Out in the streets, in churches and in homes, and in the very corridors of power.”

Places the Soul Goes also leads to an altar in St. Mary’s Church, among the stained-glass angels looking down on the crowd of worshipers shuffling below:

High above the altar, looking down,
The stained-glass angel smiles almost unseen,
At generations passing through below,
Some raise their eyes as if to heaven,
But most who mill about and greet their friends,
Then listen to the music and the Word,
Perhaps sensing the stirring of the soul,
Then leave to sleep and dream another week.

These beautiful forms are everywhere, and yet how often are we reminded to look up? Places the Soul Goes not only reminds us to “look up,” but to look everywhere, to see and discover those things that have always been there, and perhaps always will be. It takes us into the dusky woods where an “Indian Ghost Song” floats among the mystic air and enveloping darkness of a desert canyon:

It was in the canyon in twilight deep
   Of the mystical desert night,
When the shadows creep down from the mountainsides steep
   And envelop all things of sight,
That he heard a strange song on the air seem to float,
Though not of a human or a living throat,
   But as one with the air and the light.

Leach speaks of hearing a song which was:

Sad, but of such beautiful, haunting tone,
He imagined that it could not be
Of this time or this world, but some spirit lone,
Like the wind we can hear but not see.

Such sadness and beauty always find a way to be reunited, despite our greatest efforts and desires to cherish the one without the other. However, it is in precisely this paradoxical wedding of two seemingly disparate sentiments that we often find ourselves capable of experiencing one of the most powerful, haunting and beautiful of emotions: the sublime.

Among the twilight canyons, star-strewn skies, and golden hues of autumn, Places the Soul Goes is also the rumblings of the great Niagara Falls—the foaming mists and powerful floods whose raging torrents still somehow manage to inspire in us the calmest thoughts:

I stare into the streams that ‘round me rush,
O’er mossy stones into the gathering surge
That roars beyond in torrents that can crush
All things that cross that fateful chasm’s verge,
And set afloat upon this gentle stream,
Like a fallen autumn leaf, this mortal dream,
Where it floats in a peaceful moment’s hush,

Beyond even the confines of rushing springs, moonlit clearings and darkened woods, the whole universe is home to the thoughts of Daniel Leach. This is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the ambitious and ruminative 25 stanza “Hymn to the Noösphere” where the poet begins by asking:

How shall I call you, Spirit? You elude
The greatest thinkers of our mortal race,
And flee, like a ghost from the multitude
That clamor for a brief glimpse of your face;
Yet you still leave upon the world a trace
That mortal senses cannot know, when we,
The fondest treasures of the heart embrace,
Your presence in the changing phantoms see
As the reflected image of eternity.

Like Shelley’s “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” Leach’s hymn has as its subject no person, place or thing, but the all-penetrating spirit which flows through and animates all persons, all places, and all things—something Shelley himself referred to as the “Spirit of Beauty.”

We find in Leach’s hymn, as Shelley once wrote, that “the universe of things flows through the mind.” Only now this spirit manifests itself in what the twentieth century philosopher and bio-geo-chemist Vladimir Vernadsky termed the “Noösphere”—the sphere of human creative mentation within the universe, and the fruits of its labor, including the marvels of agriculture, resource creation, and qualitatively new infrastructure platforms, all of which redefine the physical space-time and boundary conditions of humanity’s sphere of interaction in the universe as a whole.

Leach speaks of the great irony which characterizes the quintessential nature of human creative thought, namely that despite having no length, breadth, depth, or any physically measureable magnitude in of itself, this very “Spirit” is the cause of all the very measurable effects of progress, new unique states of nature, and organization across all spheres of life.

Arrived at the 25th stanza, Leach concludes:

How can we know you then, or how conceive
Even the slightest, vague idea of you,
When all we can imagine or perceive,
Comes as from a dark veil we must look through?
Must it forever be only a few
Who, in this life, those mysteries discover?
Or is it something that we always knew,
Like the sweet thoughts in the eyes of a lover,
That ever wakeful o’er the dreaming loved-one hover?

Leach’s poems are like the songs of nature: perennial, constant, and yet eternally illusive, echoing quietly in the minds and hearts of human beings everywhere, though often remaining unnoticed. However, once they are heard, they are never forgotten; they find a permanent place within our hearts. Leach’s poems thus remind us that such music and poetry is found everywhere and that he, like poets across history, has taken the time to listen.