by Michael J. Leach
40 poems ~ 86 pages
Publisher: Recent Work Press
To Order: https://recentworkpress.com/product/natural-philosophies/
Reviewed by Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D.
Michael J. Leach is one of those rare authors who is gifted in two realms often considered diametric: the fluid world of poetry, and the precise sphere of science. A multiple-award winning poet, Michael straddles the two with aplomb because his life has successfully blended both worlds. His new, full-length poetry collection, Natural Philosophies, attests to his skill in navigating subjective and objective matters with an engaging, authentic ease.
In his native Australia, Leach works as a health researcher and senior lecturer in demography and evidence-based practice. In his “off hours,” he delves into nature, art, current events, personal memories, and other inspirations to create poetry reflecting “core components of the human experience: health, illness, and death,” as he describes his work. The illness and death include not just people he loves, but also the natural world, from wildlife to climate, for Leach sees the suffering and survival of human beings, our environment, and animal life as linked.
His book is divided into “Part One: Planetarium” and “Part Two: The Biopsychosocial Model.” The first half briefly takes readers into the heavens, among the stars in galaxies and planets in our solar system. In “Constellations,” readers see burning stars in a new, personified light: self-immolators with “the most marvelous/ self-sacrifice/ in the Universe” (p. 4). In “Fractional,” the speaker reflects upon the classic four elements of life–water, earth, air, fire–assessing each one’s salience to human beings from the perspectives of scientists, morticians, athletes, artists, and philosophers (pp. 12-13) and concluding that humans need all equally.
Science is a strong component of Part One, as is its visual element deriving from its dozen or so concrete poems, which add an additional, visual layer to Natural Philosophies. Leach’s concrete poems are innovative and sophisticated. His most effective in this book, “The Australian Anthropo-seen” (p. 25), depicts the iconic koala in all its beloved physical attributes. Most important, however, Leach artistically weaves into the poem one of his recurrent themes: the climate crisis. He warns us of the danger koalas face:
[The koala] is adaptable yet vulnerable to the effects of global warming. The ever-
increasing CO2 levels in Earth’s atmosphere … change the chemical composition
of eucalyptus leaves, raising concentrations of tannins & reducing concentrations
of proteins … [so] nutritional value is compromised. Meanwhile, … increasingly
intense bushfire seasons burn more & more koalas & their gumtree homes. These
changes may be more than our symbolic marsupial can stand.
In another poem, “In Memory of an Island Species,” Leach bemoans “an endling,” the last of her species, a forest skink who was belatedly protected by edict and perished soon after, noting wistfully, “She left us a legacy/ & another/ lesson” (p. 23). In the renga “Summer Air,” Leach joins forces with Sydneysider Rachel Rayner to describe, in gripping detail, an Australian bushfire whose effects the pair personally witnessed–a horrid legacy from global warming:
… breathers of smoke
blown in from the bush,
from the disintegrating
leaves and the combusting bark.
of hot colours roar, feeding
on lives and homes
that spark and collapse into
voids, scorched with loss. (p. 26)
Part One ends with an elegant concrete poem, “Terra Australis Breath,” depicting wildfires in swirls of words and lines that capture the peaceful and the disturbing winds: squalls blowing kites, and ashes from Australians’ burnt bodies sifting into the ocean (p. 31). Fittingly, Leach adds his enduring hope for regeneration of life: “winged seeds arise – to travel on gusts to free, fertile lands” (p. 26). This aspirational declaration serves as a segue to the second half of the book, which focuses more on individual people.
Part Two zooms in on “biopsychosocial” issues. Leach presents a compelling poetic overview of Frida Kahlo from the perspective of her illnesses; a primer on geriatric orthopedics; heavy smokers’ tragic impacts on their devastated loved ones; hallmarks of Type 2 diabetes as explained to a patient; assisted living and dying; and other urgent medical matters. The poet explains the health aspects clearly, and his compassion toward the ill, the weary, and the vulnerable shines through. These poems are models of “medical humanities,” a current approach to medical school training that uses poetry and the arts to help future doctors foster deeper empathy for patients, understanding and addressing their personal needs as well as their medical challenges.
Subsequent poems in Part Two provide delightful variety: clever wordplay regarding COVID. For example, “Alternative Meanings of COVID-19” (p. 54) presents 15 lines of variations on the term “COVID-19” that essentially summarize how the pandemic changed our lives and daily habits. The poem “WFH” (Working from Home) lists tongue-in-cheek variations of the acronym’s meaning: “Washed Filthy Hands”/ ”Wandered from Happiness”/ “Worried for Humanity,” e.g. (p. 55). Leach’s playfulness and wittiness in this section’s concrete poems, and others in Part One, are a counterbalance to the gravitas of science.
But the best parts of Natural Philosophies appear in its latter pages. It is here that Leach shines most warmly as a poet in all the classical connotations that word evokes. He paints lovely, detailed vignettes of historic Malta in “Life (P)review” (p. 50); in spare, direct language, professes atonement and devotion to a person he visits in the midst of a raging storm, which underscores his urgency (“Return to Realism,” p. 53); evokes gratitude in two sentences spaced across the page in snippets reminiscent of Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” (“These Sources of Solace,” p. 59). Last, Leach’s four-part elegy for his beloved mother captures in small, well-chosen details the essence of her spirit (“Maternal Memories,” p. 62). Leach ends the second part of his elegy with this self-assessment:
Here I am–
an off-duty statistician–
in the beautiful spirituality
of synchronicity. (p. 63)
Indeed, Leach the statistician, the pharmacologist, the scientific researcher is indisputably the “beautiful spiritual[ist]” and distinguished poet that his heartfelt book proves to all of us.
__________________________ Natural Philosophies, by Michael J. Leach. Recent Work Press, Canberra, Australia (2022).