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What We’re Reading: The Red Leaves of Night

2011 June 23

[Editor’s note: We’re happy to announce that Timothy Otte, curator of our new Calendar of (Un)Deadlines, will be contributing to our What We’re Reading series! Look for his posts once a month.]


When I agreed to contribute to Hazel & Wren’s What We’re Reading feature I thought I would write my inaugural post about my mentor, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs. I’m often intrigued by lineage of influence, the people who influenced the people who influence us, so she seemed like a logical choice. However, I had just purchased a collection of poems by one of Jennifer’s mentors, David St. John, whose work I had never read, but whose stamp is undoubtedly on her writing. Even better.

The Red Leaves of Night (HarperPerennial, 1999) is not St. John’s most recent collection, nor is it his most well known. In fact, it’s not even mentioned in his biography on It is, however, a collection of vivid and well crafted poems.

The poetry in this collection has a formal quality to it while remaining wholly contemporary. “Rhapsody” is a riff on a sonnet, “Nocturnes & Aubades” is a cycle of 18 poems that, as the title suggests, shifts between night and morning, but never comes full circle as would a traditional cycle. That’s not to say it isn’t satisfying. Indeed, the 14th poem in the cycle, “At the Lake,” is a heartbreaking look at the differences between sex and intimacy that I’ve reread a number of times.

While St. John draws from formal conventions, he often eschews such trivialities as punctuation, guiding the reader through his words with a light touch, leaving us to parse the occasionally complex syntax on our own. In “What He Said” the narrator’s voice and the voice of the man to whom the title refers are separated by a thin line:

My friend said to me

The one thing I’d never do

Is to sleep with another man’s

Wife no actually he didn’t say


“Another man’s” he said instead

“A friend’s” meaning I suppose me

Punctuation, as it is used in St. John’s work, nudges the reader in the right direction and is used only when necessary, and sometimes not even then.

What is necessary in St. John’s poetry is visceral language that evokes all of the senses. The body is vividly portrayed in The Red Leaves of Night and the poems are often sensual but never become overly erotic.The body/self in St. John’s poetry is used as a device to further an idea rather than as an object to be lusted after. In “Two” he writes of a woman walking naked through her house: “that resolute fierceness in her stride // & the erect pride of her scarlet nipples[…]”. Throughout this collection the outer vessel is used to enact an inner confidence that is sexual and palpable.

As far as poetic grandparents go, David St. John isn’t a bad one to have. I can see the influence he has had on Jennifer in everything from form to typeface, all of which has, consciously or not, influenced me. My own work often explores the body, sensuality and sexuality, so in St. John I’ve found someone from whom I can learn. It’s clear in The Red Leaves of Night that St. John enjoys writing poems, which means they’re pleasurable to read. Though this is a complex collection, finding one’s way through them to understanding is a satisfying experience.

3 Responses
  1. Wren permalink
    June 24, 2011

    I’m really intrigued by this idea of pin-pointing our influences. I definitely have influences on my poetry, too, most notable is Scott King, the publisher of Red Dragonfly Press. I’m not even necessarily most influenced by his work, although I love his poetry; rather, I’m influenced by all the poets he’s introduced me to. His own work is very quiet and nature-oriented, which coincides with my organic, natural work. He’s pointed me in the direction of my now-favorite poet, Dorianne Laux, who you might enjoy, Timothy. Her work is also very sexual, in both celebrating it, and also talking openly about horrible experiences. But her work also plays with the organic and visceral. Scott has also steered me towards countless other poets like Thomas McGrath, Nancy & Joe Paddock, Freya Manfred, and many more.

    • Timothy permalink
      June 25, 2011

      Those are the best kind of influences, aren’t they? Those who influence us on many levels. King sounds like a great person to have around. Having Jennifer as a teacher means I’ve been more influenced by the poets she has introduced me to than her work, much like you and King. In fact, I avoided reading any of Jennifer’s poetry until my last year as her student. I enjoyed learning from her with minimal insight to her own aesthetic, as it allowed me to focus on mimicking poets whose work excited me, instead of trying to mimic her work in an effort to please her.

      Laux has been on my list of poets to check out, but I’ve just bumped her up the list. I think you recommended her work to me once before, so I’ll certainly be tracking down her work soon. I haven’t heard of any of the other poets, so I’m excited to do some exploring. I’m especially intrigued by Nancy & Joe Paddock – I’d like to see how they influence one another, being a couple and all.

      Actually, a relationship like the Paddock’s is something that is also important to think about when considering lineage of influence. Our peers help us focus our work and interests much more than our teachers do sometimes, and can influence us much more than the poets we read. Because there’s a discourse between peers, we’re forced to articulate our opinions, likes/dislikes, obsessions much more carefully. I find this endlessly fascinating!

  2. Sam Ferree permalink
    June 30, 2011

    I have found it strange that I have very little in common, aesthetically, with my mentors. The teachers who have influenced my writing the most are rarely the writers I read for fun. It’s not meant as an insult. To me it just means that teaching is a separate craft.

    Though, I find that the writers whose work has influenced me the most are often related in unexpected, sometime serendipitous, ways. One of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami, was a fan of Raymond Carver and translated his work into Japanese. I read both authors for inspiration.

    Wonderful meditation. Looking forward to future reviews.

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