Michael Fallon, Leaf Notes: Poems of the Plague Years, WaterSedge Poetry Chapbook, 2022, ISBN 979-8444517321, 44 pages, available on Amazon.
“Leaf Notes: Poems of the Plague Years” has timely universal appeal. We’ve all been living this life. In these poems, we follow the journey of life during a pandemic. The poems parallel nature with what occurs in our own lives: red leaves, dead leaves, falling leaves tumbling and swept away or under snow beyond antiseptic walls where death might be any naked face./–as it yawns–/stares back,’ and we are left to create our own simple pleasures: a salmon dinner or Chopin. Sharp imagery puts us there, feeling like the author in us.”
Maryfrances Wagner–Missouri Poet Laureate 2021-2023
WaterSedge Poetry Chapbook Contest 2021 Judge
If 2020 taught us anything, it taught us that in times of tragedy, fear, and loss, humanity turns to art, music, and literature to make sense of the world. The collection movingly recreates the atmosphere of “the plague years” of 2020 and 2021 by flawlessly blending the anxiety of isolation with the hope found in community and through connecting with others to recreate the atmosphere of “the plague years” 2020 and 2021.
The collection’s titular poem is full of anticipation, anxiety, regret, and longing for a human connection.
On Hargrove Alley, back of the house,
it’s twilight, the sudden rain now past,
the porch slick with wet, a shattered mirror
of violet sky. The raindrop on a dust brown
leaf, diamond on a gloved hand.
The leaves on the patio, a sea of hands
reaching for the wind, a crowd of cocked ears,
listening for a laugh or a sigh, a beach strewn
with capsized boats, the tide going out,
each a crumpled note from a vanishing year,
I should have read.
This is just one of many poems which utilize the imagery of leaves to express a community; here, it is separation from said community and the desire to reconnect to it. A “shattered mirror,” “capsized boats,” a “crumpled note,” and “a sea of hands / reaching for the wind” demonstrate how difficult it was to connect with anyone, including oneself, during the plague years. There was a sense of wasted time and wasted potential that prevailed throughout all of 2020, “a vanishing year,” which is perfectly captured in the final two lines. The poem is filled with language which captures the anxiety of the uncontrollable and the grief for everything that is lost, but it also gives a sense of hope and beauty. The rain at the start of the poem has passed and left the world in a different state – it left leaves strewn about the yard, yes, but it also left a “violet sky,” a raindrop like a “diamond on a gloved hand,” and the sense of “ears, / listening for a laugh or a sigh.” The poet clearly shows some apprehension about what the world will be after the pandemic ends, but there is also optimism here if one knows where to look.
“Leaf Notes” is immediately followed by “Extinct Birds,” a poem that pairs perfectly with the lonely and pessimistic tones of the former.
October, the year of Covid 19,
and out on Saint Paul Street,
rain glistening on the walk, underfoot,
the stains of dead leaves like shadows, the tracks
of extinct birds. Light leaks through the space
between naked branches, the sky a tumult
of white wings and darkening clouds, while below,
the marigolds flare out of the fading green,
in a doomed universe;
and I now past seventy,
scarecrow in my own backyard,
my dwindling garden.
Many who lived through Covid 19 were forced to come to terms with their own mortality, but the two groups disproportionally impacted were the elderly and the poor. The poet himself is “now past seventy” and exploring his own mortality within this poem, which takes on additional meaning for those familiar with the history of Baltimore and geography. Baltimore’s Saint Paul Street, referenced in the second line, was restyled in 1919 as part of Baltimore’s first urban renewal. The original street was destroyed to make way for the revitalized pair of one-way streets — getting rid of the old to make way for the new. Combine this fact with imagery of extinct birds, decaying leaves, short-lived flowers, a dwindling garden, and a “doomed universe,” and you can only come away with a feeling of resignation and an acceptance of the inevitable.
The collection serves not only as an observation of the impact Covid 19 had on society but also as an elegy for the city of Baltimore. For anyone who was isolated in their homes during the pandemic, the view from a window, a porch, or a deck became the extent of the world. Fallon makes frequent reference to the view from his own home – in particular, Hargrove Alley – to emphasize how small a quarantined world becomes. Throughout the collection, Fallon muses on the naming of various streets and observes strangers outside going about their days.
In “Stop,” for instance, he finds common ground with a seemingly forgotten woman he observes through his window while she waits for a bus that seemingly will never come. In “Forgotten City,” he mourns the quietude of the city as someone might mourn a deceased loved one, beginning with “Someone has drawn a sheet over Baltimore,” and concluding that the city will “disappear almost / noiseless, / invisible.” In “Strangers,” he comments on the forced and necessary distance we have to maintain from one another and muses on the impact it may have on what we have lost as a result: “Don’t you dare / even / cry.” “Strangers” and “Forgotten City” are two of only a handful of poems in the collection to not make use of any leaf imagery, further emphasizing the loss of community felt during the plague years.
For all of the lamentations to be found within the collection, hope perseveres to the very end. The final poem, “Now,” ends with Fallon’s most optimistic use of leaf imagery found in the book.
War, pestilence– wind, rain, and fire,
the storm is always!
Every now is an emergency!
You could shout it from the roof
and never stop. But inside,
a green fire of kindness
is trying to burn its way out
into the world.
The seed ascends into the leaf,
which, like a hand,
The poem ends without punctuation (only two other poems in the collection do this), which prevents a sense of closure but leaves room for something more to come. The message here is straightforward, allowing Fallon to end with a message of regrowth and reunion. The leaf, our ever-present symbol of community and togetherness, is growing anew and opening like a hand. Whether the hand will be used to hurt or to hold is never stated, though Fallon, and I’m sure the readers, clearly hope for the latter.
Although Fallon is not the only poet to use the pandemic and the inherent isolation that came with it for inspiration, his finished product is a lovely, bittersweet collection of poems that strikes at the heart of what made the pandemic so difficult for so many. Even for those who were fortunate enough to not lose any loved ones and avoid sickness themselves, loneliness, fear, and grief were inevitable. Fallon captures these feelings and has created a collection that will resonate with – and perhaps comfort – all who lived during those times.
© Michael Fallon and Ginny Phalen
Michael Fallon is Senior Lecturer Emeritus in English at UMBC. Poems have appeared recently in Northeast Narrative, Crosswinds Poetry Journal, The Connecticut River Review, The Loch Raven Review, Illuminations, Southword, and other magazines. He is the author of five collections of poetry: A History of the Color Black (Dolphin-Moon Press, 1991); Since You Have No Body (winner of the Plan B Press Poetry Chapbook Competition, 2011); The Great Before and After (BrickHouse Books, 2011,); Empire of Leaves (Singing Man Press, 2018); and Leaf Notes (WaterSedge Poetry Chapbook, 2022), the 2021 winner of the WaterSedge Poetry Chapbook Contest. Essays have appeared recently in The New England Review, on lit hub-The Best of the Literary Internet, The Concho River Review, Broad Street Literary Review, The Razor, The Northern Virginia Review, and Blood and Thunder, and on Pendustradio.com.
Ginny Phalen graduated from the University of Maryland Baltimore County with a Bachelor’s degree in English literature. She has had poems and short stories published in magazines such as Connections and Bartleby and has written for various newspapers, including The Retriever and The Enterprise. She currently lives in Arlington, VA and writes in her free time.