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This review is taken from PN Review 121, Volume 24 Number 5, May - June 1998.

SIGNING ON MARY LEADER, Red Signature (Graywolf Press) $12.95

The American painter Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), when asked why he didn't sign his pictures replied with a flourish that he signed them all over, i.e. with each brush stroke of his genius. Mary Leader's title, Red Signature, comes from Van Gogh who stopped signing canvases ('it seemed too foolish') but once put a 'clamorous red signature' on a seascape when he wanted a 'red note in the green', suggesting that his autograph is only a technical element. Despite hyperbole about the 'death of the author', most poets oscillate somewhere between Stuart's (inflated!) artistic self-projection and Van Gogh's (coy) submersion of himself into the work itself. A first, prize-winning book, Mary Leader's own Red Signature, perhaps unconsciously reflecting the ambivalence of Van Gogh's authorial assertion, reflects a diffidence in voice and in her handling of her material. Throughout, confident self-assertion and experimentation jostle with an uncertainty of style and subject as if Leader only wanted to appear in the corners of her own poems, somehow separate from them. For instance, she adapts three poems of Pushkin's by changing a word or meaning in each line, a practice which is derivative at best: Van Gogh didn't sign other people's canvases.

So Leader is fond of 'found' poems, assembling or replicating the snippets of history's ordinary life, including a jail cell graffito, proverbs and an epitaph. But most of these poems are too passive to transcend their objects; they are too received and not signed enough by Leader. 'Probate' is ...


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