Rob Schlegel’s In the Tree Where the Double Sex Sleeps

Rob Schlegel’s third collection of poems, In the Tree Where the Double Sex Sleeps, is artfully eclectic, an intricate fusion of meditative lyric and personal narrative that explores creative notions of identity and being. Winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, Schlegel gives readers poems that are playfully innovative, using language and image in ways that are both nuanced and reflective. This is a short collection, twenty poems divided into three sections, and the voice is even all the way through, gentle and hymn-like. These poems are rooted in tradition, but also contain personality; they address nature, spirituality, contemporary society, and familial relationships. The work here has achieved a good balance of compression and depth; Schlegel is especially skilled at composing lines that make excellent use of tension combined with poetic and intellectual modes of thought, creating a stimulating reading experience.

The opening poem, “Show Cave” demonstrates all of Schlegel’s strengths as a poet. It brings together a wonderful blend of language, image, deep thought, and masterful line composition. Here are the first two stanzas:

It begins with hide and seek in the cave spring air warms.
Why, even the dogwoods shed blossoms
over the dead sculpture garden
where the oracle speaks on behalf of the gods.

Near the fountain, a few deer, rich with insides
different from mine, but the same,
incorporated as I am, though wired to nothing.

Schlegel’s eclectic style blooms in these opening stanzas. The first line is well-written: “It begins with hide and seek in the cave spring air warms,” with emphasis falling on “It begins” and “in the cave spring air warms,” which is both sensuous and provocative. However, the greatest power of these lines pertains to image. Schlegel creates layers of images that bring depth to the poem. Here, he gives readers “dogwoods,” “blossoms,” “dead sculpture garden,” “fountain,” and “a few deer.” This group of images swirls around “dead sculpture garden” which is a highly-complex image, suggestive of both decay and beauty. The poem becomes more interesting as Schlegel propels these images into deeper forms of meaning. The speaker says the deer are “rich with insides / different from mine, but the same,” bringing in a new thread of contemplative tension. The line: “different from mine, / but the same,” is skillfully written and employs a heightened consciousness that climaxes at: “incorporated as I am, though wired to nothing.” This line contains a wonderful paradox; it provides another layer of tension inside the poem. In the final stanza and closing line, the speaker says:

I fold leaves into swans. Rearrange the trees.
The oracle touches my face.
Language is where you live in mere fidelity to narrative, she says.

But language is not my first language.

Here, the poem shifts into an abstract scene that is both visual and cerebral. The speaker is now the principle agent of image-making, physically enacting changes within the landscape: “I fold / Rearrange.” The poem is noteworthy for the way it incorporates the mystical: an oracle that “speaks on behalf of the gods” and directly interacts with the speaker. The poem is also significant for the way it moves from the romantic to the modern; it shifts a third time in the closing line to a cleverly postmodern moment: “But language is not my first language.” The line gets its power from its tone which is flat, precise, stripped-down, and unadorned, relying on the sensory images that came before it to give it weight.

The poems in this collection are highly visual, but also reflective of the speaker, giving them fuller meaning. Schlegel has a special talent for creating scenes that enact beauty and thought in compelling ways. In “Novella,” a poem in eight parts, a glorious scene opens up and almost drips with lusciousness:

I walk the spiral stairs through an attic onto a roof
whose water tower I scale into an apartment filled with dragon trees,
reading chairs, floor lamps casting ovals of light.
I could live here, I think, then shut my eyes
over another crackle of spine light.

What works well in this passage is movement and expansiveness. The reader follows the speaker from “spiral stairs,” “through an attic,” and “onto a roof;” the scene pans out to a “water tower” that the speaker “scale[s]” and “into an apartment.” Then it moves inside the apartment and the reader is given a series of mesmerizing images: “dragon trees,” “reading chairs,” and “floor lamps.” Personal thought enters the poem: “I could live here, I think,” and the image “crackle of spine light” is interpretive, inviting the reader’s imagination into the scene. The following line brings in deep introspection: “Every hour takes figuring out how to live again.”

The dominant issues of this collection have to do with identity and the ways in which the speaker visualizes nature. These two elements complement each other and Schlegel threads them throughout the poems in the form of images and lines that contain personal musings. In this book, nature is a physical, living, artful thing: “Trees push up through particles of air / then down through the ground with equal force” and “woodswallows nest in a tree / adorned with drawings of trees.” The speaker also sees nature as a contemplative force: “A different kind of freedom / is throwing rocks / into the lake and knowing the lake’s response.” Beyond the realm of nature, the speaker grapples with his identity as a son, man, father, and husband. He often finds himself in existential situations that provide more space for exploration of the self. The speaker asks: “Is nudity standing on a stage, pretending to be someone else, / or standing on a stage, pretending to be yourself?” This question pertains to the performative aspects of identity, but it also points to an intimate way of being that the speaker never fully comes to grips with. It only leads to more complicated questions: “Am I ever myself to myself, if I’m not merely / remembering myself.” Identity is not a fixed thing; it constantly shifts in these poems, presenting new possibilities for the physical and imagined self. In these poems “Life forks into countless futures.” And in the end, for the speaker, the self is ultimately the outward expression of the mind: “…the humming of my thoughts / leaves small marks on paper.”

At its heart, In the Tree Where the Double Sex Sleeps represents the intimate mind of a speaker who has a tendency toward the visionary, toward imagination, and how he finds ways to express those desires through a shifting identity. In some cases, the speaker ventures toward a feminized self, suggesting a masculinity that might also provide room for more complex and meaningful modes of being. Schlegel’s poems, as tightly constructed as they are, have an openness about them that allows readers to imagine what identity could mean on a personal level, and how poetry, as a meditative and artful activity, can enact possibilities for transcendence.

Originally published in The Literary Review, October 21, 2019