V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Two Reviews of Lynn Levin's Second Book of Poetry




Levin understands self-indulgence and failures
of the imagination. She asks us to look closely
at insects, saints, reptiles, birds, our appetites
and body parts, and reclaim some sense of wonder.

What does Lynn Levin ask us to imagine when she invites us to enter Imaginarium, her second volume of poetry? From the 19th Century Delacroix inset on its cover to its last poem, "Sundry Blessings," Levin asks us to imagine a world where order, hope, grace and peace can heal a disconsolate earth — if we summon these palpable forces.
    In these forty-two lovely poems, she asks us to imagine the anthropomorphized struggles of fowl and fauna, a white that is the concentration of all color, the benefits of rejection. She is — in spite of a hair-shirt social conscience that laments corruption and greed, misogyny and alienation — an optimist, who finds the sacred in just about every corner of her existence. It is in this finding, and in the words that she uses to clarify experience, that we are convinced by Levin that our own backyards might offer transcendence — if we could see them as she does. As if a tree stump were the breast of a saint; or its branches a struck match; or the pulp of an orange, a sticky handful of jewels. As if the air were an ivory pillow, a kingfisher a foppish actor.
    If we are not ready to surrender to the imaginative lens of metaphor, we are expected, at a minimum, to submit to inquiry and re-examination. Against backdrops of invasive bamboo and loosestrife, marshes, museums and caves, we are asked to look closely at human behavior. In the poem "North," Levin writes: "To see an Arctic swan above the frozen lake / to feel its oohooh auger a hole / into your heart is to know you should not love / your unhappiness, although that is easy to do."
    Levin understands self-indulgence and failures of the imagination. She asks us to look closely at insects, saints, reptiles, birds, our appetites and body parts, and reclaim some sense of wonder. In "Snakes," she prods us to "consider the happiness of seeing a snake’s skeleton / of warming your hands / over the pale radiator of its back / or dancing so fast upon its trainless tracks / you grow wings."
    Levin also invites us to view the failures of society, the subjugations and ageless cruelties that we inflict upon others. In "Last Plaster," she revisits Scrovegni Chapel in Padua with this enduring image: "I saw the dead climbing / out of their bathtubs to be judged / the saved reaching up / like a forest of golden spoons through the cloud pudding."  Levin forces us to see both the eternally saved and the eternally damned. We are asked to envision the last moments of an Afghan woman stoned for adultery, the death of a Nepali girl sold into sexual slavery, the last shower taken by an American woman on death row.
    Even as she requires us to picture its atrocities, Levin asks us to suppose that the everyday world we live in is much richer than it appears at first glance. In "Miss Keller Returns to Her Senses," she uses her poet’s eye to try on the passions of others. As the conjured-up Helen Keller makes love to her secretary, Peter Fagan, Levin tells us: "The voice of her left and right / hands cried out, Carmine! Amber! India Blue! upon the wide stretch of his chest." Levin summons colors where there are none, hope in small places, grace in everyday misfortune. In the last poem of the book, "Sundry Blessings," she reminds us — as she does throughout Imaginarium — that, "ottimista / pessimista," it’s all about perception:

        On being rejected by a school, an employer, or by voters

        Blessed are You, O Lord, who has not required me to change my life.


        On being unable to sleep

        Blessed are You, O Lord, who gives the night legs.

    These are ethical poems. Lynn Levin consecrates the ordinary, transporting us to a place where her imagination makes sense out of disappointment, where her voice clarifies common experience with compassion and maturity.

Levin, Lynn. Imaginarium.  Bemidji, MN: Loonfeather Press, 2005.  ISBN: 0-926147-18-8 $12.95

© by Deborah Fries

* * * * *

Her poems juxtapose hope and cynicism, beauty and tragedy,
and loss and fulfillment with such finesse that the seamless
twists and turns of logic invite multiple readings.
These are accomplished poems of intellect, complexity,
and emotion that surprise and delight.

The poems in Lynn Levin's second book, Imaginarium, reveal a mature heart smitten by the elusive promise of happiness in a blemished world. Levin reveals a self-proclaimed "greed" for both the literal and figurative fruits of human experience. The range of subjects and breadth of tone are reached by the poet's astute attention to detail; it is as if she walks with microscope in hand, for no creature is too small to be noticed, no domestic routine too insignificant to bear deeper reflection. Her powers of observation reflect a skilled naturalist's sense of wonder. Levin is adept at elevating the ordinary to the extraordinary. Her poems juxtapose hope and cynicism, beauty and tragedy, and loss and fulfillment with such finesse that the seamless twists and turns of logic invite multiple readings. These are accomplished poems of intellect, complexity, and emotion that surprise and delight. 
    The opening poem, "How To Do It," is a sensuous lyric introducing us to an irrepressible speaker who proclaims an insatiable hunger for life. "My heart was with the wild / raspberries," she begins, "...but when I tasted spider web on one, / I knew I had been caught / in my greed." Immediately we are  seduced by images of raspberries, blackberries, and the speaker's hair which blows "like curtains" as she watches snapping turtles swimming before her. The rush of seeing and tasting and hoarding the raspberries is as energizing as a shot of adrenalin; one cannot overlook the Wordsworthian reciprocity between nature and speaker. At once the adult speaker displays the behaviors of  a child, a  bear that "lards up for winter," and a pirate stuffing "beaded goblets into his sack" — all in eight three-line stanzas of lyric sumptuousness. It's the wildness in this collection of poems that wins us over — the tension between a hunger for excess and the tempered wisdom of "moderation in all things" — that makes this speaker endearing, and compels us to turn the pages of Imaginarium with the same voracity that the poet exhibits when she consumes the wild raspberries. Her poems lie in front of us like a field of berries, and we enter hungrily, yet with caution, for like the blackberries, some will have "fiercer thorns, less sugar, / and bigger skirts of poison ivy."
    "The Death of the Milky Way," features a couple holding hands while they watch astronomers on TV discuss the end of the world.  Again the speaker announces her gratitude for life and her desire for more: "I / am greedy for twice, maybe thirteen times, / my lucky life..." In a poem entitled "Ash," the bright yellow leaves of an ash tree are upstaged by "the shadow of a turkey vulture" who eyes the speaker coldly, as if to say, "You have too much, you want too much, / you take too much...," to which the speaker replies, "It was never enough. Never enough." Several of the poems in this collection succeed in reminding us just what "joie de vivre" is, and that in spite (or because) of the world's flaws, one must live passionately in order to taste the fruits of human experience.  
    The things of this world are more than themselves in Levin's poems. We sense one foot in nature and the other in the realms of human relationship. A kingfisher resembles a man dressed to go out to a bar; he dives for minnows "like a new driver / who can't  / quite coordinate / clutch and stick shift..." A stump in the woods is envisioned as everything from "a sort of Viennese table," and "the sliced off / breast of a saint," to "a wild barrel of hope." A whole poem is dedicated to the "unhinged life" of a clam.  In "Snake," the poem's momentum resembles fear itself, built with the expert use of anaphora: "There is no fear like the fear of snakes...  / There is no love like the love of the unloved... / There is no flight like the flight of snakes... ." Snakes are singled out for their slithering ability to entertain young boys and terrify others, as well as to make the poem's final statement which stings. "If, as I do, you fear them," the speaker explains, "consider the happiness of seeing / a snake's skeleton..., it's that / or the unbearable vigilance of living." And is it any different for humans? Is there not some relief in death, in freedom from potential harm, in the promise of permanent rest, since life requires of us all an "unbearable vigilance?"
    "Myrmidia" is a poem which reveals an admiration for the unexamined life of an ant. She regards the virtues of a species that never expresses "worry / about where his next idea will come from / or fret over his inability to focus." The narrator admires the ant also for its ability to pursue "industry in spite of sorrow," in the face of the death of other ants. One could consider such a subject for a poem laughable, and in fact we do find ourselves chuckling when we imagine insects burdened with the griefs and cares of humans. But the poem delivers a fresh perspective on our human lot by demonstrating a sense of the weight we carry as a decidedly fragile species; our reflexive mind and capacity for emotion make us vulnerable.  Consequently, it is the insect that seems the wiser.
    In a number of Levin's poems, disparities between the human and non-human world are so successfully blurred, we suspend our belief in any such distinctions. In "Blue Ape," for example, the speaker concedes that she is part ape, part sky: "Some of the 2% of me that is not chimpanzee / is sky blue." The tone in the poem is matter-of-fact, but the question, "What is ultimate happiness?" leaves us breathless. One can't help but be taken in by such statements as,  "Sometimes I travel on a false passport, / lie to get close to my companions, or / think my blood vessels are harp strings." The poem never presumes to know the answers, but instead ends on a note of further vulnerability: "Maybe I am unable to recognize my joy. / Maybe I do not acknowledge my darkness. / What does the ape know of happiness?" What do we...?
    Levin contextualizes the political chaos and moral bankruptcy of our times in the poems found in the second section of the book.  The poem "The Widow Who Met Her Lover on a Rooftop" addresses the cruelty and irony of the Taliban's "Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" which condemned a widow and her lover to death by stoning for adultery in 1996. The hypocrisy of the "righteous" whose job it is to "crush / Love's rebels" by carrying out the stoning are poignantly described in the final lines: "In bed that night the soldiers / embraced their wives. They were as cold as corpses." "News from the Big Bang," a poem which received a Pushcart Prize honorable mention in the 2005 volume, speaks to the issue of human trafficking and, consequently, the value of human life. A fourteen year old girl who wants to attend school is sold — "instead of jeans" — to a man who complains that he made only $500 for renting her out. Images of astronomy penetrate the poem, whose brilliance is found in part by how it moves our attention from actual celestial galaxies to the specific tormented life of one girl living in a "star- / pocked world."  In the end it is the young girl's questions that burn like stars when, facing her tormentor, Laxmi asks: "What have you done to me? / How could you take away my life?"
    "Karla Faye Tucker Who Was Executed in Texas by Lethal Injection..." immediately engages the reader's empathy, if not sympathy, as the voice of the condemned woman "says goodbye to her body."  Levin's use of repetition and spare language leaves us nowhere to go but inside the mind of Karla Faye during her final moments. The line endings accentuate the newly-found wonder Karla feels while noticing the small gestures and features of her own body: "What a funny thing it is, a face, / a round thing with holes / that let in the world." In the section entitled "Mother Love" there is speculation about the reasons for Karla's crime, and we learn that Karla found God in jail.  The speaker, however, finds that she herself is imprisoned by Karla's fate: "So / Texas gave her its justice, and / where is my love and where is my mercy? / And why is my heart so hard?" The questions posed by these poems linger long after the reader has finished them. Such is the skill of a fine poet, awakening us to multiple perspectives and alternate realities. We enter into the minds of the criminals and the victims, and are called to evaluate our prior judgments.
    In the absence of anecdotal advice, the poet searches for "prescriptions" to help contend with contemporary anxiety and the contradictions of post-modern life. Sometimes comfort is sought in the combined experience of art and nature, as in the sonnet, "A Jar of Roman Glass." "The Book of Maples" is replete with absurdities, wisdom, and finally a prescription for anxiety that supersedes anything a doctor will suggest:

        My doctor
        told me to take a little white pill
        once a day for anxiety, but a pastry chef
        said I should fold my fretfulness
        into lemon scones, eat them
        with raspberry jam, sweet butter, and coffee.
        With someone very dear to me.

    In a time when anti-depressants and  pharmaceuticals are prescribed for almost anything that ails us, the speaker suggests that good old-fashioned love, food, and a return to the simple pleasures of life are the best prescription for the ills of our time.
    In the third section of Imaginarium, love and the mixed blessings of marriage are bittersweet. Such poems as "The Span-Worm Moth," "Nocturne," "The Trials of Love," and "The Honeymooners" reveal the daily concessions couples make while maintaining long-term relationships; partnerships are comprised of as many emotional surrenders and  unstated disagreements as they are of physical and psychological human connection. The sense that we can know a lover so well as to be able to love them and resist them in the same moment is just one of the many truths these poems reveal.
    "The Span Worm Moth" is a poem that contains some of Levin's finest artistry, illustrating her humor and ability to encapsulate both the unspoken ruptures and affections of a married couple while engaged in the common act of cleaning out their third-floor study. The sensitive speaker in "The Span-Worm Moth" guiltily watches the wings of a moth beat in the threads of a spider web, while her partner confesses to being in a "throwing-out mode." He proceeds to discard a copy of Thomas Moore's Care of the Soul, whose title in the speaker's opinion could just as well pertain to "an embalming / manual or a how-to you might want to read / while waiting in your open coffin / for the relatives to arrive," as it does to a  "Guide to Cultivating Depth / and Sacredness in Everyday Life. As if existence / were not pointless," the speaker comments in a cynical tone, then ventures, "or maybe / Moore suspected it was and so had to invent / a reason for it." After admitting she would never savor "The Book Lover's / Calendar" on a pillow next to her partner, and mocking his insistence that smart people write smart books "so few will ever read," the speaker frees the moth from its prison and the couple throw off their clothes. Love prevails despite differences; the primal freedom of union overrides the couple's intellectual and emotional gulf. 
    In "Nocturne Trying To Be a Love Poem," the tenderness of human touch between husband and wife is "blameless," innocent, as natural as sleep in gestures that are as otherworldly as sleep. Although the first stanza of "Nocturne" sounds like a disclaimer, "In this life / there is so much more to talk about / than you and me," the rest of the poem centers on just that — the nature of marriage, the curious habit of sleeping together, the connection between sleep and sex and death, as introduced in the poem's final lines. Sleeping together after many years is compared to "trying to make friends with the enemy, as the elderly do / who nap in the afternoon." Marriage is represented realistically with its characteristic flaws; the steady union of the couple over a significant amount of time prevails. In "Honeymooners" Levin compares the "vanilla ice cream" sweetness of a newly married couple to the complex tastes of the tart, honeyed, and bitter orange the speaker is fed by her long-time husband. The poem contrasts love's seasoned partners and the honeymooners; in the end the treasured intimacy of the long-married couple is described as a "tender love" which they make even in their "corruption."
    "The Trials of Love," found in the second part of the book, is a wonderfully humorous and biting poem of warning: "Be good and kind, but remember / just being alive may be / a high crime — even the innocent die for it." No one escapes infatuation, heartbreak, or the public exposure of matters that are, and should, remain private. We are instructed to prepare for interrogation when it comes to this dangerous province of love; we will all be "subpoenaed and pressed...until / everyone is implicated and charged / with excess." The absurdity of judging others in the realm of the heart is clear, and yet — beware! Prepare to be judged!
    While the majority of the poems in Imaginarium are written in free verse, Levin also demonstrates that she is adept at writing in form. "A Jar of Roman Glass" is a variation on the Petrarchan sonnet, using slant rhymes and an ending that resembles the Shakespearean couplet. The speaker's disappointment at the end might also be seen as reflecting a Shakespearean tone. "The Museum of Anthropology" is an exquisitely executed pantoum. The poet introduces the practice of cannibalism in Eskimo culture as morally questionable, then blurs the literal with the figurative when re-considering the statement that "to dine on flesh for pleasure" is unthinkable. As in so many of her poems, Levin turns a single point of view on its head by introducing multiple perspectives. "Consider your lover's palm," she urges. "Like sugar to a horse." Isn't "to be known inside and out" what we want of both our enemies and our lovers? How can it be that the same language can apply to such contrasting situations? This is perhaps one of the strengths and delights of the pantoum. The context of each line shifts as it relates to the next line. These sorts of twists and turns are characteristic of Lynn Levin's work, and they lend themselves to one of her larger subjects: the search for self in an inexplicably complex world.
    "As a Greek, He Used Honey" resembles a Horatian satire, with its direct address (accusations!) toward an Orpheus-like man who runs from multiple female lovers. The first stanza sings in sensual lyricism, the second spares him no pity from the women who, the speaker insists, "will be the death of you."  Imagining his funeral in the final stanza, grief and humor are juxtaposed in the image of his body floating down the river that is "filled with our [the women's] weeping."
    "Elderberries," a poignant poem of longing for the past, (and for knowledge of people from the past,) is based upon the ubi sunt genre of poetry in which the phrase "where are they" is repeated throughout. This repetition serves as a connecting thread to people and events the speaker still wonders about; it is an autobiographical telling in an appropriated form. Even the poet herself is included in this list of inquiry, another illustration of the poet's search for self-knowledge. It is as if the voice in the poem belonged to someone else:  "And Lynn Levin, for whom is her name / written on the wind...?" This is a wonderful contribution to the final section of the book, leading us to believe the search will go on, and that the poet will prevail in moving closer and more intimately toward an honest reckoning with the self.
    "Sundry Blessings" closes this compelling collection of poems in a tone that can only be described as sacred. It is an appropriated-form poem based upon a type of Hebrew prayer that blesses common-place events like hearing thunder or seeing a tree in blossom. Here the poet appropriates the form of this bracha or blessing to commemorate strange or traumatic occasions, and again provides us with alternative ways of seeing: Events which one might assume to be negative become reasons for gratitude: "On being rejected by a school, an employer, or by voters. / Blessed are you, O Lord, who has not required me to change my life."  The form also helps to illustrate the poet's sense of humor: "On having someone see in your work something deeper than what you / intended / Blessed are You, O Lord, who has not made me my only interpreter." "Sundry Blessings" resonates with Lynn Levin's devotion to truth and art, to humor and spirit. The poem itself seems to bless this book, and the reader into whose lucky hands it has made its way.
    Full of mystery and paradox, in search of poetic truth over literal observation, Imaginarium reveals a poet who brings her imagination to bear on experience, lending deeper meaning and more emotional intensity to each encounter in the human, animal, or natural realm. Levin's wide range of subjects, her striking images from such varied realms as astronomy, history, religion, and nature, as well as the skill of a lyrical story-teller, make this fine book a journey well-worth taking. Imaginarium is an impressive collection, and as poet Betsy Sholl attests, undoubtedly one to "wake up our slumbering spirits."

Levin, Lynn. Imaginarium.  Bemidji, MN: Loonfeather Press, 2005.  ISBN: 0-926147-18-8 $12.95

© by Maggie Paul


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