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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics

Review of Kathryn Levy's Book of Poetry




The mute, distant satellite makes her best nocturnal
partner, because it is unattainable; in its new phase
it goes missing only to haunt her when full. For Levy’s
persona the moon is the perfect object of devotion . . .

At a time when American poetry is rife with autobiographical verse steeped in nostalgia and tinged by sentimentality, Kathryn Levy has dug into her life with the precision of a surgeon and the gravity of an undertaker. There she has found a woman as eccentric (outside the circle of the anodyne norm) as Emily Dickinson and as troubled as a figure in the work of Edvard Munch. More important, she has found a voice as suited to its purpose as Sylvia Plath’s.
     Losing the Moon, divided into five sections of 9-12 poems each, comes with an epigraph by the German avant-gardist Botho Strauss: “For the missing, nothing is impossible.” Accordingly, this volume contains many people who are missing in one way or another, primarily through death. Thus the first poem, “Telling Stories,” concerns “A dancer on the roof,” who falls or jumps to her death. A recurrent figure, spinning through life and having spun to her death, that dancer represents the precarious stability of the persona who tells all the stories in this volume. An eccentric, the dancer “broke the tight circle” and went missing. “I miss her, I miss asking questions,” the speaker says, then says, “I stayed up all night thinking of death.” In this initial poem Levy establishes that her collection dwells in the nighttime and dwells on death.
    Another element in Losing the Moon is the claustral nature of the persona’s life: “I’ve been staying indoors for weeks” (“Indoors”), she says in her flat tone. “Telling Stories” adverts to her room, where, naturally, she spends her nights but also, like Dickinson, spends much of the day too. When I refer to Levy’s “persona,” I do so to distinguish between her haunting, haunted speaker and the poet herself. We like to think that when we read a poet with a distinctive voice, it is her “real” voice. But such a poet is the rare bird who can vocalize like no other so that we recognize her work immediately on the page. Achieving a distinctive voice is fundamental to the art of poetry.
    Here is how that voice sounds in “Hundreds of Nights,” the second poem in the book:

        Someone is spending a life
        up in the attic, preparing.
        Last night he whispered,
        come to me. I was too far away.
        But I dreamed his voice
        waiting for mine. In another room
        an old woman paces slowly
        wanting me to join her
        for company—that’s all that’s left.
        At the end of the day a beam cracks
        somewhere inside each haunted house.
These first eleven lines of a 27-line poem show the careful diction, measured pace, and precise syntax that characterize Levy’s style, but the tightly controlled voice is as vulnerable as that house with the cracked beam. It is haunted by the missing: the man in the attic preparing (for her, for suicide?), that woman in another room, and the speaker’s sense of connection with others.
    But Levy’s persona won’t let herself be haunted in any conventional way: she rejects the child’s fear that a ghost in the attic is coming to haunt her and confirms that “No ghosts came, no lost friend. . . .” Thus she “held the air / all night,” an indication of her empty life. The poem ends with no more than a hint of anything outside her cloistered self: “Listen—that was almost // a sound.” The last two words rest alone after thirteen preceding couplets, formally suggesting the speaker’s isolation, the qualifying “almost” indicating that her life is at one remove from the rest of the world. At first, the imperative “Listen” and the following silence might sound comical. Whom is she addressing? Only us, her readers; thus the poem is not comical but chilling, because the speaker’s isolation is so complete.
    Another important theme for Levy is dreams. “We need to dream more / always . . . ,” the dreamer of “In the Glass” says, and in “Freedom” “The dream drifts on: It’s beyond my choice.” Sitting at her typewriter, the speaker finds herself “dreaming of a day . . . ,” entering a trance that both withdraws her from difficult consciousness and lets her tap into the subconscious. For a persona as troubled as Levy’s, “to dream more” means to live more outside her claustral, nocturnal life and to spend more time in the world of the dream, a rich source for the creative mind. Although many people today write poems, only a few, like Levy, make art, because such poets can nourish the imagination by dreaming, at night or “through a day of work, / tapping away // at the typewriter keys.”
    The last section of the book, which bears its title and contains the title poem, recapitulates its themes. In “Losing the Moon,” the speaker confesses she’s “been haunted for years / by the full moon” and “the moon remains / my favorite lover,” to whom she “will listen all night.” The mute, distant satellite makes her best nocturnal partner, because it is unattainable; in its new phase it goes missing only to haunt her when full. For Levy’s persona the moon is the perfect object of devotion, because she can give it her attention, while it needs none itself, nor can it reciprocate. Yet she realizes that she “need[s] / more than his touch” and “want[s] / all the lovers / I will never hold.”
    These poignant last lines would make a fitting ending to the book, but unhappily, “Losing the Moon” is followed by one last, anticlimactic poem. It’s an example of this book’s overabundance: had it been limited to 60-70 pages, instead of 91, its power would be even greater. Not all its poems — only two have been previously published — are equally successful, and 91 pages of such melancholy work might be more than some readers can bear. But for those seeking an authentic new voice, Kathryn Levy provides it in Losing the Moon.

Levy, Kathryn.  Losing the Moon.  Sag Harbor, NY: Canio's Editions, 2006. ISBN: 1-886435-16-2   $14.95


© by George Held


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