By Vincent Czyz
Any Song Will Do by Donald Levering. Red Mountain Press, $19.95.
Donald Levering’s poems exhort us to be less left-brained, to side more often with intuition, creativity, flights of fancy.
Buy at Bookshop
If you’re like me, you’ve got lots of books on your shelves, more than you can possibly read. Ditto for literary magazines, some of which have probably ceased to exist — the Partisan Review, for example (I have a water-stained copy from 1980, volume XLVII, No. 1). I’ve also got several mint-condition issues of the much more recently deceased Tin House. A couple of weeks ago, browsing a bookcase spanning decades of periodical prose and poetry, I pulled the spring 2014 issue of Georgetown Review — alas, also defunct — opened it at random, and read “Man-Moth,” a poem by Donald Levering. It turned out to be truly a poem — top of my head missing and all. Whereas most poems are lucky to have a dozen good lines in three pages, this one has three dozen or so, “Like a queer uncle I am banished” among them. It’s a haunting composition of outsider-ness, arresting imagery, and existential disquiet.
The poet’s name was new to me, but maybe it shouldn’t have been. Levering is an NEA fellow with 15 books of poetry in circulation. He also won the 2018 Carve Poetry Contest, the 2017 Tor House Robinson Jeffers Prize, and the 2014 Literal Latté Prize. Indeed, “Man-Moth” was runner-up for the Georgetown Review Prize (though were it up to me, it would have taken the top honor). I did a little window shopping on the Web and spotted Any Song Will Do, Levering’s most recent book, which leads off with “New Moon.”
After they’d sucked down the river, they still
hadn’t grasped the moon, so they dredged
the river bed, dried the mud,
and sifted its dust, but all that they gleaned
were dim-visioned bottom fish
ensnared in human hair.
The opening stanza leaves us a bit off balance, feeling for footing, but urges us to read on to regain our equilibrium. We encounter more of the Moon, that “boulder that glows in the sky,” learn of attempts to map it, analyze its rocks, capture its essence with nets woven of data and scientific observations, which of course fail. Like Whitman insisting that the eyes of an ox express more than all the print he’s ever read, Levering suggests a more primal way of apprehending the moon, one that leads to intimacy rather than mere knowledge (and gets the unnamed river running again to boot).
This concern with returning to more instinctive, more warm-blooded ways of interfacing with our surroundings is a repeating pattern in the collection. So is the flip side of that coin: Levering warns us that we are falling disastrously out of harmony with the natural world. “Repaving” connects a road crew laying down hot asphalt with the disappearance of frog populations. It goes on to examine the human enterprise of road-building — from “Ancient pueblos’ trails” to the invisible trajectory of a moonshot — and ends with the roar of paving machinery drowning out “the wheezing accordions/of bullfrogs.”
The collection is an exhortation to be less left-brained, to side more often with intuition, creativity, flights of fancy. The finely wrought “As Dream-Time Bees Looked On,” for example, is a visionary glimpse of death through the funeral rites of an Aboriginal tribe. In “Kite” an ordinary activity takes the speaker on a metaphysical journey: “My street elongates into/steep shadows and plains, like a woodcut of houses/lined up in sharp relief.” It ends with the speaker, clinging to the kite string, being lifted off the ground and looking down on the “wavering world,” which he “can see is not a solid globe fixed in space, not made of words or ideas, but a flow of events, flicker of star-duff, wind-ripple shape.” In another poem a flock of some 17,000 geese inspires the speaker to ask, “What is this shiver of fear and bliss/When their blizzard obscures the sun/And the net of their dark shapes/is cast across the water and land…?”
Not that this penchant for experiencing the world more directly in any way limits Levering’s subject matter. In a mere 14 lines “Terminal” captures that “nexus/of restlessness” otherwise known as an airport. “The Other Half” is an oblique approach to the horrific consequences of land mines left corroding in the Earth long after whatever war is over. “Train at Mobile Bay” follows a freight train as it “rumbles past the blue-white fireworks/of warship welding in dry dock” and “moves with the weariness of defeated love.” “Timepiece” begins with a stately clock that can’t be fixed (“the town’s last grandfather clock repairman/won’t come out of retirement”), but what it really has to say is about Grandfather himself.
The poems often proceed by analogy, Levering seeing in a particular thing or situation an unlikely parallel. In “An Explanation,” for example, he compares the ethereal heft of clouds to a preoccupied mind:
They say that clouds weigh tons.
How they stay high
Is how humans,
Heavy with thoughts
Keep from sinking
Right through the ground.
In “Small Things” a hairpin that leads to a clogged drain, along with a month of stink and backed-up water, stands in for cancer “hidden in the gall bladder,” which, despite being too “minuscule” to catch the insurance company’s attention, has disastrous consequences. Sometimes we go through a whole poem before the connection becomes clear. “Casualties,” one of the standouts in the collection, leverages the most commonplace of objects, an umbrella, to give us a peek into the heart of despair (forgive the vagueness, but I don’t want to give away what Levering has so skillfully set up).
While there are poets who feel their language should be as ordinary as a discarded umbrella, should read like the most pedestrian prose (so as not to call attention to itself), I’ve seldom found the end result worthwhile. Fortunately, Levering never enrolled in that school, and there’s no shortage of finely turned phrases and original utterances, which rarely, if ever, stray into the overwrought. He looks at Kansas “Through timbers of lightning-struck churches/And towns tornado-twisted into splinters.” In a poem dedicated to the 29th element, Levering alights on “Spools of copper cable … waiting for the first telegraph/to tap them awake.” “Last Will & Testament” adds humor to Levering’s way with words: “To the fashionable, I leave my hemline./To the insincere, the headache of holding a smile.”
Any Song Will Do might be the perfect introduction to Levering’s work since, while it contains new poems, it’s primarily an anthology of poems selected from a decades-long career. So if you’re looking to add to your collection of verse, this might be a worthwhile acquisition. In fact, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to go through some of those literary magazines that haven’t been dusted off since the Obama administration; you might make an equally unexpected — and inspiring — find.
Vince Czyz is the author of The Christos Mosaic, a novel, and Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction. He is the recipient of the Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction and two NJ Arts Council fellowships. The 2011 Capote Fellow, his work has appeared in many publications, including New England Review, Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Georgetown Review, Quiddity, Tampa Review, Boston Review, and Louisiana Literature.