A benefit of this blog is that it has reunited me with Peter Levitt, a fellow poet and friend from my Buffalo days when, students, we were both writing up a storm, Peter, already with considerably greater gifts, including the wholly natural one of his spirited “voice,” which has grown more mature over the past forty years or so. His latest collection, Within Within (Windsor, Ontario: Black Moss Press, 2008), marks his first book of poems since his move to Canada. Peter lives with his wife, Shirley, and their son in the Gulf Islands in British Columbia.
I like all but one of the 41 poems in the book. I am not going to identify the odd one out, which, after all, I may like better some other day. Rather, I want to focus on the four poems in the book that I consider most remarkable, ones that may be for the ages.
One of these is “First Snow.” As I began reading it I chuckled. Because of Peter’s current cold, cold, cold environment, many of his poems involve frigid weather. Here is one that goes back to Peter’s childhood—Peter comes from the Bronx—and it is blanketed in yet more cold. But it turns out that this is necessary, for the poem connects Peter’s childhood play in the snow with his child’s current play with friends in the snow that Peter watches, indoors, from a window. It is a reflective poem that indeed connects past, present and future.
The first word of “First Snow” is this: “Yes.” It is a reflective yes, the window of the poet’s past through which he is observing his son and playmates, drawing the connection between himself and his child. The poet is speaking out soft, to himself—except that we also can hear, are present, making the poet’s bridge between past and present also a bridge between his solitudinousness and sociability. His “voice”—the yes—is half inside his head, much as his vision is, because by looking at his son at play the poet recollectively observes himself.
One of my favorite English Romantic poems is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1797 “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.” For me, Peter’s poem beautifully recalls it. The first word of that poem is “Well”—also reflective, also half inside the poet’s head. In Coleridge’s poem, a temporarily incapacitated because injured Coleridge imagines himself as participating in a Nature walk with visiting friends, including “[his] gentle-hearted Charles”—Charles Lamb—who has escaped the “prison” of the City, London, by visiting the country and taking this walk. Coleridge marshals his transcendental imagination in order to join the others, especially Lamb, to release his spirit from its current confinement. The poem is heartrending, not only because of the fraternal love for Lamb that it discloses, but also because it is confined—by Coleridge’s unfortunate predicament, of course, but also by the iambic pentameter that formally embodies Coleridge’s effort to marshal his transcendental imagination. Hence the first word: Well, not Yes.
Levitt’s low, soft, reflective voice clothes and shelters the momentous imaginative connection he forges between his aging self and the children he watches. It is protective of them while also preserving the sweetness and sanctity of his childhood memory. This memory, after all, is as much a part of the present as is the children’s play, and (much as Coleridge does in his poem) this moves Levitt to extend his view to the future, in his case using his own past-childhood time as a basis for imagining that of his son and his son’s playmates:
. . . I have lived long enough
to see nature’s generosity passed on again
while wondering how long
this laughter [of mine in the past] will last in their lives*
as it has in mine . . .
In an indirect and very moving way all this testifies to the passage of time and Levitt’s realization that he must “wonder” now about his son’s future because he may not be alive to observe it in the same material way that he can observe his son from his window now. His age keeps him outside the circle of his son’s neighborhood playing, and this reflects more directly the mortal condition that Coleridge’s accidental injury reflects.
“Flamenco, Blood and Song,” for Lorca, staggers. It is the most powerful poem in the collection. It resurrects the monstrosity of Franco as a heartfelt obligation to the past and to the Spanish dictator’s endless list of victims, including young poet and opponent (in the Spanish Civil War) Federico García Lorca:
We live in history even if it does not live in us,
even if we are blind to the hyenas
whose voices cut families in half
until the unknown graves of the disappeared
hear a proper weeping, always too late.
Levitt cannot help but identify with his fellow poet, whose grassy grave reflects “the poet’s eyes that loved green.” With a poignant play at controlling time, as though García Lorca’s life (along with the other lives his represents) might be reclaimed from its grave and given new life, Levitt imagines García Lorca’s mother yet again attending to her infant son:
Silver, silver as the earrings his mother
dangled over his cradle as she soothed
him with songs he would never forget.
But, as before, this silver of promise disappears into the blackness of murder and death:
Black, black as the uniforms,
the coffin’s tight room, black
as the blood that spilled when
the executioner’s bullets tore
into his throat so he would
sing no more. Black as that.
Thus García Lorca’s murder silences his mother’s songs of love and hope, as well as the gift for song that García Lorca inherited from her. This assault on García Lorca’s family, vast and deep, haunts the living poet, Levitt, who shares the anguish of García Lorca’s mother and of “other mothers/ who pace the night floor plotting to keep children alive.” The word plotting is key here; there is something irrevocably sad and unnatural about mothers having to plot to keep their children alive; this should just happen, just be. But Franco, with his mass murders in a stadium, did not let it be. Alas, time is unforgiving, and a poet’s powers limited; history also is irrevocable, and Levitt cannot bring García Lorca back from the dead in a material way. However, he can recertify his lifelong task of keeping García Lorca’s inspiration alive, which he does in a startling direct address traversing time, history and death:
Federico, I come back to you again,
poem after poem dedicated to your sacrifice.
Night after night, even after all these years,
I sing the promise of love you gave.
Levitt’s longevity—Levitt is two years older than I; we have both long since passed the age of King Lear—redresses the cosmic spiritual imbalance caused by García Lorca’s death at 37. This is a poet’s imaginative accomplishment—but with a hard limit that is non-negotiable. Levitt closes piercingly on a note of uncertainty and humility as he completes his direct address to García Lorca and, through his memory, us:
. . . I have no certainty to offer.
Only the trembling of an aging man
who is either so blind, or fiercely
so in love with the world,
he has neither the time nor sense
to tremble with fear.
In “Flamenco, Blood and Song” Levitt nonetheless exhibits the “[trembling] with fear” that the world he so loves, which is rushing by so fast, leaves him no time for. Meanwhile, the tyrants keep coming, even as Franco himself (after a long run in power) has passed on.
Frozen House, for Spalding Gray, is another terrific poem. Peter has written that Gray’s suicide, following three or more unsuccessful attempts (as well as his mother’s suicide), “came when I was in deepest pain from my chronic nerve problem, and I was awake almost all the time, half crazed with pain and despair that this would be my life, etc., and so when I wrote it the two pains conjoined, and I could only speak of him until the final question about what the future holds, when I knew I was asking how long the pain might last, his, mine, all of ours.”
“[W]e knew” what had happened, Peter writes in “Frozen House,” “when [Gray’s] body floated up/ with others [in the East River] . . . One by one/ they rose from the thawing bed/ like twisted flowers, their skin peeled,/ petalled around white bone stems.”
Then we knew.
That a man no longer—
That a soul could not—
That his sons might always—
It is sometimes hard each day
to breathe and move among the living
things of the world we’ve loved.
These lines are brilliant. The series of aborted assertions of what “we knew” consigns all certainty to loose ends; Levitt has found a way to express the utter helplessness we sometimes feel in life, which takes in the projected future as well as the past and present. Facts and figures, such as might appear in an official report, do nothing to solidify existence, which drowns in the unknowable nature of things.
Levitt’s poem expands its ground to include echoes of Tennyson’s Maud and of Yeats that shake the soul and terribly move:
Winter stillness, the calling beauty
of its dark, grows so slowly upon the land,
we hardly notice until all the internal
sheaves of ourselves believe
in their frozen solitude,
the solidities of their isolate lives.
For years my mother sat beside her window
unmoving despite my call. Only
the fiercest love forced her eyes
to unblear, focus, and return. So many
ghosts waited beyond the cold glass.
Her sister and the baby dead in childbirth —
Her brother at seventeen mad as Mona Lisa —
Her mother hysterical in the streets —
The immigrant poverty of that —
Against the crush of all this, however, “the body can bring itself/ to rise against pain that seems/ without beginning, that/ even death may never end.”
It is perhaps impossible here not to recall Emily Dickinson’s exquisite poem about pain—a poem that ends with a piercing use of punctuation (because of the double meaning):
Pain — has an Element of Blank —
It cannot recollect
When it begun — or if there were
A time when it was not —
It has no Future — but itself —
Its Infinite contain
Its Past — enlightened to perceive
New Periods — of Pain.
In effect, Peter’s poem rouses itself to bust through Dickinson’s closing barrier.
The fourth poem I wish to address is the first in the collection. Peter has said that “Pale Shadow” is “basic” to him. It begins with Peter in the sheer present and with a sense of newness: “I rise early and walk to where light/ enters the forest in silence . . . .” He is on “the uneven path.” The words all suggest a recurrent, even habitual experience, but his being “tentative as a new lover, my hands/ leading me branch by branch” suggests the opposite. Suddenly, “[o]verhead,/ the powerful stroke of wings/ through air causes me to stop.” The sound recedes; Peter has been jolted out of the familiar. At this point his wife enters his mind; two summers ago she saw something, which she shared with him, that he will now share with us—an extension of the unfamiliarity he has just experienced, but also an attempt to stabilize his jolted state by imaginatively connecting with others: his wife; us.
What Shirley Graham observed “[t]wo summers past” from shore is an instance of Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw” rendered utterly benign—more in tune, perhaps, with the relationship between Santiago and the giant marlin in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. An eagle dove “into a flock/ of ducks floating lazily near the marsh/ of Cusheon Lake”—ducks that had presumed for the moment, until the attack, their perfect safety. (The precise naming of the lake is, for me, unendurably moving: compensation for the anonymity of the eagle and the ducks.) The ferocity of the attack plunged the eagle beneath the water; once visible, “its claws clutching prey,” the “predator” failed in its attempt to take off. Peter quotes his wife: “The killer/ and killed had become one body/ and the weight wed them where they were.” Applying ingenuity, the eagle rowed to shore, “[dragging] his prey into the soft grass/ to hide among the reeds.” The eagle’s shadow on the water, Peter reports, “was the last thing my wife could see.” Mysteriously, the silence that Peter now hears and the “invisibility” that he now “sees”—reminiscent of Stevens’s (some say Daoist) “the nothing that is”—enrobes Shirley’s “last” sight of the eagle’s shadow, along with the setting’s warehouse of shadows:
. . . There
is a silence that surrounds
this world of shadow and light,
an unmoving invisibility that clarifies
each thing as it is beside the next,
a membrane that shapes the detail,
one by one. It is how it all conjoins.”
The whole natural universe thus becomes a proliferation of “weddings,” of “marriages,” of “couples,” all a part of a single reality. Everything “conjoins.” Parts of Nature’s “whole,” the eagle and the duck were each a part of the other, a mate, a partner. Peter: “I hold the image of the eagle’s/ kill no different from the first time I saw/ my children bathed in the birthing/ blood that helped to keep them/ alive.” In the last lines, the poet even takes up Social Darwinism, an extension of the subject:
. . . All words, all that die
or kill and struggle to survive
are pale shadows, transparencies
that return to their source at such a time,
the unmoving ground beneath the ground
where we stagger, or stride.
“Pale Shadow” is relentless. It encompasses both Peter Levitt’s solitudinousness and sociability. It is a great poem.
The collection Within Within, incidentally, bears gorgeous cover art. The image is by Marty Gervais; the design, by Mandy Boreski.
Visit Peter’s Web site: www.peterlevitt.com. You will be greeted immediately by a wonderful photograph of the friend I remember—only older, like too many of the rest of us.
* Peter Levitt himself finds a discrepancy here between my reading and his intention. Here are his remarks on the matter:
I was looking over your review to learn from it and I think there is one comment within the lines of a quoted poem that may be off, to wit: in reference to “First Snow,” you say
this laughter [of mine in the past] will last in their lives
but the ‘this laughter’ refers not to my laughter in the past, but to the laughter of my children and their friends whom I watch in the meadow below, and I am wondering how long their laughter will last in their lives as (my) laughter has lasted in mine.
Had these lines been more clear, for example, had I said something on the order of
wondering how long
the laughter will last in their lives
as it has in mine
wondering how long
laughter will last in their lives . . .
it would have been more clear. I liked the ‘this’, however, since it pointed directly (I thought) to the children, and the rhythm of the syllable seemed beneficial as well.