By Maggie Paul
A sharp intellect coupled with compassion contributes to the wry yet tender tone of The Minor Virtues (Ragged Sky Press, 2020), the fifth collection by poet, translator, and author, Lynn Levin. Levin’s new collection contains a trove of poems that courageously traverse a wide range of subjects including, the seduction of a drug that removes a patient’s fear of death, a criminal finally turning himself in “for a bed and some chow,” and the practicality of habits (organizing, offering small kindnesses to strangers) that structure our days. An alchemy of ordinary gestures, pieces of memory, and echoes of a pre-digital world rise up in poem after poem to reveal who we really are, what we value, and ultimately, what we call our lives. In Levin’s world, form and meaning are intertwined. There is nothing trite in the execution of these poems.
Levin’s work incorporates traditional form and word play to great effect. She is adept at rondels, villanelles, ballads, lyrics and narratives. Her use of end-rhyme, off-rhyme, and internal rhyme is delightfully embedded in the music of the line. Yet these techniques are so skillfully handled, they do not obscure the edgy subject matter and multiple layers of meaning in each poem; rather, they enhance it. In this poet’s hands, form and meter are not constrictive containers, but vehicles barely visible carrying the reader to surprising and evocative ends.
When addressing the challenges of living in the virtual world of cell phones, online dating, and social media, Levin, with a unique un-pedantic approach, explores how 21st century devices alter the nature of relationship – both with one’s self and others. To do so, she calls upon such predecessors as Allen Ginsburg and Walt Whitman, as in “Song of My Cell Phone,” a play on Whitman’s “Song of My Self.” Here the narrator proclaims, “I sing the life electronic,” and invites the reader to enter into the poem with echoes of Ginsburg’s “Howl:” “I saw the best minds of my generation,/clunking into buildings and strolling into traffic….” Marianne Moore’s poem, “Poetry” provides the impetus for Levin’s “Sex:” “I too, dislike it,” as the poem proceeds to explore the primal yearning of the body and ultimately turns to conclude, as Moore did regarding the art of poetry, that the value of sex is ineffable.
Some of the poems elegize aspects of a former time. In “Writing in Longhand,” the narrator, after “decluttering” Maria Kondo-style, discovers hand-written letters she’d not looked at in years: “And there I found my old friends alive/in their script.” It is not just finding the letters that moves the narrator to fondly recall the old art of letter writing, but the way the cursive style of each friend reveals their personality: “Exuberant Nancy/with her flourishes and bubble-dotted i’s./Tammy, her cursive half-sized/as if the soul witheld.” Emails and texts notoriously exclude the unique individuality of their correspondents. One must sometimes guess at tone and meaning, and therein we find a loss.
One sign of a strong collection is the desire to turn to it again and again. Successive readings of The Minor Virtues yields more than the number of pages in the book. The poems never fail to re-open, like water lilies known to open at day and close at night. The undeniable magic of multiple meanings and witty conceits occurs without clutter or fluff. Each poem delivers; the possibilities are laid plain.
Among the most moving poems in this collection are those in which the narrator addresses and examines the self, both specific and general, from a philosophical if not existential point of view. The Lilith poems are a carry over from Levin’s previous books. In The Minor Virtues, the Lilith poems continue to mythologize the experiences of a female persona. These poems address the power dynamic between men and women as in “Lilith and Adam,” the writer “before a keyboard and screen” who remembers fondly the writing implements of stylus and quill in “Lilith, the Scribe,” and the trials and tribulations of seeking the intimacy of love in the public sphere of online dating in “Lilith Tries Online Dating.” These poems are at once humorous and yet, full of pathos. As post-modern elegies for how humans communicated in the past, they shed light on a type of beauty the digital world has all but erased.
Is the speed of the digital, technological world worth the sacrifice of in-person relationship, the touching of hands that occurs when a customer pays with small change, the kindness of a woman sharing her breast milk with “…a new mother who is not producing enough milk for her infant?” a new mother whose milk is not producing enough for her infant? Has it enhanced or deepened our awareness and appreciation for how we spend our time? In “My Hours,” the narrator drives these questions home: “All my life I have passed/through curtains of mist./When have I lived and why?/I have spent so much/of my life in aimless hours—lost in weeds, lost in flowers.” How many of us privately hold these same questions? It takes a tightrope walker, a dancer of both classical ballet and hip hop, to weave examinations of our eternal nature with those of the edgy, fast-paced post-modern world we find ourselves in. Levin’s poems perform a seamless duet between the physical and metaphysical, humor and tragedy, joy and loathing.
It is satisfying, no gratifying, to read poems that so eloquently and astutely address the issues of our time. When you enter the poems in The Minor Virtues, prepare to travel the full spectrum of experience lived, lost, and still to come. You just may find yourself…dancing.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1933974354/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i2
Maggie Paul is the author of Scrimshaw (Hummingbird Press 2020), Borrowed World, (Hummingbird Press 2011), and the chapbook, Stones from the Baskets of Others (Black Dirt Press 2000). Her poetry, reviews, and interviews have appeared in the Catamaran Literary Reader, Rattle, The Monterey Poetry Review, Porter Gulch Review, Red Wheelbarrow, and Phren-Z, SALT, and others. She is an education consultant and writing instructor in Santa Cruz, California. For information on Maggie’s publications go to: https://dasulliv1.wixsite.com/hummingbirdpress