Tim Murphy reviews 54 Poems: Selected and New by John Levy (Shearsman Books, 2023)
Epistolary poems date back to Roman poetry and they were introduced into English by Samuel Daniel at the turn of the seventeenth century. In A Poet’s Glossary (2014) Edward Hirsch remarks that the epistle fell into disuse in the romantic era, but since then “has been occasionally revived and renamed as a letter”. Richard Hugo’s well-known 1977 collection, 31 Letters and 13 Dreams is an inspirational work for those, like Arizona-based poet John Levy, who keep the epistle form alive today. There are several letter poems in 54 Poems, a collection which includes a selection of poems from five of Levy’s books and one chapbook, all published by smaller presses, as well as fifteen additional ‘New Poems’. Although letter poems can be formal, those in 54 Poems are confiding and colloquial. ‘Letter to Paul Matthews from a Parking Lot in Tucson’ begins with reference to Hugo’s 1977 collection:
I’m sitting in the back seat of my parked
car, waiting for Allyson in the gym. I now own
Richard Hugo’s 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, though
I already emailed you that news
yesterday. What I didn’t tell you
is that after about 40 years
of occasionally holding the book and never
buying it, I finally saw what’s
on its black-and-white cover.
Levy’s poetic style combines this kind of plain language with fluent and sometimes playful elaboration. Although the poet had originally assumed the cover design was an abstract pattern, he now notices it is a photograph of “an envelope out of which rises a stalk”. The poem discusses the cover. Levy’s wife, Leslie, says that it “looks like a dream”. Levy moves on to describe the view from his parked car of a barber’s plate glass window with “an American flag [hanging] / in front”; and after he sees a man smoking a cigar, he writes that his grandfather and his uncle, a psychiatrist, also smoked cigars. Freud is mentioned, and before the poem closes with the return of Levy’s daughter, Allyson, from the gym, there is discussion of one of Hugo’s poems in 31 Letters and 13 Dreams, ‘Letter to Matthews from Barton Street Flats’. That poem is addressed to Bill Matthews, a cousin of Levy’s addressee, Paul Matthews: “It’s a political poem,” Levy writes to Paul, “anger at what happened / to the Japanese during World War II”.
Levy’s poetic style combines this kind of plain language with fluent and sometimes playful elaboration
The letter form serves to display Levy’s strong connections with family and friends, and his wife, Leslie, is mentioned again in ‘Letter to Ken Bolton, 4/25/19’, much of which discusses a shade of yellow (and the related Donovan 1966 hit song ‘Mellow Yellow’). But the subject matter is darker in ‘Dear Grzegorz Wróblewski’, which compares a man who is arrested for having sex with a dead deer, and who features in a Wróblewski poem, with “Nathan Wayne Entrekin, who wore a Roman gladiator costume // to the January 6th, 2021, riot in Washington, D.C.”. While Entrekin put his exploits on the internet, including video messages to his mother, the poet imagines that the former individual, if he went to prison, probably “tried / to keep his crime secret”.
The subjects of ‘Shit and Caboodle’ and ‘My Client’ come from Levy’s work as a public defender representing adults accused of felonies, a job from which he retired in 2016. In the former poem, the client is going blind in her forties, “in jail again, she is one of the cheerful ones” – and pleased when Levy responds positively to her use of the “whole shit and caboodle” expression. In the latter poem, the client’s use of “scotch free” indicates “his vocabulary is also / in deep shit”.
Dry wit is also found in several other poems, including ‘Anguish’ – “An guish / rather than a guish, as if right off // you began wrong” — and ‘Wrong Number’, which reads in full:
They hear your voice first.
They wanted someone else.
So did you. It’s a little like
love gone wrong, but much faster.
Levy’s gift for elaboration is evident in the book’s earliest poem, a prose poem from 1972 titled ‘The Sleeper’s Blue Shirt’, in which the blue shirt hangs over the back of a chair “like an unconscious man carried on a horse, a man found in a dried-up riverbed who appears to have almost drowned”. The same style is apparent in the recent poem, ‘K’. When the poet imagines placing the letter on its side, with its vertical line horizontal, it makes him think, among other things, “of rapture / or a line opening its // beak, or a valley’s // self-portrait.”
In other poems, Levy sketches with details. ‘My Paris Garret (1976)’ comprises eight images, including a nearby grocery store owner who never acknowledges the poet even though he has “entered his place / more than a hundred times”; a kindness received from “African neighbors / wonderfully / polite and quiet”; the kept phrase, “diamond juggler”, in the author’s drafts of a poem about the Seine; and “no elevator, seven flights // as they’re called in English”.
While it is his generally conversational style that makes Levy’s poems “hospitable”, as English poet, Philip Rowland, has remarked … there are occasions when the imperative of poetic rhythm eclipses this voice
While it is his generally conversational style that makes Levy’s poems “hospitable”, as English poet, Philip Rowland, has remarked – poetry that “we, too, can ‘open up within’” – there are occasions when the imperative of poetic rhythm eclipses this voice. ‘Kyoto, 1975’ describes the poet walking in Kyoto on a Sunday “down a narrow residential side street / after a drizzle”, when he hears someone on a second storey practising piano:
and I imagined a girl, in her teens, as
the chords came from the open window,
stopped, repeated, stopped, repeated. I
stood there, across from the house,
unreasonably happy. Maybe it was only
Details like “stopped, repeated, stopped, repeated”, and the break between “I” and “stood”, are the kind of poetic techniques not found as often, for example, in Levy’s epistolary poems. In ‘Goat Outside a Greek Village’ the author tests the limits of language by attempting “a longish talk in Goatish” with a penned-in goat – their “songlike replies / and wails” do “ease / something” in the author even if it is something he could “never translate”. This same attempted conversation is also the subject of ‘Note to a Late Goat’, which leaves the poet wondering “if speech is necessary for understanding / once we leave time.”
The notably broad range of subjects in this collection extends well beyond what has been mentioned here. ‘My Mother, Zoe Weiss Levy (1923–2009)’, ‘My Father and His Roses’, ‘My Late Mother’, and ‘from Childhood’ include affectionate parental portraits that extend the range of intimacy, and other topics include an early Picasso drawing (‘Hercules, by Pablo Picasso’); a brand of accordion strap with the author’s name (‘Levy’s Accordion Straps’); and an imagining of a lower case “a”, instead of the statue of Christ, hanging from the helicopter in the opening shot of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (‘Watteau, Helicopters, Time, Fellini’).
Although his penchant for plain language will not appeal to those who expect the regular poetic use of a broader set of expressive resources, 54 Poems is nonetheless a worthwhile introduction to John Levy’s strong and individual poetic voice.
Tim Murphy is an Irish writer based in Spain. He is the author of four pamphlets, including There Are Twelve Sides to Every Circle (If a Leaf Falls Press, 2021) and Young in the Night Grass (Beir Bua Press, 2022). His first full-length collection is Mouth of Shadows (SurVision Books, 2022), reviewed by Richie McCaffery here.