More than 50 students, faculty, staff and members of the Williamstown community attended a poetry reading by Jeffrey Levine last Thursday afternoon in Griffin 3.
Lawrence Raab, professor of poetry, introduced Levine, providing several facts about the poet. Levine has taught at Skidmore, played professional clarinet and been a criminal defense lawyer, among his other interests and activities. The poet founded his own publishing house, Tupelo Press, in 1999. Established in Vermont, Levine has since moved the press to nearby North Adams. Raab then recited a quote by Gertrude Stein, “Poetry is doing nothing but using losing, refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns,” and read a few passages from Levine’s work.
Before reading, Levine amusingly apologized for the title of his first book, Mortal Everlasting, explaining it was his publisher’s choice and that he would never have chosen such a title himself. The poet began his readings with “Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka at the Swim-Up Bar,” from the first section of Mortal. In contrast to Raab’s preceding deliberate reading, Levine’s voice and quick pace made his work thrilling yet at times challenging for the audience to keep up with. However, this tone was largely consistent with the tone of Levine’s modern poetry, often in first person and full of cultural references and allusions. This difficulty to fully understand each poem was largely irrelevant anyway because the language of each poem could stand on its own and intrigue the audience even outside of its rich context.
Beginning his readings, Levine pulled his listeners along “Mikhail Ivanovich Glinka at the Swim-Up Bar,” which had a quasi-stream of conscious tone, twisting through surprising images and punctuated by short, succinct sentences between long phrases. Like other poems, this poem uniquely addresses the reader and commands them to think and be active listeners or readers.
Levine noted many of his poems are written through different personas, particularly Ulysses, throughout Mortal Everlasting. Several other recurring characters also appear in this first book. Levine next read a poem about “Odysseus back home” where “things aren’t going so well.” “One Month Before His 50th Birthday” explains, “Ulysses took up weighing himself after sex,” and describes Ulysses’ wife Penelope. Levine’s concept of inserting ancient figures into modern situations was surprising and intriguing, reinvigorating allusions that have elsewhere become trite and stale.
After “One Month Before His 50th Birthday,” the poet explained, “so I’ve been trying to write an epic,” noting their relative scarcity among contemporary writers. Unfortunately, Levine noted humorously that he could not read his own epic because he is only “a page in to one” and has only the title of another. Transitioning to his second book, Rumor of Cortez, the poet instead read “Henri of Hoboken, an Epic.” This poem is a collection of praise and excerpts of an epic called “Dante at Large,” creating a critical response in poem form. Full of abrupt and incomplete sentences, Levine’s quick pace and realist tone was again well suited to his poem.
Levine also read poetry soon to be published. His next poem, on the subject of things “taken for granted,” reflected Levine’s experiences as a professor. Beautiful and unexpected phrases like “felt-stab of jealousy,” “not insubstantial ignorance” and “even the trees cannot sleep” defined the poem. Explaining the poem’s topic, Levine noted, “We are granted a brand new present every moment.” The poet’s reading was particularly effective, as he paused and slowed his words to enhance listener’s interpretation of the poem. Two more unpublished poems continued Levine’s notably powerful imagery, including “clouds filled with snails” and “glowing coals as galaxies.”
Returning to Mortal Everlasting, “My Mother’s Spine” records the speaker’s thoughts as he tries to remember Ulysses’ name in Greek. The poem then unexpectedly carries the listener through tangential memories of lost love and family tragedy.
The short “Expulsion” was among the most poignant of the poems Levine read. “Expulsion” refreshes the ubiquitous allusion to what the poet himself called “archetypal terrain” of the fall. Powerful imagery of a brook “just beyond the Garden” that “sang to [Eve]” and “lowed from far away like the caribou,” and rhetorical questions directed to the listeners made the poem captivating. Having depicted temptation borne out of intense boredom, the poem memorably concludes, “Given time, even something vast appeals, / Even something barren.”
Levine’s work is unique in its abundance of obscure and complex references to literature, science and history, as well as its modernist tone, concrete scenarios and unexpected juxtapositions and transitions. It is reasonable to expect his next work to continue this trend, with titles like “Astrophysics with Fangs and Claws.”
While stunning to simply listen to for under an hour, Levine’s work is clearly meant to be pondered at length. Levine’s two collections of poems, Mortal Everlasting (2002) and Rumor of Cortez (2005), are both available at Sawyer.