Donald LEVERING, Winter 2018
Previous Lives by Donald Levering
Red Mountain Press [redmountainpress.us]
Reviewed by Michele Lesko
A twenty-first century Icarus on a tragic flight gets “Another Chance” and an obsessed boy who has been bullied takes charge by stealing into city public transit to pilot buses and trains in "Implacable Force." All dreams of what could have been linked to the core of why we are who we are in this fine collection that recalls Levering’s work of more than forty years. Older work, some revised, meshes with new work and each era deepens the one that came before.
Levering’s work came to us at IthacaLit when we chose to publish “Sorry” with no knowledge of Levering’s forty-year career or eight previously published books. We read the poems blind you see, so what is published at IthacaLit has only to do with the quality of the work. Reading Previous Lives illuminates a body of work that is broad and relevant. The speaker in “Sorry” ponders a passing moment on a bus in which “a lovely stranger’s/sweater, draws us closer.” This illusory moment allows the reader to enter that space we often do not acknowledge. It accepts the frisson of what if and turns it in hand like a prism showing another life -a life where the “agreeable friction” plays out a fiction, cleverly linking and quickly dismissing possibility as we do all day while rarely noticing.
This noticing is what creates a forceful energy in Levering's Previous Lives, noticing a life lived through moments not only of wonder but, specifically, of wondering. There is a mutability in the music that arises from the in and out of other people’s lives, and one's own, carefully observed. There is “The Green Man” with his final command, “O Jack-of-Spring/Awake,” and the snow-plow driver whose world is a strange and silent trip, "back into his white-out/odyssey when Bam!/he plows into a parked car."
Levering brings to life the lives of a Navajo healer and a “Highway Surveyor,” who “speaks of building a road.” The surveyor in this poem has “seen the prairie disappear/in the wake of his crew.” In this poem’s moment, all we build is upturned as the roads built become an image of deconstruction, eventually bringing us to “Roman ruins” and beyond to finally rest in “this old/Devonian seabed.” Levering does not let the surveyor off easy. He gives us the proper name of the surveyor’s instrument when the speaker allows that the surveyor “winces as he mentions/that it’s called a gun.” Do we notice, ponder, see what is happening to the world around us from this angle? This poem is a tightly controlled metaphor for what we have named civilization. And Levering does not create poems that whistle a happy tune while turning from the destruction we cause in living our civilized lives.
In "Scenes from a Seaside Inn" the focus is, ostensibly, a groundskeeper who is "dragging shovel, bag, and water hose" but must "halt his rave against moles" to take in the sight of "an angel." The groundskeeper and "a guest at the inn" who "angles her easel/to get it all in pastel" do not know, as one is there to destroy the nuisance of moles and one to paint the early morning seaside scene, that they each bear witness to the "revelation of a girl in yellow/on a swing flying out." This girl becomes both angel and image of the yellow sun that leavens their everyday duties. Levering has us pause to witness destruction again and again, while effortlessly creating imagery that gives us a way out. We see the smallest moments that turn what we may never consider, the insignificance of the snow plow, the mole-free inn, the paved highway, these often destructive, always human acts of civilizing nature that are meant to smooth our way, tame our landscape, ease our burdens lifted to express deeper truths.
There is love, too, considered here in ways that do not disappoint. Like the woman on the bus who becomes one point in the prism that becomes complete in “On the Back Road to Your Place.”
Before I found the right route
One woman teased me
Another kept forgetting my name
The back road of the title is the road we all take because we never do know exactly where we are headed or the impression we will make as we move on down the road, or even where we have already been in our previous lives. On this road, Levering's speaker keeps moving even as
I was mistaken for homeless with my ragged backpack
I was mistaken for heartless with my understatement
I was mistaken
before I found the back road
the unpaved hesitating way
to your place
The repetition in this poem weaves its spell to build a taut mysticism in the search for someone beyond feral dogs, fear and divorce. This poem is ultimately a love song where the poet leaves us open, perhaps, to (this) love's imminent failure in the last line, On the back road you were on the way to my place. We went down this road, this back road, and we kept going where there was an unfurling, an unclenching of hands, and we had hope.
What happens when the one we are meant to find is also on the back road? Is the one on the way to my place an indication that these two will pass as the electric moment with the stranger on the bus passed? And that is the key to these poems. We pass one another, we pass through minutes and days, we pass for someone we are not, we pass through time and find ourselves on a back road and find ourselves wishing for the expressway. What if we were still and gave in to the everyday wonder as it appears in these poems?
Donald Levering was born in Kansas City and received his MFA from Bowling Green (Ohio) State University. He has worked as a teacher on the Dine reservation, groundskeeper, and human services administrator, and now volunteers as a US citizenship tutor. In 2017, Eavan Boland selected him a winner of the Tor House Robinson Jeffers Award. Previous honors include an NEA Fellowship, Literal Latte Prize, Willapa Bay, and Playa Residencies, and the Quest for Peace Prize in rhetoric. He has previously published 13 books of poetry, most recently Coltrane's God, which was Runner-up for the 2016 New England Book Festival prize. He is father to a daughter and a son and is married to the artist and poet Jane Shoenfeld. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.