Jan Heller Levi was the winner of the 1998 Walt Whitman Award for her first collection of poems, Once I Gazed at You in Wonder (Louisiana State University Press, 1999). Alice Fulton was the judge for the award.
In her beautifully realized first book, Jan Heller Levi testifies, with immoderate compassion, to the wonder that we are here at all, witnessing a now in which every moment is spacious.
Who knew you'd have to spend a whole life to write about
one day? I mean fairly. I mean truly. Pity
I hadn't heard about that sooner,
I might have
been a doctor or a lawyer. Healed people or defended
Instead of running down to the river whenever
it calls me (it's turning fall here—white lips
on the water)
and waving down the next poor soul who floats my way:
Hey, you there! Yes, you! Come here!
I have something to tell you!
The urgent exuberance is in keeping with the book's spirit, a mix of unguardedness and sophistication that is charming, in the best sense of that word. (How many poets these days are willing to risk an exclamation at the end of a poem?) The emphasis falls upon experiencing rather than controlling the world, an attitude that entails some improvisation, ever-readiness, if you will. Flood subjects and fugue states reverberate throughout: obsessions that enrich the structure in much the same way that memories saturate the present instant.
In fact, Levi's poems speak to consanguinity—the inter-relatedness at the heart of things. Seeing is the canopy trope, a bravery that begins with eye contact and extends into the marrow of empathy: "Look at this. / For how long? / Until you can't bear to look at it anymore." "Michelin says you can see the whole city in an hour and a half," another poem notes, as it disregards the guidebook to linger on the understory of events. The opening poem's title, "In Trouble," evokes the old euphemism for unmarried pregnancy; it also remembers the directive to "get your characters in trouble" and acknowledges the imaginative, emancipatory potential of writing: in dreams begin the responsibilities of representation, the ability to witness or efface suffering. "I asked, Does it hurt?, but never, Let me see," the poet chides herself. In fact, Once I Gazed at You in Wonder observes and examines without isolating Self from Other, and through such reciprocity enacts the deepest meanings of love. "Whenever I think of you, I see my face....I'm trying / not to look, but I'm looking," she writes in "Poem for You, Dead by Suicide."
The book's tone modulates from elegiac to self-mocking, reticent to funny, as Levi considers not only grief and love, but the unbidden, bereft emotions in between: the unnamed imbrications that constitute the affective life.
So much effort
to smile. But there was always so much effort in her
smile, no one
seemed to notice the extra effort.
One of the great strengths of this book is its empathy: the poet-speaker's ability to notice and feel for others in the midst of her own predicaments. Whether she writes of life, death, or lunch, Levi disciplines herself to miracles and advances her rhetorical gestures to a proactive state of grace. The rhymed quatrains of "Best Cup of Coffee in Town," for instance, show the I'm-so-nice-it's-frightening narrator struggling to assert herself by complaining to the waitress:
"This coffee," I growl, pointing down to the thin,
muddy swirl, "this is—" "Is what?" she sighs.
Her teeth are the same familiar & dull white
as the I Love New York button pinned
to her chest. She looks like she's had it up
to here with the truth. And she also looks a bit
brave & sweet, waiting there, for some more of it.
"It's delicious," I say. "I'll take another cup."
Easy notions of honesty are tested; the harm truth can do is acknowledged; and the speaker's annoyance turns to compassion without the poem's turning into a sanctimonious showcase for the poet's sensitivity. The last flaw—of a preening moral engagement—sometimes makes the sound of contemporary poetry that of one hand clapping itself on the back. Jan Heller Levi's work countervails the implications of this curmudgeonly koan with passional, self-critical intelligence. Ardent yet free of gush, the spontaneity and conversational ease of her poems assure that the quality of wonder, like that of mercy, is not strained. In addition to unguardedness and heart, there is backtalk—bite and edge, lip and lash. Witness this excerpt from a poem remembering the death of her mother:
Once I gave a poetry reading
with a folk singer. He'd
get the whole room rocking,
rolling, clapping along,
tapping their feet.
Then I'd kick in with a poem
and you've never heard
have any happy poems?
he wondered. Don't
you know any cancer songs?
The book's engagements are freshly felt; its scope so unstinting that there is room for omissions: the reverberations of white space, the delicate unsaid. The subtle polyphony of "Conversation" captures the frictions as well as the frames of thought:
Sometimes a yellow line, sometimes a pale blue, sometimes
a pink, lights up a page. That's what you think.
I don't want that. I want this. No, I don't want this. I want
that. The worst thing I can think of is saying something and
having the other person, no matter how hard you try to
explain, completely miss the point.
Isn't it obvious?
I don't know.
But it's obvious.
No, it isn't.
The excerpt is necessarily false to the poem's whole, whose process depends upon quick cuts and recurring associations to enact the denials and indelibles of mourning. Other poems investigate more peripheral (but no less fascinating) emotive states. "The Second Movement of Anything" considers mediations that prevent the direct experience of joy: the cooling interference of time and mind, of guilt and second thoughts. Rather than celebrate the rush that accompanies newness, the poem thinks about the ash in the afterglow.
After the hoopla,
the big splash,
after all the I'm gonna love you forevers,
the daddy finally understands,
it was all a big mistake,
well, let's call it, um,
I know it like the back
of the leaf that so many who
have held my hand
Listen, it's delicious.
Listen, it's heartbreaking.
Listen, it's an industry, for god's sake,
it's a high-level kind of sadness thing.
The passage indicates Levi's wicked ear for the quirks of the vernacular. These poems travel: they move with impulsion and torque on demand. They have good bones and good flow. The linguistic swerve—the elastic parts of speech and rhetorical authority—of the book's closing poem keep one riveted, spellbound by the new spin and long leash afforded turbulence:
You hurricane. I hurricane. It's our nature, it's our mothers
with their gorgeous, furious breasts, it's our fathers
bailing out the basements of our childhoods,
that wet, sticky mess. Stop here. Three hours later, the
calm is divine.
A Tiffany-palette sunset lotions the sky.
Did hurricane leave this beauty behind, or would
it have been here anyway? You hurricane. I hurricane.
What a storm. What a life.
What a long childhood, this earth.
What a generous journey it has been. Readers fall for poets' sensibilities as much as for their surfaces and depths. Once I Gazed at You in Wonder is, quite simply, the most endearing book I've read in some time. It draws upon the powers intrinsic to poetry and helps me remember its unextinguishable necessity.