Review of The Water Leveling With Us by Donald Levering
Santa Fe: Red Mountain Press, 2014. 78pgs. $17.95.
In the torrent of collections published by the likes of Pattiann Rogers, Naomi Shahib Nye, Wendell Berry, Carolyn Forché, and William Stafford—whose poems deal with terror, torture, the decline of species, and environmental degradation—Donald Levering's twelfth collection, The Water Leveling with Us (Red Mountain Press/$17.95) stands tall for its verbal music, attention to detail, and images that yank us into Levering's worlds. This preservationist and human-rights activist deserves to be better known. His empathy with fellow sufferers, animate and inanimate, is as extraordinary as his technique. Non-polemical, his poems, for the most part, address in a straightforward way the critical issues of our time.
Take the poem addressed to Pablo Neruda, "Explain to Me About Plums" (page 16). The last four lines of the fourth stanza read as follows:
Did those [washed-up figureheads] keen about sea worms
gnawing your nation's democracy,
did they moan of the undertow
dragging your people below?
Note the assonance of keen, sea, and -cracy, the repetition of the n sound in keen, gnawing, nation, moan, and under-, the end rhyme of the last two lines, the alliteration of democracy, did, under-, and dragging. Listen to the music of the poem's last four lines:
or whimsically naming the beasts,
or lolling on the beach,
could you ever forget
the blood running in the streets?
We get -enias, -ly, beasts, beach, and streets for assonance, beasts, beach, and blood for alliteration. Levering has similarly gifted the poem's other six stanzas.
The context of Levering's book is the present, abuses happening right now. To fully appreciate his power, try reading aloud his poems about cruelty to animals, like "Fox Farmer's Wife" (page 68), and "Nightmare after Eight Belles" (page 70).
As is the practice with haiku, read the shorter poems aloud twice. Try "War Taxes" (page 26), considering taxes as a verb, then as a noun. Here are all twelve lines:
We are herded into the junior high school gym,
ordered to roll up our sleeves
to donate blood to the giant
who is leaking oil
from the back of his head
down to a puddle.
At the front of the line, several
are hooked up to the shunt
into the giant's groin.
Face gone white, the boy
beside me buckles.
A private arrives with mop and pail.
Beginning with ordinary reality, the poet stuns with stanzas 2 and 3. Read several times, they make the giant who's leaking oil more real than the gym, though he's carefully placed within it. The music of the last stanza, by contrast, heightens the horror of what happens. Following the first two lines' assonantal music of boy, beside, and buckles, their alliteration of private arrives—plus pail's half-rhymed link with buckles—the final line tosses us into reality again. But this time it's the reality of a recruitment center or the barracks (no need for the poet to explain that the private is in uniform).
Poem after poem grabs us by the collar, insisting we pay attention until the poem ends. Persona poems like "Words from the Woods" (page 27) pull us in and keep us there with lines like stuffing feathers into bedding and our house smelled of apples baking. Environmental degradation poems like "A Need" (page 13) have us staring at an ancient turtle, where she digs her body pit, flailing sand in all directions.
But perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Levering's work is his variety of rhetorical styles. "Prepare" (page 43), dealing with a recent hurricane, presents an announcer telling a story. "Salt Stones" (page 30), about Guantanamo, and "The Other" (page 32), about los mutilados, use tighter, more poetic lines. "Counting the Apparition" (pages 60-63), dealing with environmental atrocities, and "The Water Leveling" (page 50), about the oceans rising, employ surrealism.
This twelfth collection of Levering's, as a matter of fact, could serve as a textbook on poetic craft. His oeuvre owes much to the mainstream, Anglo-Saxon tradition of placing an emphasis on rhythm, from Beowulf, through Shakespeare and Donne, to Yeats, Roethke, and Heaney. Levering told this reviewer that Roethke, as well as W.C. Williams, Plath, Robert Bly, Charles Wright, and Charles Simic have served as his mentors of image-making.
Lovers of poetry will delight in the ways Donald Levering succeeds in not being a one-note Johnny, but coming at themes of high-stakes survival in such a variety of ways.
You can purchase The Water Leveling With Us
Michael Scofield, a graduate of Yale, received his low-residency MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Two volumes of poetry and three novels have seen print, four of them published by Sunstone Press. He and his wife, Noreen, live in Santa Fe.