A poet of witness in a time of war
Stephen K. Levine, "Song the Only Victory: Poetry Against War." E.G.S. Press, Toronto Canada, 2007. 98 pages. $15.95
Stephen K. Levine, a regular Vineyard visitor since 1971, wears many hats. He is a York University (Toronto, Canada) professor emeritus, a dean of the European Graduate School at Saas Fee, Switzerland, editor of the journal Poiesis, a philosopher, a poet and - to lighten up this impressive mix - a clown. His new book of poetry, "Song the Only Victory: Poetry Against War" engages all these roles.
As fellow poet Elizabeth Gordon McKim writes in the preface to Levine's book, the author is "a poet of witness in a time of war." Levine has chosen to place the very first poem, "Abu Ghraib" outside the four-part formal structure of book. This poem's isolation lets the reader experience the full shock of witnessing.
Abu Ghraib's black-hooded prisoner, who riveted the public eye when his photograph was disseminated, is re-imagined verbally by Levine in the poem. First he becomes the poet's father, his brother, his son, and then his role as an icon is most deeply felt in the poem's final stanza, when Levine writes: "I am inside the dark cover./I cannot look out./I stand here waiting to be seen." Our participation in the horror of torture through these short, almost staccato lines is complete.
Not all of the poems in this collection have such dark themes. The first section, "Invocations," speaks to healing. The redemptive power of the natural world, referenced by the poet through the Vineyard, reverberates in "This Day," where he writes, "I wake up and go out/to feed the birds,/ this ordinary act in which/ I once again marvel/at the stillness of Chilmark hills." As devastating as acts of war like those at Abu Ghraib may be, simple pleasures can lift the spirit.
"Poiesis" provides the title for the second section of "Song the Only Victory" as well as for the journal of arts and communication edited by Levine. The etymological root of poetry, this term comes from the Greek and roughly translates as "to make." Here the poet groups five mostly longer poems that examine the role of words, poetry, and sound in staving off darkness, despair and, in "The Precious Hours," "the moment before the killing starts."
The heart of Levine's book comes in its third section, "Testimony," where many of the poems take as their theme the death of Rachel Corrie, to whom "Song the Only Victory" is dedicated. A peace activist, she was 23 years old when she was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer in the Gaza strip on March 16, 2003. The circumstances of Corrie's death are still disputed.
Levine takes on one of a poet's most difficult challenges in "A Very Regrettable Accident - Remembering Rachel Corrie." The facts, or testimony, of an event like Corrie's death, distressing as they may be, lend themselves too readily to prose. The poet uses repetition to transform them into poetry: "The body of a young girl is buried in/ the dirt of Gaza./The land of Gaza shall be her land./The people of Gaza shall remember her./This poem shall be a home for her." Language becomes chant.
Levine returns to the subject of Corrie's death five more times. In "To an Israeli Friend," he asks, "Who am I to write of Rachel Corrie/when your family lives in fear?" That poem is paired with "To a Palestinian Friend," where he asks, "My friend, will you still love me/when I write about the murder of Jews/returning from the Wall?"
Other poems in this section, like "Eye-raq," take a less solemn approach to the current war, spoofing George W. Bush and blending the joke with such literary allusions as e.e. cummings' "how do you like/your blue-eyed boy now,/Mr. Death?" To this reviewer the humor seems tragic and forced. In "Hail America!" the antic clown starts out, "I like America. She's number one..." but by the end of the poem intones "Atone/Atone/Atone."
The collection's final section, "Coda," turns to the power of words, the presence of nature, the question of who is blessed and concludes, "Mourning is coda for the end." The final poem does not end there, but on a more optimistic note: "Appropriate ré before/ the beat resumes."
This powerfully felt collection does not go down easily, but "Poetry Against War," as Levine subtitles his book, should not find easy answers or consist of rosy visions. Levine has collaborated with his wife and colleague Ellen G. Levine, whose strong, often poignant paintings illustrate the collection in vivid primary colors.