Tuesday, May 1, 2012
A Very Funny Fellow [Donald Lev]
Donald Lev’s new book A Very Funny Fellow (NYQ Books) derives its title from a friend whom Lev quotes as telling him forty years ago, “You’re a very funny fellow, but you are no poet.” The first part of this proposition at any rate is proved abundantly in this new collection. Lev’s humor will appeal to readers who have a taste for mordant existential joshing in the vein of Stephen Crane’s Black Riders (and, in fact, Crane’s Sullivan County haunts are not far distant from the contemporary poet’s Ulster digs). Even the Muse and the God of Israel “dissolve in laughter” when the poet apologetically addresses them in “Sacrifice.” In “Chalk” Stalin is the guy who couldn’t get a joke.
Apart from the funny business Lev is a poet of thought and theme, though he would doubtless pooh-pooh such a notion. With an unassuming lightness reminiscent of Piet Hein’s Grooks, Lev spins out little dialectical webs that define an ironic persona, self-reflective to a fault, confused and weak in the tangle of every day’s human predicament, yet whose neuroses rest on a broader foundation of affirmation and for whom poetry provides the redemptive charms necessary to get through the day.
That takes a bit of doing for Lev whose waking is “full of the usual apprehension, afflicted with “the pain of being” (“The Acceptance”). The writers in “Our National Literature” are “digging deeply into themselves . . . to hold the pain precisely.” The title of “Let Me Out” declares his mantra unreservedly and urgently.
In “Homage to the Playwright” the persona is looking for the click in the imagination that can resolve suffering at least contingently – with alcohol for Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or, alternatively, with art, poetry, and movies. Making life livable is the business of the imagination, as one sees with the poet’s outburst in a crowded theater in “Fire,” or when he retreats from “The Smaller Television” in the bar to the one yet smaller in the “lair” of his mind. He envisions his “Career” as a movie. Poetry is, after all, necessary as matzohball soup according to “Say What Is Real, Marsyas.”
A portion of the pain can be traced to missed communication. Even as post-structural critics question the efficiency of language, Lev highlights missed signs, error through blind ignorance, the unknowability of the spectacle before our eyes. The author finds himself at a loss as he has discarded the instructions “in a sudden fit of despair” (“Technology”). His audience is theoretical, unreachable in “So Many Who Might Understand.” His literary ancestor Kafka had his own frustrations, but in “The Question” our twenty-first century author can only lag belatedly behind, calling out the master of insecurity in vain. His very metaphors in “Breakfast with Prufrock” and “Poem on a Nice Sunny Afternoon” pause, admit their own confusion, and give up before completion.
More immediate human love sometimes proves elusive as well. While affirming “Family is Everything,” he confesses his aloneness and is left with bleak television instead. References to his parents are uncomfortable, often rueful. But his devotion to the late poet Enid Dame is moving and profound. As “Lines in Winter for Enid” puts it, “Something’s vanished/ Nothing has taken its place.” Tenderness emerges, too, in his poems for Charlie Barton and Ira Cohen, though in “When I Seek an Image” he provides an ironic corrective, saying “The past never was./ All that ever was for me is here./ sitting in my chair, seeking images.”
He can ridicule easy access to New Age truth (shamanistic tripping in “The Serpent,” nature worship in “I Blame This One …”) and maintains “I have a headache where my third eye should be (from “The Space Thing”). Earlier intellectual fashions fare no better. Meeting Ingmar Bergman after a seder, they play chess, with Lev objecting his amateurism, “till daylight erased us.”
In spite of himself, Lev’s vision casts fiery sparks. His alienation earned through suffering justifies his use of the title “East of Eden.” His spiritual yearning is explicit in “One Slip,” and “God is a Red Peanut” is more, after all, than a punch line in a title. The voice is not wholly un-Job-like that in “In this Dream” conflates his almighty computer with the God of Israel and worries, “Am I lost?” Whether he likes it or not, the “Spirit of Righteousness” animates him in “Witness.”
Lev’s natural physical neurotic uneasiness is balanced with a truly redemptive affirmation, a conviction that “whatever is, is right.” What might have been a lost sheep in the Bible is a wandering dog here (“Dog Story”). Let not your heart be troubled, the tale ends well. In “Special Edition” he marvels at the wondrous particularity of everything and cannot resist saying, at the possible risk of sounding silly, “I am grateful to be part of it.” He quotes Buber “the world is incomprehensible, but/ embraceable” (“To Embrace It”) and gives us a “Meditation” very nearly straight: “See there the umbilical knotting? The universe?” Just when the reader thinks he may have dropped down a few levels of irony the Buddha stops by to fix his plumbing (“The Buddha”).
In “Total Eclipse” in a few colloquial lines, tossed off with the casual expertise of a master, Lev deploys his attention to the low-mimetic (someone’s “getting soused on pitchers of beer/ and setting his beard on fire”), the cosmic (lunar eclipse), and the tragic/mythic – it is his friend’s thirty-third birthday, his “crucifixion year.”
May Donald Lev continue recording his dodgy encounters with everyday life and with Ultimate Reality, what he calls his “fleeting thoughts” (“One Slip”) for our amusement and instruction. Horace would have patted him on the head (receiving doubtless a quizzical grimace in return). As a writer and as an editor (his Home Planet News remains one of the most consistently provocative and classy little journals in America) Lev is a long distance runner. He apologizes for being unable to write as his “Titanic” sinks, and chaos surrounds him, yet here – fortunately -- are the words before us on the page.