Reports by Kathryn Levy
(New Rivers Press, Minnesota State University Moorhead, MN, 2013)
The first four poems are stripped of all but the most essential punctuation. We overhear a mind racing, an elegant mind that connects the dots between improbabilities.
it’s too cold out here, too hard
it is tearing me
away from the ground
where I have to stay
there are reasons, there are answers
to all the questions—there are
reports on the news
I can’t ignore:
In some ways that colon in the first poem is the explosive launch of Kathryn Levy’s Reports.
Looking closer at this strophe we see the workings of a mind not making poetry so much as thinking in a poetics that offers the mind algorithms needed to put things together. More than with most poets, we collaborate with Kathryn Levy thinking, and that instills in us a sense of privilege. We have been invited not to experience something meant to impress us but to be in on its creation.
Many of these poems remind me of swift-running runnels. They indulge no time for self-reflection, for self-consciousness. They’re going somewhere, and it’s exciting to go with them, as if we’re manning a paper boat in the current of words and the vortices of thoughts conjugating.
Perhaps the most revealing and memorable poem is “The Absolute Truth,” the first poem in Bedtime Stories, the book’s final section. Some truths are hair-raising, most offend, but here the poet’s truth suggests that we may be the wardrobes of alien creatures:
I was raised in a school—in
the basement of a school. My mother
was a witch who fed me
chalk for breakfast.
You can talk about yourself without being a confessional poet—witness the contemporary British metaphysical poet Michael Symmons—something some critics fail to grasp. This idea is based on not being who others say we are but rather who we know we are. Much confessional poetry searches for identity, a lighting of the way back in order to go forward, but Kathryn Levy sings from some point at which she knows of a certainty who she is. “The Absolute Truth” ends:
....He thinks I don’t
love him. And he’s right. I dwell in an egg
in my home on Venus. And all
that world outside? It is chalk.
There is a great deal of talk about words positioned on a page to look like poetry but lacking the essential elements of poetry. Which are? Musicality, an instilled confidence that something has been said the only way it could have been said, an impeccable spatial judgment, a geometric precision. And much more. Think of Le Sacre du Printemps. When Igor Stravinsky introduced it in Paris his audience threw banana peels at the orchestra. Le Sacre struck many in the audience, though not all, as anti-music. We hear it as divinely subversive, a kind of unassailable aesthetic.
Reports is testament to the idea that vers libre when practiced with unfailing integrity demands more of a poet than earlier more predictable poetic forms. The price its freedom exacts of the poet is high. Or, of course, it can be an excuse for idle work. It’s unfortunate that free verse is often described as unmetered verse. As Mary Kinzie memorably points out in A Poet’s Guide to Poetry that definition presumes a definition of prosody based on outdated consensus, consensus from which the free verse poet seeks to evolve.
I habitually get the impression when reading poetry that it represents a distillation of the poet’s experience, an ordering of the poet’s thoughts, an act of recollection. But with this poetry I have the sense not merely of acute recollection but of inhabiting the original experiences. Perhaps this comes of the poet’s work as a teacher, her observation of how we learn, how we grasp what confronts us.
There is a strong sense in these poems that we’re not leading the lives about which there is a consensus but that rather we’re living the shocking lives of otherlings, faery lives. And there is a further sense that far from being shocking, these other lives, these true lives, the ones we don’t live for convenience’s sake, are the source of all our accomplishments. A further sense, in fact, that without these other lives we stumble and fall.
After twice reading Reports my mind returned again and again to Page 33, of the second section, “The Lovers.” The poem, consisting of tercets, is “The Child In The Meadow.” I take it as a turning point in the poet’s life, perhaps the point even at which her poetry says to her, This is what I want to be, this is how I want to be, this is what I want to do, this is what I want you to do.
The child in the meadow won’t
she is tired of running
—and stumbling and hiding
her face in the dirt
calling for mother
Her poems and her life, or so it seems to me, might recollect after this, but that’s not the same as going back, it’s not even the same as looking back.
Kathryn Levy is an otherling of a poet, but one who likes us enough to open the windows of her invisible house to us, if not the door. I say if not the door because there is a restraint, a reserve in her sensibility that doesn’t allow for any casual congeniality. She respects us but doesn’t invite us to muck about in her belongings. In this respect, her work is redolent of Emily Dickinson’s. It has a dignity we’re required to respect. In fact, without our respect we don’t get it. It’s not fulsome, hail-fellow-well-met poetry. It asks for some delicacy in the reader, and that is perhaps its singularity.
I rejoice in these rushing brooks of poetry, these freshets and kills. I feel like the guest to whom the host has said, When the others leave, stay, I have something to tell you. And it isn’t hard to stay. All these poems ask is that we not oppose the current.
Djelloul Marbrook is the author of two poetry books, Far from Algiers (2008, Kent State University Press, winner of the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize and the 2010 International Book Award in poetry) and Brushstrokes and Glances (2010, Deerbrook Editions)—both reviewed in Prairie Schooner. His poems have been published by American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, Taos Poetry Journal, Orbis (UK), From the Fishouse, Oberon, The Same, Reed, Fledgling Rag, Poets Against the War, Poemeleon, Van Gogh's Ear Anthology, Atticus Review, and Daylight Burglary, among others. He is also the author of four novels: Guest Boy (2012, Mira Publishing House CLC, Leeds, UK), Saraceno (2012, Bliss Plot Press, NY), Artemisia's Wolf (2011, Prakash Books, India), and Alice Miller's Room (1999, OnlineOriginals.com, UK). He won the 2008 Literal Latté fiction prize for “Artists Hill” (http://www.literal-latte.com/2008/11/artists-hill/), an excerpt from Crowds of One, Book 2 in the Guest Boy trilogy (forthcoming from Mira). His short fiction publishers include Literal Latté, Orbis (UK), Breakfast All Day (UK), Prima Materia and Potomac Review. He maintains a lively Facebook and Twitter presence. A retired newspaper editor and Navy veteran, he lives in New York’s mid-Hudson Valley with his wife Marilyn.