Omaar Hena reviews
The title alone of Phillis Levin’s third collection, Mercury, triggers a host of expectations. Perhaps these poems may hold the reader at bay with their airtight hermeticism, formal inventiveness, and linguistic cunning, or take on subjects like rogues and thieves, the living and the dead. Mercury, that wily element, could figuratively mirror the qualities of poetic language which so swiftly and eloquently divide, scatter, and recollect, transporting the reader from the here-and-now into imaginative places of danger and beauty. At its best, Mercury is light on its feet with its deft display of language, metaphor, and thematic complexity. In some poems, though, Levin’s guileless vernacular, limp lines, and sometimes formulaic strategies become the Achilles’s heel to an otherwise polished collection.
III. The metal, etc. 2. Old Chem. a. One of the five elementary ‘principles’ of which all material substances were supposed to be compounded; also called spirit 1471
and the other from Plato’s Timaeus:
. . . and the elements when moved were separated and carried continually, some one way, some another. As, when grain is shaken and winnowed by fans and other instruments used in the threshing of corn, the close and heavy particles are borne away and settle in one direction, and the loose and light particles in another. In this manner, the four kinds or elements were then shaken by the receiving vessel, which, moving like a winnowing machine, scattered far away from one another the elements most unlike, and forced the most similar elements into close contact.
In several poems, Levin seems to play the part of ‘the winnower’: her electrically charged language forces similar elements into close contact. Take for instance, the second poem, ‘Cumulus’:
They, too, labor,
‘Cumulus,’ literally meaning ‘heap’ or ‘accumulation,’ is a wonderfully executed extended metaphor that mimetically contrasts the mercurial nature of clouds to the self and its shifting desires. The speaker here seems to balance his or her Romantic desire for consolation in an ethereal, natural other (‘A floating prison, a dream-balloon, / The setting sun’s / Chameleon, or the sliding screen of the moon — // When nothing else contains us we turn to them’) with the speaker’s knowledge of how much elements in the natural world seem so much ‘like us’ (‘And if we envy them we should remember / How brief their stay in the ether is’ and ‘we go / As carelessly, as helplessly, finally / Too full of time’). Notice too how the enjambment in the fourth stanza so stealthily contradicts each line’s direct statement: whereas humans initially seem true to themselves and the clouds insubstantial, suddenly ‘they are always / open to darkness’ whereas we are the shape-shifters. Finally, though, this poem of accretion seems to meditate on poetry itself: ‘When nothing else contains us we turn to them / And all we ever gather appears / Less tangible.’ Levin’s words, lines, images, and stanzas have literally gathered before the reader’s eyes, making the natural world and human experience ‘appear’ — at once ‘to be’ and ‘to seem’ — less tangible, ether-eal. ‘Cumulus’ echoes Plato’s famous dialogue that attempts to probe rationally the genesis of nature, existence, and spirituality. Also like Timaeus, whenever scientific inquiry falls short of reason, Levin must turn to poetry, that realm of imaginative creativity whose source for the Greeks was madness but whose end and essence was visionary. Thus in this poem, and in some others, the insubstantial informs and perhaps constructs the material. One could read ‘Cumulus’ as an elegy to the experience of reading and to the very power of poetry.
O god of alchemy
Like the element, the poem too scatters into various parts yet re-collects into a unified, fluid whole. In poems like this, her sonnet sequence ‘Intervals in Early August,’ and ‘Confession of an Alchemist,’ Levin demonstrates tenacious lyrical power whose well-wrought poems sing with lively measure and liminal internal rhyme.
You were still alive, then.
‘Archaic Notions,’ a child’s-eye view about the creation of the universe (which also begins with an epigraph from Timaeus), reads more like a journal entry with lines as casual as this:
All children are philosophers. They really have no choice
In ‘Part,’ ‘There,’ and ‘Soon,’ Levin uses plays on diction, image, and metaphor in the body of the poem in order to extend conventional definitions of the poems’ titles. All three poems also ostensibly trouble the relationship between ‘poetic language’ and everyday vernacular. Still, Levin employs poetic strategies so similar that they border on redundancy. I hesitate to dwell on Mercury’s shortcomings because many poems do shine. But caveat lector: Levin’s sketches (see ‘Morning Exercise’ and the aptly titled ‘Futile Exercise’) may have been better left in the workshop.
Jacket 19 — October 2002
This material is copyright © Omaar Hena
and Jacket magazine 2002