back toJacket2

Jacket 19 — October 2002   |   # 19  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |
This issue of Jacket is a collaboration with Verse magazine

Omaar Hena reviews

Mercury by Phillis Levin. Penguin, $16.

This piece is 1,200 words or about three printed pages long.

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.

Levin prefaces her thirty-three poem collection with two quotes, one from The Oxford Universal Dictionary:

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,
And if we envy them we should remember
How brief their stay in the ether is.

Unfolding without reason, like forgiveness,
Or summoning
Themselves at the wind’s bidding, they flee.

We do not know where they go, we go
As carelessly, as helplessly, finally
Too full of time.

But we are true
To ourselves so rarely, while they are always
Open to darkness, squandering light.

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,
And all we ever gather appears
Less tangible.

‘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.

Elsewhere in the collection, Levin’s verse, like the element itself, fractures and congeals the fragments of language, consciousness, personal memory, literature, and myth, as in the lilting title poem, ‘Mercury.’ Levin’s thirty-tercet tour de force uses the multifarious metaphor of mercury as the overarching design for a meditation on her relationship with her father and with her reading (she references Kafka, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Harvard Classics, Mephistopheles, and Virgil). ‘Mercury’ finally returns to the speaker as daughter, subject, and poet-figure where she at once offers prayer to Mercury as a poetic intermediary yet retains power over him:

O god of alchemy
And currency, patron of traders,

Travellers, and theives, inventor
Of the lyre, master of dreams,
Leader of the Graces, bearer

Of the message that tears
Odysseus from Circe, Aeneas
From Dido, guardian of the departed,

Do not quicken my heart with hope
Anymore, but if you do remember
That I, like the metal you give

Your name to, rejoin if pulled asunder.

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.

Perhaps because of the very nature of the collection’s title, however, other poems in Mercury are not so consistently finished. The language in ‘Conversation in an Empty Room’ is, well, empty:

You were still alive, then.

Yes, I was.

And we had a lot to say to each other.

But not enough.

There was a high level of chatter, very intelligent.

Of course, us being who we were.

‘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 the matter, for they do not know the frame of reference
Into which they were born, and so the genuine insight of a query
Turning our preconceptions topsy-turvy originates in a particular

Mixture of ignorance, audacity, and wonder: something
That requires years of skepticism and humility to replicate

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  Contents page
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog | read about Jacket |
Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © Omaar Hena and Jacket magazine 2002
The URL address of this page is