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Dale Smith reviews

Under the Sun, by Rachel Levitsky

Futurepoem Books, 80 pages, US$12.00

Union activist, founder and curator of the Belladona reading series at New York’s Bluestockings Bookstore and author of four poetry chapbooks, Rachel Levitsky is a writer committed to social and spiritual change. There’s a strong urge for social transformation in her desire to bring people together, either on the page or in a room. Words are the politically charged material of exchange that occasions her desire. More simply, it’s her love of people and a living world that forms the basis of her art and is in accord with her re-imagining of social boundaries.
      Her first book, Under The Sun, published by New York-based Futurepoems Books in a beautiful edition, makes some careful interrogations. Dedicated to her father, the male figure hovers over a book that clearly advocates new models of gender awareness and performance. He is not addressed directly, but like a phantom or some god considered long dead, his image is the clarifying signal by which Levitsky reveals her narrative. Self, city, sex, words, lovers and friends are carefully considered in poems of dramatic sequences. Myth is ground in her book too. A new myth, that is, of sexual entanglements, private devotions and painful dissolution of primary forms, friends and social obligations.
      Allegorically laid out, there’s no beginning, middle or end, really, as her characters Lady, Turtle and Urt move through situations comic, erotic or dramatic. The progression of narrative is unimportant, has been so for a while now. It’s what happens within the sequencing of events that reveals the human weight of the issues we face in our diverse communities. If a poem is a complex occasion of forces, then here those forces show the tense records of Levitsky’s environments. Often, the poems are highly charged, quick to read, funny and smart — urbanely balanced. Other times the mood of the moment shifts. A struggle for the perception of a world, of any world there can be for one person, is laid naked on the page.
      ‘An idea of heaven,’ she writes, ‘silence there gray/ Cloud movement quick without sound.’
      This poem, ‘My Sunshine,’ continues:

Days like that. When we are in them we question our existence, the sound we watch exit our mouth, the sound staying stuck between our ears. We doubt the reality of the couple, two hundred feet away even when right upon them. Days like that. Days like heaven, even if we are sad. We remember them and doubt the memory. We wonder if the memory of heaven is memory in fact (of fact or dream). (11)

Myth seeks to make new worlds, living worlds from the concretized forms of matter, from inert social functions and from frozen forms of the imagination. What would such a world look like to someone in New York City? Now? So many roles are under question, and art is the field of figuring it out.
      A recent review in Gay City News gives a good journalistic account of the tensions between Lady and Turtle. Those roles — and they are of course central to the book — give vital clues to sensual and erotic social functions. What I propose here though is that a spiritual encounter of self with self or lover is the dominating concern. The word ‘gender’ pops up many times in Levitsky’s lines. Feminism, lesbianism and other social issues are central to it too, and they are important. But social considerations are nothing without the amplification of love. In conflict with the heart’s affections, that word ‘gender’ like a mantra returns throughout these pages. To use that broad stamp is to fail the terms of reality.  It’s too unbound, too broad and over-used. It replaces perception with terminology, reducing a complexity of human interaction and expression. But when we see behind the word, to the complex day-to-day imagination of bodies moving in space, haunted by Father ghosts, perhaps there is a focus, a locus in the term — or through it. Gender is a pathway to a transformation of type into type. Poetry because it is a complex occasion of forces realizes the emerging forms of the imagination — the social imagination of our private transformations.
      Despite the haunting specters, and because of them, there is a compelling need to organize a new world. Levitsky is in the dark, lost, as all poets I admire are. She makes no complaints, but releases a new energy. Herbert Levitsky should be honored by his daughter’s vision, that neither his nor hers be abandoned by the social imagination.

Every painting the same
Shift, of time, of color
Magical realignment of space
Exaggeration of singular bodies
Body type bodies

The lack of evidence
Here, in this story-poem
Will show
It doesn’t actually happen,

Though there is music
In their heads’ morning
Music whose source is
Unnamable. In their

Heads, mornings
Not simultaneous
Mornings which are
Equally confusing. (73)

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