Julia B. Levine’s “Ordinary Psalms” and a Few Notes on BLR Book Reviews
Julia B. Levine
Louisiana State University Press, 2021
I thought loss was the poison,
but now I see it wakes us
to what might be missed….”
– from “Psalm with Yellow Jackets”)
BLR began including book reviews eight years into our run, with an emphasis on small-press publications, in keeping with our commitment to showcase an eclectic variety of outstanding writers, including those who aren’t likely to come to the attention of Kirkus, The New York Review of Books, or The New York Times. Our reviewers have included notable names—or in lit-mag-speak, “established writers”—like award-winning poets Rachel Hadas and Monique Ferrell, and physician/writers like Jack Coulehan, Charles Bardes, and Sayantani DasGupta.
We’ve reviewed our share of “established writers,” too—prose by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, a John Burroughs Medal and William Saroyan International Nonfiction Prize recipient, poetry by Rafael Campo and Maureen Seaton, both multiple Lambda Literary Award recipients, to name a few.
But on the spectrum of “established” and “emerging” there lies an almost uncanny abundance of writerly voices, all eminent and readable in their idiosyncratic ways. We’ve made a point of doing “round-ups” of books by BLR authors, such as poets Nina Bannett, Wendy Wisner, Patricia Colleen Murphy, and nurse-writer, Stacy Nigliazzo since we do like to showcase the achievements of our own and are justly proud to have recognized and forwarded such talent.
Early in our reviewing years, we established a poetry/prose rhythm, one genre per fall/spring issue and have tried to be judiciously expansive within these strictures, covering a mix of genres, styles, and themes. We’ve reviewed memoir, biography, books on public health, social work, the natural world, the joys of walking, the effects of war and poverty, pain, disability, aging, and depression. We’ve highlighted a plethora of poetic voices who by their very existence enjoin us to see the poetic dimensionality of our world.
The longevity of a print journal like BLR is a testament to the enduring need for story, to the richness of exchange between writers and readers, to the role of the literary magazine in fostering, creating, and maintaining community. Feedback from our recent reader survey indicates that BLR’s book reviews are surely read and valued—but are also often bypassed by those with limited time who want to get right into the stories and poems.
This is as it should be. After all, the point of a review is to highlight work we think our readers may want to discover for themselves when time and inclination permit. We plan to offer shorter online book recommendations now that our website has been revamped, though we will, for now, continue, through longer reviews, to bring to your attention work that we are intrigued and moved by, work that deserves wider notice from the literary community we all make together.
Julia B. Levine’s Ordinary Psalms was published in April 2021 when we began our tentative re-emergence into a shaky possibility of post-pandemic springtime. This beautiful, absorbing collection is a fitting embodiment of pandemic-year preoccupations, an ideal poetic marker for our twentieth anniversary issue. The need for “ordinary psalms”—praise songs and prayers to majestic happenstance—is underscored by our need to value life as we live it. The pandemic jostled many of us out of a hit-or-miss complacency. The omnipresent specters of illness and death prompted a boom in articles and social media posts about self-care and everyday magic, the poetry inherent in nature, physicality, and health. And in the enormity of the consciousness-raising after the murder of George Floyd, many a well-intentioned liberal was stunned to learn that knee-jerk empathy without historic reach can be ineffectual and solipsistic. Like it or not, we vulnerable, self-absorbed mortals have been forced to reckon with our own finite existences, the privileged among us forced to face our self-serving obliviousness.
This hasn’t been an easy year.
So a book from a poet who is losing her sight, who brings her readers with her as she learns new ways of seeing, is a boon for the world-weary and disconsolate who may welcome some help in divining ways to re-encounter a familiar but changed world. In these fifty poems, Levine writes, with emphasis both on inner vision and wide-angle perspective, about self-discovery, kinship with the natural world, grievous loss, struggling through fear and suffering, hard-won awareness, and the fitful grace of possible transcendence. We are always leaving this world even as we live in it, always distracted from more acute vision, even as the sighted among us absorb the daily hodgepodge of shadings and colors, shapes and bright flickerings of movement that, of course, we are bound to take for granted.
The second poem in the collection, “Psalm with Near Blindness,” won BLR’s 2020 Marica and Jan Vilcek Poetry Prize. The physical world is alive with impressions that no longer have clear edges, and the speaker makes a “reckless blessing” of “the flaming, flowering/ spurge of the world…” through memory and the heightening of other senses. There is a terrifyingly desperate need for naming and certainty:
I cannot stop asking Sparrow or wren? Oak
or elm? Because it matters
if the gray fox curled in sleep
is a patch of dark along the fence line….
Just as the speaker’s loving husband must become an interpreter and guide, inner vision must be roused and relied upon: “… and so I let the inner become the outer….”
There are horrors in this world we never want to see but must, and this collection doesn’t shy from forcing our sight. In “Psalm with Violent Interruptions,” “the tv news/ with its body count” shows “looped reels/ of the partly butchered and fallen.” The word “partly” in these lines is the terrible ache here, the poem hinging on the uneasy, mortifying “plea bargain” we strike with death “under threat of never being born,” “spring, a gorgeous parole.” It is not compensation for suffering but more a troubling simultaneity and paradox that “[s]omewhere,/ the fog has lifted. Somewhere, new suicide vests/ hang unexploded on hooks.”
In “The Neighbors,” the speaker, compelled by proximity to hear the brutal cruelties of her neighbors’ disintegrating marriage, remembers that “the holy was once everywhere/ before it withdrew to make room for us.” In this sardonic resignation, though, there is a tiring reminder that suffering may be a route to wider visioning: “Lest I forget affliction/ is an approximation of the spirit opening.”
Poems about teen suicide and child abuse (“The Lives of the Saints,” “Dispatch from the Forthcoming,” “Psalm with Severe Neglect,” “Psalm after Failing Another Child,” “Border Towns in Texas”), climate crisis (“Almost Blue”), senseless slaughter (“Psalm After Another Mass Murder,” “Elegy Written on a Sacramento Fire Escape”) show the searingly impossible incongruities we must hold together in order to feel and choose beauty, as in these lines from “Psalm After Another Mass Murder:” “We will sit on the balcony, / choosing starlight. Choosing the terrible/mistakes over nothing.”
The second section is devoted to Mary, a beloved friend dying of lung cancer, to whom the collection is dedicated. Mary is loved and lamented in a series of exquisite poems that bemoan “everything that will be too soon/ the hurried world without her…” (“Psalm with a Few Questions for Death”).
The third section collects early memories, including the awful revelations of abuse and violation in “Grandfather” and “Hast Thou Not Poured Me Out Like Milk and Curdled Me Like Cheese?” The final section’s poems “lurch between then and now” (“On the Yolo Bypass”), beginning with memories of Gregory, her “best friend,” who “threw himself off a building” (“Psalm with Severe Neglect”), whose “olive eyes/ are equal parts tiger and saint” (“Psalm with Higher Math.”)
God, of course, appears throughout these poetic prayers as the speaker works through despair and rage, finding a lonesome kind of faith not in the numinous but in the physical facts of the world. There is no compensation for the grievous losses of our world, and if there is a divine overseer, this God has a lot to answer for. In “Anthropocene Psalm,” one of the Mary poems, the anguished speaker calls God out: “God, I thought, are you never sorry/ or always?”
Ultimately, all prayer is elegiac, all beauty excruciating, and poetry is always a kind of prayer. Poems are, essentially, acts of faith. There is nothing to do but inhabit this world, precarious as it is, and try to keep an “approximation of the spirit” open through dual perception of our own vitality and mortality, our brutality and ability to love, our reckless destruction and the times of perfect light on this dear and dimming earth. The final poem, “God,” brings us to “an hour in winter” when the speaker invites the reader into her field of vision in an actual field, when she pauses to open her spirit to the land and animals, the wind, the scent of sea: “This is the moment you need a prayer/ from your animal self.”
Similarly, these lines from “The Anointing,” speak to the need to root out a faith in the here and now. They are particularly resonant for any of us wondering what life will be like “after” the pandemic finally recedes and life flows toward whatever new worlds we’ll choose and struggle to make:
All we will ever have of divinity
is each other. And a wind
rushing down from the blue sky
in the exact shape
of the body
I am walking through.