Monday, March 02, 2009

When Performers Swim, The Dice are Cast by Judy Katz-Levine

Review, When Performers Swim, The Dice are Cast by Judy Katz-Levine (Ahadada Books, Ontario, Canada)

Reviewer: Barbara Bialick, author of Time Leaves (Ibbetson Street Press)

There are many different languages a poem can speak in. For Judy Katz-Levine, it’s the language of jazz. Music plays her rhythm and meter, her unusal imagery, and the world of dreams of past lives. For out of jazz and Judaism, her mysticism is born.
It peppers her poems, her motherhood and her marriage. Herself a singer in a choir and a jazz flutist, her husband is an acupuncturist and jazz sax player. (It helps to be told these tidbits in her bio, for saxophones, presumably her husband’s, keep cropping up nameless in her poems.) But where she’s particularly proud is of her unnamed son, who she hailed as a prodigy by age 4 in “Sunset III”:

“trees with leaves like the hands of prodigies/…a son about to redeem himself/…
saxophone moaning its scales…/prodigies who can’t fit in, and talk strange languages/prodigies who wait for the morning’s river./being 4 years old and speaking perfectly/…a boat not quite ready, but we are patiently waiting for that day.”
Near the end of the book her son is attending college orientation in Amherst, Mass.

In “On Mortality”, the first poem of the book, she ends up with a lily, to me a symbol of Easter, “the lily that comes up on the young man’s computer screen” It doesn’t seem coincidental that the book comes out before Easter—and yet it is a Jewish woman’s book…Meanwhile, a young man “whoops it up over the/ universe’s peculiarities. Then he doesn’t eat. You and i, we/talk about what’s hard to talk about. Mortality whispers in/the night rain. The will to survive emerges…” Yet the ones she’s speaking of and to are to me a mystery.

She won’t give up all her secrets. “I get by,” she says in the poem of the same name.
Is that the song “I’ll get by as long as I have you”? Either way, she’s “stern” at a party where she’s had a glass of wine…But musicians are controlling the imagery. “Seagulls float. The sax was smooth,/as delicious as a chili with wine. The guitarist did tasty licks/from his days on the road….?” It takes a woman drummer to get her to loosen up…The woman said “Sometimes you just have to shake your money-maker…”

“When performers swim,” the poet declares in the title poem “Performers”, “the dice are cast.” (You’ve got to keep up the performance no matter what?).”when performers tango, stages turn into bridges, an aster in/a garden blooms…when performers die, the oceans leap up and keen as seals/emerge and fly.” (a vivid and surreal or holy moment?)
Like most of her poems, the title poem is a hard one to analyze. But that’s a poet’s fun.

Poets and English teachers alike can have such fun throughout the book. Try analyzing “The Attributes”: “the attributes of this saintly presence are to be numbered/according to flowers. The initiate will enumerate laughter/according to myths and waterfalls; giant spiders, miners/lost in mines due to seismic tremors. What is lost, and/what can be seen—the white circle above, the woods/below…”

But when she speaks of horses, she is impressed with their power and beauty, like her mother apparently was as in “Games of Survival”: “I remember my mother on lonely days. The gusto/She loved…the stallion that couldn’t race…I am poised to play.”
Or this image in “She speaks of horses.”: “Who will I meet, what stranger, emerging/from the dark wells of the eyes of those horses/what body lit under a midnight crescent?”

And finally, she includes space as if it is the so-called thing to do, which is include a little politics in your manuscript: In “Blood Storms” she writes “they say a storm will come. E-mail the whitehouse on/Darfur, imagine what a youg girl suffers in a camp in/Darfur as the snow starts to fall/to be raped as a child…to starve/…every night we hear about/the limbs of soldiers maimed, Iraqis killed…” A good poem, but it lacks any imagery of music, which surely it needs!

But it all gets somehow connected in the final poem “She has said…”: “that she would be able to sing again, after the hoarseness/subsides/she has said that all belongs to the red shooting twig./she will still mother, trembling in the car/…she has said everything will turn out okay, and she hopes/she is exactly perfectly correct/the guitar responds to her fingers, a strong rhythmic/ cadence, and a lamentation”

It’s always in the music where she finds her meanings, mysteries and explanations, and her uniqueness as a poet

By Barbara Bialick, author of TIME LEAVES (Ibbetson Street Press)

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