Friday, April 20, 2012
A Very Funny Fellow By Donald Lev
By Donald Lev
Review by Dennis Daly
Donald Lev’s poems herein belie the title of this book. There is a deep sadness, which permeates through these poems, and the wit and humor the poet commands make it worse. Even Lev’s cover portrait, painted in airy pastels, complete with an everyman’s baseball cap, only accentuate his pondering, animal-wary eyes and a mouth lost to grief.
The Titanic is a very funny poem indeed. Its humor, however, portrays poetry’s heart of darkness. The scene is utter chaos, the ship lists to one side, and the poet’s love has been swept overboard. The enthralled poet goes on to record,
The lifeboats have all been let loose
and the crew is maintaining order
by shooting the more panicked
among the remaining passengers.
so you see why I cannot write this just now;
till I have a chance to recollect it in tranquility.
Note that he cannot write right now, but he would if he could. Poetry doesn’t always go hand in hand with compassion I’ve noticed and apparently so has Lev.
The ogre in the poem Bowery, Circa 1950 knows something that we all know but keep well covered up. As the bartender pours him another generous glass of cheap port, the old monster rallies, growls, and the following scene ensues,
“There’ll never be another moment like this
moment,” he weeps. Nobody listens, so he
drains his glass and calls for another.
Carpe diem, I guess!
All Lev’s poems are presented in a down-to-earth conversational voice that seems self-assured and unwavering. In a short poem entitled A Window he makes a point of picturing himself this way,
A window you can’t see out of or into:
I sit before it like a cat,
There are other places, I suppose—
Other points of view.
But just this one holds my interest.
Well not quite conversational. The lines in this poem all begin with a capital letter accentuating the line and creating some sedentary tension here.
Lev describes a baseball game in Fair Ball pretty much the way most of us see it: a pleasant diversion, a controlled athletic and graceful game played under blue skies. But to Lev that’s the rub,
… crowds of onlookers drawn
from sweetest imagination.
As the third baseman scoops the ball up and
speeds it to its destination—
the peanuts in the air, the lager, the boiling franks—
where can I go with this?
Where indeed? Perfect afternoons do not lend themselves to poetry.
In The Civil War: A Documentary Lev laments the killing and brutality on the battlefield. But of course there is the fiddle music in the background. As Lev points out,
That string music
will get you every time.
And it does. Years ago I had my daughter, the violinist, play it over and over for me. Although I wasn’t consciously thinking of Chamberlain leading his Maine regiment down little round top in a bayonet charge, it was there in the background: the aesthetic or even the poetry of slaughter.
A simple observational poem, almost a throw away, entitled, The Smaller Television, becomes much deeper and, with a little twist, becomes one of Lev’s thumbnail masterpieces. Lions running down gazelles on the TV at the end of the bar begin the festivities. Other carnivores do their thing. George Washington makes a cameo. I remember Ole George was never shy about hanging deserters and spies. Then the punch line,
… evading nature and
my mind returned to its lair.
The poets mind, fitting right in to the context, returns to its lair, after a night of predatory wanderings. Who would have thought?
The poem, Gothic Tale, is just that: gothic. But not the language used. The words are easy going, filled with sunlight and blue skies—typical Lev. Then he hits you hard. Adults, apparently years later, return to the graves of their murdered parents and,
…a sour note sounded in the distance
from a soulless trumpeter.
And we began to weep like children
who were, after all, not to be punished.
The last line catches you off guard. What do you do with their sense of relief for escaping punishment. You know it rings true and so do I. As for the soulless trumpeter, well, the dead do not play very well on sunny days. That’s funny. And Lev is, after all, a very funny fellow.