Saturday, December 04, 2021

Ordinary Psalms Julia B. Levine


Ordinary Psalms

Julia B. Levine

Louisiana State University Press, 2021

ISBN 978-0-8071-7474-6

Reviewed by David P. Miller

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary gives this first definition for ordinary: “of a kind to be expected in the normal order of events.” Its definition of psalm: “a sacred song or poem used in worship.” The title of Julia B. Levine’s book, Ordinary Psalms, complicates what the conjunction of these words might imply. First, because in these poems “the normal order of events” denies many of the synonyms for ordinary, such as routine, unremarkable, workaday. Second, because the sense of the sacred and the act of worship are inseparable from the experience of suffering and a questioning of the purposes served by the idea of deity.

The book’s four sections center on, but do not exclusively concern, the blindness which Levine has experienced as an adult, a friend’s lung cancer, and another friend’s suicide. The first poem, “Psalm with Wren in Daylight Saving Time,” places us immediately:

Late afternoon, I chop onions by feel,

listening to crows cry to each other across the ridge.

Gone now, white recipe card on the white floor,

green sea glass found on a Humboldt beach.

But this hour I have been given back, carried out

of gorse, red flash of maples, finches in our cedar.

Meaning, today I returned for the first time

to the moment I understood I was going blind.

In these lines, five senses are activated. The action of chopping onions connotes touch, secondarily the sense of smell, and even taste. Sound and vision are evoked even as she loses her sight. Levine sustains this intensity of presence throughout the book.

Of equal significance is the directness, in the fourth stanza, with which she describes the catastrophe. Because we can assume that this experience has been emotionally wrenching, it’s unnecessary for her to tell us that. Her frankness, devoid of melodrama, allows space for us as readers to use empathetic imagination. (I am writing as someone who still possess his sight – temporarily-abled, let’s say.) At the same time, we must understand what this requires of us: “Sometimes we must drag our grief out of the river / and put our mouth on it. Then a loosening comes.” To be present for that which is still to be praised, we must keep our suffering as a living thing.

The inextricability of all seeming opposites (together comprising the ordinary) surfaces again and again in these poems. “Psalm with Violent Interruptions” chains “the TV news // with its body count, looped reels of the partly butchered and fallen” with “iris noosing cobalt blue.” The might of a “A four-point buck // staring towards the Pacific, his ears like paired kites / tugged by wind” exists in the same flow as “new suicide vests / hang[ing] unexploded on hooks.” These are simultaneities, not contradictions.

“Preaching to the Debris Field” concludes the book’s first section. The title immediately refers to the official destruction of a shared cabin (no cause given). Though Levine, as always, refuses bromides, the remnants are still tied to their own beauty, partially via glint/girder/glittering, shards/shiners, raccoon/rubble:

Winter now, and behind me is wreckage—

copper tangled in the glint of a girder,

mirror shards flashed in the hummock and slag.

Let me tell you something.

Long before the park service demolished our cabin,

there were whole days of glittering,

the raccoon and her delicate hands fishing for shiners,

the dark wick of a seal lifted up from the bay.

And let me remind you that beneath rubble

is bedrock, layer of origin.

The second section begins with “Anthropocene Psalm,” a longer multi-sectioned poem. Here, the poet’s encroaching blindness is folded into her friend Mary’s cancer. Here is another view of the inseparability of all facets of experience:

And I’m remembering too, how once,

passing a crepe myrtle in full bloom, every leaf, every branch

crowned with fuchsia,

Mary stopped, gasping,

and I froze, terrified she was in sudden pain.

But it was beauty. The way it enters sometimes

like a knife and we both felt it then—

This, while she declares “I can no longer see // out of one eye, and the other / vandalized, cracked, and taped so that strange shards / of light fly in.”

Lamentation poems first appear in this section of the book, as psalms persist. Perhaps these are intermingled in Levine’s question: “God, I thought, are you never sorry / or always?” But it’s the poem “God Speaks to Me from the Almond Orchard” that crushes a reader’s easy hope of salvation. The title itself is immediately undermined: “You wanted me to say it through their flowering, / didn’t you? To declare my love / with these ferocious prairies of snow?” We want so badly to believe in the natural world’s reassurance through obvious metaphors, but:

[ … ] when one of you lies face up under a canopy,

wind flicking petals from a branch,

you like to think,

This must be God’s fingers touching my cheek.

I advise you to stop imagining the aftermath

as something you can apprehend.

The challenge is to neither lean on the banalities we easily derive from non-human creation, nor to give way to nihilism. As in “The Anointing, ” the poem following “Almond Orchard,” where “Stars-of-Bethlehem float over the lawn” in all their vitality. As “the dogs on the sidewalk lie down in praise,” the speaker “continue[s] on, past the poppies toppled over / with radiance. Still helpless as any god // to keep my friend on the next block / from dying slowly of cancer.” Yes, “god” in lower-case here as elsewhere, though not always. The upper-case “G” is sometimes granted, sometimes denied.

Poems in the third section reach back to the poet’s early life through young adulthood, with confrontations and startling experiences prefiguring the wisdom she brings to bear. “Lamentation with the Detroit River” begins with innate knowledge of the eternal as it persists through damage:

Perhaps nothing was beautiful,

but still my sister and I knelt beside

the water flushed out of factories,

poking sticks into its green syrup,

daring each other to swim.

Something true had been stolen from that river

and we wanted the wholeness of a thing,

the world before the wound.

In this poem also, Levine imagines “my mother as a little girl / before she grows up mean.” Brief but definite references to abuse appear in other poems here. In “Antidote,” the child has a vision of death “as a floating into music / and happiness at the epicenter // where your mother was / no longer a broken promise, / your father setting down // his belt, / his spittled cussing.” A crucial realization then arrives, in a heavy snowfall and a chilled body:

[ … ] a presence

neither outside nor in, but both,

knelt down close

to ask if you were ready to survive.

What’s jolting is the statement that survival requires volition. A person’s survival is not simply a matter of good fortune, but involves repeated acts of will. To be at the edge of ending one’s life, but to hold it at enough distance, is put another way in “Dispatch from the Forthcoming”: “Listen. // It’s okay to love the exit. [ … ] you can love the exit without leaving.” In the poem “Hast Thou Not Poured Me Out like Milk and Curdled Me like Cheese?” (the title from Job 10:10), after a violent assault, the speaker “came adrift … begged to die.” Instead, she achieved the depth of the sacred as embedded in the perishing, neither reconciled nor contradicted:

[ … ] Death stapled into the urge of being.

Tonight, in the darkness and light of my porch,

a nightjar calls out from under the cypress.

The path out of my yard glows milk white in moon.

How hard I have fought against faith. For if I surrender,

what notice will you take of me again?

Again, the complex relationship with deity: the desire to remain in its sight, while denying an upper-case You.

The final section begins in the midst of a destructive flood: “Cache Creek Bridge at Flood Stage.” The creek has “flung oaks against the bridge, torn // off limbs and crushed them to death,” as the speaker recalls a phone consultation with a psychic, who supposedly conveyed a message from Gregory, “the best friend I ever had,” a victim of suicide. The certainty of natural disaster and Gregory’s death on the one hand, the doubtfulness of the psychic’s ability on the other hand, leads to this threshold:

[ … ] I’m done

second-guessing what comes next,

whether an oracle or charlatan ferried

something of Gregory to me

over waves, if there is a god

waiting anywhere for anyone.

It is the call of the concrete that’s undeniable, that holds fuller insights than come from wishful abstraction. In “Psalm with Errant Joy and Devastation,” after a hummingbird flies through a broken window and dies, Levine’s daughter “[l]ays the tiny bird in her palm // and looks close at the delicate overlay of plumage, / the iridescent rust and emerald wings, // a stippling on the throat’s underside.” Here as elsewhere, beauty and corruption stand together, unreconciled. We have the chance, then, “to speak clearly to the devastation // the poem calls a heart, / and the heart calls a poem.”

After the radical uncertainty about the reality of the Divine, including whether its words are to be capitalized, it’s significant that the final poem, simply titled “God,” is rooted in the evident:

You know that hour in winter

when the light is salted gauze

and you stop a moment

in one of the last untouched fields

in this landlocked valley—

the new grass a rain-fattened green,

thick as uncombed hair.

[ … ]

This is the moment you need a prayer

from your animal self.

“I turn my flashlight on. / I don’t know what else to do but witness.” These lines conclude “Cache Creek Bridge.” Gregory’s suicide, Mary’s cancer, Julia B. Levine’s blindness. The hummingbird’s iridescence, crepe myrtles in bloom, the feel of chopped onions. Lamentations cover part of this ground, but psalms include all of it. If reconciliation comes, it is only through full engagement with the gorgeous, the unbearable, and the incomprehensible.

Friday, December 03, 2021

Swan Hope Press: Seeks Submissions for New Anthology

 I am glad that I was selected as a judge for this anthology....

Red Letter Poem #87


The Red Letters

In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                   – Steven Ratiner




Red Letter Poem #87



We are approaching the anniversary of that “date which will live in infamy” – that is, if we still remember.  And if the memory still contains substance.  If our understanding extends beyond a few textbook bullet points.  If it’s bolstered, perhaps, by something personal, familial, or a thoroughly fleshed-out imagination.  For those too young to have had the chance to ask a veteran about his or her experience in the Second World War– or those who did but lacked, at the time, the urgency to take advantage of the opportunity – we must resort to what remains with us in language, imagery, artifact.  And there we might learn that the infamy – of this or any prolonged war – was not confined to one single terrible day nor attributable to only one particular flag or ideology.  It lies in the very nature of armed conflict and has roots in our darkest and most primitive origins.  Those truths are inscribed upon the psyches of returning soldiers (much to their detriment) and across the extended families of those who did not return.


Sadly, I think our more recent history demonstrates that this country’s collective memory has become dangerously shallow, easily influenced, often misguided or just plain wrong.  A mere three-quarters of a century has passed since that awful December 7th morning, and it seems the lessons of that war – not to mention the national unity it generated – have all but evaporated from our culture, leaving us incapable of learning history’s lessons and therefore (as the philosopher George Santayana observed) doomed to repeat even its most egregious errors.


In the 1990’s, poet Michael Steffen spent a long while teaching in France.  In a year in Normandy, he had the opportunity to meet several veterans – both French and re-settled Americans.  But he was cognizant enough to bear witness to the oral history being shared.  The experience generated a long sequence of poems from which today‘s Red Letter is taken.  To my mind, the strongest quality of the piece is its willingness to simply listen, and then record those observations so we too might feel ourselves seated in their company.  Michael has been the recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship, and his poetry has recently appeared in journals like The Lyric, The Dark Horse, Ibbetson Street, and Constellations. His second book, On Earth As It Is, will be out in early 2022 from Cervena Barva Press, whose appearance I’ll look forward to. 


And that little trail of red wine spilled on the table. . .






The veteran of World War II

whose brother drowned on fire at Dunkirk,

who himself had crawled from the collapsed home

of his in-laws in Coventry under the blitzkrieg


had parachuted on D-Day

in a chaotic drop, off their target


and landed through enemy flares and fire

in the woods right there—

he nodded at the maples beyond his garden

from the table where we sat 50 years later,

his wife, three of his children,

six of his grandchildren


and me the English teacher on a fellowship

in the boarding school nearby in Ranville.


All that afternoon the sun shone,

birds chattered from the neighboring woods

that had once rung and stuttered with rifles,


and always, as I knew him,

a gentle smile of gratitude glowed

from the age-carved face of Lou Moreau

tipping the bottles to our glasses


if you could forgive him the lapse

of a moment’s clenched jaw and glare—

where we had it out all day with the Krauts…


—Papa! Attention!


forgetting the bottle, having spilled

back into his smile.


—O la la, he can fight the great battle

but he can’t pour a little glass of wine.




­­                                           –– Michael T. Steffen


The Red Letters 3.0: A New Beginning (Perhaps)   

At the outset of the Covid pandemic, when fear was at its highest, the Red Letter Project was intended to remind us of community: that, even isolated in our homes, we could still face this challenge together.  As Arlington’s Poet Laureate, I began sending out a poem of comfort each Friday, featuring the fine talents from our town and its neighbors.  Because I enlisted the partnership of seven local arts and community organizations, distribution of the poems spread quickly – and, with subscribers sharing and re-posting the installments, soon we had readers, not only throughout the Commonwealth, but across the country.  And I delighted in the weekly e-mails I’d receive with praise for the poets; as one reader recently commented: “You give me the gift of a quiet, contemplative break—with something to take away and reflect on.”


Then our circumstance changed dramatically again: following the murder of George Floyd, the massive social and political unrest, and the national economic catastrophe, the distress of the pandemic was magnified.  Red Letter 2.0 announced that I would seek out as diverse a set of voices as I could find – from Massachusetts and beyond – so that their poems might inspire, challenge, deepen the conversation we were, by necessity, engaged in.


Now, with widespread vaccination, an economic rebound, and a shift in the political landscape, I intend to help this forum continue to evolve – Red Letter 3.0.  For the last 15 months, I’ve heard one question again and again: when will we get back our old lives?  It may pain us to admit it, but that is little more than a fantasy.  Our lives have been altered irrevocably – not only our understanding of how thoroughly interdependent we are, both locally and globally, but how fragile and utterly precious is all that we love.  Weren’t you bowled over recently by how good it felt just to hug a friend or family member?  Or to walk unmasked through a grocery, noticing all the faces?  So I think the question we must wrestle with is this: knowing what we know, how will we begin shaping our new life?  Will we quickly forget how grateful we felt that strangers put themselves at risk, every day, so that we might purchase milk and bread, ride the bus to work, or be cared for by a doctor or nurse?  Will we slip back into our old drowse and look away from the pain so many are forced to endure – in this, the wealthiest nation on the planet?  Will we stop noticing those simple beauties all around us?  The poet Mary Oliver said it plainly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  I will continue to offer RLP readers the work of poets who are engaged in these questions, hoping their voices will fortify all of ours.


Two of our partner sites will continue re-posting each Red Letter weekly: the YourArlington news blog (, and the Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene (  If you would like to receive these poems every Friday in your own in-box – or would like to write in with comments or submissions – send correspondence to:


Wednesday, December 01, 2021

The World Played Chess By Robert Dugoni


The World Played Chess

By Robert Dugoni

Lake Union Publishing. Seattle 2021


Review by Tom Miller

Robert Dugoni is the author of the very popular Tracy Crosswhite series and the equally popular David Sloane series as well as a number of stand-alone novels including the critically acclaimed New York Times best seller The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell. In his just released novel The World Played Chess, Dugoni addresses the coming of age theme but in interesting ways while avoiding traditional clichés.

The central character is Vincent Bianco who in 2015 is dealing with how to or how to not assist his son Beau in his transition from semi-independent son into independent man as he prepares for departure to college and the next stage in his life. Inevitably Vincent recalls the similar time in his life which occurred in the summer of 1979. That year he worked in housing construction with two Vietnam vets, one of whom was William Goodman, who in spite of suffering from PTSD became something of a mentor to Vincent as he began to realize that his aimless carefree days were ending.

We are introduced to the story in the prologue where Vincent is considering how to deal with the journal that William kept during his Vietnam experience which Vincent has just received in the mail with no return name or address. The only guidance William has offered is the request that Vincent read the journal in the order in which it was written. Dugoni skillfully moves the reader from present day to Vincent’s last carefree summer in 1979 to William’s military experiences in 1967-68 and back and forth while never breaking the rhythm of the novel. It is remarkable how he is able to capture the appropriate point of view of each of the characters in each of the particular times and not lose us in the transition.

Dugoni did not fight in the Vietnam War but nonetheless in constructing William’s journal and his point of view, he captures the abruptness of being thrust into a quagmire in which the senselessness and desperation of the situation unfolds. He gets it right.

This novel is moving, poignant, and insightful. For someone such as this reviewer who is a similar age to William the detail in the journal is particularly on point. And the title itself is particularly applicable – the world did indeed play chess while the young men were just playing checkers. I think all audiences would gain something from reading it.