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Imaginarium by Lynn Levin


Lynn Levin’s second book of poems is an “in-“ book.  But don’t call it merely interesting—that would be an insult. The work in Imaginarium is incisive, insightful, intelligent, intriguing, inspired, intellectual, introspective, inviting, instructive and ingenious.  These are congenial poems, deceptively accessible.

The surface subject matter ranges from insects to galaxies—within one poem and then on facing pages.  “Myrmidia” is one of Levin’s poems in which she uses the apostrophe.  Mistress of punctuation, she rejects the exclamation point with the apostrophes, but not elsewhere.  Because she’s used an exclamation point a few lines earlier, the absence is underscored, and the flatness of these apostrophes becomes a part of the statement. 

“Myrmidia” is one of a number of poems in which Levin moves from humorous observation embodying a quirky view of life, to a serious position. The word play in “tiny type” is an example of her persistent wit and multi-layered meanings.

Considering their love of strategy,

it is strange that I have never heard

a single ant express worry

about where his next idea will come from

or fret over his inability

to focus. We read in their tiny type

so many lessons of virtue.  Nor does

an ant cry out that his world has come

to an end because his brothers have died

in a war with another colony or in a shower

of insecticide. Industry in spite of sorrow!

Wondrous lift on that silent black galaxy

of fellowship and self-abnegation.

O life of elemental purpose. O unexamined life.

Pulled like so many iron filings

to whatever is sweet or dead.

The attraction to what is sweet is not unexpected, but by joining “sweet” and “dead,” the poem jolts the reader to rethink any facile, superficial conclusions that he’s made.  Ending with two consecutive iambs, the poem comes to a full stop, appropriately, with “dead, ” as it slowed with “silent black galaxy,” three words impossible to say aloud quickly. 

 Animals populate Imaginarium: “Snake,” “The Kingfisher,” “The She-Bat,” “The Span-Worm Moth.”  The poet speaks of being a “Blue Ape.”  In “Blue Ape,” she writes:

“I suspect those jagged scraps

 of light among the leaves

are perfidious stars that change

the definition of north and south

each time I beg directions.”

Through its echo, the “giddy” that comes at the end of the third line of the following stanza underscores that daring use of  “perfidious.”

Instead of an “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Levin writes a sonnet about “A Jar of Roman Glass” that contains the ashes of an ancient cook.  Like many of the poems in this volume, the subject is death. 

A lighter approach is found in “The Trials of Love,”  where the line breaks and the “but’s” invite us to laugh at the human condition.

...Be good and kind but remember

just being alive may be

a high crime—even the innocent

die for it. But don’t

let that depress you.  If you feel

your heart is full of rue, rejoice

that your nose isn’t stuffed

with wormwood. Be fashion forward—

wear pearls before the grand

jurors, red nail polish when lowering

your right hand to the

Good Book.  Know that apples

are full of juicy wisdom

and cyanide-laced seeds,

that the cops really do want to

trap you speeding; but

contest the ticket;

they respect that. ...

One other light poem takes inspiration from personal ads, “If You are Reading This.”  Other poems, more serious in tone, incorporate the news of the day:  “Karla Fay Tucker Who Was Executed in Texas by Lethal Injection for the Pickax Murders of Jerry Dean and Deborah Thornton,” “The Widow who Met her Lover on a Rooftop” and “News from the Big Bang.”

The opening poem “How to Do It” is one of several poems with a common theme:

...Moderation in all things,

sighed the wise.  All the sweetness

you can seize, laughed the thief.

We have two set of contrasts:  moderation vs. all the sweetness you can seize, the sigh vs. the laugh.  With these two contrasts, a third is suggested” the wise vs. the foolish, but what we have is not the wise, but, instead, “the thief.”   The last poem in the book is “Sundry Blessings,” which presents the poet’s list of occasions on which one might give thanks, seeing plentitude in all things.  As in “How to Do It” the penultimate poem of Imaginarium,  “North,” closes with a sigh. 

“North” gives a distinct nod to Wallace Stevens’ poems.  It suggests the “heart of winter” of “The Snowman” and, more directly, alludes to “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  In contrast to the Stevens’ poem that begins with a landscape and a blackbird, “North” begins with “an Arctic Swan.” 

To see an Arctic Swan above the frozen lake,

to feel its oohooh  augur a hole

into your heart is to know you should not love

your unhappiness, although that is easy to do.

And “North” closes:

...                                      I had this sharp

vision before the leaves masked the North

in green disguise, and I was of two minds,

one of them was sighing.

These are extraordinary poems, yielding increasing pleasure on each reading.  Lynn Levin’s first book, A Few Questions about Paradise, also published by Loonfeather Press, appeared in 2000. She also published  The Forest, a chapbook of translations of poems by the contemporary Albanian poet, Besnik Mustafaj ( Poetry Miscellany Chapbooks, 2001). She teaches at Drexel University where she is also executive producer of the TV show, The Drexel InterView. 

Lynn Levin, Imaginarium, Bemidji, MN:  Loonfeather Press, 2005, 70 pp. $12.95.