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Tricky, Tricky

The Wilds (University of California Press)
by Mark Levine 

Reviewed by Joan Houlihan

Referring not only to a kind of terrain, The Wilds equally describes the place these poems inhabit, one in which the reader is given sudden glimpses of feeling and understanding as if seeing a beautifully feral creature briefly through the branches. These peeps intrigue and provoke curiosity, further exploration, a desire to follow, as if chasing something fascinating, just out of reach, along the periphery of the woods. Levine knows how to build tension, and he wields a mean line-break. “The Nurse,” is a two-page, run-on sentence that starts here:

Beginning in torments then
on to coffee and sliced fruits..

and ends here:
…in the nursery's
ceaseless continuation.

In getting from here to there, the poem speeds and swerves between the dazzle of oddly jammed together word-things (“sifting pints, liters, cubits,/volts, cinders, creams, revenues,/radon..”) and the nearly readable, slightly ominous, human gesture (“her skillful stroking/during interrogation”) sparking near-meanings and intuitions, emotional connections almost made, their incomplete circuits leaping all the way down the page in a drive for grounding.

More than language at play (though they may at times be “wordplay taken for swordplay” as he puts it); more than a tossed handful of startling images (though many poems contain these); Levine's poems often do more than briefly catalyze small frissions of sound and meaning. Not objective, not correlative, but most certainly mapped to an unseen emotional terrain, they are anything but trivial, often building fom something small and real as in “Bering Strait”:
a scab of lichen hugging the black rock

to the lyrical and suggestive:

adrift in nutrient
rich doses of remembering

to the unabashedly lofty:

nets rake the shoreline with him
threshers clear the field with him
unmindful of the carbon beds
his heels sticky with sighting land
his refrain the
hero's need to be unloved.

Defying expectation line by line, the poems in The Wilds seem built as a series of distractions, gaining their power from seemingly unplanned glimpses of a focused, nearly allegorical sense of impending meaning:
What would be revealed to us
children in the aboretum
in our melting bootprints
wintry clay birds
on their mounts while we follow
the string on our wrists?

                    —From Aboretum

Even as they play tricks on our eyes in the undergrowth, these seemingly untamed but carefully crafted poems are indisputably contemporary, post-modern in their loops of associative images, and American as mutts in their mix of thoroughbred lines and common dictions. They remind us that only when we are unmoved by the emotional effect of a poem do we feel the need to justify its existence by a hunt for meaning.

Joan Houlihan is editor-in-chief of Perihelion and the author of two books: Hand-Held Executions and The Mending Worm, winner of the 2005 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Press. She is founder and director of the Concord Poetry Center in Concord, Massachusetts.


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