by Rich Levy
This debut collection by poet Rich Levy reveals an original, and often humorous voice, that of husband, father, artist and executive, the voice of the aging modern man confronting the often absurd and hilarious dichotomies in our society.
Why Me? Poems by Rich Levy. Houston: Mutabilis Press, 2009. ISBN 9780972943246.
Rich Levy’s poetry asks an innocent question with no ready answer even as it delves into the ordinariness of daily life, Why me? This question leads of course to others: How does a man reconcile his longings with a half-satisfying daily life? And is it better to be aware of one’s little place in the world, or not?
The question, Why me? disturbs. It rings with the austere loneliness of the individual’s situation. Just look at the speaker in “Pie”: He has eaten dessert alone at a cafeteria and is on his way out: “it is as if // you were never here, you never ate this slice / of pie.” The question inheres in the perpetual condition of knowing want and never not knowing it, just as the addict always hungers for his drug (“Eleven”). The speaker examines his situation further, when he observes a squirrel caught in traffic in “Fin de Siecle”—it must dance for its life, and shows us how. The ordinary pleasures of reading and writing love poems or lines “against death,” though somewhat satisfying to this speaker, appear vain. The reader feels the dumb astonishment he establishes in “The Hunger,” when one becomes only “occasionally / satisfied with his life.”
Levy’s exploration of the speaker’s persona in Why Me? displays an intriguing depth of character. The reader gets the feeling of tumbling through life, ping’d like a pinball; and at moments of pause, I experience the speaker’s genuine surprise, grief, tenderness, satisfaction, and humor. Poems such as “Bird from the Old World,” an elegy for his mother, “Backstroke,” about the husband who desires to be “sleek and munificent” but sees his efforts as blundering, show the poet’s ability to sustain metaphor without overwhelming or exhausting the poem. His poems “Fishing” and “Reading Matter” also display that same strength of metaphor.
The poet’s humor is by turns ribald and self-deprecating, as in “Sleeping at the Dog Show”: “They can’t stop farting, they’re so / scared and loyal” and “a lost cocker pees / on a dwarf / orange tree. Confess, dog: woe. // And I live like this.” Levy’s villanelle, “Ringside with Jane” is keenly funny: “Jane Austen is going to kick your ass. / This isn’t meant as a management taunt— / I say it to save you from certain failure.” And the poet’s dark humor surfaces in poems such as “Letter to Robinson Jeffers on God,” in which the speaker wishes his experiences with Rabbi Dudovitz could be given to Jeffers (who was once blacklisted for his anti-Semitic sentiments): “Dear Jeffers, / If you’d been a Jew / what better / preparation you’d have had.”
Why Me? with its well-crafted verse gives an engaging and terrific take on a seemingly simple man, who only desires to be, as Frank O’Hara says, “at least as alive as the vulgar.” Not living up to his own expectations, the speaker regrets not being a better husband and father, a better friend. He catalogs his minor transgressions over the decades and picks at his flaws until they are raw. In the end, the poet leaves us to consider his original question, and one more: After the hero emerges still willing to leave himself open to hurt and failure and half-contentment, is that what hope looks like?