The title piece of Jeffrey Levine’s latest collection, At the Kinnegad Home for the Bewildered, concludes with a manifesto: “All the lives that lie in front of me are gateways to other worlds. / These worlds are in no way extraordinary worlds. / Neither unimaginable, nor any less mad.”
Throughout his new poems, Levine operates as a poetic pantheist, locating vitality in the ordinary and “extraordinary” alike. “Mad[ness]” and ennui, flux and stasis, heaven and hell all exist complementarily. In this way, Levine eschews the Romantic’s obsession with dualities while avoiding the gravitational pull of nihilism—a creative balancing act impressively sustained throughout this volume.
If Levine’s version of negative capability provides for a “literary clearing,” it’s his ability to assume fertile personas that serves as his inspirational launchpad. He’s a consummate monologist (and occasional soliloquist), and, in terms of tone and construction, his poems frequently bring to mind passages from Shakespeare’s oeuvre (consider “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” from Macbeth; “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” from King Lear; or, the obvious, “To be or not to be” from Hamlet) as well as Robert Browning’s explorations of ambivalence and the ambivalent voice, particularly “Fra Lippo Lippi,” “Andrea del Sarto,” and “My Last Duchess.” In “Licking the Bowl,” Levine’s take on the Abraham and Isaac story, as inspired by Caravaggio’s painting, the poet presents father and son as alternately biblical and contemporary. Time in the poem is fluid, multifaceted, and multidimensional. The piece serves as drama and psychodrama. Mid-poem, Abraham speaks: “She was what, poaching an entire salmon for company at 8 . . . when he summoned me outside for sacrifice, as ordained.” By recasting an ancient tale within a suburban context, Levine suggests that the triangulation of parent, child, and God (in the theological sense and as a metaphor for inexplicability, chance, cosmic order, etc.) is an archetypal dynamic, endlessly recurrent, repeatedly reconfiguring within ever-changing psychic and historical contexts. What occurs has always occurred, and will occur again, with an infinitude of possible outcomes (one is reminded of Joseph Campbell’s comment: “The latest incarnation of Oedipus . . . stands this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue”).
Later in the poem, Levine writes: “O, do Thou regard the ashes of Father Isaac / heaped up on top of the altar, and deal with Thy children / in accordance with the Mercy Attribute,” capturing an Old Testament timbre, language that conventionally describes/narrates while unfurling as an epic invocation. In this way, the poem progresses as a text while exceeding the associative limitations of language, conjuring a confluence of the personal (egoic) and transpersonal (collective). At the end of the poem, it’s Abraham who dies. Consider Isaac’s casual lucidity: “God took him instead, maybe just a matter of timing.” Levine ends the poem with a stunningly musical and evocative verse:
I got up off the rock, rubbed the red bruise of my throat.
The butchers put away their white paper, the kind
they wrap their chops in, the kind that clung to my skin,
and the night nurse in her flock of pink lambs
conducting her meticulous rounds passes your door. . . .
The poem turns mystical, sirenic. A reader remains loosely (barely) tethered to the quotidian world, as well as the agendas of text and poet, concurrently nudged into a dream or nightmare state, a kaleidoscopic splintering of consciousness. Levine then draws the reader back to the poem: “a hand in the imagination where it extends a pen . . . / whose presence / . . . is born from its own startling absence.” Using multiple voices, shifts in setting and perspective, and vacillations between vernacular and heroic language, Levine instantiates a fertile and organic tension. The reader engages with the poem; the poem in turn ushers the reader into an “unfolding” at once personal and transpersonal, textually grounded (centripetal) and a- or trans-textual (centrifugal). The reader then returns to the poem; more precisely, the poem returns the reader to the terra firma of the text, much like someone reeling in a helium balloon: a complete aesthetic experience.
Such is Levine’s gift throughout this collection. Consider the whispery opening of “Lucretia, Just After”: “He bequeaths a certain immodesty, remakes me / of earth, pigments thick with my dusts.” Levine grounds the reader with references to colors, shapes, and movement, as inspired by Rembrandt’s 1666 painting. However, by innovatively adopting Lucretia’s interior voice, he transports the reader: “I take flight, I land in the middle of a tongue, / inside a tongue we cannot die.” And: “Story of escape and navigation, of following / with our eyes the text the sky, / the martagon lily raising its head.” Levine again strikes a balance between accessibility and incantation, employing sensory references to invoke an emotional or bodily response, in turn nudging a reader into a strangely liberating and potentially apocalyptic realm in which language serves as a proverbial rudder and a daemonic hand dragging one into the unknown, the savagely unfamiliar: “the painter’s chariot recedes / where the carriage bolts into the sky.” The poem reaches a Dionysian crescendo (“you are born a second time, embraced by self-pity, / emboldened by wine, wholly forgetful . . . ”) before decelerating toward a sober and Apollonian closure: “Another mind touches the light, not here, / but where they do such things.”
In “Stealing the Fundamental Tongs,” Levine writes:
We forget that we are the subjects of mysteries,
descendants of known or unknown dates, frail seeds
of memory lifted and carried up to our prenatal heads.
We forget it’s the sensual, superincarnated pressure
that makes us do what we do. . . .
The poet speaks to the inextricability of past and present, suggesting in Jungian fashion that “memory” exists in our “prenatal heads,” part of an energetic continuum, our ineluctable legacy. Also, as the text progresses from the end of the second line into the third line, a process of destabilization begins, the reader drawn into a metaphysical rendering loosely reminiscent of Donne’s Holy Sonnets. The text occurs as expansive, galactic; at the same time, language resonates as modish (consider, for example, “superincarnated pressure,” which reads like a term coined by a philosophy professor experimenting with psychedelics). The fourth and fifth lines integrate references to self-determinism, hardwiring, and the “super[natural],” Levine underscoring the complexity and interrelatedness of universe and human evolution, our lives as we know them (and don’t know them) the result of precise chance and specific randomness.
At the Kinnegad Home for the Bewildered shows a poet practiced in “the existential leap.” On one hand, Levine suspends egoic or habituated perspectives; on the other, he draws from introspection, observations, and experience relevant to the work at hand and from which he can extrapolate transferable motivations, fundamental emo-cognitive states, and perennial instinctive currents. This occurs for the most part unconsciously and seamlessly, lest the result occur as contrived or inauthentic. In any case, prerequisite are capacities for empathy and detachment, the facility to “hold” the paradoxicality and multidimensional nature of an alternate life; a creative positioning that frequently correlates with and bolsters imagination. The result is a volume brimming with lives and voices; yet, this multitude is one life, one voice, one moment, that eternal and indivisible moment all poets strive to conjure from innumerable vantage points. At the Kinnegad Home for the Bewildered is a collection worth studying: for its ground, for the poet’s vision and execution.
About the Reviewer
John Amen is the author of several collections of poetry, including Illusion of an Overwhelm (New York Quarterly Books), a finalist for the 2018 Brockman-Campbell Award, and work from which was selected as a finalist for the 2018 Dana Award. His poetry has been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, Korean, and Hebrew. He founded and continues to edit The Pedestal Magazine.