Review by Maggie Paul
by Lynn Levin
Ragged Sky Press
P. O. Box 312
Annandale, NJ 08801
2013, 68 pp., $15.00
The poems in Lynn Levin’s fourth collection have been aptly described as “sizzling,” “explosive,” and “finely wrought.” The poet’s signature, razor-sharp wit and critical eye toward contemporary life give way to an underlying reverence for the tenderness and vulnerability of the human heart. In one poem we can encounter an argument, an historical legend, a romantic tryst, and a reunion. Yet Levin performs these feats of storytelling with spare, accessible language, providing just enough twists and turns to let readers fill in the details. As with her previous collections, we are active participants in the poems, hard-pressed not to respond with a sense of liberation, noting how in that moment, in that poem, she has once again outed the truth.
While the book’s cover sports the image of a blonde-haired, cosmetically made-up doll presumed to be “Miss Plastique,” there is nothing fake or superficial about the work in this collection. In the poem from which the book draws its title, the speaker asserts that, “Because it should be handled/ with care and can explode/ at any moment, it is like me.” So begins our journey into the mind and heart of a speaker who, like the explosive substance itself, exhibits a versatility of sensibility and poetic form. The realization early on in life that “Something that looks like dough/ can kill you,” sets the tone for the book’s energetic dance between love and hate, illusion and reality, history and the now.
The book’s first two sections introduce us to Miss Plastique and the world that made her. “Being Me” begins with the speaker’s honest admission that “Being me is a kind of neurosis …” and what we come to find is that we are grateful for her neurosis, as it is perhaps the necessary lens that allows the speaker to magnify life’s trifles and triumphs with such acute perception and detail. Levin has fun with the particulars of her 1960’s Midwestern youth, recounting how TV’s Leave It to Beaver and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. shaped her image of America and presented a skewed sense of her place in the world. The awkwardness of being female in a world of Dippity-Do, garter-belts and mini-skirts is adroitly conveyed in the book’s second section. Few of us of this generation, male or female, can claim to have escaped such contextualization.
Section II ends with “Hitchhiker,”which is the most comprehensive and multi-layered poem about hitchhiking I have ever read. The poem begins with a play on Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death,” but immediately breaks off into what is now a common, modern scene: trapped in the car at a red light, the speaker is confronted by a hitchhiker brandishing “a cardboard sign:/ Hungry. Will work for food.” She locks her doors and impatiently waits for the light to change, to break free from the “hard-boiled eggs of his eyes.” The speaker is not uncompassionate, however. She contends:
A shame these days that so many kidnappers and murderers
have given hitchhikers a bad name
for I myself had been a hitchhiker
when carless in Texas, and careless, too
lazy to shoe-leather the mile to the bus stop
or late for work, I thumbed rides.
When I was lucky, good old boys with honest mud on their jeans
Would pick me up in their beat-up chariots,
eight tracks playing Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings.
Truth was, most folks in cars ignored me
but one April morning when the bluebonnets
Maybellined the roadsides,
A man pulled over in a black Gran Torino …
The speaker began accepting rides from a shady character who presented himself as a social worker and used the name, Tom Wise. One day he showed up wearing “a green silk tie/and reeked of Aramis: a real lady-killer.” When Wise pushes for her phone number, she provides a fake one. Then, sensing he is perhaps a pimp, she refuses his ride. He swings a “U-ey” and flips her the finger—á la the hitchhiker who opens the poem:
This made the world a huge drive-in movie theater
And the two of us stars in its fright show.
Afterward, I feared I’d see Tom Wise
Pulling up behind me, idling at a light.
Was spared that, but I remember
the pine-tree air freshener dangling from his dash,
the bluebonnets blooming outside his safety glass.
One can’t help but relish the use of “Maybellined” as a verb, appreciate the juxtaposition of such telling 1970’s images as “beat-up chariots” and “eight-tracks” with April’s bluebonnets. We recognize the Proustian brilliance of memory which associates the flipping of the finger and those same bluebonnets with these two experiences, distanced only by linear time. In the end, the speaker has captured the pivotal moment when her innocent perception of the world was turned upside down. There is no “safety,” and now even the clean scent of pine will be a haunting reminder of those seedy hitchhiking encounters.
Sections III and IV enter the adult terrain of relationship, including marriage, romance, friendship, and professional rivalry. These are among my favorite poems in the book, and perhaps the most intricately woven. “The House on Blackberry Lane” opens Section III with an exquisite adaptation of the Mother Goose nursery rhyme “The House That Jack Built.” The narrative structure is, as with the nursery rhyme, a cumulative tale that uses the house, and things of the house (i.e., the log that is “trundled in by the husband to stoke the fire he kindled”) to indirectly convey the relationship dynamic between husband and wife. Each successive stanza adds one more line, further nesting the details of the relationship in a story. By stanza five the narrative ignites:
This is the carpet fire
sparked by the log that rolled from the hearth
as feared by the wife
who asked the husband
not to add the log, fat as a cask,
to the fire he built
in the house on Blackberry Lane.
Tension builds as one calamity leads to another, including the squashing of the wife’s wedding ring when trying to open a window to let out the smoke, all a result of the husband’s insistence on choosing too large a log to add to the fire which now threatens to burn down the house on Blackberry Lane. The poem concludes with a familial making of amends: “This is the new ring/ bought by the husband who pledged fresh devotion/ to the same old wife who managed to love him.” This is great fun, yet prefigures the subject matter of the poems that follow. Levin proves again and again that no form is out of reach for conveying one of her central concerns: the nature of forgiveness in the context of personal relationships.
Some of the poems in this section cast a cold eye on love, giving voice to views we commonly keep under wraps, and it is for this reason you’ll find the poems so refreshing and liberating. In “To a Rival,” the vindictive speaker reveals herself to be vulnerable too. At first she overtly admits her writer’s envy: “Some say the world is big enough for all of us/but I think you take up too much space/ in the book review section.” Her naked confession is witty and bold, followed up by pointed derogatory comments about the subject’s meters and tropes, even their facial features. Yet soon thereafter a deeper sense of longing for connection wins out, and the speaker concedes: “But if you phoned and said/let’s go out to lunch/ I think, R., we could be friends.”
The speaker in Levin’s poems is endearing because she scrutinizes herself, changes her own mind, and admits to being vulnerable even while striking the pose of attack. She is as brutally honest about her own misadventures and perhaps ill-conceived perspectives as she is about others. We can trust her not to mask the truth or hold up a veil obscuring reality for too long. The poems offer windows of possibility to a change of heart, or another point of view, that we as readers are invited to look through.
“Insomniac Romance” wrestles with the love/hate nature of intimate relationship. A couple lie next to each other in bed like “two statues on a tomb,” ruminating over the day’s fights. “But leave you? I do not think I could,” the speaker attests. “I like what carries on.” “Yes, No, Maybe” is a tritina of ambivalence, reminiscent of the Clash’s hit, “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” With no Magic 8 ball for guidance, what are they to do? “Vacation” addresses many a wife’s fear of betrayal by her husband when out of the context of routine. The speaker “spies” on her husband with binoculars and is relieved to find him on the resort course “aiming for birdies and pars/not trying to pick up women in the hot/tub or the hotel bar.” This is the good life, she decides. “I couldn’t be happier.”
Section IV features a series of poems that present the biblical Eve and the legendary Lilith in the most unlikely and contemporary of places. We find them in the fitting room at Macy’s, at the cosmetics counter of a department store, and standing together at the “padlocked gates of the garden” of Eden, which is now, we are told, “a restricted community.” In “Eve and Lilith Back at the Garden,” Eve confesses to Lilith that she thinks she’s pregnant:
“I told you to use protection,” said Lilith.
“But Adam promised …” Lilith rolled her eyes.
“Him and his teaspoon of joy,” said Eve.
A fault line threatened her brow.
“Girlfriend,” counseled Lilith,
“either change your life or accept your life,
but don’t go around mad.
Let that anger go,” said Lilith. “Just let it go.”
Yet when the two women encounter a snake in the grass, Eve is the one to “immobilize the critter’s head.” Lilith pleads with Eve to kill it, but instead Eve follows the advice she’d just been given. “No can do,” she replies. “Eve let the snake go./ She just let it go.”
These poems examine the complexities of female friendship, asking such questions as: Where does one draw the line between friendship and romance? What are valid definitions of female beauty in the 21st century? How do we address issues of aging and beauty, while maintaining a sense of humor and the wisdom of acceptance?
In “Eve and Lilith Go to Macy’s,” the boundaries of friendship are blurred. Levin utilizes the fitting room mirror where three reflections of a customer are visible at once as a prop to prompt Eve’s self-reflection: which one is her real self? she wonders. When Eve turns to give Lilith a kiss on the cheek, Lilith plants a full kiss on Eve’s lips, leaving Eve to wonder if her friend Lilith is gay. “Wishing her friend would touch her again,” Eve begins to wonder if she herself is gay. While the hidden security camera “looks on with its mysterious eye,” the two women “linger in each other’s arms,” knowing that the camera can see them. But still they explore the moment, knowing technology’s betrayal is incomplete; there is no sound.
In “Lilith at the Cosmetics Counter,” the poem wastes no time establishing the distance Lilith experiences between the self reflected back at her from the magnifying mirror on the counter and the self she knows.
Lilith’s face made a face at her
in the lighted mirror at the cosmetics counter.
Craggy, ravined, parched,
that thing above her neck looked like the Sinai Desert.
The makeup clerk makes things worse: “You look as one who has returned/ from a long journey,” she remarks, “then tried to sign her up for a store credit card.” The poem pin-points perfectly that moment of insecurity and self-doubt that comes with walking into the land of female consumerism, the land where beauty portends to be bought, if only you have the right cosmetics and someone to teach you how they should be applied. When Lilith notices the unattractiveness of the saleslady, (she is missing a front tooth, and her eyelashes are overly thick), she recalls an old lover’s advice never to buy makeup “from someone/ who’s not as good looking as you,” and walks out. If there is any beauty derived at all, she realizes, it is the beauty of recognizing the familiar “wilderness” of her own face. Acceptance is a gift.
The collection ends with “This Door or That,” a lyric in which the speaker describes a gift she has given to an unnamed “you”:
so that you would think of me
when you lay down and when you woke up
when you put out the cat
or brought in the mail …
The mysterious gift contains an image of a man and a woman. We know little of them, except that, “Suddenly one was cruel/ and the other silent/for a long while.” Yet, as in many of the poems in this collection, the couple come together in love-making, leaving us with two things: ambiguity and hope. They …
made love so desperately
their souls flew far from life, and who knew
if they would fly back
and through which door.
At this late age, it seems nearly impossible to ask a question for which there is no answer, to create analogies that have not already occurred in literature, to evoke a newness in language that continues to inspire and delight. The epigrammatic quality of Levin’s poems, the use of form to untangle complex narratives and at the same time pull us into their nets, the authentic reaching back in time to make sense of the ironic present, are all qualities you’ll find in Miss Plastique. Lynn Levin’s poetry exhibits sophisticated craft and clear-eyed passion, yet never at the expense of hard truths and life’s conundrums. Miss Plastique’s “neurosis,” is a welcome gift to readers, one which we hope opens the door to her next collection.
Maggie Paul earned an M.A. in Literature from Tufts University and an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. A resident of Santa Cruz, CA, she teaches Writing at Cabrillo College and De Anza College. She is the author of a collection of poems entitled Borrowed World (Hummingbird Press, 2011) and the chapbook, Stones from the Basket of Others (Blackdirt Press, 2001).