Reviewed by Deborah Bacharach
The Minor Virtues
by Lynn Levin
Ragged Sky Press
ISBN-13 : 978-1933974354, Paperback : 90 pages, March 2020
I don’t usually consider virtue amusing, but Lynn Levin’s new book of poetry The Minor Virtues had me laughing out loud. In a reading I attended, she called it her most cheerful book yet. She said she wanted to focus on not the big virtues like patience and temperance, but what she called the minor virtues that she elicited from paying attention to small moments and looking in deeply. Small moments like in “The Bride of the Ladies Auxiliary Luncheon” where the latest woman with breast cancer gets feted like a bride or in a poem comparing two delicatessens where she digs not only into the menu items but the differing sociologies and décor: “For at Hymie’s they have no placemats / but a display of rotten ruined china / from the Andrea Doria wreck.” These poems use humor, formal structures, poetic and Jewish references, and an accessible voice to consider a long life.
Rondels, rondeaus, and ballads bring rhyme and repetition to many of these poems. The lines chime and circle back, often creating a strong poetic tension with the subject matter. In “The Consummate Hour” the speaker says:
mulling the likely horror
of never having found each other.
Never finding happens all the time.
The speaker is afraid of losing the beloved, but the consummate hour that begins and ends the poem means they have found each other and get to keep each other. The form contains them in this moment.
Not just received poetic forms, but lines from famous poems and prayers create a scaffolding for her work. The poem title “Song of My Cell Phone” immediately alludes to and builds off of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” including lines like “I sing the life electronic. Those I love engirth me with their emails / and I engirth them with my emails.” If the reader knows Whitman’s lines, “I sing the body electric, / The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them” then they will feel even more deeply Levin’s commentary on how our online life minimizes and controls us. The contrast between “the body electric” which is a powerful vibrant self and “the life electric” which is one full of gadgets and electronic obligations is particularly strong. Levin does similar work in “And You Shall Love” with lines from a traditional Jewish prayer. I think the lines about fear of terrorism like “you wonder / when you will not have to / post warnings about it / on your doors and on your gates” can work for any reader, but they resonate more strongly for those who know the prayer. It intrigued me that Levin chose not to add notes about these allusions. She trusts the reader to be familiar with the lines and/or for the poems to work without the reader knowing them.
The voice in these poems talks comfortably to the reader about moments in a long life, whether that be writing in longhand and finding the old letters from friends “the glove of age upon the hand” or living long enough as she says in “Fixing Broken Things” to:
Witness the prodigal redeemed
after his many falls. The tales you don’t want
to hear though he’s rebuilt, clean and sober now
and strong at the seams for all you know.
I appreciate how this poem is not about one’s own struggles but the struggle of witnessing.
In her reading, Levin said she does not write concept or theme books, so these poems were not written for this book per se, but I could clearly hear a unified speaker, one who has had “death-wish days” but who can both use humor to tell her teenage years, “Teens, after a while your agony withers / like everything else” and ask with the formal control of meter and rhyme, “In complicated human time / could I find my voice and carry on / as feathered singer did its song? This speaker can and does carry on.
About the reviewer: Deborah Bacharach is the author of After I Stop Lying (Cherry Grove Collections, 2015). She received a 2020 Pushcart honorable mention and has been published in journals such as The Adroit Journal, Poetry Ireland Review, Vallum, The Carolina Quarterly, and The Southampton Review among many others. She is an editor, teacher and tutor in Seattle. Find out more about her at DeborahBacharach.com.