Fair Creatures of an Hour, Lynn Levin, Loonfeather Press
The title of Lynn Levin’s third poetry collection, Fair Creatures of an Hour, comes from Keats sonnet “When have fears that I may cease to be,” in which the poet calls his beloved a “fair creature of an hour.” Levin’s fair creatures are the characters in her poems—poems that reflect her interest in art, science, history, popular culture, and the workings of the heart, that speak with the keen wit, quiet humor, and wary optimism her readers look forward to.
Often, competing images or interests drive these poems. In “The Universe, That Big Balloon” for instance, Levin uses the triolet, a 13th-century French poetic form, to explore human separation in a cosmos where “stars drift apart / like lovers who slip from one another’s hands.” In “Munro Park,” a very down-to-earth free verse poem, the speaker yearns for more closeness with his canine companion. But the talking dog puts a different spin on the phrase “man’s best friend”:
As she scratched, I scratched.
At strange noises, we froze like computers.
“What a nuisance you are and a bad mime,
she snapped, causing my heart to cave.
“Let’s bite the pizza boy. Let’s piss on the sidewalk,”
I said, hoping to rekindle our old magic, but the pup broke
from me at Munro Park to reel with joy
over the turd-encrusted grass.
It hardly matters whether the pup is literal or figurative; what matters is the capacity “to reel with joy / over the turd-encrusted grass.” This tension between the ordinary and the ecstatic is a common theme in Lynn Levin’s poems. In “Sybarite,” the speaker claims to live “purely / for beauty and pleasure” while noting “How strange it [is] // to hold the human shape in this.” In “The Groundhog” (there are quite a few talking animals in these poems) the tunneling mammal imagines “the lightness of being / almost atmosphere, of casting off / the small back gloves I use for digging.” In “Thistledown,” three women contemplate the nature of the soul in a time-lapsed moment that follows a near-fatal car accident:
When we saw that those white puffs
in the blue air were not us
but thistledown looping like paratroopers
loathe to touch the ground, Lulu parked by the side
of the road, and we flew out, the three of us,
spinning, laughing, waving our arms
in the down that caught in our hair, our clothes.
Here, after arguing against the immortal soul, declaring that souls simply decompose with bodies, and asserting that humans are nothing more than “big apes, bald chimps,” the speaker and her companions experience a moment of transcendence.
Levin’s tone changes to mostly comic in a series of horoscope poems spoken in the voice of a sometimes compassionate, sometimes judgmental fortune teller. In “Nick Wanted to Be an Anarchist,” for instance, she warns that “six planets in air signs spell the unspeakable,” the “Taurus will hydroplane, / and you’ll fly / out the window.” In “Paula, File Clerk, Student, Receptionist, Student, Childcare Worker,” the seer predicts that when the fourth Libra moon enters Paula’s house, a “roof beam will land on [her] sister’s head.” And when “passions run high from the 6th through the 10th” in “For Eric after Four Hours of Doom,” the young man is advised not to “date anyone / from [his] co-dependency group” but to play it safe, to change to his furnace filters and pair his socks.”
The comedy aside, Lynn Levin is also adept at beautifully rendering human relationships, as she does in “The White Puzzle,” in which a sister and brother fit together the many blank pieces of a puzzle:
This was fitting for the sake of fitting.
No art in it that we could see, but we stuck to it,
and after a while the pieces began to clump together
like new snow on the lawn.
I remember the way our small talk
scribbled itself over the gathering page
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
When the white puzzle was complete
we loved the way it lay like moonlight on the floor
then sat before our conquered space,
two Alexanders wanting more.
The poem captures a magical memory and is rife with metaphoric possibilities—the white puzzle, described as snow, a page, moonlight, and space, could easily signify youth, life, innocence, the unknown, or even the poem itself.
The apostrophe “To an Exit Sign” seems perfectly placed as the closing poem in the collection. The speaker has only praise for this “good luck charm over public doors,” until its greater association with death appears in the last two lines: “If only all farewells were happy, / this world not too beautiful too leave.” Keats would have loved these lines.