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Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria by Eleanor Levine

Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria
Eleanor Levine
Unsolicited Press, paperback
112 pages, £8.99, 978-0692636954

Conrad Geller

Here I am, a tired old man on a beautiful spring day in Virginia, trying to make sense out of a furiously modernist poet. It isn’t going to be easy for a cantankerous formalist like me, but I’m determined to try.

And to be sure, the book I have in hand, Eleanor Levine’s Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria, turns out to contain a good deal to please me. Many of her poems accomplish what any good poems must do: present the reader with a genuine character, a voice that is worth listening to. One poem that stands out for feeling and brightly-seen images is ‘Zayde’, a picture from an old-age home that brings together keen observation and sharp memory:

Yellowed ladies
speaking Yiddish
tell their daughter to brush
smooth gray hair
I went outside
and thought of the plum
pit we buried together
how it was supposed
to grow into a tree

Another poem about family, ‘Daddy and the Cicadas’, present an eerie mix, memories of a father in life and visions of him in the grave, where “he eats cicadas/like a wild bandit/when they crawl on the ground/every 17 years.” Other poems memorialize a mother, a grandmother (who “ate gefilte fish along the Formica/counter where Mickey Rourke/spilled beer in The Wrestler”), and an aunt (‘Mima’). In general, these poems show the deepest feeling and, if the ethnic, religious references are no problem, the most accessible.

The other large theme in this book is sexual experience. In poems like ‘Ezra Pound and Poontang’ and ‘Why I Can’t Marry a WASP from Connecticut: A Revelation Received While Waiting at 125th Street,’ there is some close, sensuous detail,

When I was 27
I got drunk in women’s bars
Brought ladies home
Read them Ezra Pound
Their makeup smeared
with Jack Daniel’s stanzas

and

her lips opened and closed like a clam
her Chapstick was moist like unwashed underpants

as well as moments of intense feeling:

I […] came across a short-haired photo of you on Facebook near a train;
was like, “oh my God!”/a word/phrase/you always use;
a nymph swimmer/lustrous eyes/a soul not marred by God’s
sonorous arias.

Some aspects of Ms Levine’s work I have to report, however, still give me cause for regret or even lamentation. First is the troublesome matter of references. Apparently the poet expects her reader’s background to include a New York baseball legend (Daryl Strawberry), current media figures (Adam Sandler, Howard Stern), as well as extensive knowledge of the Yiddish culture in which she grew up (she does supply some footnotes–shades of T.S. Eliot).

More troublesome still is coherence. Many of the poems present the kind of images that Samuel Johnson, writing about the metaphysical poets, found elements “heterogeniously yoked together by violence.” For example, ‘The Electric Menorah’ ends,

Mother keeps up with Hellenism,
setting the menorah in the window,
but only a few bulbs flicker.

And more, in ‘Alligator,’ which I assume is about an animal,

[…] Met Joyce in purgatory and burned his book
Stammered as if you were Jesus Christ
hanging laundry in the Bronx
And with tepid smoke breath
you spoon fed our brother’s thoughts.

Yoked together by violence indeed. And note the apparently blithe use of capitals.

Is Ms. Levine trying to communicate with the reader, or just challenging us to enter another plane of understanding? Another poem, ‘History is a Nightmare,’ presents the reader with either a hopeless conundrum or a pointed challenge:

[…] These are all reasons: my
dog Henry has black marks on
his testicles—he’s going to
perish and no more
golden retriever chewing underpants
or perhaps Clinton is a Jehovah’s Witness
who converts go-go dancers
and Newt Gingrich’s name is Elroy
and he’s a competing Arkansas dairy
farmer who never recovered from
the peanut farmer who fucked him over
and O. J. didn’t murder but hired
Colin Ferguson as defense attorney […]

Finally, and with due respect to the judgment of my betters, I think someone should offer a prize, perhaps an aptly-named statuette, to the person who can explicate this short piece, titled ‘Eel,’ or a least explain about Neanderthals’ sleeping arrangements:

slipping on
the bank
the long-lost bird
who flew down from the
apple tree
Darwin’s missing link
who kissed three Neanderthals
in their King-sized bed

What am I missing? How is a menorah Hellenistic? Did Neanderthals have beds and, if so, did the beds come in various sizes? Or has the literary imagination just passed me by?

In spite, then, of these cavils, I suspect a response to the baleful influences of the likes of Pound and Ginsberg, this is a lively and interesting collection. Strangest of all, perhaps, is a poem about syntax itself, though it may be about other matters as well. ‘Insecurities in a Sentence’ gives us this delightful conception:

Dewey Decimal System of juxtaposition
metaphors strung out on anxieties
claustrophobic participial phrases
verbs with dandruff […]

Samuel Johnson also said of poets he disliked that “instead of writing poetry they only wrote verses.” Whatever their difficulties of apprehension, their wild turns of thought and sensory assaults, these verses are poems. And we have to remember, Johnson didn’t especially care for Shakespeare either.

 

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