Poetry Review: Jan Heller Levi's Orphan

In her openhearted third collection, Orphan, Jan Heller Levi considers how love and art shape our lives. The book begins with the strongest material, focusing on personal poems about caring for a disabled husband whom the poet affectionately calls “the adventurer.” Despite physical challenges, “the adventurer” and his wife live a vibrant life filled with work and travel. These poems engage the reader through intimate details, like the process the husband must implement moving from wheelchair to vehicle in “Because we like maps.” 

The collection builds on this material with meditations about the loss of ailing parents and friends. For example, “jane, staying” and “jane, staying (2)” elegize the late poet Jane Cooper. These poems help the book segue to pieces about art, namely paintings and poetry. Because the latter half of the collection favors a dreamy aesthetic over confessional narratives, readers may find it more opaque. Still, even the ars poeticas have bright spots, especially the section of “praise poems.” Built with frequently used words from each writer’s work, the praise poems pay tribute to June Jordan, Muriel Rukeyser, Jane Cooper, Edith Sitwell, Emily Dickinson, and Levi herself. The homages reveal each poet’s artistic preoccupations and individual voice. As such, they favor idiosyncratic vocabulary and syntax that lend diversity to the book as a whole.  

Levi concludes the collection with “lo yang,” a wistful consideration of Lao Tzu. Like the pieces on art, this poem cycle deals in images over storytelling, yielding lovely but vague results. However, if the concluding poems aim for beauty as their ultimate goal, they succeed, as when the poet writes in the ninth section: “the grass is drinking// the roses are drinking// the dark begins to unjoin from the light,” which serves as an ample metaphor for spiritual hunger. 

No comments: