At the Kinnegad Home for the Bewildered
by Jeffrey Levine
Salmon Poetry, 2019
And all that night, throughout the world, a terrible noise of sheep / bleating and of bells from the church towers, of wooden houses cracking, / and the cries of men and the cries of women, and a great stream hurtles / down the mountain steps, and she takes a mouthful of air, and with the / fullness of her breath, sings so low and soft / we know there is something more (“Although Madame Did It on the Grill,” 20).
In At the Kinnegad Home for the Bewildered, Levine begins his cinematic collection with the lifeblood line of the book in the second poem: “we know there is something more.” As he shifts in and out of the domestic and the divine in his poems, we feel a deep longing for kinship and connect with a speaker who is unabashed in his belief in what isn’t wholly known. Sometimes, we are located within a piece of art, and at other times, we are right in the middle of a myth or standing there, cooking in his kitchen.
The mystery, as Ilya Kaminsky mentions in the introduction, is what makes Levine’s writing so rich. I would like to even go so far as to say that much of the depth and texture in his work comes from a profound knowledge of ancient text, namely, the Bible. Often, he uses direct phrases from the Hebrew translation, calling upon multiple scriptures throughout the collection. For instance, Levine references Abraham’s sacrifice of his son alongside Caravaggio’s artwork: After Sacrifice of Isaac. Marrying a piece of art with Biblical text, Levine layers multiple meanings in the poem, enacting the way an artist layers paint on a canvas.
In “Blue, and Calling,” Levine writes, “I live in your image as you live in mine, says the scripture” (56). By tapping into a new, spiritual reality, Levine calls the unseen into question, challenging how we experience our lives as human beings in a material world. There is more than just the visible at work in his poems. He writes, “What form is there besides this one?” (Licking the Bowl, 21). Yet, despite this interrogation of whether or not the world is enough for us, its limitations of time and space, his poems don’t leave us without hope. Rather, they push us towards seeking and towards relationship.
He writes, “Love, he tells her, is a miracle the flesh tries to duplicate. He offers up his own strangeness. They are building each other a shelter in the larger space of their bodies, where they step out of time” (23). Here, humans are not limited by our immediate and concrete reality or by time, for that matter. Additionally, I adore the similarity to the age-old ballad, “Shelter from the Storm,” where Dylan also writes about someone he loves, who is a refuge from the hard world. Levine sets up the same covering when he writes about the beloved in his own work, a female character, and a character that also resembles divinity.
In this light, it’s unsurprising that Levine consistently refers to the human soul in much of his work—how we live and move and have our being in the world as more than bodies. That is to say: we are certainly more than skin and bones, a fact our world often seems to tragically forget, but one that Levine loves to remind us of in his work. He writes:
…because it is not enough for us to have been born, / to be in possession of our existence, we want / to be looked at, to enjoy our brilliance, Father, / tell me I am beautiful, give me the word / that gives, sing me the legend of Me, make / the brilliance of my ordinariness beam, the mystery (41).
Over and over again, Levine’s words hearken back to Biblical text; in another poem, he writes, “lifting the curtain bottom to top” (28). In one sense, this could be interpreted as the opposite of what is written in Matthew 27:51—when the temple curtain was torn in two, top to bottom. Historically, temple curtains were weighty and thick, often reaching sixty feet high. Interestingly, the description is a reverse of what occurs in the scripture. Hence, in the curtain being torn from the bottom to the top, the use of human hands is implied in the text. One could suppose that here Levine is writing about the ordinary, material world versus the extraordinary, spiritual world.
Perhaps, Levine’s work reflects a belief that our experiences, while anchored in the physical world, are often reflections of a spiritual reality, and this depends largely upon our way of seeing and our desire to behold something more. In his poem, “The Sorrow of Our Gods,” he writes, “So many passages we cannot master,” and he establishes the speaker’s position as a seeker—as one who cannot fully know or be fully known, but as one who is pursuing someone or something. Yet, the poem turns to the present tense, to a life being lit up right in front of us so we can see things as they really are:
If our gods could be seen we would squander our lives with staring, while /
here, in front of me among the trees, even the rising mist makes a clarifying /
light, lifting the curtain bottom to top, turning tree to tree, bird to bird, /
bark to bark (28).
This is how the collection explores mystery and uncertainty without leaving us disillusioned. Instead, Levine imparts a desire for more and reveals the heart of a true seeker, one with a strange kinship to who and what appears before him in the very-alive-present-tense. “In Mid-April Night with Blessing of Snow,” he writes of a longing to connect to others, to love, to God: “and I want what this wanting wants /with a strength that surpasses me” (33). Yet, at the same time, we become aware that we are somehow already connected. In this vein, Levine writes, “The lovers walk ahead, clear, their hands grow into the landscape, stained with mossy shadows or their green pajamas, freed from the formal tasks, of being nothing more than hands” (36).
The poetry of Levine reminds us that there exists a meaningful and divine kinship between us when we pay attention to the present moment, to the ordinary world even amidst its gloom; in many ways, his work reminds me that the physical often leads us into the spiritual. Thank God that the two worlds aren’t totally at war, then, as we might have supposed and that “Each one of us has at the very center / of his chest, a beating heart. / Hearts beating back the night in its long black coat” (“A Midsummer Night’s Basho,” 55).