In The Poetry of Witness, Czeslaw Milosz writes “[o]nly an awareness of the dangers menacing what we love allows us to sense the dimension of time and to feel in everything we see and touch the presence of past generations.” Milosz hits upon the relevance for poetry of an obvious truth: danger heightens awareness. The senses come alive, alert when danger is present. In The Water Leveling with Us, Donald Levering writes from a sense of danger, the danger that the natural world he loves may be lost, the danger that our new socio-economic realities will overwhelm a fragile natural world and those increasingly fragile civilizations still closely connected to it. This sense of danger gives his poetry an urgency but also a heightened awareness which pays off in both vivid imagery and in powerful sympathies, a book exuding empathy with creatures both human and animal.
Levering, at times, approaches the kind of precision in visual representation that one associates with Imagist poetics, yet the accompanying ecopoetics of witness gives new purpose to this vividness. In “Inside the Fence,” he begins, “The Crimson seedcracker is back. / A stalk of red oat grass bends / with her weight.” Only after the image of the bird is outlined boldly in our mind’s eye do we discover that this bird’s return is offered for a synecdoche of the general return of nature, the reclamation of a space where now “Cattle trails [are] grown over” and “wheel ruts [are] filling up.” In Levering’s poems, we see the true work of the ecological poet, not preaching conservation but rather making us love the world enough to want to save it. In “After Counting Queen Conchs,” Levering begins with “shimmering pixels on the surface / as swallows bank and titter / over calm seas in low sun” and only later reveals that this is the setting for the important work of an ecologist taking a census of the local fauna. This census is itself a valuable metaphor for Levering’s poetry of witness, each vivid image counting what is precious, what we may lose, what we must hold onto.
Like any poetry out to save the world, Levering does occasionally drift into sermon mode, a slight whiff of self-righteousness, but he is mostly saved from this common fault by high aesthetic standards and by an acute self-consciousness about his role as a poet of witness. In “Late Spring Twighlight,” he has the good sense to ask himself,
Have I overexposed this scene?
Shrunk creation to a stage
for villains and heroes to repeat their roles
under klieg lights of outrage?
This self-consciousness adds a layer to the book often missing from mere “nature poetry.” The Water Leveling with Us isn’t just a book about ecological disaster; it is also a book about how the literary imagination engages with disaster. Levering invites us to consider what poetry, what language itself, can accomplish in the face of such a great loss. In one of the finest Hurricane Katrina poems I have read, “Prepare,” Levering figures the linguistic impulse as the voice on the radio, language feeble but compelling, powerless and mesmerizing, poured into the eye of the storm:
But the woman goes on saying
Trains’ a-comin It’s on its way
Though we can hardly hear her for the storm
Knocking trees down clogging drains[.]
Here’s a poetry of witness with the sophistication and humility to ponder its own limits. Rejecting easy answers, the poem ends with deep ambiguity:
If we raise our arms in praise, she hollered,
The Righteous will be lifted up
We will ignore our cold wet clothes
Forget our thirst and hunger
Relinquish earthly plans
Time for the Doomsday Jubilee
Catfish will be singin’ alligators laughin’[.]
In the middle of such total collapse, this single human voice – the voice on the radio, the lyric poet – is both nothing and everything.
Many of these poems are like “Prepare” in giving us occasion for thinking about the connection between imagination and witness. Can the imagination bear witness to political and ecological realities in the absence of any indication that the poet him or herself is factually involved in what the poem bears witness to? In poems like “Salt Stones” and “The Other Half,” Levering boldly takes on the voice of the other, the oppressed, the disadvantaged. Some critics may see this as an appropriation, a violation of the autonomy of the other, but I prefer to see it as an act of the sympathetic imagination. As Levering imagines the experiences of a man under interrogation, he makes no factual leaps but only draws on the well-documented accounts abounding in our journalism to help us imagine what it might be like to be those we normally read about only in a mode pretending to objectivity. About this representation, or witness, Levering demonstrates a keen humility and, again, a self-consciousness that rescues him from the didactic. He prompts us to wonder, for instance, in “Views of a Drone Pilot,” what kind of intimacy is possible between the observer and the observed, what we can ever really know about the other, even as we document their lives in military reports or in lyric poetry. And yet he also focuses on what we must know, must face, as he imagines the drone pilot peering into his monitor at the funeral of this target and admitting, “I can’t not see the women flail / and raise their faces to the sky.” Levering demonstrates that, even with a limited vision, we “can’t not see” the realities of our time.
Forche, Milosz, Neruda: all our true poets of witness are poets of what we can’t not see, poets of the heightened awareness that comes from danger. Levering offers The Water Leveling with Us in the same spirit and tradition as these poets. It is a book rich with images of the natural world and with sympathy for the people who inhabit it. It is a book modest in its ambition of making us pay attention, but that is the kind of modesty that can change the world.
reviewed by Benjamin Myers, Shawnee, Oklahoma
Donald Levering, The Water Leveling with Us. Red Mountain Press, 2014. ISBN 978-0985503161