Donald Levering, Previous Lives: New and Selected Early Poems (Red Mountain Press, 2018)
Previous Lives is an apt title for Donald Levering's collection of ‘New and Selected Early Poems’ that ranges over eight volumes (61 poems) going back to the 1970s. (Poems from his two most recent books, Coltrane’s God and The Water Leveling with Us, have not been selected.) Most Selecteds are baked like layer cakes with highlights of prior volumes in chronological order topped by the icing of the new poems. Levering chooses to rethink the juxtapositions of his work by allotting poems from his previous volumes and new ones into four numbered sections, merely noting the dates in parentheses at the end. In doing so he fragments the various selves that the poems embody, making the edges meet, blur, cohere, and sometimes fray. This choice inhibits the chronological narrative of development or evolution; it shapes a circular rather than linear experience.
Levering’s introduction notes his stint teaching on the Diné reservation of the Navajo, and many of the early poems consequently reflect the customs and ceremonies of native peoples, including the one chosen to open Previous Lives, ‘Remedy for Drought’ (1977). I am predisposed to render all freedoms to the imagination, but it cannot be denied that for some now the spectre of cultural ‘appropriation’ will rear its head. The reader in 1977 and 2019 may encounter a different poem, a different ‘Zuni woman toting a bag of roots’ whose name translates ‘She Who Finds Fowl’. Some readers in 2019 ...
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