Ordinary Psalms by Julia B. Levine


[From the WVFC Poetry Archive. First Published June 27, 2021.]


Psalm with Wren in Daylight Saving Time

Late afternoon, I chop onions by really feel,
listening to crows cry to one another throughout the ridge.

Gone now, white recipe card on the white flooring,
inexperienced sea glass discovered on a Humboldt seaside.

However this hour I’ve been given again, carried out
of gorse, pink flash of maples, finches in our cedar.

That means, immediately I returned for the primary time
to the second I understood I used to be going blind.

Months I hid from myself that the V of geese
flying over the valley extinguished too quickly into fog,

a darkness advantageous as sugar sifted over the chard, the roses.
Now I hear the gentle tick of a hen touchdown on the counter.

Really feel her gaze flip away from mine. When she hops
desk to chair to flooring, I open all of the home windows and doorways.

Typically we should drag our grief out of the river
and put our mouth on it. After which a loosening comes.

One morning I rose and sat outdoors on my garden
underneath budded glory vines. There is no such thing as a hurry, I say

to the stirrings of 1 so small it must be a wren.
As soon as I let the lacking in, there was risk.

There was a heavy rain in solar—each blade of grass
blurred, and for a second after, solely shine.


April in Group Park

Now I see it all over the place, a violence within the viridescence,
finches returning to blaze the boxwood.
And after we stroll into the yr’s first daylight,

the rain-soaked lawns and backyard blister into shine.
We sit collectively on a park bench, staring out at quiet.
However I do all of the speaking, Mary’s voice irradiated

into scars. A kidback tandem passes, a kind of bikes
you’ll be able to trip with babies. The mom pedals
arduous upwind, whereas her daughter’s head rests full weight

in opposition to her backbone, small boots dangling over the miniature
gearset behind. Typically the hours of my good friend’s dying
are insufferable. Different instances, it’s the unnoticed work of affection

that issues, and the wake its going leaves—a trembling
above the street as pear timber bathe petals throughout
our shoulders, Mary’s upturned face. When she whispers,

I don’t perceive something, I say, It’s okay, I do, which means,
simply now the world strikes me as coldly exact—the best way
we’re given to so abundantly, the best way we have now to interrupt.


Catch and Launch

The oak and willow flare
till it appears hearth is unsayable—
a river of late autumn mild.
A half mile in, we kneel
Gregory’s arms unlatch the cage
he has carried from house.
The rat tenses on the threshold,
quivering. Round us, I watch the pond
give again nightfall singed incarnadine and blue
Right here in his final November,
earlier than he steps off that constructing into sky,
I believe nothing of it
when he whispers, Go on now, it’s okay,
the wild animal leaping then into threat,
into the struggled, starless darkish.


Watch and hearken to this video of the writer studying her poems.

Learn this Southern Evaluation interview with the poet about two Bizarre Psalm poems.

All three poems are from Bizarre Psalms (Louisiana State College Press 2021) by Julia B. Levine, reprinted right here with permission of the press. Order the e book here.


Julia B. Levine is the writer of 5 collections of poetry, most just lately Bizarre Psalms (LSU Press 2021). Her earlier assortment, Small Disasters Seen in Daylight, was awarded the 2015 Northern California Ebook Award in Poetry, and she or he has gained a number of different awards, together with the Bellevue Literary Evaluation Poetry Prize, the Public Poetry Prize, and the Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize. She lives in Davis, California.


Poet’s Notice

At a interval of nice despair in my life, I wrote this e book as a critical try and interrogate the idea of God. Over a interval of a number of years, I learn many non secular texts and located myself particularly drawn to the Ebook of Psalms. These prayer songs should not simply poetic; they specific at the very least as a lot doubt and anger and sorrow about life and God as reverence and reward.

A few of this despair was associated to my degenerative eye situation that had all of the sudden worsened. Due to this fact, I wished to know the non secular notion of imaginative and prescient as distinct from the purely perceptual sense of sight. Or to say it one other method, How did imaginative and prescient assist when sight failed?

In a interval of some years, I additionally misplaced a really shut good friend to suicide (Gregory) and had one other shut good friend (Mary) identified with incurable most cancers. It appeared to me then, and now, that there’s a nice paradox in an unusual life. That’s, if you’re fortunate sufficient to be alive in your senior years, as I’m, you might be unfortunate sufficient to really feel like an unusual life is a check relating to how to deal with grief and loss, in addition to an extended elegy that makes each candy second all that a lot sweeter, whether or not it’s a second in reminiscence or a second in precise time.


Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Julia  B. Levine is in my on-line poetry suggestions group, and so I’ve been wanting ahead to her new e book for a while. I noticed many of those “unusual psalms” in draft kind in month-to-month installments over the previous couple of years; the primary one struck me as a superb poetic conceit I needed I’d considered myself. Then one other got here, and one other, and I assumed “collection.” Then extra, till it was clear that there could be a e book. How fortunate I really feel now to see these poems, together with many I had not seen earlier than, collected into the extraordinary quantity, Bizarre Psalms, I now maintain in my hand.

“I wished to create a sort of private prayer e book that makes use of the dwelling language of on a regular basis particulars and expertise to call and reward these features of this world that, for me, embody divinity,” Levine says in The Southern Evaluation interviewlinked above. The poems do that and extra, attaining an ambition I’ve for my very own work: use of the actual and private to light up the final and common, exposing the entire messy tragedy of humanity whereas on the similar time acknowledging the irrefutable fantastic thing about the pure world. The paradox has occupied our minds, typically within the type of theological inquiry, for hundreds of years: the issue of evil, how magnificence can coexist with unspeakable human struggling. Right here, the poet finds magnificence within the human in addition to within the pure world and does greater than pay homage; she additionally expands the idea of Magnificence and presents it as comfort. Many writers wish to and check out to do that, and here’s a uncommon author who succeeds.

A serious “theme” in Bizarre Psalms is the speaker’s incipient lack of sight, a situation with wealthy metaphorical potentialities for the blindness of humanity within the summary and likewise extra concretely in latest American political cycles. One other theme tells a litany of the horrors perpetrated by and on human beings—home violence, incest, neglect, environmental degradation, homelessness, immigration atrocities, warfare, terrorism, racism, and the opposite poisonous

-isms that describe social injustice. Some poems spring from the speaker’s job as medical director of a county emergency psychological well being heart for underage sufferers; some, just like the lack of family members to suicide and most cancers, come from the speaker’s private experiences, together with from information tales she has learn. In these poems, the gorgeous and therapeutic pure world exists in counterpoise with the toxicity of human invention: know-how, local weather change, and politics. As within the authentic Psalms (and, it happens to me, in Shakespeare), these poems seize the entire shebang: the nice and the dangerous, the wondrous highs and the really horrific lows. They do it, furthermore, in language that’s exact, supple, attractive, and extremely authentic.

The poems present exceptional vary, shifting effortlessly from the tiniest of particulars like a wren seen “on my garden / underneath budded glory vines” to an summary notion of magnificence, typically in nearly the identical line: “each blade of grass / blurred, and for a second after, solely shine.” Nature poetry using such ecstatic language runs the chance of devolution into mere sensation and reward, however Levine avoids this pitfall by including the healing components of a deeply flawed humanity. The e book additionally reckons with mortality and loss, different big-ticket gadgets on the damaging facet of the existence ledger. In “Psalm with Violent Interruptions,” for instance, the speaker says, “Loss of life is a plea cut price / / I made underneath menace of by no means being born. / And spring, a beautiful parole.” “Psalm with Larger Math” teaches us that “loss of life shouldn’t be the null set, as a result of power is fixed, although matter adjustments kind.”

At present’s first poem, “Psalm with Wren in Daylight Saving Time,” opens the e book and is one in all my favorites. Organized into spare long-line couplets harking back to the type of the biblical psalms, it begins in a dimming world the place the speaker has to cut onions “by really feel” and the place a white recipe card fallen on the white flooring is “[g]one now” and shortly to be gone eternally. A reminiscence of the speaker denying her blindness whereas watching migrating geese provides approach to the current actuality of the sound—a “gentle tick”—of a hen touchdown on the kitchen counter and the “really feel” of it turning away from her. The birds are nonetheless there, then, as is the beloved world, and all that’s gone is the outdated method of perceiving it. The speaker does what she at all times would have executed: opens the doorways and home windows to let the hen out.

The scene provides approach to a robust second of self-recognition: “Typically we should drag our grief out of the river / and put our mouth on it. After which a loosening comes.” The following flip is to a unique scene, one the place the speaker “sat outdoors . . .underneath a budded glory vine” and seen, via its “stirrings,” one other hen that seems to be the titular wren, permitting the speaker to find that “As soon as I let the lacking in, there was risk.” The revelation brings catharsis, a “loosening” and a “heavy rain” which may additionally describe tears that blur the speaker’s imaginative and prescient after which go away “for a second after, solely shine.” Return now and browse the poem once more—not this explication of it—as a result of it’s Levine’s pretty language that carries and transforms it.

I selected “April in Group Park” for its evocation of the speaker’s relationship with Mary, a pricey good friend with terminal most cancers. Like so many different poems within the e book, this one holds magnificence and horror within the palm of its tercets, and holds them with gentleness and reverence. This remembers one thing else Levine stated within the interview for the Southern Evaluation:

“…typically I’m fully awestruck by the kindness and social urgency of dwelling creatures that, for me, embodies one side of divinity. Watching the footage of elephants working collectively to avoid wasting their youngest member was so shifting to me, as are all of the methods we give of ourselves to these we love due to, and regardless of, our helplessness. It’s a reminder to me of the concept that collectively we’re a wholeness; separated, we lengthy for that authentic completion.” [Source here]

If the sweetness on this poem has an edge, a “violence within the viridescence,” it additionally presents immense tenderness in that picture of the mom and small daughter on the bike, within the “trembling” of pear tree petals, and in the best way the speaker cares for and responds to her good friend. There may be, moreover,  power and readability within the zero-sum-game analytics of the poem’s final strains, “—the best way we’re given to so abundantly, the best way we have now to interrupt.”

“Catch and Launch,” just like the poem simply mentioned, is one in all roughly half the poems within the e book that don’t embody “psalm with” or another reference to the biblical psalms in its title. The shortest poem within the e book, it’s the just one not damaged into stanzas. At 15 strains with a transparent flip two-thirds of the best way by (line 10), it jogs my memory of an “American Sonnet” of the unrhymed and unmetered selection popularized by Wanda Coleman. “Catch and Launch” makes use of the dramatic scenario of trapping and releasing a rat to attempt to perceive the horrible lack of the speaker’s finest good friend, Gregory. Within the poem, it’s his arms that “unlatch the cage” to prefigure his personal suicide, an act the speaker turns into in a position to see as a launch, a “wild animal leaping . . . / into the struggled, starless darkish.”

These poems wrestle with weighty topics, however I got here away from studying them with a sense of comfort and wholeness. The great thing about the pure world is a consolation, as is the speaker’s enhanced capability for compassion, reverence, and revelation that follows every contemporary loss. It’s as if she learns a brand new method of seeing previous the floor of issues and proper down into their fundament. As “the poet’s sight diminishes, her vignette shrinking . . .an inside aperture widens” reads the e book’s  press description, and I agree. The desk of contents provides a glimpse into the scope and vary of darkish poems (e.g., “Psalm with Close to Blindness,” “Psalm with Extreme Neglect,” “Psalm after one other Mass Homicide,” “Psalm with Lung Most cancers,” and “Psalm with a Few Questions for Loss of life”) alongside others that provide extra mild and typically really feel like paeans to the therapeutic energy of nature (e.g., “Psalm with Yellow Jackets, ”Sea Ranch Psalm”).

As in life, magnificence lives proper subsequent to horror in Bizarre Psalms. “The Lives of the Saints” describes an emergency shelter shopper, a woman who for “ten years . . .returned to us after each failed placement,” returning “solely to hold herself on her eighteenth birthday. / It was March, vernal equinox, first day of spring.” To borrow a line from one in all Levine’s poems, “that is what it seems like / when a girl”—even one who’s going blind—“refuses to look away.” [“Psalm with Sylvia Plath on the Radio”]

One other well-known e book of poetry with roots within the biblical Psalms is, after all, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and I see parallels right here within the huge scope of Bizarre Psalms, in its emphasis on the pure world with out shedding sight of its main object (humanity), and in its depiction of that humanity with its foibles and horrible transgressions bundled along with moments of luminosity and transcendence. But additionally with a brand new sort of deep seeing. I hold pondering of a quote by Mizuta Masahide, a Seventeenth-century Japanese poet and samurai: “Barn’s burned down / Now I can see the moon.” What new sorts of seeing are potential when it’s not the barrier to sight that’s misplaced, however sight itself? Metaphorically talking, how is it potential to go on when it appears like we’re shedding our means to see the best way? This e book teaches me how, and does so whereas holding my hand with compassion, tenderness, and at all times, magnificence’s balm.



Rebecca Foust is the writer of three chapbooks and 4 books together with ONLY, forthcoming from 4 Method Books in 2022, and her poems are broadly revealed, in The Hudson Evaluation, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poetry, Southern Evaluation and elsewhere. Recognitions embody the 2020 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry judged by Kaveh Akbar, the CP Cavafy and James Hearst poetry prizes, a Marin Poet Laureateship, and fellowships from The Frost Place, Hedgebrook, MacDowell, Sewanee, and West Chester Poetry Convention.




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