The Minor Virtues
Ragged Sky Press
Reviewer: Ann Wehrman
Crafted with lyrical rhythm and internal rhyme, Lynn Levin’s poems in The Minor Virtues sing of hope, faith, goodness, and humility. The speaker’s tone remains steady: calm, philosophical, and sometimes whimsical. The poems are never kitschy; language and style are always refined, light, and tender. The reader may experience the comfort of a long talk with a beloved aunt or grandmother who gently affirms core life lessons over a cup of tea and homemade cookies. Levin expresses wisdom and peace gleaned from observations made during daily life.
Poems in section one, “The Minor Virtues,” celebrate small rituals and experiences such as examining marked-down produce at the grocery and repairing broken possessions. In “On Knowing One’s Goblet at the Banquet Table,” Levin begs the reader to climb past “the pettiness of etiquette,” socially-imposed rules behind which people too often stagnate, justifying coldness and lack of empathy. Levin writes with tenderness of a dying tradition in “Writing in Longhand”:
I came upon bundles of letters
tied in pink and yellow bows,
correspondence I had not touched in years.
And there I found my old friends alive
in their script. Exuberant Nancy
with her flourishes and bubble-dotted i’s.
Tammy, her cursive half-sized
as if the soul withheld. Then Sue, many letters
from her crammed with news. Signed
but never with a closing. From my parents
stacks of missives from their middle years
stamped with flags and portraits. The postage
cheap back then, and smooth the glide of the pen.
Later the glove of age upon the hand
the shaky Love, Dad Love, Mom. And still the flutter
of Valentines and birthday cards, the fear
that made the trembling signatures more dear.
The title of section two, “Friends, I Burst into Your Day” is taken from Levin’s “Song of My Cell Phone.” As a rule, Levin’s poems do “burst into your day” with the gentle, irrefutable power of morning sunshine streaming through bedroom curtains. However, in contrast to Levin’s innate light, “Song of My Cell Phone,” which begins in tribute to Ginsberg, mourns the tyranny, emptiness, and time-and-mind grab that cell phones have imposed:
I have seen the best minds of my generation
clunking into buildings and strolling into traffic
wandering the streets looking for an angry fix—
more likes, more followers, better-looking faces on the dating apps.
Friends, I burst into your day calling, texting:
How are you? How is your health?
What did you eat for breakfast?
I sing the life electronic.
Those I love engirth me with their emails
and I engirth them with my emails.
Yet I miss the corded phones of yesteryear
with their clear reception and multiple extensions.
And where have all the pay phones gone
that stood on street corners—
yours for a dime, then a quarter, then a lot more money?
So great for making anonymous phone calls.
Levin’s social and political commentary can be extremely delicate, patrician, as in “Delicatessen,” in which the speaker compares various delis—cuisine, clientele, atmosphere. Her musing moves to the Jewish community members whom the delis often serve and deepens to explore challenges in faith as well as shared identity:
For neither place is remotely kosher.
But since I read the Forward’s report on labor violations
at the kosher meat processing plant in Iowa
I see no mitzvah in eating kosher.
. . .
But at Ben & Irv’s I am a regular
and glance up
from my soup like everyone else
when a new customer walks in
checking not for the fabled beak
but the catch in the eye
the antsy quality, the wariness weary of wariness.
If I find it, so be it.
If I do not, I return to myself unseen.
Perhaps unintentionally, Levin’s words are not limited to the Jewish people’s long suffering and persecution. In today’s world, where hatred and conflict rage, with so many diverse ethnic, religious, national, and racial groups displaced, broken, and almost destroyed, the “wariness weary of wariness” is not only observed in Jewish people. Arguably, one sees that look in the eyes of Muslims in the US, in Eastern Europeans who survived Serbia and Bosnia, in Soviet and Russian immigrants to the West, in escapees from China and North Korea, and in the eyes of many African Americans and Blacks worldwide.
Levin surprises the reader in section three, “Riddles and Such,” by beginning with a series of twelve riddles, including:
In me youth and beauty seem to last.
I seize the day but cling to the past.
I show what’s lost but cannot bring it back.
It’s not that they have gray skin, big heads, large eyes:
it’s that they might be hungry and unfriendly guys.
Signaling hello to them may not be wise.
The reader will find the riddles’ answers on the Notes page at the end of Levin’s book.
Levin writes of Lilith in multiple sections of this collection, poems both short and long. Section five’s “Lilith, the Scribe,” begins with a characterization to which readers might easily relate:
After the divorce from Adam, Lilith lived as she pleased.
She let her hair stream wild as the river reeds.
She put on a little weight, but no one carped about her hips and thighs.
She took lovers, turned with them on the airy sheets of night
though the hands of day sundered every bond.
People couldn’t decide whether she was a witch or an enchantress
whether she was to be hated or loved, worshiped or hanged.
The poems in Lynn Levin’s The Minor Virtues shine, rich with humor, sensitive observation of relationships and culture, and piquant commentary reminding the reader to be true to his or her conscience. Though the poet’s eyes are open to the problems of humanity, her palette employs local hues, her metaphors are crafted both from her scholarship and daily life. The easily readable poems are nevertheless layered and bound, asking the reader to take time and read closely, to unravel the bindings and join Levin’s meditative reflection.