Anne-Marie Levine

Bus Ride to a Blue Movie - Reviewed by Robert M. Stein

Bus Ride to a Blue Movie by Anne-Marie Levine,
Pearl Editions, 2003, $12.00 paper, ISBN: 1-888219-22-X
–Robert M. Stein, Harvard Review, Number 26, 2004, P. 205-207

Some readers may well have had the pleasure of already encountering Anne-Marie Levine’s poetry, for she has published in some of the most interesting small magazines. Her first book, Euphorbia (Provincetown Arts Press, 1994) was a Paterson Poetry Prize finalist. Her second book of poems, Bus Ride to a Blue Movie, gives us another opportunity to savor her artistry. She is a former concert pianist suffering from what she calls amusia, the inability to produce musical sounds (“The condition is desperate,/ potentially fatal,/ I know”), but the poems themselves make a joyous music. It is, to be sure, a very edgy joy—the death of friends, the loss of lovers, the destruction of friendships, the aging body, annihilation, disturbing dreams, some very unpleasant sex, the whole outrage of the twentieth century—all this is played straight at the reader with a sharp attack, a sustained beauty of phrasing, and a deceptively offhand technical brilliance. Levine’s kind of playing has the power to transform a rather dire subject matter into something rich and strangely pleasurable.

“Four November 9ths,” a birthday poem, forms the beginning of an implied autobiography, of which we get fragments and hints throughout the book. Anne-Marie Levine tells us that she is the child of Belgian Jews, born fatefully on November 9, Kristallnacht (“It is not a simple matter, the birthday or the telling.”) Her parents fled, losing the members of the family that didn’t see the handwriting on the wall (“Our grandmother died immediately after/ they took her to the concentration camp./ She died a natural death.”), and they ended up ironically in Southern California (“My father ate an avocado half with his dinner every night.”). She went to Wellesley and, a California girl dripping with European culture, wound up in New York, a concert pianist and friend of some notable painters (ELLSWORTH KELLY—“the primacy of man’s need/ for color, the poignancy/ of man’s need/ for primary color”) She was married, has a son, is divorced, has lots of friends and a long-term boyfriend (“Bill’s still here though, and that’s good.”). She speaks about them throughout her poems, and by speaking of all these relations, intimate and otherwise, she speaks always about herself, even though, as she reminds us in “Autobiographical Poetry” (in Euphorbia), “Edmond Jabès says speaking about oneself/ always embarasses poetry” to which she immediately adds: “But then, poetry can take care of itself.”

Levine’s voice seems so spontaneous and is so strong and direct, her intelligence is so palpable, and her subject matter so interesting, that some readers might think the poetry is indeed just taking care of itself. But the most powerful art, it was once famously said, is the art that hides its own artistry, and a good half of the wonder of Anne-Marie Levine’s poetry takes place in the shaping force of musical invention: repetition is key. You can see it in the series “primacy… poignancy… primary” in the lines quoted above and the way those same lines ring the changes on “man’s need for color.” You can see it too in “First Wife” ; like a deconstructed villanelle, the long line “He asked me to go through it with him and I said yes” echoes in pieces throughout the poem. And in the long poem “With Sophie,” the repeated lines “The Sophie I knew” and “I’m telling you because I’m upset” articulate the poem into long phrasal segments built out of repeated narrative fragments with variations. Levine has obviously learned much from Frank O’Hara—an influence she graciously acknowledges. Unlike many latterday New York poets, however, Levine’s poetry never sounds as though it would have been better if O’Hara had written it. And while her sense of what one can accomplish with repetition and abstraction has clearly profited from a deep acquaintance with the work of Gertrude Stein, about whom she has written critically, Levine never completely relinquishes the hold of her language on reality or moves into the realm of a pure formalism. Her poetry grows from the pressure of situation.

If half of the wonder of these poems is technique, the other half is the way the poems composed of private matters and small moments take on large public and historic resonances as if behind the reader’s back. The biography sketched and implied over the course of the book becomes an exemplary life, in whose unique oddness one recognizes one’s own experience. Or rather, it’s not so much the life that becomes exemplary as the ability to speak such a life so directly, spiritedly, and with such apt beauty. The speaker—deadpan, sardonic, fresh, spontaneous, engaged—delivers something that one recognizes immediately as exactly the thing that needs to be said, needs to be said this way, and needs to be said right now.

Anne-Marie Levine writes about her own artistry directly in a poem called POEMS where, trying to find, in a book on rare diseases, the disorder called MAD (myo-adenylate de-aminase de-ficiency), she comes by sheer chance (“coincidence: the visible traces of invisible principles”) across a disease called POEMS. After a careful detailing of the awful pathology, Levine writes:

It is a perfectly terrible disease
and we don’t like terrible diseases,
as Frank O’Hara said when asked by a lady
for a contribution—“we don’t give her one
we don’t like terrible diseases”

But this disease is called POEMS
and I do like it, it seems sort of wonderful
and so literary too—there is even a list of synonyms
for it—or is it the book that is very literary to give
us these synonyms—and they are wonderful too—
PEP syndrome and Shimpo, Takatsuki syndrome
and Crow-Fukase.

Why is this so wonderful, why am I so happy?

“There is joy in acronyms,” POEMS continues, and this joy, as the poet knows, in acronyms, in the sound and texture of language, and in its transformative power, is contagious. The reader gets it right away.