Larson Publications (2007)
There's a 40-year interval between Stephen Levine's previous book of poetry and his latest—that's quite a span. In the interim, he's not remained silent. Indeed, you may recognize his name as a bestselling spiritual author. If you've read any of his books, you might have noted how poetic his prose is: its awakening quality of mind, and openness of heart. So, when a reader once complained to the author how his book Who Dies? made no mention of what poets wrote the poems he inserted in the prose, he was actually quite pleased: all the writing was his own.
Before this 40-year-long road began, he'd seen and been part of that seminal, mid-century opening of America to poetry, spearheaded by Richard Brautigan, Diane diPrima, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka), Kenneth Rexroth, and others. He hosted a venue in New York City for poetry readings, and published three books of his own poetry. Then something else called to him. As he recalls, "The same place we meet poetry, we meet each other: the higher level of consciousness we call intuition. The intuition from which poetry is recorded, reported, became very important in connection with healing." This calling to healing led him to work with the dying, relationship as spiritual practice, and living each day as if it were your last. What could be more meaningful—or poetic—than that?
"Following the old alphabet home"
His life work prepared the ground for Breaking the Drought. The title is a key to the book's deep reach. Two obvious references are the personal, in the author's return to poetry . . . and global, as in global warming. In the mountains of New Mexico where he lives, there's been little rain for eight years. Forty percent of forests have been lost. It also evokes poetry's shamanic lineage, extending back to humankind's earliest rain-bringers and tribal healers. In the Edo period of Japan, for instance, Kikaku, a close disciple of Zen haiku master Basho, reputedly ended drought by reciting poetry.
The flipside of drought is water, and the book continues elementally, in sections that I take to pertain to earth (incarnation), air (devotion), fire (death and dying), and the human (teachers along the path). To appreciate the grace with which the poet treats each, consider the many aspects of water he evokes: oceans, and tears, the amniotic ocean of birth, the source of great river civilizations, and water as medium of transformation (as in a drop of water becoming a pearl). This multi-dimensional approach ranges from the luminous particular (an essential to poetry), as in "First rains chasing turquoise-bellied geckoes/ up the stony arroyo walls"—to the figurative, as in:
A drop of pond water under the microscope
just like in science class
but now you are the pond
and the microscope is mindfulness.
A true seer, Levine's poetry is visionary. He can write ballads or hymns with profound clarity and timeless heart, such as "If prayer would do it," "When human beings meditate," "There is an elemental love," and "There is a silence between breaths." Such poetry is also a form of teaching, that pure poetry through which the prophets and avatars amongst us have often spoken.
He also continues where he left off, from his previous books of poetry, to forge a poetic true to his 40-year-long experience of What Is. Call it Surreal Dharma Jazz, for want of any better rubric. Consider this fragment: ". . . following the old alphabet home vertebra by/ vertebra, genus by genus, up the serpent/ into the skull—'bowl of stars' . . ." Hear how landscape and inscape, here, are as one. And then it draws upon the phenomena of language itself ("the old alphabet"), that leads us back to the literal spine along which life evolves ("genus by genus")—capped by one concentrated image fusing the cranial dome with the vault of the heavens. There's an identifiable meter underlying it - dactylic—but the poem's rhythm also summons one-pointed concentration upon the complexity of breath in tandem with devotion to the unknowable.