The Bookshelf: Miriam Levine's Poetry of 'Loss and Consolation'

Aug 2, 2019

Miriam Levine's new collection of poetry is, as she describes it, a book about loss and consolation. In Saving Daylight, poems recall small moments: a chance meeting outside a theater, an encounter with a mosquito, watching a harmless spider walk across someone's hair. Levine lives in Concord for part of the year, and she sat down with NHPR's All Things Considered Host Peter Biello to chat about her new collection.

Read Miriam Levine's Top Five Reading Recommendations

1.   Dart by Alice Oswald.  "A long lyrical poem about 'the River Dart in Devon.' Oswald writes, 'This poem is made from the language of people who live and work on the Dart.  Over the past two years I’ve been recording conversations with people who know the river.' I admire the way Oswald has transformed these voices even as she honors them. Oswald is in tune with the natural world.  Reading her work helps me look outward."

2.   A Primer for Forgetting by Lewis Hyde.  "What a surprise to read about forgetfulness 'not as something to fear . . . but rather as a blessing, a balm, a path to peace and rebirth.' Hyde links forgetfulness to forgiveness.  It was a pleasure to follow Hyde as he draws upon varied sources to explore how we think about forgetfulness."

3.   The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl.  "'The real job of being human,' Hampl finds, 'is getting lost in thought, something only leisure can provide.' There are wonderful descriptions of celebratory moments. There are depictions of the pleasures of quiet solitude.  The business of daily life, the driving demands of my job, have never inspired me to write. Hampl gives me permission to dream."

4.   The Friend by Sigrid Nunez.   "The unnamed heroine of Nunez’s dry, allusive and charming new novel, The Friend, is a writer and a cat person. More specifically, she is a cat person in a 500-square-foot Manhattan apartment who inherits, after the suicide of a friend, his harlequin Great Dane. Nunez chose to include two endings to her novel. 'That’s fun,' I thought, and wrote a poem that has two endings.

5.   Lady Byron’s Daughters by Julia Markus.  "I like writing that shakes up past opinion. Once vilified as the dull wife of the poet Lord Byron, Annabella Milbanke, Lady Byron, emerges as a remarkable woman. 'Markus is a skilled and sure-footed storyteller who sketches in the complications of [Lady] Byron’s biography with speed and assurance, letting the details of Annabella’s lesser-known afterlife as a philanthropist and single parent take center stage."

So you write quite a bit about people you've lost and moments in time that you seem to hold really close to your heart. Is writing poetry about loss, the consolation that you seem to be hoping for here?

Yes. Some poems are about loss. Those are the elegiac poems. And you can't get through life without losing someone that you are deeply connected with, that you love. And the where does the consolation come from? Well, it's kind of a mystery. Some people say that it comes from moments of grace. Some people say it comes from letting go. Some people say it comes from a recognition of the connection that you had and that in some ways still is being honored in the poem.

When you write about loss, you don't come out and say things directly. It's not on the nose. In other words, you don't say, “I am sad,” but it does come across through vivid images and often bright colors, things you wouldn't normally associate with loss and death and sadness. So I wanted to ask you about that approach, because it seems very deliberate.

It is deliberate, but I think it's also the way my brain is wired. It's connected to color this time of year in Concord. For instance, when I take my walks in White Park and all these various areas, I notice that people have baskets of the most vivid flowers on display. You know, Chekhov said that if you want to talk about an emotion, don't say you're sad. Find something in the room or the scene that evokes that feeling. And it's not always deliberate. It's one of those things that happens if you use your eyes, if you use your senses. If you use your brain as well. All of those things are connected.

One of the poems I really like here, and one of the lines I really like is from the beginning of a poem called "Release." And the lines are "some people pray on their knees, but I'd rather walk on the beach, the sea collapses to froth." And the poem goes on. There are a lot of moments in your poems here that that reference the sea and you live for part of the year in South Beach in Florida. Is there something about this setting that inspires you?

Yes, the setting speaks to me. I'm so grateful to be able to be walking and to be out there, to leave my desk, to leave my computer, to leave my notebook and to be out in the world seeing, experiencing and thinking. And there's that rhythm of walking that has very, very much to do with writing a poem.

And where does that gratitude come from? Is it in part because you're now in your eighties and a lot of people your age are unable to be as mobile?

Oh, of course.  I've always liked to walk. And now I'm much more grateful for it than I was when I was younger. I turned 80 in December.

A lot of these poems are pantoums.

Yes. Pantoums.

So for listeners who aren't aware, there are four or five stanzas, mostly five stanzas in your poems. And there are several repeating lines. What is it about the pantoum that you like?

Well, what's wonderful about the pantoum is that the form does some of the work for you. The form comes from an oral tradition from Malaysia. So one of the things I like about it is the fact that we have another culture informing our culture and coming into it. And I love the rhythm of the repetition.

Well, I hope you can leave us with a poem. Would you would you mind reading a short poem?

I'd be delighted, Peter. This one comes from childhood and it's called "Bitten."

We kids had so much to give—pennies, kisses,
blood mosquitoes love. We'd let them land

on the back of our hands and watch the frail
bodies darken as they swelled.

It was always twilight. The wings blue,
the legs weightless. Always we were quiet.

Filled with nothing we could grandly call
"Life." We let them fly off. Curiosity

made us generous. We'd go home tired
in the air, ripe with wings, bitten and young,

in the growing dark, in the smell of phlox,
in the softest night, in the world where we fit.

Miriam Levine's new collection of poetry is called Saving Daylight. We're always looking for reading recommendations from listeners like you. What should we bring to the beach in this last month of summer? Tell us by e-mail. The address is books@nhpr.org. We want to know the title, the author, and why you think other readers should check out what you found. You can also tweet us @NHPRbookshelf.