Sunday, August 13, 2017

Nathan Spoon's To Frivolity, A Review of Heller Levinson’s tenebraed

tenebraed, Heller Levinson (Black Widow Press, April 2017).
The book cover image by Linda Lynch is entitled Oil Drawing for 2900,
and is a detail of a larger painting in oil on plywood.  

To Frivolity, A Review of Heller Levinson’s tenebraed by Nathan Spoon 

Heller Levinson
Black Widow Press, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-9971725-7-7
123 pages $15.00

The way to get at the “interior” of the poetic texts in tenebraed may well be to approach them from an “exterior” vantage. Gayatri Spivak in her Preface to Of Grammatology writes, “The text has no stable identity, no stable origin, no stable end. Each act of reading the “text” is a preface to the next. The reading of a self-professed preface is no exception to this rule.” Certainly the same applies as well to the reading of a self-professed review.


tenebraed is written to demonstrate Hinge Theory (or simply Hinge) which, according to Levinson, operates on the premise: “It’s not what it Is, but how it Behaves.” How does the language in tenebraed (and other Hinge works) behave?

Hinge writing focuses on how language is essentially morphic, in that the more language is used, the more it needs to be used. Particularly when it comes to creative expressiveness, does any of us ever truly finish saying any given thing we have to say? In relation to this, anything that is begun as a Hinge work can have more poems (or “modules”) added to it.

Hinge writing behaves morphically, as language enters the realm of:

lurch                    reel                    ricochet

rum                      in                       a



It may be helpful to contrast the work in tenebraed with “Birches” by Robert Frost. In this poem we find an example of Frost’s idea of “the sound of sense” in the following lines describing icy birch branches:

                                Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust -
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

And we have another example in this description of a boy climbing birches:

                                        He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

As Tim Kendall has pointed out, this poem plays with the idea that the boy has bent the birches to the ground, when it was really the ice that did so.


At any rate, this idea of the sound of sense is Frost’s way of addressing the notion of form and content, as two fundamental aspects that are combined together in a given poem. Frost wants the form of his language to express its content and its content to fit the form. Hinge writing resembles lichen, which is a result of algae or cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) joining a symbiotic relationship with fungi filaments to become a third substance. While birches are plants, the most one can say about lichens is that they are plant-like. Lichens cannot be bent to the ground by ice or boys; or, for that matter, poets or readers or reviewers.


By contrast, Levinson (or any Hinge writer) is concerned, as noted above, with how language is behaving. The opening lines of “tenebraed to mermaid” read:

to blue algae bludgeon slur

scrape of solar scrim

two-world strider slippering through wave-lap

where do you like it best?

land? sea?

Pausing over these lines allows us to observe how the, at first, tumbling language shifts into a question about where a being living between two worlds prefers to dwell. From here Levinson’s “module” appropriates passages from Hans Peter Duerr and Clayton Eshleman, before shifting to say:


dive deep-diver



How does Mermaid figure into the hybridic-shamanic? She straddles not fence, but Surface. … She smudges the split between visible & invisible.

Levinson’s mermaid “straddles” the textual “Surface” of “no stable identity, no stable origin, no stable end.” This seemingly innocuous “Surface” is the “interior” of tenebraed and other Hinge works.


This leads to why Hinge works are referred to as “modules” rather than “poems.”

The OED defines a “poem” as, “A piece of writing in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by particular attention to diction (sometimes involving rhyme), rhythm and imagery.” By contrast a “module” is defined primarily as, “Each of a set of standardized parts or independent units that can be used to construct a more complex structure, such as an item of furniture or a building.” 

In the Frost poem cited above, we are encountering a more or less closed unit of language, with a clear beginning, a clear middle and a clear end. It is a whole comprised of various parts. As readers, we are invited to slip back, if only momentarily, into a “place” where we can re-experience the wonder and magic of a childhood activity, and not so we can leave the adult world behind forever. The backward step we are invited to take is meant to enrich and deepen our experience now.

Hinge writing offers no such opportunity for stepping backward. In “tenebraed to reverie” we are instead offered the constant “Surface” and ongoing “frivolity” of:

fermata               cessate               launch               un

burden                                loosed from




This is poetry severely reduced to “nerve-nimbus” to “wing-frigate” to mantis-proxy.” Reading it provides a moment to delight in its:




With no clear beginning, middle or end, our world of language moves in every direction at once. Each new “module” is a part awaiting its whole (which, of course, can never arrive). Each new “module” invokes another.


In a book of conversations between George Steiner and editor Laure Adler titled A Long Saturday, Mr. Steiner reminds us:

Language admits everything. It’s an alarming truth that we hardly ever think about: we can say anything, nothing stifles us, nothing shocks us when someone says the most monstrous things. Language is infinitely servile, and language - this is the mystery - knows no ethical limits.


There is so much that remains to be said.


1 The Archeology of the Frivolous: Reading Condillac, by Jacques Derrida, Translated and with an Introduction by John P. Leavey, Jr., Bison Books, 1980

2 The Art of Robert Frost, by Tim Kendall, Yale University Press, 2012

3 A Long Saturday: Conversations, George Steiner with Laure Adler, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, The University of Chicago Press, 2017