LinguaQuake, Heller Levinson
Black Widow Press (2018)
Book Cover Image, “Quarry, VIII” (Detail)
Pastel pigment on cotton paper
60 x 44 inches, 2015
It Doesn’t Break
A Review of Heller Levinson’s LinguaQuake
by Nathan Spoon
LinguaQuake is the latest volume resulting from Heller Levinson’s ongoing engagement with Hinge Theory. Reading through it, the poet Geoffrey Hill repeatedly came to mind. This is an odd correlation for many reasons. Hill is a poet of dense history, willing to experiment within modernist parameters, which reluctantly reached into postmodernism. He sees language as “fallen” from its prelapsarian glory and admires poetry that creates “strongholds of the imagination.” Levinson, by contrast, dispenses with history as a by-product of dispensing with narrative, and he approaches language in a manner that embraces its continuously bifurcating display of movements.
These are substantial differences, but what links both poets is a commitment to the examination of words. Hill, as a deeply English writer, moves in harmony with the OED, while Levinson’s approach to words is far more experimental. Still, for all his effort to have “Hinge depart from all other poetic fashionings in declaring itself an ongoing ever-fulfilling linguistic enterprise,” Levinson is surely a participant in what John Ashbery calls an “American poetry whose fructifying mainstream seems at times to be populated mostly by cranks (Emerson, Whitman, Pound, Stevens).”
While other aspects of Hinge Theory are demonstrated in previous collections and outlined in writings referenced in the notes of this collection, LinguaQuake explores the two areas of Modular Collapse and Chaotic Symmetry. About Modular Collapse Levinson writes,
we will see modules morph, liquidate, & interosculate in multiple capacities. They will self-destruct. They will convulse. They will mangle & entangle.
and about Chaotic Symmetry he writes,
the apparently slop-shod and disorderly is integral to the Entirety of the Organism’s Lively Burgeoning.
A module may be understood as an amorphous clustering of language around a word or words providing the occasion of a starting point. As the language of modules “quakes”, one encounters “breaks, highs & lows, pauses, gaps, elisions, lacunae” transpiring in a manner “more resembling Breath than catalogue.” This last phrase favors “Breath” (an amorphous sweeping that vitalizes, and which can be understood as “life”) over the “catalogue” (a list of things or “a collection of detailed comments and explanations,” OED).
Levinson’s descriptions of Modular Collapse are relevant to what is enacted in this book as it unfolds. And sometimes there is more. For example, and going back to the above description, “interosculate” is a biology term meaning “to have some common characteristics: said of separate species or groups.” It also means to interpenetrate. While modules in this text do interoscuate, they sometimes also interosculate with poems by other poets. Here is a passage that is resonant with Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:
relying heavily on graph analysis I plot my mate. I am exalted. fluttering with anticipation. possibility. I am on my way to becoming someone. soon to emerge. into. person-hood. I cannot stress this too strongly. how thrilling it is. to be about to. on the cusp. of. hatching. pages pages pages. I am visualizing pages filled with my Self. who wouldn’t be giddy. after years of deprivation. submerged. an obliterate in a sea of commotion. (p. 49)
Another similarly Whitmanesque passage (although the optimism is inverted) reads:
flutteration pins me. I am comatose. broke. a slag upon the floor. low down. my delusions my dreams smattered. to be. to be all you can be. haunts me. I crave to measure up. to amount to something. to become. to to to yes, to formulate. to emerge. hell, if not to be ― to resemble? (p. 35)
Importantly, Modular Collapse implies that the text is not an arrangement of separate modules (poems). It is a singular mass, a conglomeration:
at what point in the gathering does the collection become assemblage. how does criteria assemble. how does judgement discharge. (p. 109)
In Levinson’s brief description of Chaotic Symmetry, the operative word may be “apparently”. The text itself speaks of what it intends to enact, and this enactment grounds its language in the realm of intentionality:
the wobble the displaced the
misplaced the wayward the
awkward the maligned the…
malignant the belligerent (p. 21)
…swerves of preservative in the dark undulate of dank demeanor (p. 60)
This last is a poem in miniature. “Gruntled” is a humorous adjective meaning “pleased, satisfied and contented.” “Slop-sustain” recalls “slop-shod” in the above description. “Slop-shod” is a play on “slipshod” (“lack of care, thought or organization”) and, because “slop” means “spill or flow over the edges of a container,” usually due to carelessness, is similar in meaning to “slipshod.” To be “gruntled” with “slop-/ sustain/ …swerves of preservative in the dark undulate of dank demeanor” implies that these things, which are frequently excised from poetry, have their place. Presumably there has always been a countermovement within poetry that extends active sympathy towards things that may seem antithetical and contrary to its own spirit.
Hinge Theory Quaking
Even as Levinson’s aim is to do something different from what previous poets have done, his poetry has, until now, represented a mostly insular contribution to the American tradition to which he belongs.
A renowned Hindu teacher once said that a person’s spirituality is like a fledgling plant growing in a pasture. If a small fence is built around it temporarily, so that cows and goats cannot eat it, it will one day grow into a large tree, providing shade for many. Similarly, a poetic approach may at first need to be surrounded by a small fence and carefully protected. But, once this has been accomplished and once it is growing, a key aspect of nurturing the poetic approach is knowing when to lose control of the very things one has worked at so diligently.
This is a significant moment for Hinge since the two areas explored in this book are allowing Hinge Theory poetry to move forward in larger ways.
LinguaQuake is Heller Levinson’s most substantial collection to date.
Visionary Philology: Geoffrey Hill and the Study of Words, by Matthew Sperling, Oxford University Press, 2014
“Strongholds of the Imagination,” Geoffrey Hill interviewed by Alexandra Bell, Rebecca Rosen and Edmund White, The Oxonian Review, Issue 9.4, May 18, 2009
Selected Prose of John Ashbery, edited by Eugene Richie, University of Michigan Press, 2004
Leaves of Grass, First and “Death-Bed” Editions, by Walt Whitman, edited with an Introduction and Notes by Karen Karbiener, Barnes & Noble Books, 2004