(Georgetown, KY: Finishing Line Press, 2018)
Richard Levine’s first full-length collection of poetry, Contiguous States, explores the continued impact of the Vietnam War, veteran reintegration, love, and one’s power to rehabilitate the self and the natural world. Deeply personal, Levine guides the reader through his spiritual journey, from broken veteran to wizened poet, in five conversational and beautifully wrought sections.
The first section of the collection deals directly with the Vietnam War and serves to ground the book in a specific kind of human tragedy. The minimalistic and haunting first poem, “a big bang in a small space,” sets the tone with an act of violence, followed by a brief moment of hope, and a final realization of impending death. “[H]e thought he survived,” Levine writes about a soldier, “then what he saw in our eyes / and when he looked down.” Ending abruptly, what actually happens is left to the reader’s imagination, yet this soldier’s experience isn’t unique: all of the soldier’s in Levine’s poems die, even the ones who return home alive. Often, the extent of the death, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, is revealed through civilians and civilian activities. “A Mother Welcomes a Son Home from War,” tells the story of a mother reuniting with her son, but “the one / she thinks she hugs, well, / he is dead.” Some of the characters in the poems attempt to escape death by singing “songs to the bottom / of so many glasses”; others succumb to suicide. In “Graceland,” the poet thinks, mistakenly, that he sees his long-deceased comrade and decides to find temporary respite in material goods. “Let’s slather ourselves in Elvis bling,” he says to his wife. While the poems in this opening section are utterly compelling, the real magic of this collection occurs when the poet turns his eye towards the process of veteran reintegration into society.
War, which stains even the most mundane and quotidian actions, irrevocably changes the characters in this collection. The second section begins with “My First Veterans Day,” detailing the speaker’s attempts to reconcile with an old girlfriend in an attempt to regain his lost identity. The poem ends with the speaker revealing that he “could not fathom / the boy I was or that he had broken your heart.” In “Night of Falling,” the poet seeks respite in the arms of a deceased friend’s widow and realizes it doesn’t solve his problems. “All the awful intimacy and / nakedness of being abandoned was still / there to be faced,” he writes, “[s]o we drank and talked.” The poet seeks rehabilitation through conversation, communion, and the act of remembrance, and in “I Am a Witness,” he concludes:
And I am a witness, that there is more
to love, in the light of the sun and the shine of the moon,
than planting and watering seeds.
Two poems later, in the most emotionally resonate poem in the collection, the speaker realizes his ability to love himself and others:
I’ve come to see how
a flame in each of us,
which keeps only its own
company, is joined
in the kind of story that conjugates
distant constellation stars
to burn as one in the dark.
The third and fourth sections of the book find the poet rehabilitating nature and listening to the world around him. He strips nature of manmade desecrations in “Fanfare,” a poem emblematic of these two sections, removing “Old Glory, / waving high over this rolling green empire of mountain” and “dismantling a shooting platform the previous owner / hunted deer from.” But memories of the Vietnam War continue to infect the present, as “a tractor’s but-ah-but-ah-but-ah” reminds him of evacuation helicopters. In the end, the poet confesses, “I kneel, soft for the healing, / kneel-deep for those still alone and trying to come home.”
Coming full circle, the end of the collection finds the speaker at peace. “Raking leaves,” he writes, “I gather in the past, / and spread it over my retired garden.” Levine is a philosophical poet, believing that deep love, love that is willing to say goodbye or dig in for a lifetime together, is the solution. Poetry, it seems, is the perfect way to cultivate this love.
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Aaron Bristow-Rodriguez was born in Wisconsin. He received his BA from the University of Minnesota. He is a third-year MFA poetry candidate at Wichita State University and the co-editor-in-chief of Mikrokosmos and mojo.