New York City skyline at night




The Darkness Above: Selected Poems 1968-2002
by Donald Lev

The Darkness Above: Selected Poems 1968-2002 by Donald Lev

The Darkness Above:
Selected Poems 1968-2002
by Donald Lev

Red Hill OUTLOUDBOOKS, 2008; 187 pages; $20
ISBN 1-879969-15-7, paper

Reviewed by Jared Smith

The key to understanding New York is organic rhythm &emdash; the rhythm of the streets, the stores, the ghosts … all those things that have no meaning beyond themselves but which we spend most of our lives building and which must be understood in order to dance the dance of meaning. Donald Lev has studied that meaning in short clipped cadences for better than 40 years, shuffling and fox-trotting his way along the streets as an unflinching messenger from the gods of culture, community, and commerce … incredulous and often appalled by what he came to see but always reporting without ornamentation.

Donald is always the messenger … carrying memos and special deliveries from institutions we think are important, such as The New York Times or The Village Voice, and uncovering them for the vanities they would be without the men and women behind them. When I first got to know him, he was living in a Spartan room down on the Bowery with a good friend of mine, working on his first literary magazine, HYN, and then later on Home Planet News, both of which he allowed me to serve as guest columnist for. But as with his poetry, Don brought a light into that room that connected with our understanding of the time. One could take one's girlfriend over to visit, and she would remain there; one could talk of Balzac or Packard or Emilie Glenn, and they would wander in in their own time. Each minute spent there was filled with detail and alert concentration. There were no sweeping patterns of generalized hyperbole in our discussions — only details and the kind of thoughts that Don would take away with him and drive across New York with in a cab of strangers. A poet's life, and thus, by definition, sometimes an isolated life in the midst of numbers.


net began falling
all i
tell you
think i
was or
seemed to myself to
have been a
solitary creature
before then

But Don is always a fighter … a quiet fighter, but a man intent on what has to be done. With the best of poets, he takes the images and symbols of meaning where he finds them, and his first work is to make sure that they are passed along.


… i find an old portable
typewriter abandoned in a vacant lot
it types poorly but it types
i use yesterday's newspaper to type on

the work goes
not well
but on

Don is a searcher for meaning in all the best ways. He not only reads books and drives the endless city streets but also studies the men and women he comes in contact with, searching their faces and their messages for meaning. When he finds the cheap food to be found there, he feeds himself and goes forth to their meanings as well as his if he perceives that their answers end in ashes.


The ash end of the cigar brightened
my life. It was light and substance and
truth. I knelt before the end of the
cigar. I wept over it as I
thought of Havana, as I thought of
Jerusalem and Kiev and Man-
hattan. I tried to maintain an en-
viable position in the business
community all the while
but my ash worship was getting the
better of me. Friends started avoid-
ing me. Enemies began praising me,
taking me out for long lunches
in obscure delicatessens — feasts
of liverwurst and limburger. I
couldn't tell what they were up to, but I
kept my eyes on their cigars, watching
and waiting for the ashes to fall.

There is a certain dark comedy that comes of this — a vision of a humble man striving to learn from the idiots who drive our economic engines. And Don appreciates this humor, seeing himself as others who have not tasted poetry must see all poets, as unshaven and unclean. As he writes at the opening of one of his longer poems,


i stand before the gates of heaven
holding a carton full of groceries.
i'm sent around to the back door with my burden.

Don is one of the great poets, who has addressed the moral and cultural issues of our time and, in finding them wanting, has continued to struggle to find answers rather than to beat upon the tin drums of the tin-eared university community. He has been a brother to all young poets, and has brought them along to sit with other poets and men of compassion and skill. This is what makes him the extraordinary editor that he is as well. He speaks for and of that which is genuine in our lives.

And his life has been good, judged in any way by the strength and variety of his poetry, and the insight he has given back to men. Selected Poems is a vast work covering the details of almost 40 years of writing among New York's best poets … good times and the worst of them. They are the poems of a man who, whatever the pain, would have pride always in what was uniquely his — in his HYN, thrust against life. They are poems of hidden messages, of messengers that have been slain on the moment of their announcement, of charity and humor in a humorless world. As with any significant poet, the words change and the poems grow more complex over time, but are always tightly worded, poems that could turn on an image or concluding couplet as suddenly and smoothly as anyone could ever wish. He believes in the integrity of what is given to a man that can sustain that man in life and give him dignity … not the proclamations of high idealists or of dreamers:


I want to write
Something genuine
As a sack of
Kosher chicken hearts
On sale at Nadler's

And, quoted in full, showing how much can be contained within the simple sensory images of life, is this mystic passage into the essence and hidden passageways of poetry:


The scent of snuffed candle follows me
Through the needle's eye of poetry.


Jared Smith is the author of seven published volumes of poetry, two CDs, and two stage adaptations. His poems and essays appear in New York Quarterly, Home Planet News, The Pedestal, Confrontations, The Smith, Bitter Oleander, Spoon River Quarterly, Change, and many others here and abroad. His own Selected Longer Poems: 1984-2008 is forthcoming from Tamarack Editions.