Poems where sorrow and joy converge

by Christopher Levenson

Qualicum Beach: Caitlin Press, 2023
9781773861272 / $20.00

Reviewed by Trish Bowering


It’s a bit startling as we get older to look up and realize that we’re on different shores than we once were. Decades speed by and, when suddenly in unfamiliar territory, it can be wise to pause and look back, revisiting the markers of our journey that have shaped us. This can bring a poignant nostalgia, but also imbue the present with meaning. 

In Moorings, Christopher Levenson (Night Vision) brings a sharp sensibility to his own life as he focuses his lens on the islands of his past experience while firmly situating himself in his present circumstance. 

Author Christopher Levenson

Moorings is divided into five discrete sections. At first they feel disconnected, but the Vancouver poet soon clarifies that each part of the book reflects episodes in his life, past and present. Taken as a whole there is an accounting of sorts, a balance sheet. The poet’s past is a vital key to his present, and he shows that we need never feel lost at sea when we can be anchored to the stuff of life that has shaped us. 

All is prefaced by “Lost and Found: A Sequence,” a short cycle of poems that sets the stage for our voyage. Here we go! There will be no easy way through this storm of loss and gain; for consolation, we can only find as safe harbours and solid moorings as we are able.

How can we make sense of the ravages of time—

Though I once had 

a photographic memory,

those negatives are lost

and will not develop in

the dark room of the future. 

With language it’s the same:

halfway through a conversation,

I am lost for words, lose the thread, hear

the whole story unravel.

It feels as though we are in for a bumpy ride. But never fear, because we are in good hands with Levenson, who takes us back to childhood in the first section, The Past is a Foreign Country. These poems are touchstones to the past, coalescing to find a centre rooted in youth. “Ordnance Survey” recalls the paper maps of long-ago travels:

And they were durable: tucked into our rucksack

along with a picnic lunch and a compass, even when folded

they did not fray. They gave us connection,

security and scale. It was a tangible world.

These lines sing to me, with the desire for solidity from the past to anchor the turbulent present. I too can feel myself running a finger over maps of my own wanderings, folding them haphazardly according to their creases and recalling the certainty of tucking them into my backpack. In this section, there is the lovely—where Levenson recalls his mother’s marmalade and his father’s garden—but also the frightening stuff that is an inevitability of childhood. In “Ghost Train,” with its scalpel-sharp descriptions, a fairground’s nightmare of a ride stands in for the post-war years’ horror and remembrance: 

…Outdated Gothic bric-a-brac–

skeletons, witches, blood–and tendrils of flesh

oozing from canvas walls, a makeshift horror 

for us too young to have known the real thing.

Those who have never set foot in the past would not understand 

how the eight-track massacre’s caught in perpetual motion; 

how the fairground music and screams will never stop, 

how the ghost trains still run on time.

A curious section of the book, Brushstrokes seems to pause in life’s narrative. Rather than a grasping for the past or an examination of the present, it’s an oasis of stillness out of the timeline. Each poem is named for an art exhibition or artist, robustly describing the piece, as if in call and response. I became transfixed as I read, drawn into each canvas in my imagination. 

At times the art lifts off the page joyously, as in “Matisse.” 

…your brushstrokes make

flagrant colours lift off

above the palms and bougainvilleas 

into the blue of morning.

And the horror that Levenson sees in “Goya,” with its darkness and suffering, illustrates hard, immutable truths: 

...Your brushstrokes caught

their blundering flesh and blood, riddled with bullets

and ignored by official history, your darkening palette

took down all talk of glory, did not turn aside

from Reason’s guillotine, showed us war revolution,

as it really was…

In an about-face from evocative art, his section The Camps plumbs the past again, but drags it into the present. From “Camps”:

...every so often I enter

the mineshaft of memory, burrowing through

discarded diaries and letters to uproot

places and people I knew decades ago,

seemingly desperate to restore

that frayed network of connection.

This is not a part of his past that rests easy. It’s an effortful, awful minefield of past trauma and war, both globally and in one’s internal landscape. Levenson starts with old wars and moves to new ones. I was moved by “Infrastructure,” which I think could be the emblematic lines of the book: 

Asphalt, tarmac, cement

provide the thinnest of skins

over the void. When abruptly 

road surfaces give away,

cars and a truck fall into

a gaping sinkhole. Sure

it can be repaired. It is our confidence

that suffers, all we took

for granted.

Levenson’s poems suggest that the way we fix history as firmly in the past or in faraway lands imparts a sort of false privilege and distance. However, looking away is a luxury that we can ill afford. Not as individuals in denying the hard parts of our own pasts, or as a society ignoring our collective past. We are on thin ice here. 

In the last section, Moorings, Levenson returns us to the richness of the present that results from an honest look back. Ageing is not easy but the reckoning with the past has served well to help us withstand the grief of loss and change. 

There are many ways of seeing ageing in the poem “Face”: as an erosion due to hardship (“Past loveliness dissolves, / muscles attenuate”); and as the indignities of the doctor’s office, though I appreciate the wry humour (“How long can we defer that / final trip to the junkyard? / No matter, I feel okay, / good for a few more miles. I’ll drive myself / into the ground.”). I am taken with the evocation of sculpture and how Levenson juxtaposes sharp consonants with soft, rounded sounds that characterize the concluding lines:

Though sharp eye and chiselled jaw

muscle and cartilage 

will in time crumble,

nor can good bones alone

secure a smooth repose,

unseen fingers model lost wax,

firm hands of spirit form

in inner darkness

what will become of us.

With surfaces sheared away,

the lines at last become clean.

Sorrow and joy converge

in whittled cheeks and brow. 

With all excesses gone, 

each sculpted face becomes 

truly articulate.

Taken as a whole, Moorings strikes me as a collection about ways of seeing. We are allowed into Levenson’s world from his unique perspective as he unearths the places he’s been, shows us the people he’s known, and creates a map of how he sees art, places, truths and the reality of age. 

Levenson balances this with some solace. Despite loss, we can find our moorings in the solid anchors of experience, the migrations we’ve made, the relationships that have mutually bound us, the art that speaks to us, and the friends and family that keep us real. The small things that speak loudly will not fade—

At a loss, briefly we find ourselves 

in things noticed in passing. 

So many times we are taken 

out of ourselves, stumble upon 

an organist practising 

at dusk in an empty chapel, 

the slant of sunlight thwarted by a cloud,

the evening stillness of reeds

at attention by the river’s edge; 

wind-flickered wild yellow poppies, 

peripheral, by the roadside,

in a meadow a single voice

singing but unaware

of any listeners. This is our reward

for what will endure, what is given.

Trish Bowering

Tricia Bowering lives in Vancouver, where she is immersed in reading, writing and vegetable gardening. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of Victoria, and obtained her M.D. from the University of British Columbia. Now retired from her medical practice, she focuses on her love of all things literary. She blogs at TrishTalksBooks.com and reviews on Instagram@trishtalksbooks. [Editor’s note: Trish recently reviewed David Bergen and Debi Goodwin for BCR.]


The British Columbia Review

Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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