In These Voices by Sherri Levine
The Poetry Box (August 29, 2018), 42 pp $12
ISBN #: 978-1948461115
Available at: https://thepoetrybox.com/bookstore/in-these-voices
True to its title, Sherri Levine’s In These Voices deftly explores personae ranging from a squirrel to an English teacher to ruminating lovers and parents. Throughout this collection of 22 short poems, Levine employs supple, confident verse that maintains stylistic consistency while giving each character a distinct voice. She seems equally at home with plainspoken vignettes and song-like outbursts.
The range of Levine’s ambitions is suggested by “I Ate a Raymond Carver,” which begins with its speaker wondering, If I ate you, / Raymond Carver / would I write like you? The speaker praises Carver’s skill at carving and chiseling / characters. However, after a stanza expressing admiration for specific Carver stories, the speaker wonders if writing like Carver would lead to a cancerous death. The end of the poem finds her considering a richer poetic. She takes a bite of Henry Miller and Anais Nin and finds they taste of Nutella, candied nuts, whipped cream.
The rest of the book shows Levine striving successfully to unify these stylistic impulses. She displays her sympathy with Carver in “Orange Crush,” a brief poem that begins with a matter-of-fact description of an everyday frustration:
I saw my man
put a dollar
in the soda machine
to buy a Coke
but the Coke didn’t come out
was an Orange Crush.
After banging the machine with his fists and yelling, the man decides to drink the unwanted soda. The puzzled speaker asks Why? The man’s answer delivers an ending worthy of a Carver story or poem:
Cause it’s here
and I’m thirsty.
You get used to it—
You get used to a lot of things, he said.
I’ll never get used to losing you, I told him.
When Levine reaches for the candied nuts, she doesn’t emulate the elaborate diction of Miller or Nin. Instead, she breaks out into free-verse song. For instance, “Only Cowboys Can Make” begins with an outburst appropriate for its subject:
Alberta July swings her hula-hoop hips
around her cherry chocolate thighs,
bubblegum bubbles go smack! Crack!
The poem’s title becomes a refrain as Levine employs rhymes and song-like rhythm to portray an ambiguous relationship. Alberta repeatedly calls the speaker’s name:
“Joleeeen,” she sings my name
in a high-pitched cry
only cowboys can make.
Eventually, Jolene pleads with Alberta to “please stop singing / my name, you’re making me cry.” But, in a burst of rhymed couplets, Alberta persists until she gets a new response:
She’s shaking her head with her purple pink bows,
and silver-framed glasses sliding down her pug nose.
I throw up my arms, roll on my back, then cover my eyes
I sing, “Jolleeeeen! Jolleeeen!” in a high-pitched cry
Only cowboys can make.
As I read, I was tempted to speculate about which poems express Levine’s personal voice. For instance, because she teaches English in Portland, it would be easy to conclude that she is the speaker in “Grammar Lessons,” a first-person poem that shows a teacher conjugating love. On the other hand, it may seem obvious that Levine is not the “Gray-Haired Squirrel” who frets about his inability to remember where he buries his nuts. Ultimately, this speculation proved to be pointless: In These Voices does not enable or demand any demarcation between self-expression and empathy. Instead, Levine appears to find herself in all of these voices and to find all of these voices in herself.
In These Voices adds a fine first book to Levine’s poetic resume, which includes a first-place prize in one of the Oregon Poetry Association’s 2017 contests and multiple appearances in small-press publications. Levine’s poems are fun to read, thought-provoking, and rich in feeling, observation, and linguistic texture. I’ll be looking out for more of her work.
Paul Telles is a poet and Yoga teacher who lives in Beaverton, Oregon. His poems have appeared in Verseweavers, Children, Churches and Daddies, and Currents, a journal published by the Body-Mind Centering Association. He is a winner of multiple Oregon Poetry Association prizes, including an Honorable Mention in the Traditional Verse category in Fall 2019. He is a two-time finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest.