Reviewed by Paul Telles
Stealing Flowers from the Neighbors by Sherri Levine
Kelsay Books (August 8, 2021), 90 pp, $19
ISBN #: 978-1639800100
Available at: https://kelsaybooks.com/products/stealing-flowers-from-the-neighbors?_pos=1&_sid=5cef90b89&_ss=r
In Stealing Flowers from the Neighbors, Portland poet Sherri Levine proves that she understands the Rumi epigram that introduces her book: You have to keep breaking your heart until it opens. The result is a series of 53 poems that testify about difficult themes that include mental illness and the death of a parent.
Organized into two sections, Stealing Flowers builds gradually toward its central themes with masterful poems that stand on their own while also foreshadowing the heartbreaking—and heart opening—poems that lie ahead.
In the first section, Levine portrays a woman reflecting on her girlhood while contending with adult issues of gender, sexuality, and the role of art in daily life. In “Girl,” which is the section’s title poem, we meet a young woman who steps out / of the subway / in her shimmy / shine short shorts to meet her boyfriend. Along the way, she encounters a host of ordinary, but threatening, obstacles, including a phone that is B-R-O-K-E. More troubling, she must run a gauntlet of sticky-stank / double dip dumb / fuckers. Still, she perseveres in her effort to meet the boy who waits for her / in the dark.
Other poems describe her relationship with her parents. In “Where My Father Stands,” Levine uses an everyday situation to illustrate the emotional distance between a father and daughter. As they rake their yard, the father tells his daughter to retrieve paper bags from the garage so she can stuff them with leaves. The girl, however, is afraid she might get bitten by a recluse. The father is unsympathetic, warning that she should not kill the spiders because “they eat insects for lunch.”
As she stuffs the bags with leaves, the girl notices how a warm wind kicks up a whirlwind of dust and willow leaves and asks her father if he’s ever seen leaves / dance like that? However, he’s already gone.
As good as it is, the first section of Stealing Flowers ultimately is a scene-setter for the second part. Titled “Unleashed,” the section adroitly explores two parallel arcs: her struggles with mental illness and her mother’s descent into illness and death.
In “I Remember Not Sleeping,” Levine describes her experience in a behavioral health facility:
I remember, on the psychiatric ward, thinking that the patients
were doctors who were there to save me because I was dying.
A flashlight shone in my eyes every two hours during the night,
a needle poked in my arm.
In “Tell Me What It’s Like,” she bravely gives us a peek into the experience of mental illness. It’s as if my brain traveled / a long way across the Arizona /desert, she begins. Her brain, she says, is dehydrated, worn, / deviled by dirt and sand, / pierced by prickly pear spines. A javelina sniffs it and turns away. A wolf pisses on it. In the end, in a passage both frightening and liberating, a hawk snags it and drops it into a small stream / where shade / feels like spring.
Other poems describe the process of her recovery, the powerful therapeutic value of making art, and the eventual understanding that madness is not necessary for creativity.
At the same time, Levine takes a clear but sympathetic look at her mother’s emotional and physical problems. In “Rummaging,” she learns of her mother’s emotional difficulties during a visit to a bank. After her mother waves a finger at a teller and abruptly asks for the chubby one, Levine tugs her arm and attempts to pull her away. When her mother refuses to relent, Levine notices that the bank’s staff are taking the episode in stride. Behind the window, the manager nods to me. / He says to her: “It’s okay, Mrs Levine.”
Later poems focus on her mother’s hospice center. In “Camellia’s Bloom,” Levine provides a compassionate but unflinching look at her mother’s condition as she lies in her final bed.
At the hospice center,
Mom lies exhausted in bed,
stares absently through
the sky’s broken blue.
Other poems, including “My Questions for the Hospice Nurse,” focus on Levine’s own struggles as she simultaneously cares for her mother and herself. This remarkable poem consists entirely of commonplace questions that add up to a compelling picture. In one typically poignant passage she asks, Did I wipe her? Did I wash myself? Did I brush her teeth? / Have I brushed my teeth? Combed my hair? Gradually the poem moves deeper into the mother’s inner life. The final lines focus on the two women’s spiritual lives and problems:
When the rabbi with the Invisalign braces came to visit, he said
there are no new prayers. Is this God’s will? Her will?
Fittingly, the book ends with poems of elegy and contemplation. In “Unleashed,” the title poem for the section, Levine describes her feelings of loss:
Since my mother died, I haven’t been able to read.
The words on the page blur
like a child blowing ink through a straw,
the image, a black splotch with branches
of tiny arms, hands, and feet.
Almost two years ago, in a review of Levine’s first chapbook, In These Voices, I commented that I would look eagerly for her next work. Stealing Flowers from the Neighbors delivers on her first book’s promise, demonstrating Levine’s skill in using simple syntax and diction to depict complex feelings and situations. Now I’m looking forward to her third book!
Paul Telles is a poet and Yoga teacher who lives in Beaverton, Oregon. His poems have appeared in several online and print publications, including Book of Matches, Pif Magazine, and Rat’s Ass Review. 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.