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My Name Is Donald Lev, I Speak for the Trees

The cab-driving poet and his wife marched alone together in the Israel Day Parade

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Donald Lev, 2013. (Robert Hirschfeld)
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Donald Lev, who in better days wrote an entire poem behind the wheel of his cab in New York City traffic, was driving me along a damp autumn road in Ulster County to his home in High Falls, N.Y. The lonely rows of bare trees spoke to his many absences: Enid Dame, his poet wife buried in Long Island near the Rosenbergs; his own health gone. But his sense of humor, a phlegmy weave of dryness and zaniness, was not gone. It goes where he goes. It goes into the short, declarative, strangely surreal poems he’s been writing for over 50 years now bearing the unmistakable influence of Ted Berrigan’s metaphor-averse New York School of Poets.

Poems like “In This Dream,” from his latest volume, A Very Funny Fellow:

the computer
threatened
to set
itself afire.
My ineptitude was driving it crazy.
I questioned it too much!
Oh God of Israel
are you that hypersensitive?
If so, I am lost.

I mentioned the poem to him, how it surprised me. Lev just laughed. “He is the God who spoke to Job,” he said. “The God of my tribe, of my religion, not that I practice it. Before I met Enid”—he was around 40 at the time and dating a German—“Jewish never entered my mind. But at the small literary magazine fairs we’d go to every year, she’d say, ‘Don’t you have something Jewish? I am Jewish.’ I thought, Jesus, she really is Jewish.”

He pointed to a set of trees, bare as the rest, where he said Chagall lived during the war. As for the trees themselves, Lev, despite living 24 years among them, was unable to name them: “I am not an arborist. I am a city boy.”

When we arrived, he climbed the steps to his house with his stout cane, huffing and kvetching like it was Everest. His house was filled with boxes of books, VHS tapes, and every issue ever published of Home Planet News, the tabloid poetry journal he founded with Dame in 1979 and still publishes. The place looked like a transit camp. Lev caught me eyeing, among the detritus, a picture of Dennis Kucinich. “The only presidential candidate Home Planet News ever endorsed,” he cackled.

I was drawn to Lev, in part, for the funny, unpretentious way his poems dance, as in “Sadat,” from There Is Still Time (1998):

ultimately
it is better to sit down to an overly
cholesterolized breakfast
at the market diner, than
to be three hours dead, shot
off a reviewing stand
from a parade of one’s own loyal armed forces.

Born in Forest Hills, N.Y., during the Depression to telegraph operators whose spiritual life was defined by the traditional left-wing devotion to their union (The American Communications Association), Lev practiced his own kind of secular spirituality. “When I read the great novels,” he told me, “I read them like they were holy.”

I thought back to the flat American 1950s when our tribal shift from the holiness of books of Torah to the holiness of works of literature was still muscular, and poets in droves had yet to be swallowed up by the universities to fill the pedagogic needs of MFA students.

A Hunter College dropout, Lev had to scratch out colorful ways to stay afloat in the world. He worked as a cabbie for 20 years. When I suggested to him that it could be a good job for a poet, with all those brief, mysterious encounters with people, Lev disagreed: “Not much in the way of poetry ever came from it. I was always too worried about someone pulling a gun.”

Lev did manage to land bit parts in two of Robert Downey Sr.’s underground films from the 1960s, Putney Swope and Chafed Elbows. Downey lived in Lev’s neighborhood in Forest Hills growing up. “One night,” recalled Lev, “he was there when I was reading my poetry at Olivia’s Atelier East. He said to me, ‘I will write your reading into my script.’ The script was for Putney Swope. In Chafed Elbows, my immortal one line was ‘Schmuck, the potato salad.’ ”

Lev attacked his tankard of Sangiovese wine in the kitchen like it was a jug of Poland Spring. He took my tea cup and lowered the spigot tenderly, as if it were the head of a faithful dog.

Unlike Ginsberg’s poetry, Lev’s was not born from the double womb of Blake and Whitman. (“I am from the Emily Dickinson tradition.”) It is definitely not incantatory. Counter-culture concise would be more like it. (“I say what I have to say, then I stop.”) And Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” remains Lev’s poem of poems. (“Probably the most Jewish thing outside of Kol Nidre that you will ever hear.”)

At his home, I studied Lev’s photos of his great love, Enid Dame. She appeared round-faced and radiant before cancer, shrunken-faced and radiant before death. Dame was a poet of Midrashic feminism, best known for her Lilith poems:

I saw Eve
at a tenants’ rights rally
at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza           I
hadn’t seen her
in years
she seemed to feel
one of us
should act guilty

Dame and Lev met in 1976 at the New York Poets Cooperative. As Lev has written, they were two cosmically mated souls linked by an indomitable vulnerability that seemed to lead their poems into the world like emissaries. Lev regarded Dame, who was six years younger, as a kind of wise older sister. “She was straight forward, and she gave me a respect for plain sense that I did not have to any great degree. She also questioned things more than me. She would always look at you and say, ‘What do you mean by that? What do you mean by that?’ She didn’t let you off the hook.”

Every spring, the Salute to Israel Parade in New York would find the couple in full voice on their companionably isolated spit of ground on Fifth Avenue, apart from the Israeli flag-wavers and the pro-Palestinian protesters against the occupation. They were poets who used their craft’s wide margins to allow every kind of contradiction to circulate. “We were not rooting against the home team, Israel,” Lev said. “We just didn’t like how they were performing, that’s all.”

Later that day, on the Adirondack bus back to New York, I took out my copy of Grief, Lev’s book of elegies to Dame. I thought of the poet shambling benignly through his clutter. I thought of how empty his house seemed in its fullness, how fully he inhabited that emptiness. The visit filled me with the same sly joy as his poetry, if fringed with sadness for what I imagined to be his loneliness.

This place
is a place for grief.
I do not remember walking here.
I do not remember riding here.
I may always have been here.

I believe it is the place I
will never leave.

***

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My Name Is Donald Lev, I Speak for the Trees

The cab-driving poet and his wife marched alone together in the Israel Day Parade

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