From its “Cover Letter” to readers, Now in Contest invites us to listen to America’s many voices and how they are divided from each other and our history. From the many in contest, it listens for one hope to go forward into today and tomorrow. Consider the young Black veteran pulled over “One Night in America,” and the immigrant day laborers who endure stereotyping so their kids… grow straight American teeth.
Listen to a young boy who sees us caught in… the eyes of wolves / in Jack London stories, / where prospectors huddle(d) / close to a dying fire, and the voice of a man stunned to faith by the scent of clover and milkweed… the earth / shakes me, breathing a life-awakening / fragrance into my nostrils.
There is a Holocaust survivor named Isadore wondering aloud… how can we be capable of composing / and appreciating a sonata (yet) aspire to genocide?, while his still innocent grandson… (a) prodigal punster (asks)… grandpa is a door? And who is listening to the teacher of high-risk students asking – Don’t (you) see Stink Street’s children as children? / Don’t (you) see my breathless wards as kids?, and who hears the combat veteran from that same neighborhood who… want(s) / never again to be treated like a spic in America. All these characters and many more come forward in Richard Levine’s Now in Contest, to speak in voices as varied snowflakes, to witness, to testify, to ask, as a disheartened Marvin Gaye asked generations ago, “What’s Going On?”
With Now in Contest Richard Levine claims a place among America’s essential voices.
Martin Buber said, “We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves.” Elusive redemption, hinged on the unending struggle to recognize our neighbors truthfully-that’s at the core of Levine’s vision. His poems are “I-Thou” to the marrow-which, in America, means they tackle war, racism, climate privilege. Levine speaks with Whitmanesque directness (though perhaps not Whitmanesque optimism) to the reader, to Buddy Holley, to a student in Bushwick. His voice can bridge unfathomable distances: “[f]or you and me, / it goes back to Quang Tri and a wet / mortar round that fell short of the LZ, / killed you and left me with a deadness/in the right ear…”
Richard Levine refuses to allow our violent culture to be a spectacle. He takes the risk of living it. Now in Contest is a book I will treasure and return to.
–D. Nurkse, author of Love in the Last Days: After Tristan and Iseult and A Night in Brooklyn
From “the bellows of cows / barn-bred and lamenting their exile from the wild” to the slow “intravenous drip” of time, from a “morning image of flesh / and good fortune” to “this heaven of quiet hope,” Richard Levine’s poems range far and wide across a landscape that encompasses war and holocaust, class and race, inner city teaching and rural rejuvenation, love of nature and fear for its survival. Levine has a heart as big as the sky and the gift of words to convey it.
–W. D. Ehrhart, author of Thank You for Your Service: Collected Poems
“A wood, like a poem,
turns and turns: enchanted and real,
dream and waking, musical and mute,”
The poems in Richard Levine’s Now in Contest arrive with an icy hit; they offer wistful beginnings and awful endings. They are both brutal and tender, bitter and loving, as in “Where Chemistry Fails”: “he [Primo Levi] never stopped loving the way chemistry could explain how / things are made-” Levine takes the reader from childhood memories of relatives’ war to his own terrible Vietnam, as in “Memorial Day”: “I carry your death shrouded / in that wish…” His images move from a tenuous dark to those moments of the teacher he was: “O my breathless wards,” he says, and the reader wishes to be one of his lucky students. Levine is a master of his craft; his strong voice offers experience like a gift, shares “the promise of warm seasons / that come and go on wings.”
–Bertha Rogers, author of Wild, Again
a retired teacher, is the author of two other books of poetry-Selected Poems and Contiguous States-and five chapbooks. An advisory editor of BigCityLit.com, he is the recipient of the 2021 Connecticut Poetry Society Award and was co-editor of “Invasion of Ukraine 2022: Poems.” His review “The Spoils of War” is forthcoming from American Book Review. He served in Vietnam with the United States Marine Corps, 1967-68. richardlevine107.com