A Short History of Mornings by John Levett, Shoestring Press

John Levett’s poems present themselves in armatures of assertive rhyme and metre. To my taste, this can become oppressive, but Levett rhymes with great skill and verbal resource, and often to powerful effect. For example, in “Tourniquets”, commended in the 2005 National Poetry Competition, the way he weaves long, complex sentences through a demanding rhyme pattern powerfully builds and controls the imaginative pressure. Still more impressive in this way was “Five Barred Gate”, with its virtuoso handling of a complex metrical and stanzaic form. In “Salix Contorta” what the poet calls his “trellised song” is paralleled to the willow’s twisting round a wire frame, and the sting in the poem’s tale – a reference to the poet’s own death – is both lightened and sharpened by the wit of this conceit and by the dancing metre.

Wit is a recurrent pleasure in the volume, reflecting the unsentimentality and the sharp intelligence with which Levett confronts the world. In poems about pain and death, drug addiction or suicide, it becomes stoical or mordant; in others it is light, as in “tides in salt-white ankle-socks / Step daintily among the rocks”. Wit in this example takes the form of a visual image, and the element of Levett’s writing that gave me most sustained pleasure was the almost photographic sharpness of the imagery in poem after poem. The volume is full of vivid impressions of the objects among and by which we live. Levett suggests whole lives by meditating on humble things like a pair of old canvas shoes, or a harmonica, or on an oddity like a philandering shoemaker uncle’s iron last, but he is equally at home with contemporary motorbike technology and pharmacology. Perhaps there is a link between the emphasis on craft in his own writing and this responsiveness to the things people make and use. “Taking Pains”, perhaps the finest poem in the book, rejoices in a painting by the poet’s son: “my eyes adore what his hands have done”. Wonder at the way the painting simultaneously takes wing from and breaks free of the labour of its composition becomes a metaphor for the miracle of the son’s own rising on and flying free of his upbringing:

.       nothing can prepare us for the man
Who comes as only revelation can
And shrugs out of this canvas to assume
The coat of light that fills our living room.

I would like to thank Acumen for permission to reprint this review, which I wrote for issue 68.

2 Responses to “A Short History of Mornings by John Levett, Shoestring Press”

  1. Derrick Porter said:

    Sep 15, 11 at 6:05 pm

    Would like to order a copy of A Short History of Mornings by John Levett. Help required

  2. edmund said:

    Sep 15, 11 at 7:08 pm

    I don’t have any direct contact with Shoestring Press and haven’t ordered anything through their website, but they do have order forms on it if you go to webpage http://www.shoestring-press.com/download-order-forms/ .

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