La Dolce Vita: “The Morning Line” by David Lehman

Reviewed by Suzanne Lummis

I do not believe in reincarnation, but if I did, and—even more unlikely—if given a choice, I’d choose to be David Lehman in my next life.

On the evidence of Lehman’s body of work, and never more so than in this collection, here is a guy who really knows how to live. In The Morning Line, he seems more than ever besotted with the world’s abundance, sensory, cerebral, emotional—this last by way of his decades long devotion to his wife Stacey, to whom he dedicates the final, most playful and affectionate section of his book.

Lehman has always expressed a kinship with the improvisational, free-spirited methods of the New York Poets. Like them, he seems to snatch poems from the air, from the overheard, the glimpsed, the transitory, from pop culture and fashion. In this way of thinking, everything is fair game, and nothing too small or unimportant to become the material of poetry. But Lehman also locates his poems in what endures, in art and literature, music, what survives through eras, which includes—on a personal level—marital love. 

In this collection, Manhattan might be a principal backdrop, but the speaker doesn’t stay put. He moves through time, through history, like a boulevardier taking in the sights, but also participating in the life of the square. He engages. This poet is a lively fan of almost everything.

“The Panama Hat” begins, “’What kind of poems do you write?’/ the interviewer asked.”  The “I,” which in this case we might assume is the poet himself, answers “occasional poems,” then follows with highlights from some especially pleasant occasions, when “the lawns are emerald / like the eyes of my beloved / when she saw the ring with two hearts // and an emerald crescent / in the jeweler’s case.”

However, he might also have replied, I write about music, especially the lyrics and singers of the Great American Songbook, also jazz musicians of the golden era, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and the movies, classic American and foreign movies.

On the subject of movies, Lehman has a particular interest in film noir, those crime movies of the 40s, 50s, early 60s, usually black and white, often cheap budget-wise, and sometimes beautiful in their capturing of shadow and light. His new collection of essays which includes five original noir poems, The Mysterious Romance of Murder: Crime Detection and the Spirit of Noir, promises more where that came from. In this collection, though, he just once drops into that realm, in “The Second Wind”: 

          I got a second wind after seeing Le Deuxième Souffle
          a moody dark Lino Ventura gangster flick
          the last heist of a man condemned to die
          in Marseilles in a shootout with double-crossing
          brethren and erstwhile partners clad identically
          in the black-and-white suits and ties of the 1960s

Also, he could have continued, I bring up questions of a religious nature, and anecdotes and stories relating to the essence of Judaism. Oh, and stamp collecting! And sports. And I write about my friends, most of them poets whose names would be familiar to readers of poetry, such as, John Ashbery “tell[ing] me he’s reading The Possessed / translated as The Demons in the newfangled translation.”

He could have said all that to the interviewer and still not covered everything. For example, he’d have forgotten to mention notable pieces in his current collection—his translations, imitations and riffs on great poets of the past. These include Bashō, along with some mischief makers and a Bolshevik. There’s the wonderfully mad, sustained cry from a young Russian poet in love, “Excerpts from ‘A Cloud in Trousers’,” Lehman’s translation of portions from Vladimir Mayakovsky’s astonishing work that helped define the Futurist movement in pre-Revolutionary Russia:

          Mama!
          Your son is magnificently sick.
          Mama!
          His heart’s on fire.
          Tell his sweet sisters
          in all of Russia there’s nowhere
          he can take refuge.

          The words he spits out,
          the jokes he cracks,
          flee from his scorching mouth
          like naked women
          jumping out the windows
          of a burning brothel.

This series of homages includes a call or response to the criminally-inclined Medieval poet Francois Villon. Lehman’s piece—like Villon’s, in eight-line stanzas—recalls Le Testament, written after France’s great poet of the age endured a brutal imprisonment then was banished from Paris, his health broken, whereupon he disappeared from history.

Of these homages to bygone greats, the most profane, witty, and scurrilous—indeed, in the
whole book—is inspired by the most profane, witty and scurrilous of poets. Ev-er. This undertaking pairs the affable David Lehman with a poet noted for his acerbic bite. Turns out, Lehman does Gaius Valerius Catullus really well.  By some reasonable criteria, the short takes on the Roman who made an impression back in the 50s—the 50s BC—would rank among the best, and certainly among the most striking, poems in the book. They aren’t translations, simply the contemporary poet writing as if he’s the ancient one. And thus, in “After Catullus, only the names seem old fashioned:

          Admit it, Tityus. You were glad
          when you were mugged
          for the story it would make
          and how handsome and sleek he was,
          the boy with the little gun, and
          you wish he had asked for
          your phone number.
                                            Tityus,
          you horny old bitch,
          I hear you were bitch-slapped
          by the butch boyfriend
          of your latest so-called protégé.

Back in the day, first century B.C., the neoteric poets, AKA poetae novi, rejected the grand tradition of epic poetry that relayed the deeds of heroes and the activities of the gods. They advocated for a poetry of daily life, the living, and maintained poetry could contain even as lowly a thing as gossip, even what we would now call “trash talking.” Nobody did it better than Catullus.

Mayakovsky and the Futurist poets also advanced an out-with-the old, in-with-the new credo, and the proposition that nothing need be off-limits for poetry.  Then, as the expression goes, “time passed,” and the New York Poets emerged, which David Lehman called “The Last Avant- Garde” in his book.  If history can be trusted to repeat itself, this New York-based movement probably won’t be the last. In any case, this poet seeks out the innovators wherever they appear in the span of history.
 
By virtue of the many poets Lehman engages with in this collection, and the variety of styles he takes on, the sense of immersion in the writing and lives and psyches of these predecessors, Lehman has claimed a kinship with poets of the past that exists outside time. He claims it not just for himself but for all serious poets. And this is as much an expression of his appetite for the world’s offerings as are his poems referencing food or music. The Morning Line seems a book written by a man determined to leave no happy worldly sensation or realm of knowledge unexperienced.

Not long ago, Lehman was at risk of leaving all worldly sensations behind. In his memoir One Hundred Autobiographies—a collection of mini essays published just before the recent pandemic in which his mind roams as much as it does in his poetry—Lehman records a period when he was in treatment for a potentially deadly disease. His preface describes a 2014 conversation with Mark Strand, considered among poets a giant of his age—and ours. Both men were stricken with cancer. Strand mentioned to Lehman he’d come up with a phrase that might be a great title for a future book: one hundred autobiographies.  Strand told Lehman if he himself wasn’t able, finally, to make use of it, maybe Lehman could. One man didn’t survive his cancer. One lived, and the title lived on. Some poems in The Morning Line capture that lit-up quality the world takes on when one has escaped death; and a couple seem shadowed by an awareness of mortality.

An end note explains “The Morning Line” is a bookmaker’s term for what horses the public is likely to bet on in an upcoming race—but not necessarily the horse most likely to win. It’s also the title of the long, opening poem—more an essay in lines, really, than a poem—in which the author muses on the many ways betting and gambling factor into modern life, on micro and macro levels. I might be wrong, but I get the sense somewhere behind this extended conceit is an awareness of “beating the odds” in the biggest contest of all, Life v. Death. Or I might be right. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

In any case, here is a book filled with as many experiences, reflections, observations, songs, poets, other people—past to present—poetic styles, and things, as a single poetry collection can hold. The protagonist has escaped the grasp of Thanatos to continue his life. The Good Life. La Dolce Vita. In Fellini’s famous film, though, even when sloshing around in the Fontana di Trevi with pleasingly plump Anita Ekberg, tabloid writer and libertine Marcello Rubini didn’t seem to be having as much fun as poet David Lehman.

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Photo by Arlene Karno

Suzanne Lummis was a 2018/19 COLA (City of Los Angeles) fellow, an endowment to noted artists, musicians and writers of the city enabling them to create new bodies of work. She has published three poetry collections, including Open 24 Hours (Lynx House Press), which won the Blue Lynx Prize. Recently, she has published poems in Spillway and Air/Light Magazine. Others have appeared in Ploughshares, New Ohio Review, The New Yorker, and in three Knopf Pocket Poets anthologies—Poems of the American West, Killer Verse: Poems of Murder and Mayhem, and Monster Verse. She teaches through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. Poetry.la produces her YouTube series, They Write by Night, on poetry and film noir.

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