Julia B. Levine’s poems “Ordinary Psalm in the October ER” and “Ordinary Psalm with Seizure” appear in the autumn 2016 issue of The Southern Review. In her conversation with The Southern Review/LSU Press marketing intern Megan Feifer, she discusses the works’ origins, structure, and the role of nature in her poetry.
Megan Feifer: Both of your poems share the words “Ordinary Psalm.” Why did you choose to name these poems as such? Does a psalm lose its reverence when it becomes ordinary? Is that the point?
Julia B. Levine: I am currently at work on a (hopefully) book-length collection of Ordinary Psalms. In these poems I am interested in the idea that the ordinary, if deeply lived and carefully attended to, are valid entryways into sacred or reverent experience. As a child I attended a Reform Jewish synagogue and always disliked the prayer books, though I loved the Torah. The difference, it seemed, had to do with the formal and vague language of prayer as contrasted with the heroic, vivid, and oftentimes earthy details of the weekly Torah readings. On reflection, this tonal difference in language may be the primary reason I don’t feel any sense of reverence toward an Old Testament God, but I do believe in the transcendent power of myth and stories. So, in contrast to psalms that rely on a formal address to an anthropomorphic God, I wanted to create a kind of personal prayer book that uses the living language of everyday details and experience to name and praise those aspects of this world that, for me, embody divinity.
MF: The concluding lines in “Ordinary Psalm in the October ER” are achingly beautiful. For anyone who intimately knows loss, they read as a sort of balm for thinking about some sort of final transition. These lines also appear to bookend the opening, in that “the argument the body goes on having” finally stops repeating. Why wrap up the poem in this way?
JL: Oh! That is a lovely observation. I wish I could take conscious credit for the “bookending” of the opening and closing lines, but I can’t. However, I can say that often I am completely awestruck by the kindness and social urgency of living creatures that, for me, embodies one facet of divinity. Watching the footage of elephants working together to save their youngest member was so moving to me, as are all the ways we give of ourselves to those we love because of, and despite, our helplessness. It is a reminder to me of the idea that together we are a wholeness; separated, we long for that original completion.
I did work a very long time on the ending of this poem. It was important to me that this was not just another poem about one individual’s illness, because I was more interested in the reverent pull we can feel toward one another as a recognition of our shared beingness. I wasn’t entirely certain of this ending, but it was the closest I could come. (You know that old saying that the poem is never finished, just abandoned?)
MF: In both poems, you draw a relationship between the natural world and the physical body. The descriptions of the seasons thread into those of the body in pain—be it animal or human. Tell us more about the relationships between meteorology and the corporeal.
JL: This is a hard question for me to answer, but if I am honest, I’d have to say that I experience the physical/natural world as not only a living body, but it is something I feel connected to on a visceral level. And in terms of text, I think all religions rely on the map that the natural world provides to help us understand our own progression through time.
On a more personal level, I grew up in Michigan, but have lived my adult life in a primarily agricultural area in Northern California. Especially intriguing to me, is that here in the Central Valley, the mythic sense of fall/winter as a dying back and spring/summer as a resurrection, is somewhat reversed. Winter means rain, and rain is life in this valley. Summer means months of fierce sun and punishing heat. Maybe this, too, has contributed to an intense awareness of a multiplicity of particular details and possible meanings related to the seasons and weather in the natural world.
Finally, because I am a fervent nature-worshiper, the relentless advance of global climate change (and what it might mean for our one and only planet), is never far from my mind. As a child, seasons and weather felt far more predictable. Now it feels less so and, therefore, I think I am attuned to weather as a sign of disease/distress in the dynamic, living expression of the world’s corporeal body.
MF: The way in which the majority of a person’s days are described in “Ordinary Psalm with Seizure” as “a devotional on surrender” is fascinating to me. It’s almost a relief in some way. Why is the act of surrender so important in this poem?
JL: In this poem, I used the many meanings of the word seizure to understand love and loss. The word seizure contains definitions that account both for the act of being taken possession of, as well as the act of taking possession of another, an object, etc. I think this is always at work in love and loss—you take possession of another as they take possession of you, and yet it is transitory: it will end. This realization, in itself, can lead either to a kind of frenetic reaching to hold on, or to a surrender. Neither is easy or consistently attained; it is a kind of practice to move back and forth between these extremes. But we can be sure the world will insist we repeatedly grapple with this profound tenet of being.
There is also an invisible story underlying this poem. I grew up with a father that was both cruel and loving. At times, he would seem possessed by a demonic rage and often would abuse me physically and verbally. As a child, I, of course, believed him that his treatment of me was my fault. He was also a neurologist who treated epileptics, among many others, so I was keenly aware of the medical meaning of seizure. When my beloved lab died of a brain tumor, it was made abundantly clear to me that we are not to blame for the suffering we endure in this world—but, in fact, that suffering is an essential aspect of walking consciously through this world.
Julia B. Levine has won numerous awards for her work, including the Northern California Book Award in Poetry for Small Disasters Seen in Sunlight, which inaugurated LSU Press’s Barataria Poetry Series in 2014. She received a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and lives and works in Davis,California.
Megan Feifer is a doctoral candidate in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. She received her MA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in English (Modern Studies). She is the cofounder and president of the Edwidge Danticat Society.
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