Monks' Fruit

by A. J. Levin
ISBN: 0889712026

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A Review of: MonksĘ Fruit
by Andrew Steinmetz

Monks' Fruit is A. J. Levin's first collection, and what strikes the reader before anything else-before sense can be made of the poems, before a personality emerges from them-is the poetry's linguistic compression. The grammar is intentionally strained and words are packed together to generate a syntax impatient with the normal order of things. Meaning is hard to come by on a first reading. The poems are not obscure, though they are often opaque. A perfect example is the opening of "Henry Moore":
Still after sharing a one-sheeted tight bed months
you doubted my motives for wanting photos of us,...

Even when Levin's language is more relaxed, many of the poems begin with lines that betray a in medias res breathlessness. "Archaeology" starts with, "Rare call from you, the payphone/outside my door". "Thai Restaurant" begins, "Before food, Spadina." The speaker in these poems is curt and concise. Even within the poems, the use of clipped connective phrases breeds an elliptical quality: "Later alone, Thai restaurant,/ by the door" or "Years ago now, with an ex-ex/in Washington..."
Levin ducks in and out of time with what Ken Babstock rightly describes, on the back cover, as a "cubist's mania." Levin's waggish humour is evident from the titles themselves ("Tantalus in the Cariboo", "Isaac in the North", "MacBeth in Brazil", "Freud in Toronto"). In "Tent of Sciamatific Wonders", there is a "horn-rimmed inventor/of the self-lighting cigarette". This inventor has also created "the device / that blocks the device / that counteracts the / device that blocks your phone number"; and, as well "the machine, / that invents its own purposes."
Amidst these invariably ironic poems is the very beautiful "World's Largest Cabbage Moth Collection", dedicated to Vladimir Nabokov. Despite the self-mocking title, the poem manages to be both intimate and sincere. And despite Levin's typical mode of compression, this one is easily accessible, partly because the celebrated subtext-of Nabokov the lepidopteris-is well-known. Here is it is in full:

Once engrossed he picked a flower,
was hound-and-foxed through the rest of
trapped by bigger boys more white than his mute
netted by hands, pinned against brick schoolyard
Still when they danced the flick knife on his neck
as if to prick and suck the life out
there was always something
desperate, fluttering in their eyes.
They too needed him,
and he held on to this,
even in February when they packed
fairy-tale white snow into his underpants.
Now his vengeance is clinical, Roman:
he pins to pleasant-smelling wood cases
the formalin-soaked specimens
of the world's largest cabbage moth collection.

The poems "Thai Restaurant", "Ethiopian Restaurant", "Vietnamese Restaurant", "Outside A Mexican Caf", are all part of a series in which Levin uses eating spots as a trigger for private memories and as platform from which to observe manners and customs that are sometimes local, sometimes exotic. My favourite of this bunch is "Wainscoting". The candidness of the speaker, his quick references and mild disparagement of the place, along with his observation of a couple dining at a parallel table, merge effortlessly in a poem that takes its cue from a conversational tone.

Look, about the wainscoting:
I like it here but am thinking,
next time, a dive with cheap fat wings
on white plastic plates with blue circles.
You will look even better next to them.
Big do here, downtown, brown
original brick exterior. Silent, fleshy,
next-booth couple owls us over trying
to remember how they began, what to order.
Their eyes commute in two-on-twos,
from hockey game to wainscoting.

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