Unlike many contemporary poets, Levine does not shy away from the daunting themes of culture and history, nor is he afraid of using aggressively awkward language to drive his point home. The narrator of these poems is a defiant, nameless “I” pitted against a shadowy “them” who are the familiar villains of our age–anti-Semites, brutal capitalists, and tyrants, all “bosses” who are “in on it too, in the name of ‘Common Good.’ ” The quirky, ironic surrealism in these poems is reminiscent of Charles Simic: “nine to five I bear witness/ to Jehovah, he is the towel clerk at the Greyhound/ men’s room, stubbing/ his cigarettes in the urinal.” But it is Levine’s brutally disjunctive images evoking concentration camps, dehumanization, and death that give these poems their uncomfortable power. This collection, a 1992 National Poetry Series award winner, is not easy to warm up to, but the poet deserves credit for trying to forge a language expressive of our society’s grimmer failures.

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Selected by

Jorie Graham