Review: Moorings by Christopher Levenson

My Quick Take: A thoughtful collection of poetry that brings a sharp lens to the ways we see the world through a filter of art, loss and ageing.

This article was originally published in the British Columbia Review on November 20, 2023. 


It’s a bit startling as we get older to look up and realize that we’re on different shores than we once were. Decades speed by and, when suddenly in unfamiliar territory, it can be wise to pause and look back, revisiting the markers of our journey that have shaped us. This can bring a poignant nostalgia, but also imbue the present with meaning.

In Moorings, Christopher Levenson (Night Vision) brings a sharp sensibility to his own life as he focuses his lens on the islands of his past experience while firmly situating himself in his present circumstance.
Author Christopher Levinson

Moorings is divided into five discrete sections. At first they feel disconnected, but the Vancouver poet soon clarifies that each part of the book reflects episodes in his life, past and present. Taken as a whole there is an accounting of sorts, a balance sheet. The poet’s past is a vital key to his present, and he shows that we need never feel lost at sea when we can be anchored to the stuff of life that has shaped us.

All is prefaced by “Lost and Found: A Sequence,” a short cycle of poems that sets the stage for our voyage. Here we go! There will be no easy way through this storm of loss and gain; for consolation, we can only find as safe harbours and solid moorings as we are able.

How can we make sense of the ravages of time: 

Though I once had a photographic memory,
those negatives are lost
and will not develop in
the dark room of the future.
With language it’s the same:
halfway through a conversation,
I am lost for words, lose the thread, hear
the whole story unravel.

It feels as though we are in for a bumpy ride. But never fear, because we are in good hands with Levenson, who takes us back to childhood in the first section, The Past is a Foreign Country. These poems are touchstones to the past, coalescing to find a centre rooted in youth. “Ordnance Survey” recalls the paper maps of long-ago travels:

And they were durable: tucked into our rucksack 
along with a picnic lunch and a compass, even when folded
they did not fray. They gave us connection,
security and scale. It was a tangible world.

These lines sing to me, with the desire for solidity from the past to anchor the turbulent present. I too can feel myself running a finger over maps of my own wanderings, folding them haphazardly according to their creases and recalling the certainty of tucking them into my backpack. In this section, there is the lovely—where Levenson recalls his mother’s marmalade and his father’s garden—but also the frightening stuff that is an inevitability of childhood. In “Ghost Train,” with its scalpel-sharp descriptions, a fairground’s nightmare of a ride stands in for the post-war years’ horror and remembrance:

…Outdated Gothic bric-a-brac–
skeletons, witches, blood–and tendrils of flesh
oozing from canvas walls, a makeshift horror
for us too young to have known the real thing.
Those who have never set foot in the past would not understand
how the eight-track massacre’s caught in perpetual motion;
how the fairground music and screams will never stop,
how the ghost trains still run on time.
A curious section of the book, Brushstrokes seems to pause in life’s narrative. Rather than a grasping for the past or an examination of the present, it’s an oasis of stillness out of the timeline. Each poem is named for an art exhibition or artist, robustly describing the piece, as if in call and response. I became transfixed as I read, drawn into each canvas in my imagination. 

At times the art lifts off the page joyously, as in “Matisse.” 

…your brushstrokes make
flagrant colours lift off
above the palms and bougainvilleas
into the blue of morning.

And the horror that Levenson sees in “Goya,” with its darkness and suffering, illustrates hard, immutable truths:

...Your brushstrokes caught
their blundering flesh and blood, riddled with bullets
and ignored by official history, your darkening palette
took down all talk of glory, did not turn aside
from Reason’s guillotine, showed us war revolution,
as it really was…

In an about-face from evocative art, his section The Camps plumbs the past again, but drags it into the present. From “Camps”:

...every so often I enter
the mineshaft of memory, burrowing through
discarded diaries and letters to uproot
places and people I knew decades ago,
seemingly desperate to restore
that frayed network of connection.

This is not a part of his past that rests easy. It’s an effortful, awful minefield of past trauma and war, both globally and in one’s internal landscape. Levenson starts with old wars and moves to new ones. I was moved by “Infrastructure,” which I think could be the emblematic lines of the book: 

Asphalt, tarmac, cement
provide the thinnest of skins
over the void. When abruptly
road surfaces give away,
cars and a truck fall into
a gaping sinkhole. Sure
it can be repaired. It is our confidence
that suffers, all we took 
for granted.

Levenson’s poems suggest that the way we fix history as firmly in the past or in faraway lands imparts a sort of false privilege and distance. However, looking away is a luxury that we can ill afford. Not as individuals in denying the hard parts of our own pasts, or as a society ignoring our collective past. We are on thin ice here.

In the last section, Moorings, Levenson returns us to the richness of the present that results from an honest look back. Ageing is not easy but the reckoning with the past has served well to help us withstand the grief of loss and change.

There are many ways of seeing ageing in the poem “Face”: as an erosion due to hardship (“Past loveliness dissolves, / muscles attenuate”); and as the indignities of the doctor’s office, though I appreciate the wry humour (“How long can we defer that / final trip to the junkyard? / No matter, I feel okay, / good for a few more miles. I’ll drive myself / into the ground.”). I am taken with the evocation of sculpture and how Levenson juxtaposes sharp consonants with soft, rounded sounds that characterize the concluding lines:

Though sharp eye and chiselled jaw
muscle and cartilage
will in time crumble,
nor can good bones alone
secure a smooth repose,
unseen fingers model lost wax,
firm hands of spirit form
in inner darkness
what will become of us.
With surfaces sheared away, 
he lines at last become clean.
Sorrow and joy converge
in whittled cheeks and brow.
With all excesses gone,
each sculpted face becomes
truly articulate.

Taken as a whole, Moorings strikes me as a collection about ways of seeing. We are allowed into Levenson’s world from his unique perspective as he unearths the places he’s been, shows us the people he’s known, and creates a map of how he sees art, places, truths and the reality of age.

Levenson balances this with some solace. Despite loss, we can find our moorings in the solid anchors of experience, the migrations we’ve made, the relationships that have mutually bound us, the art that speaks to us, and the friends and family that keep us real. The small things that speak loudly will not fade—

At a loss, briefly we find ourselves
in things noticed in passing.
So many times we are taken
out of ourselves, stumble upon
an organist practising
at dusk in an empty chapel,
the slant of sunlight thwarted by a cloud,
the evening stillness of reeds
at attention by the river’s edge;
wind-flickered wild yellow poppies,
peripheral, by the roadside,
in a meadow a single voice
singing but unaware
of any listeners. This is our reward
for what will endure, what is given.