Mark the Music

Mer­rill Leffler
  • Review
By – June 14, 2013

As they have always done, Mer­rill Leffler’s poems insist on sheer pres­ence. Brava­do and uncer­tain­ty dance togeth­er, their feet step­ping to rhythms of res­ig­na­tion, grief, and mer­ri­ment. Poet­ic feet? Often. Mea­sures of expe­ri­ence and med­i­ta­tion? Always. Prose poems and graph­ic poems? Yes, treasures.

His wor­ship­ful poems side­step the clap­trap of litur­gy. Lef­fler probes the human expe­ri­ence in the light and shade of Jew­ish expe­ri­ence as released in sto­ry-telling, pilpul (Tal­mu­dic dis­pu­ta­tion), and rev­er­ence for lan­guage. He has includ­ed Hebrew and Yid­dish trans­la­tions of his poems, as well as co-trans­la­tions (with Moshe Dor) of Eytan Eytan’s Hebrew orig­i­nals. Though Leffler’s vision is not bor­dered by Jew­ish cul­ture, he is pro­found­ly nour­ished by it.

As poet and pub­lish­er, Lef­fler iden­ti­fies, some­times wry­ly, with the Peo­ple of the Book and the Peo­ple Made Out of Books. More than most col­lec­tions, the poems and labeled sec­tions of Mark the Music offer a coher­ent, engag­ing ver­sion of poet­ry assem­blage as book. The reader’s pas­sage is plot­ted with a spir­i­tu­al com­pass. One finds a sequence of set­tings: envi­ron­ments, atmos­pheres, inner and out­er places. Char­ac­ters abound.

Man’s fool­ish, seem­ing­ly inevitable ground­ing in pos­ses­sive­ness and destruc­tion is a theme that rever­ber­ates through­out. Yet oth­er themes and moods teem. The spec­trum of humor from wit to the com­e­dy of man­ners to the Olympian guf­faw can be heard and felt. His is a ton­ic spirit.

Explor­ing and invent­ing approach­es to life’s huge ques­tions; explor­ing old­er, new­er, and nov­el forms for the jour­ney, Mer­rill Leffler’s gen­er­ous col­lec­tion, beau­ti­ful­ly designed for the eye and the mind’s ear, reveals a soul at once self-dep­re­cat­ing and hero­ic. Although this poet is now an elder, the pulse and juice of youth con­tin­ue to charge his art; the wis­dom has only deep­ened. Notes.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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