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.