Poet and teacher Lynn Levin’s newest collection of poems, The Minor Virtues, aims to notice and portray the beauty of the world through all the seemingly mundane objects and small kindnesses that make life more enjoyable. Divided into five sections, the book moves through themes of thankfulness, to playfulness, to perceptions on the afterlife and the past.
In the first two poems of the book, “Buying Produce from the Marked-Down Cart” and “Fixing Broken Things,” the speaker reevaluates the usefulness of discarded things and “the scratched and bruised” fruit, striving to avoid wastefulness. She ruminates on “kintsugi, the Japanese art of piecing back / broken bowls with golden glue…” Levin focuses many of her early poems on small things that people don’t typically pay attention to in the hustle and bustle of daily life.
This collection shines in Levin’s brief, narrative poems, often focused on women. One poem, titled “The Milk of Human Kindness” recalls a memory of new mothers helping each other breastfeed, while another poem, “Offering One’s Hand to a Stranger,” describes the kindness of a passenger sitting next to the speaker on an airplane, offering her hand during the scary turbulence of a “storm cloud.” Levin writes, “I can barely express the comfort I felt / for if I were to die / I would not die alone nor would she.” Her poems remind readers of the small gestures that humans can provide for each other, lifting each other up.
Many of the poems in The Minor Virtues either praise or lament the loss of something from the past, whether it be table etiquette — in the poem “On Knowing One’s Goblet at the Banquet Table” — or the good old days of handwritten letters and cards — in “Writing in Longhand.” Levin clearly pays attention to the sound and music of language, working rhyme into many of her poems, as she writes about the beauty of the world, both lost and found.
Throughout the book, Levin touches upon some iconic Jewish figures, such as Lilith, and Jewish images and places, such as a delicatessen, where “…when a customer walks in / the diners look up / from their soup to see if the person looks Jewish…” In this poem, aptly titled “Delicatessen,” Levin praises the unique qualities of two local delis, switching off every other stanza to describe the different décor and food.
The collection concludes with two back-to-back poems about Lilith, titled “Lilith, the Scribe,” and “Lilith Tries Online Dating.” Levin relies on both Midrash and humor to imagine Lilith trying to write her own story down for future generations. Then, when Lilith tries to find a companion because she is thirsting for comfort, she has a difficult time finding a man who won’t make any demands from her. Levin’s observations of the minor pleasures in life, enhanced by her use of rhyme and humor, make The Minor Virtues a very enjoyable read.
Jamie Wendt is the author of the poetry collection Fruit of the Earth (Main Street Rag, 2018), which won the 2019 National Federation of Press Women Book Award in Poetry. Her manuscript, Laughing in Yiddish, was a finalist for the 2022 Philip Levine Prize in Poetry. Her poems and essays have been published in various literary journals and anthologies, including Feminine Rising, Green Mountains Review, Lilith, Jet Fuel Review, the Forward, Poetica Magazine, and others. She contributes book reviews to Jewish Book Council as well as to other publications, including Literary Mama and Mom Egg Review. She has received an Honorable Mention Pushcart Prize and was nominated for Best Spiritual Literature. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska Omaha. She is a middle school Humanities teacher and lives in Chicago with her husband and two kids.