Beauty scale

Books: Small Talk by Vancouver poet Levenson also turns out to be magnificent

This light and charming volume may consist of short poems, but they reflect a wide range of subjects.

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Banalities

Christopher Levenson | Silver Bow Publishing (New Westminster, BC, 2022). | $23.95 | 75pp.

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Award-winning Vancouver poet Christopher Levenson, whose first book won the UK’s Elsie Gregory Prize in 1960 and was shortlisted in Canada for a Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 2014, returns this year with a light and charming titled Small Talk.

Levenson, now 88, opens his collection with a painful epigraph from Yeats, but he’s clearly drawn on other influences. Perhaps taking seriously the environmental economics slogan that “small is beautiful” or inspired by the lyrical conciseness of haiku, this book is a treasure trove of short, epigrammatic lines, insights and poetic snapshots. Think of Levenson as a ferocious miniaturist with talent and large-scale ambition.

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Scholar Philip Gardner, who was a student with Levenson at Cambridge in the 1950s, clearly thinks highly of him. In a 1980 article in the Dalhousie Review, Gardner called Levenson of those college years “the most interesting undergraduate poet at that time.” High praise indeed, especially when you consider that Sylvia Plath was one of the other undergraduate poets then at Cambridge. Gardner considered Levenson a kind of “Cold War Auden/Spenser…haunted by natural disaster, political uncertainty, and personal disillusion.”

This isn’t the first time Levenson has “gone short”. Getting to Know You, her 2014 suite of poems about Vancouver, was released in a limited run of just 30 handcrafted copies.

In Small Talk, although the poems themselves are short, they reflect a wide range of topics. The book opens with a section titled “Beasts”, in which the poet presents witty little epiphanies inspired by creatures ranging from the lion (“Heraldry was wrong: they are not/creeping and noble Most of the time/they’re just lazy, sunbathing on rocks, self-indulgent/”) to the hummingbird (“The most skilful of epicureans/this mini-tornado/sips with an outstretched beak/from a small glass of ‘hibiscus, /samples, move on’).

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Subsequent sections introduce “Landscapes” and “Garlands” and bring the poet’s eccentric and appealing sensibility to bear on aspects of the natural world, while a final section, “Of the World”, returns to some of the social and political concerns that led Gardner to compare Levenson to Auden and Spenser. For example, in “Commercial Break”, he writes: “Do you suffer from nausea, irritability/nervousness, paranoia? Do you wake up at night/with the tips of your brain going numb? Is your vision blurry/when you turn on the TV?/Relax. Your condition is completely normal. You live/in the 21st century…”

Highly recommended.

Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He welcomes your comments and story tips at [email protected]

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