Monday, July 25, 2011

The Conversion of Al Levine

My parents did not subscribe to The New Yorker when I was growing up, but one day, when I was a girl, a neighbor who was moving gave us a box of back issues.  As a child who today would probably be diagnosed as hyperlexic (I could read at three, started writing stories at five and poetry at six or seven, and generally read everything I could get my hands on), I was thrilled when this trove of magazines densely packed with words came my way, and commandeered them immediately.

It took me a long time to read through all the issues in the box. I focused mainly on the cartoons and the poetry (still the first things I read when I happen upon a New Yorker, to which I still don't subscribe).  In an old issue from 1972, I came across a poem that delighted me so much that I carefully cut it out and kept it in the desk, complete with working drawers, that I had made out of a large cardboard box.  I no longer have the clipping, but I always remembered a few words of the poem, and especially the way it made me feel -- as if a door were being opened onto a strange, enchanted realm whose creatures had been named by a wildly inventive and rather droll Adam.  The poem was an abedecarium of sorts, with descriptions of a different imaginary person or place for each letter of the alphabet.

Earlier this year, a friend gave me access to her digital New Yorker subscription, under the terms of which you can search the archives of the magazine dating back to its inception.  I did not know the name of my childhood poem, nor that of the poet, but I remembered a few distinctive words, and, after a few false tries, found it pretty readily.  The poem, "An Alphabet," by Al Levine, begins:

100 Etudes
Beginning with Ah
The syllable of the caves
Wind blowing Aeolus
Actor of weights and seasons
Feather spring and sharp bony February

Beppo
Beginner and Ender
Clown and ass-tail of a duck
Pom-pom and bunny button
Red spot and nose bulb

Cappo
Crier and creature
Of August Ravines
Sweaty, heavy and murderous
Grief-ripe and wicked . . . .

The atmosphere created by the poem and the feelings it invoked were much as I had remembered, and it was a delight to find it at last.

Naturally, having found it and having identified its author, I wanted to know more about Al Levine and what else he might have written.  Was he still alive?  Was he teaching somewhere?  "An Alphabet," as it turned out, appeared in Levine's only book, Prophecy in Bridgeport and Other Poems, published by Scribner's in 1972, which I was able to find used.  But after its publication, he appears to have written no more.  Al Levine, born, as the dust jacket laconically states, in New York City in 1939, published no other poetry, neither in books nor in journals.  The poet Al Levine is found on no English department faculty lists.  Nor could I find an obituary for a poet named Al Levine born in New York City in 1939.  It is almost as if, after 1972, he simply vanished.  I asked my friend Rodak, a poet himself and a thoughtful reader, to help me.  Then, as often happens with research, a possibly-related tidbit was slipped my way from an unexpected source: my friend Ex-New Yorker, who sometimes comments on this blog, mentioned that the Catholic poet Pavel Chichikov, with whom she once took part on a Catholic listserv, had mentioned in that forum that his original name was Al Levine.

Okay, but could Pavel Chichikov be that Al Levine?  There must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of baby boys named Al Levine born in New York City in 1939.  The fact that both Chichikov and Levine were poets was not strong enough evidence, and Rodak's close reading of their work did not really strengthen it; the styles of the two men -- Chichikov's, which tends toward the formal, and Levine's, which is generally free, plain, and linguistically simple -- though they share certain aspects, are not similar enough to rest a case upon.  Nonetheless, Chichikov's freer poems have something of Levine's directness, and Levine's work makes frequent reference to the sacred and the mythological, though not (yet?) from the perspective of a believer.

The question remains: are the poet Pavel Chichikov and the poet Al Levine the same man?  One may fairly assume a Catholic once called Al Levine to be a convert.  And conversion itself is not unlike a death, insofar as it is a dying to the old self and all that it once embraced.  As the historian of conversion Karl F. Morrison has written:

Conversion is often portrayed as a positive event, a turning toward. It also has a negative aspect, a turning away. The event of formal adhesion [to the new faith] may consist of this flight toward the future and from the past. . . . The event may produce a transformation; but something resistant to change informs understanding it, and retention of the old may indeed have been a condition without which there could have been no change.

And the drama critic Richard Gilman, a Jewish atheist who in the 1950s converted to and then left the Catholic Church, writes in his memoir Faith, Sex, Mystery:

I’ve more than once thought of my conversion as a kind of illness, if health is to be defined as prowess and delight exclusively within the material, or simply human, social world. And I’ve thought of it as a kind of death, too, a preparation for the “real” one.  One dies to life, previous life; one lives then in a new way.

So, perhaps, the poet Al Levine "died" without dying, through being converted to Catholicism, which would explain the absence of an obituary.

I wrote to Pavel Chichikov twice to ask him if he might be the poet of Prophecy in Bridgeport, and to tell him that I wanted to write something about this possible connection.  He never responded.

As someone who knows what dying to the old self is like, and who, like Pavel Chichikov, prefers to write pseudonymously, I am going out on a limb to suggest, in the absence of proof, that they are the same man.

(Above:  portrait of Al Levine from the dust jacket of Prophecy in Bridgeport.)

14 comments:

Rodak said...

Very nice piece, Pentimento. I think that you've provided as much evidence as can be uncovered on this literary mystery, lacking the cooperation of the known poet, Chichikov. It is unfortunate that he is apparently unwilling to say Yea or Nay, once directly questioned on the matter. (His silence, of course, would seem to confirm your suspicions, since, if the two are not the same man, there would be no imaginable reason not to say so.) It was fun investigating this with you! Maybe somebody with more information will come across this somehow and provide some answers.

Pentimento said...

Thanks for your invaluable critical and sleuthing help, Rodak.

It's possible that we may never know the truth about Al Levine, though of course I'd like to. One of the reasons, beyond satisfying my curiosity, is that I'm very interested in conversion, and I wonder if my attraction to this virtually unknown poet as a child might in some strange way be connected in some way with my own reversion to the Catholic faith as an adult. Things like that have happened before (as we've also seen in the case of Gilman).

lydiapurpuraria said...

Pentimento, is there any way I can contact you privately? I may be able to help. My husband is a friend of Pavel Chichikov.

Pentimento said...

Lydia, if you post another comment here and include your email address, I will not publish the comment, and will email you privately. Thanks.

Mac said...

I've read that Gilman book--picked it up at a library sale or something because it looked interesting, not knowing anything about the author. A strange book, with a strange sexuality wrapped up in his conversion. The de-conversion was rather sad.

Pentimento said...

I agree about the Gilman book. I thought it was fascinating and sympathetic, but it seems there was a great deal of will and willfulness involved in his de-conversion.

Carla Dobs said...

I think we are twins separated at birth...

I could also read at 3, my mom saved many of the poems, stories and fables (I loved Aesop) I began writing at ages 4 and 5...

I did choose law school over the PhD, but hey, no one is perfect ;-)

And now we are both waiting for our first adoptions at the same time...

Carla
www.bringinghenryhome.blogspot.com

Pentimento said...

Carla, my degree is a D.M.A. -- Doctor of Musical Arts -- even less useful than a Ph.D. and a lot less than a J.D.!

Praying for you and little Henry.

Martha Silano said...

Thanks for posting this, Pentimento. I have been reading the New Yorker since I was 15 and subscribing since I graduated college. It is my favorite magazine of all time.

If you still have that online search thingie for the New Yorker, could you please search (in poems) for the words "I am always following darkness / thinking it is the road"? I read those lines sometime in the late 1970s in a New Yorker ... and I have no idea who the author was/is.

Pentimento said...

Martha, I searched using several permutations of the text you cite, but all I found was a music review from 2010. Do you remember anything else from the poem?

ex-new yorker who doesn't feel like signing in to Google right now said...

For Martha:

http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&biw=1280&bih=740&tbm=bks&q=%22following+darknesS+thinking%22&oq=%22following+darknesS+thinking%22&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&gs_sm=e&gs_upl=3366l6514l0l8199l9l9l0l0l0l0l163l946l4.5l9l0

Can't see much of anything of it on Google Books though, other than that it looks like it was 1981. Hey, is more than one person actually allowed to use those New Yorker subscriptions? :) I might actually have free access to a lot of stuff on my college account, but I always forget that exists... no idea if New Yorker archives are included.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, Ex-New Yorker. I don't know why I couldn't find it on the archives using the same search terms. The archives are sort of unwieldy, and incidentally they generate a scanned pageview of the actual piece you're searching, which is pretty hard to read.

peregrene said...

Pentimento-I regret that I have nothing to contribute to your quest for poet Al Levine. Instead, I share an interest in his work which I discovered as a 22 yr old aspiring poet who subscribed to the New Yorker and encountered Levine's The Bottle in the May 6, 1972 issue. I loved the smart aleck irony of the piece and how he teased about the mechanics of belief. Eight years later when I gave up Lit as a vocation and went to B-School for a Masters, Levine's street smart wisdom found a central place in my organizational change management practice. It all makes more sense now that I know of 'Pavel' interest in the process of conversion. Thanks for your curiosity, and energy for the search!

peregrene said...

Pentimento-I regret that I have nothing to contribute to your quest for poet Al Levine. Instead, I share an interest in his work which I discovered as a 22 yr old aspiring poet who subscribed to the New Yorker and encountered Levine's The Bottle in the May 6, 1972 issue. I loved the smart aleck irony of the piece and how he teased about the mechanics of belief. Eight years later when I gave up Lit as a vocation and went to B-School for a Masters, Levine's street smart wisdom found a central place in my organizational change management practice. It all makes more sense now that I know of 'Pavel's' interest in the process of conversion. Thanks for your curiosity, and energy for the search!