Monday, July 25, 2011
The Conversion of Al Levine
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:
Beginning with Ah
The syllable of the caves
Wind blowing Aeolus
Actor of weights and seasons
Feather spring and sharp bony February
Beginner and Ender
Clown and ass-tail of a duck
Pom-pom and bunny button
Red spot and nose bulb
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.)