Neighbor by Rachel Levitsky
(Ugly Duckling Press, Brooklyn, N.Y., 2009)
Love Thy Mystery Neighbor
As I write this, I can hear my neighbors across the street talking loudly and opening beer after beer, as they do every night. I could close the window, but there is something comforting about their noisy routines, even if, paradoxically, they are annoying. A similar ambivalence about the details of people’s lives can be found in Rachel Levitsky’s second volume of poetry, Neighbor: “I miss my nasty neighbor./ Who talks loudly into the night on the phone, when he is not snoring” (“Dawn”).
Neighbor is much more than a catalogue of irritating behaviors though, even if it is crammed full with intimately observed details. Levitsky uses the figure of the neighbor to investigate what she calls in an interview with Bomblog, “spatial relationships as an ethical field.” This investigation spans four sections, each of which circles the figure of “my neighbor,” a term that relates to several different characters. In the top left hand corner of each page (except in the third section) is a description of a place, such as “door/foyer/stairwell,” and in the top right hand corner is the date when the poem was written in the unusual format of year/month/day. These spatial-temporal coordinates provide an appropriately architectural framework for the book’s exploration of everyday life in the close quarters of an apartment building.
Neighbor’s first section explicitly connects the narrator’s relationship with her neighbor to wider political concerns:
I’ve decided to use my obsession
with my neighbor as a context
for a discussion of the State.
I confess this isn’t the only thing I want.
The designation of “neighbor” suggests a relationship of physical proximity but emotional distance, and this itself serves a political purpose. Why should we care about someone different from us, even if they live next door? This question is central to Levitsky’s book, yet as the last line of the extract above implies, Neighbor is not interested in a purely philosophical examination of the “neighbor.” Instead, an investigation into the idea of the neighbor as a political construct is fused with the real dramas, irritations and obsessions of apartment living. The resulting poems are a mix of the theoretical and the personal, an impure blend that Levitsky’s use of different genres -- poetry, prose poems, and drama -- suits perfectly.
In the second section, “Imago,” the narrator navigates the tension between the neighbor as a real person and the neighbor as a media generated stereotype. One poem has the stuttering title of “My My My What A Mystery Neighbor Is Probably Not A Psychokiller Although One Never Knows Until,” while another poem, “Patriots,” begins with the lines, “My neighbor probably/is not a terrorist.” In the “Psychokiller” poem, the narrator believes that she imagines her neighbor “better in the head,” as he is “one one never sees.” The neighbor’s invisibility drives the narrator to envision the neighbor as if he is part of a market research focus group:
I suspect he likes alternative rock
works with computers
and is straight
The reliance on stereotypes underscores the lack of real connection, and leads the narrator to ask “how much can one/ shield away from display past the door?”
The third section takes the form of a short and strange verse play called “Perfect California: A Family Affair.” The characters, who Levitsky notes can be played by any gender, include Rational Response and his/her opposite, Noetic. N. Delirium, as well as Luminous Cravings and Finger-in-the-ear. These characters engage in absurd and disconnected dialogue that at first may seem unrelated to the larger concerns of the book. Yet this dialogue mimics the often strained relations of neighbors, of people trying to connect, but who are frustrated by a wall of misunderstanding:
If you peer at a 42 degree angle
your feeling state may change.
The butterflies have arrived.
NOETIC N. DELIRIUM:
I am concerned about the safety of the creatures
in the sea. It has been so long.
What are they saying these days?
“Perfect California” was performed during the “Plays on Words: A Poet’s and Theater Festival” in 2006, and it is easy to imagine the play finding a home on a stage dedicated to experimental drama. Yet, in the context of Neighbor, the play deepens the book’s thematic exploration of the difficulty we have connecting with the people who live next to us but not with us.
After the abstractions of the play, the reader is transported into the final section of the book, which is also the most intimate. Here the wall that separates the neighbor from friend or lover begins to crumble: “The neighbor has become a friend./ So desire rises in him” (Wee Hours). This reconfiguration of daily relationships offers the hope of a less self-centered existence. In the prose poem “Earthworm/Grass/Snake,” Levitsky offers the image of an all-encompassing dew to counter that of the single solitary self: “In a world where ones (each and every) dissolve, dew settles on any.”
Despite this hopeful image and the movement towards increased intimacy, the book ends on a note of resignation. In the final poem of Neighbor, “Proximity, Intimacy, Affinity,” religion comes between I and You: “when you believe in god, none of you make sense.” Communication is once again stymied:
try as I might
the square upon which
the corners are not churches
I have failed
to replace them.
While the final lines might speak of failure, Neighbor itself is a successful cross-genre exploration of our relationship with the “strangers” that surround us. They may even be “nasty” and “talk loudly into the night” but their very nearness provides us with an ethical obligation to try and connect. By the end of Neighbor, the three terms in the title of the final poem “proximity”, “intimacy” and “affinity” – gain new significance, and the reader is left admiring Levitsky’s reimagining of the everyday.
Harry Thorne's poems, essays and reviews have appeared in Chain, How2, Octopus Magazine, and Textual Practice. His essay on Ted Berrigan's C Magazine can be found in Don't Ever Get Famous: Essays on New York Writing after the New York School edited by Daniel Kane and published by Dalkey Archive Press. He lives in Beacon, NY.