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  • The Finish Line
  • Helane Levine-Keating (bio)
Donald Lev
The New York Quarterly Foundation
136 Pages; Print, $18.95

Co-founder of Home Planet News, Donald Lev has seen his poems appear in magazines, anthologies, chapbooks, and collections of poems for nearly sixty years. His most recent collection, Focus, exhibits Lev's typical terse dry wit as he tackles late life issues such as failing health, loss, faith, and mortality. Divided in four parts—"Focus on God," "Party Time," "How Things Came to Be," and "Epilogue," Focus invites readers into the ironic and autobiographical world Lev inhabits in the beginning of his ninth decade, where, as the opening poem "Focus" states,

I've been trying to put God in focusAs I plant myself in front ofFans and air conditionersTrying to keep cool.

While this 10-line poem refers to a phone conversation with a friend with whom the speaker hasn't talked for 65 years, it ends rather matter of-factly: "We speak of friends who have passed, shingles, and / Families." Despite the decades since they last talked, by virtue of age the speaker and his old friend share the same world, where no one arrives unscathed whether it be thanks to the insidiousness of sudden debilitating attacks of shingles that seem to happen more frequently with age, the ever-looming specter of death, or the evolution and often dissolution of families.

Memories of the past permeate Focus's first section, whether Lev is remembering how he procured the funds for publishing his first magazine in "Volume One Number One"; recalling his various confrontations with being out in the woods in "Minimum Comfort," where the speaker reflects on "Woods . . . . / I've never felt quite safe in them. / I'm from a place called Forest Hills / which boasted neither forest nor hills;" eulogizing in "Treasure" the fate of the various programs, postcards, scrapbooks, and autographs he had lovingly saved, only to end with a punch line: "Quite a trove, my mother discovered in the closet one day / And threw into the second floor incinerator chute;" or, in "White Plains," remembering his uncle Harry who lived in Westchester and "drove with authority," yet, writes Lev, "His whole family, excepting my aunt, died young." These are poems whose last lines have a way of bringing us up short.

"Party Time," the second part of Focus, opens with an eponymous poem, but the party Lev has in mind immediately disrupts our expectations as he notes the macabre enjoyment people have when watching executions, as the poem's first lines so vividly state, "Beheadings in Saudi Arabia draw large crowds. / No surprise. Public executions / have always been well attended . . . ." After closing the first stanza with "the lynchings" that went on "in nineteenth and twentieth century USA," Lev moves into the present in the second and final stanza:

I am amazed and gratified by myCountry's maturity, when I reflect that reality TVHas not yet launched The Execution ChannelFor its potentially avid viewers.

Clearly it is impossible to read these lines without hearing Lev's cultural critique of America in the twenty-first century.

Other poems in "Party Time" suggest the poet's somewhat self-deprecating concern with his own health, when he speaks of "the salad / That my brain is turning into" in "Up My Sleeve" or the doctor in "Step by Step" who tells him "to piss in my backyard" but "coming from Queens," he can't do that, instead pulling himself "slowly step by step / Up old wooden stairs / And by and by arrive, most times in time." In the four-line "It's Never Too Late," Lev's humor is in full view:

Us 79-year-oldsAre taking over.

They wouldn't let us before,But all them old bastards are gone.

Similar in tone, the three-line "Theater Project" telegraphs Lev's world: "NOT AN EXIT / Is my reworking / of a depressing Sartre chestnut."

"How Things Came to Be," Focus's third section, continues the themes of the first two, though perhaps a still direr feeling emerges in such poems as "Details," which opens with "Like...