Review: ‘Sound Fury’ by Mark Levine

Sound Fury Mark Levine poetry collection book review

Levine’s poetry collection Sound Fury, as its title suggests, assaults sound; its body, bend, and bellow. Highly erudite, bringing to mind the motto l’art pour l’art (“Art for Art’s Sake”), the poems prize impression over perception, often posing a challenge for the contemporary reader. But it’s a challenge worth noting.

As we step into Levine’s world, we pass through a stream of rhythmic pulsations. The first poem, conscious of its form, hints at the narrowness of consciousness, especially in the face of raw, natural force.

The verses possess a dogged melody, forcing the English language to cave to a relentless seduction, presenting its submission to sibilance, “(…) It/ Fell to us, wee ones, to prosecute/ Our case against it; to pursue it/ S condemnation, issue it/ Formal summonses, eschew it.”

What we witness, as a result, is a head-turning marriage of sight and sound. It yields multiple attempts at overpowering the device of alliteration, thus dismembering the engine of expression, “Misty missile misfiring mischievously.”

Levine’s literary terminology makes for a dense serving, one that demands a few stabs at its contents. In many ways, this impenetrability exposes the vagueness of language, and the barrier it poses to many. To further enhance this coarseness, most of the poems focus on a brusque, labour-fuelled existence. There’s talk of the fate of immigrants, ICE agents, “fleers from war and famine”, and even a “peon.” 

There’s a sense of helplessness that manifests as physical weakness, nurturing an air of hushed violence, “the scrawny one/ Absent from play, sullen/ In duff, refusing to stir/ When children kick it(…).” It’s no surprise, then, that every poem seems like a gateway into a still-life scene, as decadent and arresting as any classical painting. 

And, though sound systematically trumps imagery in Sound Fury, there can be no mention of its scarcity, “Worst of all were Flynn’s stinking boots on our pillows like bratwurst”, “The sky ran heavy with discharge (…).”

Similarly, the tone, though weighed down by form, is nevertheless playful. It seizes the kind of delight that saturates language, “Poster Boy for postprandial postnasal drip/ Deposits posterior on mildewy post,/ Posting bond. His Judge,/ Post-nap, reposes unopposed(…).”

And so, we find ourselves in the belly of a thesaurus-muncher; or so can be deduced, but herein lies the collection’s slippery appeal. It offers a naughty fumble with form, a fabled teasing of the outmoded.

It’s only fitting, then, that Levine brings forward several historical and fictional figures, from Porfirio Díaz to Robinson Crusoe, stretching out the skins of their preserved identities. By doing so, he appears to inspect two sides of the same coin; both the factual and fanciful aspects of a continuous narrative.

This cleverness, which extends to newly erected characters, breeds exquisite humour, more deadpan than demonstrative, “ICE agents slip on a scab Ollie’s/Dad sent back, booked for passing germs.”

But it also renounces space to remarkably heartfelt thoughts, ones that wobble the structure from which they’re pitched, “It might feel like something/ To feel something capturing you/ In milled mirroring lenses/ As you are and would be/ But that self-love/ Is nostalgia.”

What further illuminates the complexity of the poems’ anatomy is the undertone of sensuality they carry; one that is made harsh by circumstance, giving way to a captivating clash of sensibilities, “Licked by breezes and loosening our lips in a show/ Of bodily danger”, “Held its yellow breath as he examined the back of his throat/ With my cock. It was fine to be of every use.”

As Levine notes, some poems are modelled on Robert Herrick’s work, the language of which feeds their distinctive rhetoric. A few others draw on Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, a mock-epic published in 1712, which depicts the real-life incident of Lord Petre cutting off a lock of Arabella Fermor’s hair. 

His impish behaviour caused a rift between their families, forcing a mutual friend to ask Pope to write a humorous poem about the situation, thus soothing the ache. As a result, hefty dramatisation and epic phrasing were brought into play, inspiring the outpour of Levine’s verse.

Like any experimental work, Sound Fury invites the reader to make a few concessions where expectations are concerned. More archaeological than psychological, the reward lies in the proffered exploration of the poems’ form, as well as the swell of sound they bear; duly furious.


Publication date: November 16, 2022 (University of Iowa Press)

Rating: 4

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