|Waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria
by Eleanor Levine
|Unsolicited Press, 2016
I’ve known Eleanor Levine primarily as a fiction writer. Her stories are usually funny, high energy jaunts that read like bursts of insane joie de vivre, though they can be quite dark as well. I’ve also seen her read fiction, and it was just what I’d have expected; Levine is one of those writers who can command attention without even, I think, meaning to. Everyone knows she’s in the room, and they tend to like her. So, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from her poetry. But I was pleasantly surprised.
Levine’s poems have surreal elements, but at their core, they are love poems, and there’s nothing more surreal than real life. The Red Moon Pizzeria, itself, is mentioned in several poems as a neighborhood landmark. The title poem is a touching reminiscence, “When I first met you, you were a waitress at the Red Moon Pizzeria.” It continues, “I wanted to kiss your cheek, feel your fury for a minute, but / couldn’t drive my bike near your German Shepherd on Sycamore Avenue.” The waitress marries a man named Hank and doesn’t respond to the narrator’s letters. Intermittently, over the years, she reaches out to the former waitress without success until finally they reconnect, years later. Of course, things have changed, and though that fantasy attraction is still strong, it can’t compete with reality. Aside from the pathos of the poem, one thing that really stands out is the way Levine casually drops what would seem to be life-altering occurrences. She describes the former waitress as “in ‘the program’ with boys who drowned me.” This casual reference to abuse is never explained. Similarly, “It took months / weeks after my mom died for you to write.” The casual mention of the narrator’s mother’s death is overshadowed by the humorous description of the conversation:
Thought you were nuts/speaking forever on the phone/the jittering sensation of your mind
on the moon/the matters that lilted in your brain on cocaine but were now
quite sober, thank you Jesus and members of AA.
Wanted off the fucking phone, but you kept talking talking talking.
Other women I could date didn’t divulge heroin addictions in thirty seconds;
could walk in profoundly safe conversations along country roads;
why not date normal fifty-year-olds with inferior orthodontic work,
These details, though tragic, are commonplace. Everyone’s mother dies. Everyone has difficulties in life. The truly profound moments, like love, are the ones worth focusing on, Levine seems to be saying.
In addition to love poems, Levine also writes about her family and friends. “Daddy and the Cicadas” is another standout. It begins with a spare, almost terse description:
When Daddy was dying
he watched the Mets
“Been there, done that,” he said
like the kids in school
The poem is restrained, avoiding melodrama with what could easily be a dangerous topic. Levine manages emotion, though. One of the more compelling details, for me, is the simple statement:
I worry about Daddy
stuck in the ground
with no Worcester sauce
to put in his tomato juice
It’s such a specific, odd detail, and it evokes a speaker who is familiar with tragedy. “Daddy” is a beautiful, heartbreaking poem about loss. It begins, “he was a thin man/ with lips tighter than Nebraska dirt/ and bristles on his chin.” The image is one of restraint, possibly forced restraint. She continues:
I wanted to touch his face
but instead felt the stomach
and kissed him there
and asked, “Why are you
taking my Daddy?”
Of course, there’s nothing to be done, and Levine continues with an almost surreal detail, “The people politely didn’t / know what to say, but/ wrapped him in a big / sack.” The image of the sack is a perfect counterpoint to the bare emotion of her reaction to his death. There are a handful of poems about Levine’s father, and all of them are outstanding.
Being Jewish and from New York are recurring details in Levine’s poems, though she avoids the clichés often associated with these things. She doesn’t wax poetic about any of the boroughs or make parochial references meant to show how well she knows New York and you don’t; instead, her references are to (often dead) family and places that no longer exist, much of the time. Neighborhood kids threw rocks at her family’s door, and the peculiar quirks the family and friends exhibit are neither praised or ridiculed; they simply are. There’s a vibrancy to the New York Levine paints, not of cultural significance, but of bodies; these places exist as backdrops to the scenes of heartbreak and past joys. And, Levine does seem to move around.
“First Girlfriend” is a bittersweet reminiscence. It begins with solid characterization:
instead of Rilke,
she hums the Garden State Parkway Blues
reads a Pisces horoscope
plays guitar at the nursing home
and meets her husband
Right away, Levine has established the liminal quality of so many of the relationships she describes. “Meningitis” is another love poem. The narrator describes encountering and being intrigued by a woman with meningitis. She researches the disease and then flirts with the woman:
I knew at any moment,
in those big vinyl chairs,
with ice clicking in my Coke,
she’d stare at me
Levine sets the poem up beautifully. The narrator is obsessed:
across from the golf course,
as rain poured along the highway
and cars went to the amusement park,
past the blue-shingled house,
I decided to write her biography.
I phoned to read the introduction,
but she hung up.
That moment, at its heart, captures the appeal of Levine’s poems. The thrill of meeting and becoming intrigued with someone is vivid and real, and the sting of rejection is also real, but is tempered with Levine’s great sense of humor. It’s so absurd, of course, that someone would just decide to write a biography of a near stranger, but haven’t we all felt that way, for a moment, when meeting a certain someone? There’s a great wisdom and equal parts stupidity to the human heart, and Levine excels at capturing both with a manic but real energy.