Ordinary Psalms
by Julia B. Levine


Psalm with Wren in Daylight Saving Time

Late afternoon, I chop onions by feel,
listening to crows cry to each other across the ridge.

Gone now, white recipe card on the white floor,
green sea glass found on a Humboldt beach.

But this hour I have been given back, carried out
of gorse, red flash of maples, finches in our cedar.

Meaning, today I returned for the first time
to the moment I understood I was going blind.

Months I hid from myself that the V of geese
flying over the valley extinguished too soon into fog,

a darkness fine as sugar sifted over the chard, the roses.
Now I hear the soft tick of a bird landing on the counter.

Feel her gaze turn away from mine. When she hops
table to chair to floor, I open all the windows and doors.

Sometimes we must drag our grief out of the river
and put our mouth on it. And then a loosening comes.

One morning I rose and sat outside on my lawn
under budded glory vines. There is no hurry, I say

to the stirrings of one so small it has to be a wren.
Once I let the missing in, there was possibility.

There was a heavy rain in sun—every blade of grass
blurred, and for a moment after, only shine.


April in Community Park

Now I see it everywhere, a violence in the viridescence,
finches returning to blaze the boxwood.
And when we walk into the year’s first sunlight,

the rain-soaked lawns and garden blister into shine.
We sit together on a park bench, staring out at quiet.
But I do all the talking, Mary’s voice irradiated

into scars. A kidback tandem passes, one of those bikes
you can ride with small children. The mother pedals
hard upwind, while her daughter’s head rests full weight

against her spine, small boots dangling over the miniature
gearset behind. Sometimes the hours of my friend’s dying
are unbearable. Other times, it is the unnoticed work of love

that matters, and the wake its going leaves—a trembling
above the road as pear trees shower petals across
our shoulders, Mary’s upturned face. When she whispers,

I don’t understand anything, I say, It’s okay, I do, meaning,
just now the world strikes me as coldly precise—the way
we are given to so abundantly, the way we have to break.


Catch and Release

The oak and willow flare
until it seems fire is unsayable—
a river of late autumn light.
A half mile in, we kneel
Gregory’s hands unlatch the cage
he has carried from home.
The rat tenses at the threshold,
quivering. Around us, I watch the pond
give back dusk singed incarnadine and blue
Here in his last November,
before he steps off that building into sky,
I think nothing of it
when he whispers, Go on now, it’s okay,
the wild animal leaping then into risk,
into the struggled, starless dark.


Watch and listen to this video of the author reading her poems.

Read this Southern Review interview with the poet about two Ordinary Psalm poems.

All three poems are from Ordinary Psalms (Louisiana State University Press 2021) by Julia B. Levine, reprinted here with permission of the press. Order the book here.


Julia B. Levine is the author of five collections of poetry, most recently Ordinary Psalms (LSU Press 2021). Her previous collection, Small Disasters Seen in Sunlight, was awarded the 2015 Northern California Book Award in Poetry, and she has won multiple other awards, including the Bellevue Literary Review Poetry Prize, the Public Poetry Prize, and the Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize. She lives in Davis, California.


Poet’s Note

At a period of great despair in my life, I wrote this book as a serious attempt to interrogate the concept of God. Over a period of several years, I read many religious texts and found myself especially drawn to the Book of Psalms. These prayer songs are not just poetic; they express at least as much doubt and anger and sorrow about life and God as reverence and praise.

Some of this despair was related to my degenerative eye condition that had suddenly worsened. Therefore, I wanted to understand the spiritual notion of vision as distinct from the purely perceptual sense of sight. Or to say it another way, How did vision help when sight failed?

In a period of a few years, I also lost a very close friend to suicide (Gregory) and had another close friend (Mary) diagnosed with incurable cancer. It seemed to me then, and now, that there is a great paradox in an ordinary life. That is, if you are lucky enough to be alive in your senior years, as I am, you are unlucky enough to feel like an ordinary life is a test regarding how to cope with grief and loss, as well as a long elegy that makes every sweet moment all that much sweeter, whether it is a moment in memory or a moment in actual time.


Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Julia  B. Levine is in my online poetry feedback group, and so I have been looking forward to her new book for some time. I saw many of these “ordinary psalms” in draft form in monthly installments over the last few years; the first one struck me as a brilliant poetic conceit I wished I’d thought of myself. Then another came, and another, and I thought “series.” Then more, until it was clear that there would be a book. How lucky I feel now to see these poems, along with many I had not seen before, collected into the extraordinary volume, Ordinary Psalms, I now hold in my hand.

“I wanted to create a kind of personal prayer book that uses the living language of everyday details and experience to name and praise those aspects of this world that, for me, embody divinity,” Levine says in The Southern Review interviewlinked above. The poems do this and more, achieving an ambition I have for my own work: use of the particular and personal to illuminate the general and universal, exposing the whole messy tragedy of humanity while at the same time acknowledging the irrefutable beauty of the natural world. The paradox has occupied our minds, often in the form of theological inquiry, for centuries: the problem of evil, how beauty can coexist with unspeakable human suffering. Here, the poet finds beauty in the human as well as in the natural world and does more than pay homage; she also expands the concept of Beauty and offers it as consolation. Many writers want to and try to do this, and here is a rare writer who succeeds.

A major “theme” in Ordinary Psalms is the speaker’s incipient loss of sight, a condition with rich metaphorical possibilities for the blindness of humanity in the abstract and also more concretely in recent American political cycles. Another theme tells a litany of the horrors perpetrated by and on human beings—domestic violence, incest, neglect, environmental degradation, homelessness, immigration atrocities, war, terrorism, racism, and the other toxic

-isms that describe social injustice. Some poems spring from the speaker’s job as clinical director of a county emergency mental health center for underage patients; some, like the loss of loved ones to suicide and cancer, come from the speaker’s personal experiences, including from news stories she has read. In these poems, the beautiful and healing natural world exists in counterpoise with the toxicity of human invention: technology, climate change, and politics. As in the original Psalms (and, it occurs to me, in Shakespeare), these poems capture the whole shebang: the good and the bad, the wondrous highs and the truly horrific lows. They do it, moreover, in language that is precise, supple, gorgeous, and highly original.

The poems show remarkable range, moving effortlessly from the tiniest of details like a wren seen “on my lawn / under budded glory vines” to an abstract notion of beauty, sometimes in almost the same line: “every blade of grass / blurred, and for a moment after, only shine.” Nature poetry employing such ecstatic language runs the risk of devolution into mere sensation and praise, but Levine avoids this pitfall by adding the curative elements of a deeply flawed humanity. The book also reckons with mortality and loss, other big-ticket items on the negative side of the existence ledger. In “Psalm with Violent Interruptions,” for example, the speaker says, “Death is a plea bargain / / I made under threat of never being born. / And spring, a gorgeous parole.” “Psalm with Higher Math” teaches us that “death is not the null set, because energy is constant, though matter changes form.”

Today’s first poem, “Psalm with Wren in Daylight Saving Time,” opens the book and is one of my favorites. Organized into spare long-line couplets reminiscent of the form of the biblical psalms, it begins in a dimming world where the speaker has to chop onions “by feel” and where a white recipe card fallen on the white floor is “[g]one now” and soon to be gone forever. A memory of the speaker denying her blindness while watching migrating geese gives way to the present reality of the sound—a “soft tick”—of a bird landing on the kitchen counter and the “feel” of it turning away from her. The birds are still there, then, as is the beloved world, and all that is gone is the old way of perceiving it. The speaker does what she always would have done: opens the doors and windows to let the bird out.

The scene gives way to a powerful moment of self-recognition: “Sometimes we must drag our grief out of the river / and put our mouth on it. And then a loosening comes.” The next turn is to a different scene, one where the speaker “sat outside . . .under a budded glory vine” and noticed, by means of its “stirrings,” another bird that turns out to be the titular wren, allowing the speaker to discover that “Once I let the missing in, there was possibility.” The revelation brings catharsis, a “loosening” and a “heavy rain” that might also describe tears that blur the speaker’s vision and then leave “for a moment after, only shine.” Go back now and read the poem again—not this explication of it—because it is Levine’s lovely language that carries and transforms it.

I chose “April in Community Park” for its evocation of the speaker’s relationship with Mary, a dear friend with terminal cancer. Like so many other poems in the book, this one holds beauty and horror in the palm of its tercets, and holds them with gentleness and reverence. This recalls something else Levine said in the interview for the Southern Review:

“…often I am completely awestruck by the kindness and social urgency of living creatures that, for me, embodies one facet of divinity. Watching the footage of elephants working together to save their youngest member was so moving to me, as are all the ways we give of ourselves to those we love because of, and despite, our helplessness. It is a reminder to me of the idea that together we are a wholeness; separated, we long for that original completion.” [Source here]

If the beauty in this poem has an edge, a “violence in the viridescence,” it also offers immense tenderness in that image of the mother and small daughter on the bike, in the “trembling” of pear tree petals, and in the way the speaker cares for and responds to her friend. There is, additionally,  strength and clarity in the zero-sum-game analytics of the poem’s last lines, “—the way we are given to so abundantly, the way we have to break.”

“Catch and Release,” like the poem just discussed, is one of roughly half the poems in the book that do not include “psalm with” or some other reference to the biblical psalms in its title. The shortest poem in the book, it is the only one not broken into stanzas. At 15 lines with a clear turn two-thirds of the way through (line 10), it reminds me of an “American Sonnet” of the unrhymed and unmetered variety popularized by Wanda Coleman. “Catch and Release” uses the dramatic situation of trapping and releasing a rat to try to understand the terrible loss of the speaker’s best friend, Gregory. In the poem, it is his hands that “unlatch the cage” to prefigure his own suicide, an act the speaker becomes able to see as a release, a “wild animal leaping . . . / into the struggled, starless dark.”

These poems wrestle with weighty subjects, but I came away from reading them with a feeling of consolation and wholeness. The beauty of the natural world is a comfort, as is the speaker’s enhanced capacity for compassion, reverence, and revelation that follows each fresh loss. It’s as if she learns a new way of seeing past the surface of things and right down into their fundament. As “the poet’s sight diminishes, her vignette shrinking . . .an interior aperture widens” reads the book’s  press description, and I agree. The table of contents gives a glimpse into the scope and range of dark poems (e.g., “Psalm with Near Blindness,” “Psalm with Severe Neglect,” “Psalm after another Mass Murder,” “Psalm with Lung Cancer,” and “Psalm with a Few Questions for Death”) alongside others that offer more light and sometimes feel like paeans to the healing power of nature (e.g., “Psalm with Yellow Jackets, ”Sea Ranch Psalm”).

As in life, beauty lives right next to horror in Ordinary Psalms. “The Lives of the Saints” describes an emergency shelter client, a girl who for “ten years . . .returned to us after every failed placement,” returning “only to hang herself on her eighteenth birthday. / It was March, vernal equinox, first day of spring.” To borrow a line from one of Levine’s poems, “this is what it sounds like / when a woman”—even one who is going blind—“refuses to look away.” [“Psalm with Sylvia Plath on the Radio”]

Another well-known book of poetry with roots in the biblical Psalms is, of course, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and I see parallels here in the vast scope of Ordinary Psalms, in its emphasis on the natural world without losing sight of its primary object (humanity), and in its depiction of that humanity with its foibles and terrible transgressions bundled together with moments of luminosity and transcendence. But also with a new kind of deep seeing. I keep thinking of a quote by Mizuta Masahide, a 17th-century Japanese poet and samurai: “Barn’s burned down / Now I can see the moon.” What new kinds of seeing are possible when it is not the barrier to sight that is lost, but sight itself? Metaphorically speaking, how is it possible to go on when it feels like we are losing our ability to see the way? This book teaches me how, and does so while holding my hand with compassion, tenderness, and always, beauty’s balm.



Rebecca Foust is the author of three chapbooks and four books including ONLY, forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2022, and her poems are widely published, in The Hudson Review, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poetry, Southern Review and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2020 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry judged by Kaveh Akbar, the CP Cavafy and James Hearst poetry prizes, a Marin Poet Laureateship, and fellowships from The Frost Place, Hedgebrook, MacDowell, Sewanee, and West Chester Poetry Conference.



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