October 2014

John Wilmes


An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell by Deborah Levy

He and She do battle in Deborah Levy’s An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell, investigating love as hilarious and hilariously genderized voices, taking turns in verse. Levy’s poem is rich with the tension related by exchanges like “I can’t afford rhapsody”; “then you shouldn’t mess about with an angel” and “die die of safety/your failing pension plan”; “You are beginning to bore me/Bile and gloom tucked/Tight into your incandescent/Cleavage. I would/Rather watch/T.V.”

Male/female generalizations notwithstanding -- we have to grant Levy some sort of abstract simplicity to do her work, even if the men reading her book feel more like her pixie than her caveman -- Discourse cuts to a typology unavoidable in any romance. One party seeks the moon; the other, the earth. He has to whack down his lover’s flights of reckless fancy just as often as She has to poke him toward aspiration greater than four sturdy walls and the latest technology.

Levy makes something singular of this typical love-stuff, and it’s a matter of voice and style. With phrases like “My shirts do not/Scream and/Beckon and/I own/A water filter,” she paints modern courtship as the surreal, Seussian mountainscape it often is, ridiculous and awesome in the violent up-down turns of its psycho-emotional range. There's as much pain and reverie as there is folly and satire in Discourse, which leaves none of the extreme, seemingly contradictory feelings of new amour unspoken for. These dueling talking heads would be cardboard in most hands -- it's quite a task to make humanity happen through such spare language -- but Levy's talkers wrangle convincingly enough to summon our pathos.

And while references to water filters and smart phones may be made (and leave one wondering how much has been changed in this previously out of American print work, originally copyrighted in 1990) Levy’s rhetoric transcends topical detail as easily as it does continental cultures. There is no point in Amorous Discourse that tellingly reminds the reader that their author is British. And He, an accountant, is a clerk of a timeless kind, concerned more with the quantified than the infinite while She, a dreamer of all eras, is bent solely toward the sublime. Their emotional-linguistic war is the subject of an overwhelming proportion of all art, good or bad. But, like an indelible pop song, Levy's text chooses all the right, simple words with an uncanny melody.

This poem -- while a questionable choice for a book all on its own, coming in at well below 5,000 words across 72 sparsely-populated pages -- holds enduring and wide appeal. The mysterious balance Levy’s fighting hearts manage in the ether is too human not to laugh with, and yearn for -- “I think I have been/Waiting all my life/To try out the best/Parts of myself,” He says at his affair’s peak. There is sadness and everything else in the voices of these comic singers, a lyrical flesh of a rare emotional efficiency. Discourse wastes no time doing anything but shaking you up.

An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell by Deborah Levy
And Other Stories
ISBN 978-1908276469
80 pages