The Poetry Project

Neighbor by Rachel Levitsky Ugly Duckling Presse, 2020 (1st printing, 2009)

Review by Stacy Szymaszek

Reading Rachel Levitsky’s Neighbor, insofar as it functions as a log of neighbor activity, called forth my own first story of a neighbor. I was around 3 years old and heard the arguing voices of the downstairs couple through a vent I crouched over. I remember it as eavesdropping—part of my poet credentials: started eavesdropping at 3—but, over 45 years later, my parents remember, with an air of judgement, the sound permeating the walls, inescapable. Levitsky includes many instances of the noisy neighbor as well as an array of hostilities that neighbors enact upon each other. It is not surprising to learn, as she notes in an interview with BOMB, that people talk about their neighbors in therapy with a frequency second only to relationships with their romantic partners.

xxxxx“Screaming below. The screaming household is always / below…”

But soon after, Levitsky takes us further in by making us aware that everyone is a spatially related subject:

xxxxx“He hears me, considers me the loud one.”

Levitsky’s writing is greased, able to cast commonplace distinctions difficult, undesirable, even unethical. One of the distinctions she likes to make slippery is between neighbor and lover (other iterations: self and other, neighbor and state). After I committed to write this piece, the novel coronavirus rapidly spread across the United States – the U.S. and the rest of the world. Reading Neighbor during quarantine and “social distancing” emphasized the relations the text was already encouraging me to question, explore, inhabit through its own unrelenting ethical structure: what is a good neighbor, do I love or desire my neighbor, fear my neighbor, or feel shamed by my neighbor and then judge my neighbor? Are these feelings meant for them? Can a neighbor ever be more than a substitute? And then, in perhaps the book’s most quoted lines, Levitsky offers a stunning take on second wave feminism’s call out of the nuclear family, “the personal [or private] is political:”

xxxxxI’ve decided to use my obsession
xxxxxwith my neighbor as the context
xxxxxfor a discussion of the State.

How can we be a good neighbor living in a bad Neighbor/State? I stop myself. The problem of good and bad. I’ve never read a text that linguistically smashes binaries so effectively, “as if the world could ever be split in two.” Reading Neighbor gave me a lived experience of a less split world. It changed my brain during this time when I need books to do that. Levitsky’s craft is other-level. The poet’s profound understanding of “things to do with language” also made me believe (as she suggests throughout the text) that Neighbor is a novel, an experimental film script, a play, a manifesto, a log, a spew, and a confession, saturated with confessional artifice. “Definitely not a poem!” I didn’t believe it was an autobiography, however, unless it’s … everybody’s? The communal psychic dust of interpolating selfhoods in densely populated buildings? It is.

Formally, Neighbor is a feat of line breaks and clauses that seem to secretly break, or crash within like waves that don’t make the shore.

xxxxxThere is a public crisis
xxxxxwar on the others
xxxxxwith the planes
xxxxxfrom our store.


xxxxxwe count
xxxxxon our

xxxxxgoodness don’t


The above passage seems to place “experiment” outside of the realm of good. I can’t help but read it as “experimental poetry,” where lyric and narrative legibility are counted on for “our” sense of “goodness” and experiment is bad, it will at least put you at risk. But Levitsky is steadfastly experimental and loves narrators, because she has a story to tell (confess). The title of the book she published after Neighbor is entitled The Story of My Accident Is Ours (Futurepoem, 2016), and continues her thinking about “the vast and nearly completely unmanageable spaces between us.” The nature of these spaces can never be told through narrative, but they can be conveyed through a calamitous narrator. This narrator joins adjectives and nouns and makes them proper nouns (i.e. people), such as one character in the play in the middle of Neighbor entitled “Perfect California: A Family Affair” named Luminous Cravings.

The narrator’s subject position shifts from third person to first person in a landscape that seems to take place nowhere and anywhere. For a book that could probably have only been written by a New Yorker, there are no specific references to the city. There are two references to dead Israeli politicians. The only reference that really “dates” the book comes in the notes to the play, which Levitsky extended for this edition, with a dedication to David Buckel. Buckel was a NYC-based LGBT rights lawyer and an environmentalist who self-immolated, a protest suicide, in Prospect Park early in early morning of April 14, 2018, “two weeks after the Trump regime announced major E.P.A. auto emission rule rollbacks.” Now when I think of Neighbor, I also think of Buckel, and Levitsky as Buckel’s neighbor, in the sense that they shared a beloved park. I also remember my own upset reading the news that morning and how this is another thing that connects me to my friend Rachel Levitsky. One reading of Neighbor is through the lens of a neighbor who ended his life, a political action the state—the United States—by design would render illegible and meaningless. It wasn’t enough responded to or seen enough to become a catalyst like the political suicide that ignited Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution. The state uses its power to make sure these acts remain illegible to the public.

Because people are quarantined, because I am in Tucson away from friends and already missing pre-pandemic social life, because people are dying, because Neighbor is an encyclopedia of emotion, the litany of first names in the poem “Blotter” increased my … “intensity.” (The narrator will try to identify “the effect of age on intensity.”) I was attached to the idea that I will grow less intense over time, but now I’m not sure. I recognize many of the names as the names of poets, but one doesn’t need to know that. The poem is about the limits of presence, the fear of loss, the rejection of tension – just try to “let go” (reject the cliché as we must but “for sure, something we [poets] could try”).

My partner and I are quarantined in a building with six other people. No one is a “good neighbor.” Just the other day, the troublesome neighbor who lives above us was hosing down the steps and the water was pouring through the wood ceiling into our mudroom. I went outside and told her what was happening. She said, “it can’t be a lot.” I said, it is, and grabbed a mop. For the first time ever, we made eye contact and I could see it had only just dawned on her that her actions impacted me. A few minutes later she offered help that I flat out rejected. “I didn’t know.” I said, well, this is an old house, and then, live and learn (shrug). I became my dad and then my mom. I, at that point, had not read Neighbor for many years and was still thinking of good and bad as serious categories to think about neighbors. Or that my selfhood could be defined against my neighbor’s butch lesbian self.

“Love is a complicated thing / when I speak of my neighbor.” The Ancient Greeks didn’t have a word for neighbor love, and Christians have to love thy neighbor. There is rarely direct communication with neighbors, who may only ever be substitutes, hence the teleplay (the telepathy). Even I, a poet, was just repeating some platitudes I had heard. It’s not not authentic, it’s a play. I was possessed by Mop, and some notion of the house as porous. I had to mop up so much of her water and I still wasn’t sure of my part.

In Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, the fourth and last component of NVC is “the request,” a concrete action from the other person that would make our lives more wonderful. Some of the characters in “Perfect California” utter the line, “remorse requested;” the play ends on that line. I am going to end this review still thinking about, drained of tension, what my obligation is to others next to my freedom from such obligation.

#261 — Summer 2020