A travel writer typically ventures to far-flung lands and returns with fresh visions and understandings of places remote from his readers. Occasionally, the same feat can be accomplished by journeying into time. The poet and translator Gabriel Levin is the kind of traveller who might use ancient texts as guidebooks to the present. The past is not a foreign country for Levin - it is the only country worth visiting. In The Dune's Twisted Edge, his collection of essays on the Levant, Levin weaves history into rich and immediate descriptions of place. When among the Bedouins of the Negev, he quotes the sand-swept verses of the pre-Islamic poet Imru Al Qays. He searches for traces of the Byzantine empress Eudocia and the Greek poet Meleager in the hotsprings of the Galilee. Traipsing around the desert in Jordan, he studies ancient rock inscriptions and reads them for meanings that can bridge the centuries.
At the core of these meandering essays is the almost impossible aspiration of sketching the sensibility of a whole region, the Levant. "How to speak of the imaginative reach of a land habitually seen as a seedbed of faiths and heresies, confluences and ruptures … ruin and renewal, fault line and ragged clime, with a medley of people and languages once known with mingled affection and wariness as Levantine?"
His elegant collection offers less of a direct response to this question and more of a delicate sketch in its sifting of the literary history of the Levant. It also traces Levin's own intimate relationship to the region, where he found "the exhortation to make something of his life." Conventionally understood as the countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean, the Levant has a much more intimate and transcendent meaning for Levin. Etymology in this case tells a rather lyrical story. The term Levant has its origins in the French verb for "to rise" - a reference to the rising sun, and hence the east - but Levin takes pleasure in the additional French homophone of le vent, "wind", which stirs in him a romantic mood. "In my imagination," he writes, "the wind, the sunrise, and the Levant were all one and the same." The wind and the rising sun are full symbols for a region so much at the crossroads, a land so desired and so contested.
The essays in the collection range from exercises in literary criticism - an exploration, for instance, of Mesopotamian narratives of the journey to the underworld - to vivid and impressionistic accounts of Levin's visits in the Negev, Jordan and the Galilee, to experimental poetry. Their direct connections are at times tenuous, but the various efforts here are linked by Levin's warm style and sensitivities, the relentless claims that nature and history have on his imagination.
One cannot help but feel that Levin is a romantic in the increasingly rare, almost nostalgic 19th-century romantic sense. His experience of the joys of rural settings and vistas is as visceral as it is earnest. His own poetry (of which he has published four collections) is rife with tremulous descriptions of the natural world, especially the desert and its human and animal inhabitants. The essays in The Dune's Twisted Edge invariably focus on areas outside the crowded bounds of towns and settlements: ancient wadis, ramshackle desert outposts and hot springs in the hills. In his deep fascination with present-day and historical Bedouin nomads, he reveals a very modern, urban longing for pastoral life. He seeks a kind of communion with the eternal, timeworn patterns of human movement and contemplation. No wonder then that he claims that both ancient Hebrews and ancient Arabs "must have had their best thoughts while herding their livestock".