From the Larger Houses

Wedding Day by Dana Levin. Copper Canyon: 2005. 68 pp. $14.
Reviews by Patty Seyburn.

In Dana Levin's second collection, Wedding Day, the body and soul put on the gloves again, tormenting and taunting each other to reach some sort of provisional agreement. What makes this book worth reading is not, however, this timeless argument, but what feels like direct exposure to the viscera of body and soul, with all the instrumentation and diction available to the modern poet. Beyond "progress" in scientific terms lies the essential question of whether the body, as vessel, has any essential meaning without its partner in crime, its "ember of light," reminiscent of the shattered vessel and scattered light described in Jewish mystical texts. The traditional wedding day gets little to no play as a possible union between two people. The only coming together desired or plausible in this collection is between the corporeal and the spiritual, and their vow to survive, their tenuous commitment, for better or worse.

The body in this book is no stranger to pain, nor the temptation of rescue or respite from it. The narcotic quality of Levin's poems is not incidental, laced into content as well pacing. In the opening poem, alone, titled "Techno," there's amphetamine (twice), aspirin, pharmaceutical and methedrine (both modifying "light"), bicarbonate, and a powder that's both the stuff inside capsules and the remaining substance of Lot's wife. Levin's speaker claims "not to look": a daring beginning for a book of poems, which seem often so fraught with irreconcilable memory.

The memory of this book is less lobe, however, than collective.  Levin is concerned with the American psyche, and how it is shaped by violence and culture, and, it would seem, drugs, all yoked by aesthetics. The medicine chest of curatives accompanies a flurry of medical terms and body parts: this is the dominant diction of the book, and it's a pleasure to read a group of poems that provide some sense of lexical cohesion, some ligature that functions semantically as well as sonically. Of course, the music of medicine and the body is unfailingly Latinate, affix and prefix driven, cool to the touch, but the echoes are there, nonetheless.

It's hard to imagine these poems in any other form than doggedly free verse, injected with a great deal of air between lines so that the white space shapes the poems as much as the text. Jorie Graham may have taught Levin's generation how - and why - to do this, but they've applied the technique, or necessity, to the short lyric as well as the long rumination that wanders from subject to image to impression and never arrives when or where expected. Levin's lyrics are among the best poems of this collection. The first of three poems titled "Ars Poetica" is stunning, a brief, veiled lyric that captures the terror of inspiration and the transformation of life into art:

            Six monarch butterfly cocoons
                        clinging to the back of your throat -

            you could feel their gold wings trembling.

            You were alarmed. You felt infested.

            In the downstairs bathroom of the family home,
                        gagging to spit them out -

                                    and a voice saying, Don't, don't -

The latter two "Ars" utilize more fragments and italics, and in the second, Levin names her technique: "so the poets became interested in fragments, interruptions ... / the little bit of saying lit by the unsaid." She uses the metapoetical reference, questioning the strategy of experimental poetry, in the poem that goes unidentified as an "Ars" but is really the Ars of the collection, called "Quelquechose."  It may be the best poem in the book, weaving the poet's talent for lyricism with her predilection for fragment and sprawl. If not that, it's certainly the most optimistic, concluding with allusions to the possibility of beauty and tenderness amidst the damage done to the body, the social contract, and the elusive notion of happiness.

Among the central concerns of this book are form and process, versus result. Rarely does a poem end with some sort of closing click, as is fitting for arguments that refuse to resolve in service of some neat symmetry. Dialogues between two parties - teacher/student, writer/reader, friends - are a central strategy, and often shown by the use of italics, which tend to provide the elliptical and compressed commentary of the subconscious. The italics, on occasion, threaten to distance the reader too much - they often preface more straightforward material - but work well in poems such as "Painting Vacation," where they introduce a close third-person perspective into an I-Thou poem. The narrator of this book is a closet Romantic with an oxygen tank (she shows up explicitly in the poem titled "Sumer Is Icumen In"), a persona with not only desire but the desire for hope, beauty, and as mentioned, happiness: the stuff that sustains the soul, even when the body refuses to cooperate.


The Incentive of the Maggot by Ron Slate. Mariner Books/Houghton-Mifflin, 2005. $12.

Poets, like cigarettes, have brands and iconic temperaments that go in and out of fashion. For awhile, we liked our poets passionate and consumptive. Who could forgive Wordsworth for living to be 80? Then, we decided a career-on-the-side was okay: you could be a medic or an insurance executive, if necessary. Then, back to the academy.

Now we want our poets to, once again, earn a living doing something completely other than poetry. When it works, it works: the poems are filled with the world. When it doesn't work, the poems are sheer information and rhetoric. In Ron Slate's debut volume, The Incentive of the Maggot (catchy title, nu?) his experience as a corporate VP for 25 years makes the poems both interesting and odd, as though one has engaged a weary tour-guide with access to the upper echelons of politics, business, and society. Correction: a weary tour-guide with a complex about the end of the world. It makes Slate an unlikely, if well-informed prophet, with visions that if not entirely apocalyptic, are certainly fatalistic.

The first three poems in the book are so compelling, however, that they manage to stave off concerns about the very endings they adumbrate. In the opening poem, "Writing off Argentina," the poet offers a way - contingent, but satisfying in its very limitation - to endure: "...we are forgetting how to be decently unhappy." It may not be the Ode to Joy, but it provides some solace. In "The Final Call," which begins, "Is this the end of the world?" the poet concludes with this tercet: "Ah, another soft landing./ Though this time a rather large sheet of sky/tangles and trails down after us."

In "Belgium," the poet uses repetitions of lines to reinforce the rich tedium of the actions taking place, and the banality of diplomacy which is, of course, all about language. "The western nations don't understand each other," he writes. Instead of the poetic trope of synecdoche, the part standing in for the whole, Slate asks the whole to stand in for the part: we are nations made up of individuals, and the metaphors cut both ways, making the larger entity complicit in the indiscretions and poor judgment of the solitary figure.

The other jewel in the opening section of the book, "The Demise of Camembert." It's hard to not like a poem which does as its central conceit the de-evolution of the French cheese-course and concludes with the lovely lines: "And you and I, paring away the rind,/do you have I have a patient nose/for the creamy inwardness of things?"

As happens particularly in first books of poems - even those delayed by an illustrious career, apparently - there's a section of poems that have the guise of autobiography. Refreshingly, in one of the book's more apparently personal poems, "Light Fingers," Slate actually confesses to something, which has not happened for awhile in a poem: the most recently "confessionals" have been about other people's bad behavior. The narrator catalogs various small items he'd "lifted" from local merchants and manages to cogently analyze why he'd committed the acts of thievery "...making a daring effort to be part/of the family's sadness" - and how the sadness translates into a much larger grief: "...what it means / to be human."

So what is the maggot's incentive? If you're likely to seek out an explanation for this age-old conundrum, take a rest. The title poem, terrific as it is, reserves its insects until the poem's end, when they serve to heal the fallen soldier: "their larvae made a soup in the gashes and rips/dressed the wounds and farmed our flesh." It's surprising the 5
th time you read it, and it will be the 50th, as well. Redemption comes in strange packages.

A weakness in the collection is the lack of musicality in the language. Apparently, there's not much lyricism at the end of the world. Though each line is well-crafted, they infrequently catch the ear's attention. Similarly, the few ekphrastic poems don't manage to transcend or bring new light to the work being discussed. Slate exercises greater control over his language in the poems broken up into quatrains, tercets, and couplets: the stanzas serve their functions as editors, even when not used as containers of discrete ideas or images.

Slate's work feels more content than music-driven, but that's not necessarily a criticism: It offers relevance, and not just to the politics of the moment, since it rarely addresses current or recent events. Nor does it claim that one war or conflict is like any other. Rather, they all feed the end-of-the-world machine, via commerce and discourse and bloodshed (lions, tigers, bears). The message of "Maggot" is compelling: the reader actually learns something about the self and the social, for better and worse. (Mostly for worse.) And knowledge, after all, isn't such a bad thing. Even if, saith The Doors, this is the end.