What good is possessing the courage of your convictions if your convictions are deranged? I ask because Dana Levin’s Wedding Day takes an admirable approach to the question of confidence, and asks to what extent the poet requires certainty (about her subject, about poetry itself) to make a poem. Certainly, poetry can claim to advance the cause of subtlety or nuance as an epistemological response to authoritarian language and authoritarian ideas contained therein, but this is an easier function to claim than it is to embody. It’s one thing to note that poetry may unshackle the mind; it’s another thing entirely to describe what this poetry may look like as poetry.
So let’s start with something like this:
necklace of fires
erupting from the gas line, buildings bereft
strangers picking through a desolation, passports,
then weeping in French.
That’s from the aptly-titled “Cinema Verite, ” and it nicely encapsulates one of the overarching tones of Wedding Day: some small, smashed, grievous beauty dusted with a light spray of glum comedy. Fatalistic and fetishistic all at once, Levin cannot stop assembling bits of loveliness even as she marches resolutely to the gallows of one inevitable insufficiency after another. In her set of poems all sharing the burden of “Ars Poetica,” she offers analogues of lyric capacity in a set of butterfly cocoons trapped in the throat:
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—
as well as
was it a way to stay alive, a way to keep hope,
leaving things unfinished?
as if in completing a sentence there was death—
this desert of fragments,
this urge to make a scrapbook of stars—
As if these weren’t explicit enough, we also get “American Poet,” which likens the figure of the title to a persistent cricket whose rhapsodic saw suffers under the weight of traffic, to say nothing of the weight of metaphor. We get the problem—eloquence is oppressive and also inevitable, thus folding failure neatly into success—though we get the problem via too plain and persistent a complaint on the part of the poet.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Levin is wrong, just that she spends more time naming the difficulty than she does working through or around it. When she does commit to this enterprise she documents as baffling and contradictory, she infrequently indulges in some verse that pretends as if eloquence isn’t oppressive at all. Consider the poem “Desire (golden mean)” which interrogates beauty with the un-self-consciousness of notes hastily scribbled in a night book of philosophical inquiry:
Apples, the divisive rewards for Beauty, in some fucked-up
But a darkness in there somewhere, right?
Worm, snake, mealy texture that is the apple’s spite—
but that ends, alas, with the unalloyed poeticism of
the reddest of all apples abandoned—
the skin broken, just a little, by the teeth.
More frequently, however, Levin expresses her frustration at irreconcilables with more strategic use of that signature sign of the uncertain, the em dash, exit artifice for fragments and orphans. It is with these fits and starts that Levin begins to achieve an effective means of redress, especially regarding her desire to use her full complement of poetic resources without committing to a process of lyrical elaboration she finds oppressive. This strategy of compressing lyrically precise sentences or sentence fragments into an oblique meditation is hardly new or uncommon, but it comes with risks, not least of which is that the poem comes to resemble nothing more than a set of gnomic aphorisms. At the more conservative end of the spectrum, of course, there’s the equivalent risk of writing a poem whose skeleton shines so clearly through the skin that the tattoos embedded thereon appear as just that: ornamentation designed to distract. It is also possible to remedy this problem altogether refusing any approximation of the poem that smacks in the least of lyric, but Levin loves her music too much to make such a choice.
Given these constraints, Levin sometimes invents intriguing escapes, such as these fragments of “Suttee”:
Do you want Batman or Spider-Man.
Do you want the wizard hat or Professor X, the green skull
with a rose in its teeth, do you want
the thunderbolt or the smiley face.
George Washington with spirals for eyes.
you opened your mouth and he steadies your head,
and slipped another president in—
and walked you
to the cement-lined river, furious
for the memory-ridden sea—
after days of hard rain, palm fronds smashed up
against the overpass pilings, shopping cart
saying, Do you want Aquaman or the Sacred Heart.
The elephant god, Remover
Mary with her methadone eyes.
Here, Levin gets to make use of her desire to modify in the most traditional lyric sense—the river furious for a memory-ridden sea—but doesn’t follow these embellishments to their otherwise necessary conclusions. What she thereby earns is room for something else, an accumulation of meaning derived from list and anecdote that suggests tone and context rather than forcing the same.
This technique works better in some poems than in others, obviously. In poems like “Gift Drawing,” for instance, the repetitive force of the descriptive fragments sounds like a persistent futility, like a cat begging to be let inside every six seconds, without substantial enough variation to achieve either aural or imagistic rhythmic interest—”Diamond of ocher day.//Diamond of violet night.//Squaring the cell/in which something was caged, something/the color of a coffee stain–//Something.//A chosen blur.”
But when she finds a fitting combination, Levin seems well able to serve both her pleasures and her paranoia. Her “Summer Is Icummen In” begins with the following:
Larkspur at the gate like a wedding, the white, the purple-blue hue—
And when the woman with the oxygen tank walked by, you
imagined a woman with an oxygen tank, a man so in love
with her he imagines the slim tubes at each of her nostrils
tendriling out and coiling right into his chest—
red roses in the middle if the heart could burst its blood out of joy inexpressible
like a heart attack—
A hummingbird hovered in front of me and flashed its magenta breast.
JOY HOVERED IN FRONT OF ME AND FLASHED ITS MAGENTA BREAST
and was gone, that quick emblem,
and it was the single day giving you the poem,
it was the kingdom saying, Come in—
and you can see how Levin is starting to find ways to maintain her convictions without being trapped by them. She gets to keep her desire to find a resource in an exhausted aviary of nature-images, she gets to record its plumage with lyric detail, she even gets a Bidart-moment of capital-A Astonishment. But she also doesn’t allow herself a facile rest or peace in these achievements. Hers aren’t wholly my convictions, but I respect how quickly Levin has become suspicious of her own faculties, and also of how stubbornly she refuses to utterly abandon them. In “Quelquechose,” she wonders
… why being experimental means
not having a point—
why experimentation in form is sufficient unto itself
But I needed a new way to say things: sad tired I
with its dulled violations, lyric with loss in its faculty den—
Others were just throwing a veil over suffering:
glittery interesting I-don’t-exist—
All over town, I marched around,
ranting my jeremiad.
Thinking, What good is form if it doesn’t say anything—
Happily, there’s something in this lament to offend everyone. And while Levin obviously isn’t going to be surrendering her “sad tired I” anytime soon, at least that ego isn’t barricaded within the terrible certainties with which poetry abounds. It doesn’t solve these problems, but Wedding Day deserves credit for committing language not only to the asking, but to the rewards of answers in the act of their making.