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Poetry

Enola Gay
Mark Levine

University of California Press/New California Poetry, $30 (cloth), $13.95 (paper)

by Stephen Burt

Edgy, difficult, estranged, and self-confident, Mark Levine’s 1993 debut, Debt, acquired a reputation with other young poets almost from the moment the manuscript left Iowa. The best poems in Debt, like "Work Song," flaunted a sharp skepticism about their equally sharp need to represent a self-conscious individual, one equipped with emotions and moral demands: Levine’s stressed-out alter ego "Henri" declared, "I live in Toulouse, which is a piece of cardboard. / Summers the Mayor paints it blue, we fish in it." Later in Debt were poems whose self-suspicion soured into a too-hip surrealism, appropriating images from the Gulf War and the West Bank to announce, portentously, the death of their subject. Fans of Debt (like me) have been waiting a while for this second volume: I am pleased to announce that Enola Gay is neither a great departure nor a letdown--it is a lot like Debt, at least as varied, subtler, and perhaps better.

Some of Levine’s most revealing lines come in one of several new poems called "Lyric": "It was a model of passion. A flame painting / The grain of a so-called urge. / One eye disavowed what the other eye saw." Here is his trouble, and his big, timely topic, in one partly cracked nutshell: do we feel, do poems show, passion or only a model? Are our lives’ "urges" genuine or just "so-called"? Which of our eyes can we believe? This dilemma, of course, has emotional consequences. Now more than ever, Levine’s poems have the affective palate appropriate to an age of self-suspicion: he is a wonderful poet of exasperation, anxiety, holding on warily (sometimes even mockingly) to his continually frustrated desire to trust in metaphysics, or rituals, or other people. Levine’s protagonists are betrayed into lyrical utterance despite their sense that they are too grown-up for all that: in the first poem in Enola Gay, a man visits a vacant church nightly all week, almost against his will: "he kneeled in the aisle / with his hands in his shirt and he remembered the song / he wished not to remember; he remembered. / And he sang." Levine’s people chafe against their suspicion, singing songs they don’t know or don’t want to sing, wandering past the still-standing timbers of older poems, looking for icons or picnics, jobs or maps.

Levine thus manages simultaneously to write visionary quest poems (like Browning’s "Childe Roland") and ironic poems of po-mo disconnection. Here is another of his romantic questers, waiting for language itself to pull together so he can keep traveling, even though (as we know) it won’t and he can’t:

He set out in darkness. In darkness
we waited at the corner of the forest
for his reappearance. So many forests!
Somewhere was a silent forest. Ice above, ice below.
Somewhere was a coldness with a rope in it
like a memory-braid or like a pair of braids.

Check out that "or" (no single likeness can be trusted); check out, too, Levine’s characteristically insistent and irregular repetition--the stanza rides a swell of one word, "forest," with an undertow of others ("braid," "ice"). When we hear one word over and over and over, we begin to wonder whether it is being used in some strange or secret way, or whether it still means anything at all. That wonder is another of Levine’s subjects, and lets him link his metaphysical concerns to the speedy chemistry experiments he likes to perform on the American language: "They’re having a clam-bake. They’re baking my clams. / They’re baking the clams pried from my steaming pond."

What clams, where? Readers can guess, but can’t know: like several of his peers, Levine deliberately gives us either too much information about the purported backstory "behind" a poem, or else not quite enough. In "Two Springs":

I heard the click-beetles in the woodpile
reproducing wood. Once you told me about your mother
posing among the tinder
in her antique dress: your mother in the light of borrowed days.
Our plan (we were young and ashamed) was to
drown in the pond by the boathouse
while the leaves watched.

Here are plenty of coolly intricate psychological and aural patterns, but no clear sequence of events: the frustration we feel when we can’t quite catch one becomes part of the point of the poem, whose all too Freudian residents (to put it mildly) can’t quite get themselves together.

Somebody someday will map the common ground between Levine and the Continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas--for both (and this may be as far as the linkage goes) think we learn who we are and what we ought to do through an encounter with a mysterious Other, whom we must meet face-to-face. Several poems depict Levine’s "I" or "he" meeting such an Other: some are called "Hello," and "My Friend," and "The Response." In "Eclipse, Eclipse" the encountered Other is "a horseman … wounded in his heels"; in the next poem it’s an angry "bearded man" wearing a shirt labeled "Susan Fowler" who attacks Levine’s unnamed "he" with a "heavy stick." This bizarre encounter (in a war zone, yet) contains the odd lesson that human relations don’t have to be about power--that our tonal and emotional versatility can sometimes turn fights into something else, though it is hard to say what else: "He wanted to laugh but could not decide / if laughter was an appropriate response…. He thought to himself: "This man needs love." / And he offered the man his hand-tooled snuff box." Why a snuff box? Why not? Levine is a great collector of very strange objects; his least successful poems are just lists of such objects, catchalls whose piled-up "form" no longer seems new: "A blue arrow of painted logs. / A demonstration of games of chance. / White dog in my garden, white dog in their garden." Far more memorable are the ways in which Levine deforms and acidifies old song forms, recasting, transmuting, or running old rhyme-schemes ragged. Levine names one such workout "Jack and Jill," after its singular protagonist:

He clutched a steel device
against his ribs. It saved him twice,
once from x-rays, once from vice
and a woman. The land was ill.
His name was Jack and Jill.
His was a special case.

At dawn he scrambled pell-mell
through the woods to the shadowed rill.
He was hungry. Was he real?
Was he a rhyme? Was he a trace
of purple smoke escaped from base?
He’d taken a great spill--

he swallowed rain; he had a taste
of precious metals and malaise.
Is it easy to give praise
when his name is Jack and Jill?
He is rinsing his stained surface
with heavy water and a drill.

Just who needs repairs here? In one sense it is the old-fashioned (male, Western, liberal, rational) notion of the "subject," who limps along as violently as "his" song form, inviting with-it readers to cheer his demise; in another sense he could be any of us, and invites our sympathies, like the Tin Man. He is a very specific (gendered) figure, with a specific dilemma, but at the same time (being the endangered "I" of lyric) he aspires to represent everybody (Jack and Jill)--and anyone else who tried to do his job would find herself faced with his old problems. This same dilemma--how universal, and how specific, can poetry try to be?--drives the amazing poem entitled "Everybody," in which it’s the Fourth of July or a day just like it, "the happiest moment / of everybody’s life." Later, "the stars begin to fall, and though everybody is waiting / for a terrible surprise, it hasn’t come yet, not just yet."

Personages like "Everybody," like "Jack and Jill" and "Susan Fowler," populate most of Levine’s new poems: they are persons of shaky and uncertain status--semi-generic, semi-universal, and self-consciously if unwillingly artificial. Like Henri, they have doppelgangers, or halves, or severable, willful, mechanical limbs; they are simultaneously a person and a place, or a person and an algorithm, or one person and several: "I was wound up like a clan." The robot-like secret agent in "Hello" "wishes someone would approach and put a coin // in him. / A phone was ringing and ringing." What such cyborgs have to say to us, as Levine makes them say, is just this: Who am I? How did I come to be? These are questions asked in Wordsworth and Proust; but cyborgs all stress, as Proustians sometimes do not, how the answers have something to do with technology, and something more to do with economics. In the dense, post-apocalyptic "John Keats," the poet, his grave, and his Grecian Urn have merged to become a "machine," "our ideal vase": "we saw the machine was weak, / in need of rites…. We touched it with sleep and we saw it / in a cloud uplifted on the wings / of nervous hawks." Keats’s readers appear as "personal machines familiar / with suffering, machines with copper voices / high-pitched and trilling in the blank cold night." Eventually machines (like us) remember or learn how to mourn machines (like Keats): "We were sorry to hear of the earth’s loss. / We send our regrets, burdens and regrets."

Despite--no, because of--its sarcastic overtones, what "John Keats" and Enola Gay in general show is that Levine--with all his hip bizarrie, discoherences, and occasional in-jokes--has gone all the way through, and come out the other side of, aggressive postmodern skepticism: we are wounded, partial, always already guilty machines, Levine says, but we still need art: here’s mine. The poems place such Big Issues so clearly before us, in fact, that they can occlude his sheer verbal wildness, which remains the first and best reason to read him. Oz, Yeats’s Byzantium, all the landscapes of imagination to which an Overworked American or a war-weary European might flee, reappear in Levine’s world of odd juxtapositions as an unstable set of back lots and deserts, part Revelation, part Tank Girl. On the plains of "Hello," for example:

There were glass monuments and windmills and an open wagon
crowded with singing schoolchildren
and there were vacant guard towers painted like the sun
and there was a pipeline stained with birds
A tree was burning, dressing the sky.
It was a kind of prayer and a kind of warning.

There is more to say about allusions and precedents, about Levine’s embedded bits of Thomas Wyatt, his uses of T. S. Eliot and John Berryman, his bits of history. (Despite the title, Enola Gay has plenty to do with wars, but not much to do with the A-bomb.) There is more to say, too, about his series of symbols--about his motherly oceans, his airplanes and pilots and spies, his musical instruments, and the train that runs through the whole book, carrying, it seems, the weight of human need. On the book’s first page, a train passes a ruined church "each night with its cargo rattling on rattling flatbeds"; in "A Harvest," "a train arrives from the city, seeking comfort / for its squawking cargo, and we turn the train away." That train (or is it another train?) stops again at the closing poem, "Wedding Day," with its ambivalent, semi-mechanical bride:

There was room for me inside her and her family.
She was swollen with particles of Emerson.

She had a packet of locomotive stamps

that she longed to sell me in the future.
This is the future I said and she with longing replied:
You sir have bought yourself a shiny train.

Should we trust the longing, or remain suspicious enough to break it down into its component "particles"? Can we do both? Levine, with all his attitude, certainly can. More poets, I think, will soon board his train.

Stephen Burt's first book of poems, Popular Music,was published last year. He is a graduate student at Yale, where he is completing a study of Randall Jarrell.

Originally published in the Summer 2000 issue of Boston Review



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