University of California Press/New California Poetry, $30 (cloth),
by Stephen Burt
Edgy, difficult, estranged, and self-confident, Mark Levines
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: Levines 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 Levines 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, Levines 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. Levines 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." Levines people chafe against
their suspicion, singing songs they dont know or dont 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
Brownings "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
wont and he cant:
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, Levines 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 Levines subjects, and lets him link his
metaphysical concerns to the speedy chemistry experiments he likes to
perform on the American language: "Theyre having a clam-bake.
Theyre baking my clams. / Theyre baking the clams pried from
my steaming pond."
What clams, where? Readers can guess, but cant 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 cant
quite catch one becomes part of the point of the poem, whose all too Freudian
residents (to put it mildly) cant 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 Levines "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 its an angry "bearded man" wearing a shirt labeled
"Susan Fowler" who attacks Levines unnamed "he"
with a "heavy stick." This bizarre encounter (in a war zone,
yet) contains the odd lesson that human relations dont 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
. 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
At dawn he scrambled pell-mell
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.
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?
Hed 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
its the Fourth of July or a day just like it, "the happiest
moment / of everybodys life." Later, "the stars begin
to fall, and though everybody is waiting / for a terrible surprise, it
hasnt come yet, not just yet."
Personages like "Everybody," like "Jack and Jill"
and "Susan Fowler," populate most of Levines 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
. We touched it with sleep and we saw it / in a cloud uplifted
on the wings / of nervous hawks." Keatss 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 earths 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: heres 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, Yeatss
Byzantium, all the landscapes of imagination to which an Overworked American
or a war-weary European might flee, reappear in Levines 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 Levines
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 books 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