reviewed by Conner Bassett
Levin, Dana. Sky Burial. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2011. 69 pp. $16.00
Like a graveyard, Sky Burial is crowded with a haunting silence. Dana Levin’s language approximates the uneasiness of death, while divulging its gruesome details. Indeed, Levin’s own mythology of death is informed by Tibetan Buddhist burial rites, Aztec sacrifice rituals, and the death of her own parents and sister:
The father died and then the mother died.
And you were so addicted
to not feeling them, you told no one about the clap
around the vena cava.
The work of Sky Burial suggests that the utility of art is found in its ability to cultivate a degree of discomfort within the reader. In this collection, a boy lights the bodies of dead animals on fire, human sacrifices are made to obtuse gods, the living-dead haunt dark corridors, and graveyards become a place of exploration. Such phenomenological details remove all cultural assumption and presumed expectations about living and dying. The discomfort we feel while reading Levin allows us to, as Buddhism preaches, abandon whatever it is we think we know in order to perceive new possibilities concerning our existence.
Levin rejects the need for meaning or logic in poetry. Instead, her poetic language creates its own kind of reality, in which we are forced to recognize the inextricability of death. Reading Levin’s poetry we find ourselves wandering through elaborate and haunting mazes, falling through trapdoors, discovering hidden corridors, and feeling our way through what seems like endless rooms of images both disturbing and breathtaking. Levin’s poetry is moving from place to unexpected place.
Levin often creates an experience by employing imagery and language that is valued for its emotional weight rather than its accessibility. In “Ghosts that Need Reminding,” Levin draws upon images according to their ghost-like impression. The result is a series of haunting objects that engage the reader in a lonely experience:
Through shattered glass and sheeted furniture, chicken
wire and piled dishes, sheared-off doors stacked five to a
wall, you’re walking like cripples. Toward a dirty window,
obstructed by stacks of chairs.
And once you move them, one by one, palm circles through
the grime and cup your hands round your faces, . . .
Levin adopts surrealistic and otherworldly imagery to reinvent our current, actual situation of mortality. Such imagery opens our consciousness to new, otherwise inaccessible influences. We as readers experience something that is simultaneously strange and familiar—something new and yet recognizable. Levin entertains this conundrum by de-familiarizing the commonplace.
Silence takes precedence in Levin’s work. The space between lines and sentences is laden with uncertainty and contemplation. This technique often demands much of the reader, for Levin’s poetry frequently consists of lengthy meditations that lack cohesiveness yet bear the evidence of struggle and loss:
You believe in your skin, you must
elect the knife.
Peel the hair, the scalp-skin down.
Bow to the first bearing crown.
The hook because he pulls (others to salvation)
The noose because he binds (to the perfect wisdom)
The lance, because he pierces false theories
Intestines draped over his twenty-fourth arm to explain
These lines are wounded with the witness of death. Levin thus challenges us to face our “essential situation” or the palpability of losing not only our life, but also our identity. However, this is not your typical live-this-day-like-it-was-your-last storyline. Instead, Levin asks us to consider our response to death, mourning, and rebirth. In this sense, Levin turns the process of grievance into a thing of serious beauty. Her elegy becomes a psalm.
If Levin’s poetics drive us toward an encounter with death, then I should also note that she accomplishes this goal on multiple levels. On one hand her poetry is full of emotionally charged language:
You were anchored
in the shallow boat.
by his faceless weight—
And on the green shore you could see their vapored
reside, how they could
smell it, those two: if you
slit your wrists you could make them speak
On the other hand, Levin’s tone is intellectually stimulating and psychologically difficult:
I’d been waiting to know if it’s alright to live.
An accessional symbol on every level, the symbol book said.
Body of Ra. Solar victory. If you can believe in the book
This complexity of discourse lends Levin’s poetry both to a multiplicity of interpretation and to a depth of communication. Her language is rooted in the subtle tension of intellectually understanding the reality of death, and yet refusing to accept it emotionally. In this way Levin highlights our emotional immaturity in the face of mortality. Additionally, her tense dialogue both creates a reality and reveals an inner world—her language both mimics her own experience and invents an experience for the reader. The outer reality of death is revealed by way of an inner reality.
Any clamor for location or paraphrasability in poetry is almost entirely dismissed in Sky Burial. Levin’s goal is to isolate. Her poetry strives to uproot the reader, placing him or her in a frightening landscape, where death is the “unshakable lens” through which all things are seen. Much of Levin’s poetry addresses the reader directly. This way, Levin invites us into her mental landscape. Consequently, her poems do more than articulate an imaginary world, but rather, they allow us to experience that world for ourselves. Levin immediately removes herself from the poem as a means to a more collective exploration of consciousness. We see this in her poem, “Cathartes Aura”:
That one must put color
to the lips of the dead—
file them in the ground under a name—
Smash the skull.
For the eaters, who will bear the used body away.
Levin slowly undoes us until we stand face to face with our own humanity; then, she abandons us so that we must grapple with that humanity individually. Her poetry yields a kind of frightening wisdom that, although often painful to read, is absolutely worth knowing.