Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mark Levine, _Debt_

THE SAME PERSON who recommended to me Joshua Clover's Madonna Anno Domini as one of the best volumes of new poetry of the 1990s also recommended this -- which must have some serious buzz, since at Amazon.com used copies of Debt start at $28 and go as high as $170. Yikes. Fortunately, at abebooks.com I found a copy for about seven dollars.

Levine is, like Clover, a 90s-era Writers' Workshop alum, though I wouldn't say either's poetry much resembles the other's. Debt was a 1992 National Poetry Series selection, chosen by Jorie Graham, who happened to be one of Levine's teachers, so there's a bit of Foetry-tinged scandal to the book, as a kind of bonus.

Well, enough gossip. What is the book like? It's excellent. Liked it even more than I liked Clover's.

Every poem seems to have a first person perspective, "I" or "we," but even though the poems conjure up direly real settings and events -- wars, financial collapses, famines, plagues -- the "I" doesn't seem to be Levine in any specifiable way, nor the events so conjured precisely those of
our own world. Now and then the reader suspects he or she is in some dystopic future, but there is nothing futuristic about the references to Brink's trucks or Borkum Riff.

I seem to use the word "oneiric" a lot lately, and I probably ought to cease and desist, but I am weary of "surreal," and "dreamlike" is too likely to evoke some gauzy Maxfield Parrish world, luminously lit, where nothing awful ever happens. So "oneiric" it is -- Levine's poems in Debt operate by a dream-logic, simultaneously precise and vague, set in a world that we recognize as ours even if it be dissimilar in every detail, where we ourselves are somehow in new identities without ceasing to be ourselves.

We cannot say anything we want to say
until we are fed the white paste
and the planks have been carefully laid,
giant cranes gliding behind us.
The flow from the gray pump continues.
We slip in the wet grass.

Or try this on for size, from "Poem": "The soldiers torched the crops while retreating. / It only seemed fair." The defeated soldiers want to deny their advancing conquerors food, I suppose -- though what are we civilians to eat in the meantime? Does "only" modify "seemed" -- that is, burning the crops only appeared to be fair, but in fact was cruel and unnecessary? Or is the sentence a colloquial equivalent of "what else could they do, what options did they have"? And what do those advancing conquerors have in mind for us, do you suppose? Meanwhile, in formal terms, what a marvelous collection of [r] sounds, and what a great touch that verb is, making you see the soldiers starting the fires.

"Notes on the Pyramids (II)" might be the Pharaoh's thoughts on Moses, as suggested by the line "I tell him not to make the firstborn decree" -- if we could account for the smokestacks and cement trucks. Perhaps it were better to say it's about one powerful but weary will confronting another, each knowing what cards the other holds, together inhabiting a sphere that the followers of neither would understand:

The pulleys pull between us, setting in place
the last flesh stones. Each of us holds
the other's starred birth papers.
My God, what we've got on each other.

I can open this book anywhere and find myself hooked. "Self-Portrait" begins:

Lying impatient for the burning copper thread

OK, you got me. What independent clause can follow that?

I wake next to me on the too narrow for two bedcage.

Ah, yes. I'm yours, Mr. Levine.

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