Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, July 19, 2010

Mark Levine, _Enola Gay_

HIS SECOND, FROM ten years ago. Somewhat lower voltage than Debt, I thought, as though Levine had in the meantime encountered something of ample power to chasten and subdue. A pleasurable read, all the same.

The jacket copy suggests that Wallace Stevens hovers in the background of the book, but I was more reminded of Hart Crane. The combination of ornate but orthodox syntax with bend-y, startling, left-field semantic juxtapositions occurs in both Crane and Stevens, but Levine's forays in this direction made me think more often Hart than of Wallace. Here's Crane:

Oval encyclicals in canyons heaping
The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!
Pagodas, campaniles with reveilles out leaping-
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!…

Levine likely would have avoided "slain," and the exclamation points, but he too loves to blend the syntactically clear with the semantically opaque:

I called on the orange
tab to rid me of this shawl, its heaviness.
Its contamination. Its need to be bundled
into silence and tramped with shears
among the skewed roots of industrial hair.

Can one terrace an echo? Can an encyclical be oval? How could an orange tab rid one of a shawl, and why would a shawl need to be tramped with shears? If you're a Crane-ite, as I am, or a Levine-ite, as I may yet become, the music of the poem persuades that such propositions are right and inevitable.

What I was most reminded of, though, was Eliot's "Marina." There's a recurring landscape in Enola Gay, a place of rock, shore, forest, and mist, of salt water and sand, the landscape of "Marina." A crucial difference is that in Eliot's poem some unfathomable blessing has occurred, while in Levine's something unspecified has gone badly amiss, or will soon ("And the stars began to fall, and though everybody is waiting / for a terrible surprise, it hasn't come yet, not just yet"). Yet there is no elegy or lament here, but a kind of stoic, clamped-jaw acceptance, a grim satisfaction in knowing the worst and dispensing with self-delusion.

"Forgetfulness" in particular seems to evoke "Marina," but the landscape and the boat seem to encode guilt rather than redemption:

Beware the dark sea.
What does darkness look like? What does it mean?
My bark is thinking of me, my unhappy bark

is balancing on its hook in the shaken sea
shrinking and sinking and blinking and thinking of the
distant blank blue hills. Where are my tall trees?

But is the landscape meant to evoke not Eliot's New England seacoast, but Japan? Is that why the book and its longest poem are named after the airplane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima --? But why does that very poem bring in clam-bakes and Jew's harps (an allusion to Eliot's Yankee anti-Semitism?) and end by landing us in "downtown Sumer"?

Well, I'm sufficiently intrigued. On to The Wilds.

One doesn't hear Hart Crane mentioned as often as he deserves to be. What's up with that?

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