Spotlight: Dana Levin
Barely Understood Forces
Interview by John Deming
Dana Levin elegizes her mother, father and sister in her third book, Sky Burial. She explores mortality like a Gothic Buddhist in these new poems, assailing the body as temporary meat, but finding peace in the impermanence that permits one to bear witness. John Deming interviewed her by phone in May. The following is transcribed from the interview and edited by both Deming and Levin.
At first, it was an aesthetic engagement. I just really loved the artwork that I encountered in museums, in calendars. It reminded me of tattoo art. Almost kind of psychedelic, too. So I responded to that, but I really didn’t do any investigation into it. And then after my parents died, I felt compelled to do further research into these images, and started to read a lot about Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is really fascinating; it’s a mixture of Buddhism and this Shamanic religion called Bön, indigenous to the Himalayas. The Shamanic aspects, with the monsters and the deities and the oracles and the spells, got integrated into this Buddhistic philosophy.
My parents died so soon after each other. Six months. My dad died in January of ‘02 and my mother died in July of ’02. My mother’s death was shocking. She just dropped dead in the middle of putting on makeup. She had a massive heart attack. The EMT said she was probably dead before she hit the ground, based on the position of her body, or something. And you know, so much of Buddhism is predicated upon this idea that everything is impermanent. When people die, you’re like wow, it’s true. And you know it’s true intellectually, but I think it takes the death of close loved ones or sudden shocking deaths of close loved ones to jar you into “whoa, we really are all gonna die.” What does that mean? How are we supposed to live? Then Buddhism started to deepen for me, in terms of impermanence: we’re all going to die, so why not try to be kind to each other and to ourselves? That’s a religious creed I can get behind.
The very first poem in the book has the line “I’d been wanting to know if it was alright to live.” There is a kind of Whitmanic sense in here where death is a blending into atmosphere and universe, but also the conflicting sense that the perpetual, uncontrollable losses we experience yield a kind of meaningless devastation. What do you tend to think with regard to permanence vs. impermanence? We’re here forever on some level, but we are also not.
Ultimately, these deaths—it’s been weirdly calming. On my best days, I feel like the way to get through life is to conduct yourself like you’re a traveler through a foreign country. Because everything goes. Clothes fray, pets die, flowers fade, nothing lasts—and yet here we are having to live in this world where nothing lasts. So what is the appropriate relationship to phenomena? I sometimes think it is to be a traveler. If you were traveling through a foreign country, maybe you’d try to be open to new experiences, you’d try not to insult anybody, you’d try not to walk around with an arrogant attitude, and you’d really just try to receive the surprises and gifts of this foreign country where you are. And on my best days, I think that that’s the way to go through life. Now, I’m no saint, and I don’t always accomplish that, and neither does anybody. But I think that maybe the trick is to hold everything lightly. That doesn’t mean you don’t have passion for things and you don’t establish deep relationships with people and situations. But you kind of just have to say wow, nothing lasts, so for me to try to hold onto something is just a complete losing battle.
Every relationship ends, every life ends. Is the fact that things are definitely ending the same thing that gives them value?
Absolutely. For sure. I mean, wow, what a gift. What a trip, you know, to have one experience for a while, and then it goes, and you can have other experiences. Some of them aren’t very pleasant. I don’t know why we have to suffer, why we die, I don’t know why we’re here and we’re put in these meat sacks that degrade. But that “not-knowing-why-and-having-to-feel it anyway,” that’s the central life mystery. I think that if someone said to me “what to you is god,” I would say “barely-understood forces.”
There are images of humans as meat in Sky Burial. You seem to indicate the body as a collection of separate objects that make it function, almost like a car. Where is there room for “soul” or “consciousness”?
Sometimes I have such an ambivalent relationship to being embodied, being much more “soul” oriented; and yet every once in a while I have to remind myself that I love the phenomenal world. I love staring at the ocean. I love hearing certain sounds. I love to eat. All of those sensory experiences are possible only because I have a body.
Worth it because you get to be here and see it?
Yeah I think so. The psychoanalyst C.G. Jung had this terrible illness where he almost died, and in the middle of the illness he was having all of these fever dreams, and when he got done with that experience—he was in his thirties—he was left with the unshakable feeling that the whole purpose of consciousness was to witness itself. That the phenomenal world needed witnessing and humans were the ones meant to do it.
The universe becoming aware of itself.
Yes, we’re the original “A.I.” (laughs)
Did losing so much immediate family so quickly make you recalibrate your awareness of being in the world? Who were you able to share these losses with?
You totally have to recalibrate your experience. I have an older sister, Caryn. Right after my middle sister, Laura, died, the image that I couldn’t shake, that encapsulated how I was feeling, was this: Caryn and I clinging to a raft in endless open sea. And that’s just really how it felt. And I am so grateful that Caryn is still here, and that we have always been very close, and have been walking this journey together. But everything has gotten recalibrated. For both of us it’s been mostly internal. Neither of us made hugely significant life changes in response to these deaths in terms of, like, moving to another geographical area or something. But internally, there have been lots of changes, psycho-emotionally, and for me, I realized I had to start taking care of myself in ways that I wasn’t.
Is there anything you would want people to know about these three family members who died and why they were so important to your life?
(Laughs) I would say that each of them were stubborn and fiercely loving. Sometimes to be fiercely loving means that you have difficult relationships with people that you know. Every one of them loved to have a good time, every one of them loved what human culture had to offer in terms of the arts, in terms of food, in terms of all of those kinds of pleasures. Each of them had a very strong will and had decided opinions about how one is supposed to be in the world. Interestingly, myself and my surviving sister were the oddballs in the family in terms of how we lived our lives and the choices we made for work. I mean, I’m a poet. My mother would look at me like “what does that even mean?” (Laughs) Both of my parents were first generation Americans and my grandparents were from Jewish peasant stock, the uneducated classes; they fled Russia and Poland right after the Russian Revolution, so this idea that someone would be a poet, and that would be important to them, and they would make life decisions based on that, was just utterly alien and caused some concern.
It can be different, but in general I consider myself slow, though I don’t know who I’m comparing myself to. I’ve been publishing a book every six years. There are plenty of poems in Sky Burial that took six years to come to fruition. Every once in a while I have the experience of drafting something that feels finished to me within a couple of days, and I am always so excited when that happens, but it’s a pretty rare occasion. I take notes for a long time and sometimes I just have reams of notation and sometimes the process of putting poems together is just staring at these notes and seeing if there are any juxtapositional relationships that start to develop across disparate parts. The poem “Sybilline” in Sky Burial was composed that way: just various bits and pieces of thoughts I’d been having about the Delphic oracle, and then stuff that nothing to do with the Delphic oracle. Like, there’s material from a dream in the middle of that poem, culled from an old journal. Very often I riff through old journals and pick out language moments or images or dreams that seem like they have some juice and I put them all in one document and just sort of stare at this document and see if any of the pieces form what I would call a discovered narrative. There are also poems where I am definitely fascinated by one particular thing and I really want to do something with it and I don’t know what it’s supposed to look like. Poems like “Five Skull Diadem” and “In Honor of Xipe” were poems where I was definitely fascinated by something very precise. And I had to think about it for a long time and just let the poems develop.
I think that Jorie Graham and Sylvia Plath had a huge effect on me in terms of image and feeling. As a young college student, I was very enamored of William Carlos Williams—again, it was the image focus. Brenda Hillman is someone whose work I really love. I don’t know if one sees it in my work. Wallace Stevens is someone I read obsessively. I love his work so much. I think the syntactical urgency, the tonal urgency of Blake is definitely in my work, and he’s someone who I keep going back to. And weirdly now, a book that seems to be having a real effect on me even though we’re such different poets is Arthur Sze’s The Ginkgo Light, which came out in 2009. It seems to be having an effect on the stuff I’m writing now, post Sky Burial.
You certainly, like some of the poets you mentioned, like to engage with metaphysics, to mix the philosophical with the emotional.
Yeah, exactly, and when I say Jorie Graham, I really mean those first four books that she wrote. Erosion and The End of Beauty. The End of Beauty had a huge effect on me when I first encountered it. I think Louise Glück—not her approach to language, but her assiduous eye, the way she thinks through feeling—has had an effect on me as well.
There is a severity in your work, too, that reminds me at times of Glück. Who are some other long lasting influences on you?
I love the post-World War II Eastern Europeans. I love Vasko Popa. I love Tomaž Šalamun. I studied with Charles Simic informally at a crucial time before [my first book] In the Surgical Theatre came out. His work and teaching were important to me. I studied with the Czech poet Miroslav Holub as an undergrad. He was the first one who said to me “you’re a poet, you can do something with this.” And that was kind of a shock to me.
Sky Burial contains a lot of insect imagery and body imagery. Would you comment on this?
The interest ininsects came from doing an investigation of what happens to the body after the spirit leaves it, and insects are a really big part of it. When I was looking into corpse disposal, I found The Body Farm in Knoxville, Tennessee, a one acre plot of land where students in the UT forensic anthropology program study corpse decay and insect/cadaver symbiosis. And then I was watching all of those forensic police shows where you find out, you know, that bee pollen can tell you how long a body has been dead. It’s totally fascinating, so I just decided that I wanted to learn about these bugs. Also it’s kind of in the Buddhistic spirit. The idea behind the Tibetan sky burial practice, where the corpse is dismembered and mashed into a paste with yak butter and barley, is that you are giving alms, you are giving charity to these vultures who eat it because you are basically providing them with a free meal. The same thing is true of these insects, and you know, they do a great service for us.
I think about two formative events. One is weird. I had a book of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, maybe even before I could read. The thing about this book that fascinated me was not the poems, but the inside cover. In retrospect, it seemed very Paul Klee or Miro-like, with a black background with an undersea theme with these images of skeletal fish plants and figures and stick people, and this image gave me, at the age of three or four, the most uncanny feeling. It was disturbing, it was fascinating—I couldn’t quit looking at it, and I have associated that feeling of disturbed fascination with poetry ever since, even though at the time I couldn’t even read! Let alone a poem. The conscious moment was when I was in second grade. We used to watch films in the school cafeteria, and we’d have to come back and write a little thing about what we saw. I saw this film about this astronaut who was being pursued by this space monster, and when I got back to the classroom, I thought about all the words I could use to describe this film—space, race, chase—and I realized that all of them rhymed, and that meant that I wanted to write a poem. So I raised my hand and asked if I could write a poem, and the teacher said sure. It was in paragraph form. I didn’t know what lines were or anything like that. I just knew that because the words sounded the same, I wanted to write a poem. How I knew those things, I couldn’t tell you. That to me was the conscious moment of starting to write poems, I always wrote poems after that.
Why do you suppose your interest in poetry was stronger than your interest in other art forms?
If I think of this idea that the purpose of consciousness is to witness itself, then what a great way to report: poetry! Also—though this isn’t why I write poems—I get a lot of pleasure out of the idea that poetry is a completely subversive art form. Because it really can’t participate in a capitalist structure. It just can’t. It doesn’t make enough money. I mean sure there’s “po-biz” and all that kind of stuff, but the stakes are so small. It’s the one art form that is totally left alone by the vicissitudes of the market. So sometimes I tell my undergrads, if you really want to be a subversive artist, write poetry.