Mark Levine’s second poetry collection, Enola Gay, is on the short list of books that expanded my understanding of what poetry could do. His post-apocalyptic, enigmatic images make sense the way a door creaking in a horror film makes sense. You don’t have to know what’s behind there to realize it’s something scary; in fact, it’s scarier because your rational mind can’t define it. Some excerpts from poems in the book:
from Counting the Forests
…He was counting the forests. That was his plan.
He carried a sack of dried fish
prepared by his servant and cured
in sea-salt. His servant was near; he could hear
the rasp of his servant’s breath.
His servant was making the vigil in a mountain
somewhere in the ice-country; and the ice-country
and blue and full of death-forms. So was the forest.
Here in the red forest: a forest of birds.
Birds and dark water and looming red leaves
brushed with murmuring voices.
They swept towards him, the voices, like
And he ran from them; but the red
forest was glazed and the trees were vast
with ice-forms. And at the edge of the red
he could see into the stone forest and
the voices rinsing over the stone floor.
He had been there already and had taken count.
And he had counted the animal forest and the
smoldering forest and the weeping forest and
of the forgotten tropics and the God-forest.
What could he say to his accusers?
from Eclipse, Eclipse
…The law is coming, three battered islands hence;
the splash is coming, the radar is coming, the law
is coming wearing Mother’s private wig.
Comes a horseman, steady on the climb, a blade
against his thigh, a rumor on his spine.
Nearness is all. And the roots of the great tree
swayed in the heat, and the swollen seeds
struck the temple walls and left no stain.
Surely the great creeds could have warned us
to test the soil of nearby planets; our voices
like the voices of the gods’ outcast armies.
All of us wanted to take the steep walk back
into the memorial noise; feeling sick, not feverish.
A pencil in his glove and a shovel in his soul
and big plans for a secret farm: comes a horseman.
This year, Levine is back with a new collection, The Wilds. He was recently interviewed by Srikath Reddy in the literary journal jubilat, a piece that has been reprinted online at Poetry Daily. Some notable excerpts, below (boldface emphasis mine):
ML: It always surprises me (and sometimes worries me) to realize, long after the fact, how little aware I am—or how ill-informed I am—of what my preoccupations are when I’m writing, and how very partial is my understanding and command of what I’m saying….That last sentence is going to be my new motto as a novelist. Read the full interview here.
It troubles me a bit that, as poets, we seem to be required to pretend that everything we put in poems emerges from a very supportable rationale. Maybe we’ve been successfully cowed by those who are hostile to poetry, and have internalized their suspicion that the whole thing is a sham, an elitist attempt to confound and mock the guileless reader. And so we apologetically, or pompously, give in to this rather recent expectation that artists are supposed to talk a good game about what they do. I’ll tell you, I once spent a week interviewing the skateboarder Tony Hawk—a bit before he became a multinational industry—and here’s what I liked best about him: great skateboarder, not great interview subject. Every time he got on his board it was magic; every time he opened his mouth it was, well, pretty ordinary stuff. His intelligence was thoroughly absorbed in what he did, and to him, talking about it was not only irrelevant—it was almost a violation of the spirit of his sport. This seems appropriate.
By now, I’ve spent enough time around young people who are trying to write poems to recognize the common anxiety, even embarrassment, at simply being a poet, rather than pretending to be a poet and an eager A-student rolled up into a single reasonable package. But why, with all the hand-wringing poetry talk out there—our own, no doubt, included—are there some matters that, it seems, are very rarely aired, even in the supposedly brasstacks environment of the poetry workshop? Embarrassing questions, like: How much do you know what your poem is about when you’re writing it? Do you know who is speaking? Do you know what the situation is? Do you know what your themes are? When you get right down to it: Do you know what is happening—what is going on—in your poem when you are writing it? I don’t know about you, Chicu, but I’d often be lying if I answered most of these questions in the affirmative. I don’t even want to be able to say “yes.” If I could, I’d wonder why I was writing a poem.
SR: …[W]hat I want to focus on is what you described as “that cusp of consciousness that a child is perched on,” and how it shapes your sense of what poetry is. That cusp of consciousness seems a lot like the threshold between knowing and uncertainty that Keats described as negative capability. And I’d agree enthusiastically that this cusp or threshold is the most productive space for a poet to inhabit. But lately I’ve also been worried that uncertainty lets one off the ethical hook—it lets one, as it were, refuse to grow up.
I guess my vague feelings of guilt about not speaking up more about the political situation over recent years has something to do with this. In the lead-up to the war, for instance, I felt uncertain about whether or not there were weapons of mass destruction tucked away somewhere in Mesopotamia (among many other things), and my general reluctance to forcefully decide matters for myself mirrored, I think, a broader failure of liberals to dissent from what our nation is perpetrating abroad. That’s a detour, I know, but what I’m getting at is a sense that there is a danger to uncertainty. I’m definitely not advocating a more political poetry—Lord knows I find most overtly political verse to be fairly unliterary—but I’m wondering what you think about the ethics of uncertainty as a poet writing today.
ML: I know what you’re saying, but the thought of assuming a certain kind of ethical responsibility in poems makes me bristle a bit. Do you remember when you were younger and some snide kid told you to “grow up”? I think I can still hear that voice. I hated that kid. What he was really saying was: Don’t be yourself. Don’t have an imagination. Behave. I’m just not interested in growing up in those ways.
(On the other hand, I already find myself mourning a certain kind of bygone communal maturity—the days when people could disagree about poetics and politics in respectful and civil ways, without needing to assault each other from the safety of their dreary blogs.) I was once on a little panel about some forgettable issue or other and one of the other members was an ambitious and quite accomplished young critic, a guy then under thirty, who complained that poets in America had lost the value of being “judicious and authoritative” in poems. I was taken aback. He struck me as one of those people in college who wears a bow tie and carries a pocket watch—as someone who has gotten overinvested in a certain model of “maturity.”
There may be a lot of things wrong with poetry—now and always—but the reluctance to speak with authority doesn’t seem to me to be one of them. In my mind, one of the services poets perform, intuitively, is to hold up the authority of poetic and imaginative tradition against other claims to authority. My suspicion is that the recurrent charge that poets are not sufficiently engaged is typically a symptom of one of two things: the right-wing interest in trivializing poetry and misplaced left-wing guilt. I’m not proposing a Peter Pan model of the poet, but my guess is that “not growing up”—if it constitutes a willingness to remain, as you say, “in mysteries, doubts, and uncertainties”—is much preferable—poetically, ethically, politically—to being prematurely pickled.
SR: So it’s this cusp of uncertainty that you somehow find to be both fundamentally poetic and fundamentally ethical?
ML: That cusp—I don’t know, I think the desire to be there must in part be temperamental. I like basketball games that go into overtime; overtime drives some people crazy. I don’t really care about how books or movies end. I like the unresolved. I’ve always been drawn to the moment “before”—the moment when you have a heightened awareness that you’re in the presence of something real, something meaningful, but when the meaning hasn’t yet been captured. To me, that’s the “intensest rendezvous.” In Bob Dylan’s terms, it’s the refrain of “Ballad of a Thin Man”: “Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” That’s one reason that, for me, striving to write precise, deftly rendered imagery—material that conveys much more, through the senses, than can be expressed in other terms—is vital.
But I understand your uncertainty about uncertainty. (Your meta-uncertainty?) It’s something that the uncertain ones among us must grapple with. Doesn’t it come down to a question of the authenticity of our uncertainty? If uncertainty is a posture—something we adopt in an effort to make cool poems—it would, indeed, be frivolous. But true uncertainty is a beautiful thing. And my guess is that those (like Mister Bow Tie) who adopt the posture of certainty are far more dangerous, morally and politically—and of course artistically—than those who have fewer answers, less of an agenda to promote, and who try to use their work as a way of shedding a little light on the darkness.
My glib, reflexive take on this problem would be that of an aesthete: that the ethical task of a poet is to write as well as he can, as accurately, forthrightly, and courageously—to be as uncompromising as he can in relation to poetic truth. But that is a tall order, an ideal against which one always falls short. Also, of course, excellence is not value neutral: is the ethical task of a nuclear bomb maker to make the best bomb he can? Um, no. But in that case the problem is that the medium itself—nuclear bomb making—is morally corrupted from the start. Whereas I have cast my lot with those who believe that the poetic tradition is, at its height and in its impulse, noble, resistent, and self-scrutinizing. So, yeah, I think the world woul
d be a much better place if we all listened to each other the way poems listen to us.
ML: …Of course I’m aware that poems, like everything else made by human beings, are artificial, but I don’t believe that excludes poems from approaching authenticity, and partaking of it—as far as I’m concerned, poems routinely do that, and that’s a big reason that we read them. One thing that’s so moving about poems is that we know they are artificial, but still we invest them, and their materials, with the force of the real. We need to do this, because we need to feel the reality of our lives. When I write the word tree, I don’t just see a word or construct—I see a physical tree. And if I’m not being particularly lazy as a writer, I’m going to do more to specify the reality, the tree-ness, of that tree—not only as a way of writing a “nice” poem, but of specifying, and thereby sharing in, the reality of reality.
SR: So “no ideas but in things”?
ML: It’s easy to talk in abstract terms, which always makes me uncomfortable, because I’m drawn to the physical experience of poems, not their ideas. You asked whether, in reading poems, we can begin to distinguish between the appearance of authenticity and something that smacks of the real deal. Don’t you think we rely on being able to make that distinction, however provisionally? I have to believe it can be done. The poem makes a claim—”My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense,” for instance—and, after submerging ourselves in the poem, we can ask, “Do I feel the truth of the claim in the poem, or does it just seem like a convenient or clever thing to say? Does the poem, in its rhythms, syntax, imagery, and so forth, grapple with drowsiness, numbness, and pain, or not? Does the claim feel abstract or, as you say, ’embodied’?”
And how does one embody the experience of one’s poem? There must be as many ways as there are authentic poems (i.e., not that many). First off, I suppose, one believes in the reality of one’s own imaginative event. One orients oneself to a position inside the poem—one lives in and through the poem, rather than hovering above it, using it as a way to say something that makes one seem clever, or as a vehicle for producing nice poetic effects, which, once you’ve read enough poems, are not as rare or interesting as they might first appear. I’ve found, myself, that focusing, in particular, on imagery, has helped me to “feel” the poem by employing my (generally underused) senses, rather than trying to direct the poem with my often enfeebled brain.
ML: [On the painter Francis Bacon] … I love the way he deploys traditional values—of form, structure, line, color, modeling, and subject matter—to explore what he calls his “nervous system.” He also talks, in his interviews with David Sylvester, of using traditional techniques and materials of painting to capture, even trap, the real. Reality is the outcome of his process, not a known quantity that he enters his process wishing to depict.