Online Edition: Spring 2000

In the Surgical Theatre by Dana Levin

In the Surgical Theatre

Dana Levin

American Poetry Review ($14)

by Melanie Figg

Dana Levin's first poetry collection and winner of the 1999 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, In the Surgical Theatre, is a true stunner, alive and pulsing in the reader's hand. The first section, Body, moves from a darkly light telling of embalming Lenin's body to the more ghostly "The Nurse" to the brutal "The Baby on the Table" where Levin's own horrific childhood traumas enter the stage. But Levin's narratives enter on the sly, and often through an unnerving, revolving second person. Nothing here is tired or predictable. The angels are parasitic, the body is not a metaphor--it is gangrenous, bloody, a machine fragile to both bacteria and burrowing wings. Like that creepiest of X-Files soundtracked by Nat King Cole, Levin's poems are sonic crooners relaying the hard facts and ugly deformities of our lives. But Levin always steps through to the wonder of the other side. In "Eyeless Baby" she is confident she knows what is beyond those sightless eyes.

I am so sure they're a door,
         if I pried into the fused lids I would find
ice, stars, space with its cold fires spreading out
         beyond the body

Levin knows the possibility of another vision and the depths of our own blindness.

The structure of Levin's poems recall the best of Larry Levis--poems that turn on themselves, an earlier narration, the dutiful reader or the second self, poems that billow and swarm, and often play tag team with each other. After readers learn the infant Levin was "slit through the belly / without anesthetic / to remove a gangrenous ileum," we come upon the astounding sectioned poem "Personal History," where that baby is oddly watching American boys in Vietnam "with their intestines / sprung out in loops." Levin confesses:

For so long I thought
         surgical white
was the color of the soul, I've been floating
         for years

in the albanic air round the hospital nursery,
         above the orange smoke billowing
from the napalmed river,
         huts collapsed
into palm fronds and fire, and the people
         staggering away
to lie burned and bleeding in the soft-haired ferns
         curling

round the incubator glass--

As the baby's world collapses with the television set, Levin moves on to suggest that those dying boys become angels hovering over "the ghost of me kept burning in the glass." The angel boys find an odd sort of peace in the hospital as "nurses swoop and hover, cold birds in the tropical air." Lost innocence fosters a maturity--or perhaps just detachment--that is all around us later, at the end of "Bathhouse, 1980" amidst desperate anonymous sex and the coming "scourge." Those same "angels gather in the corners of the building. / They do not judge."& #9;& #9;

Levin's poems build an enormous momentum within themselves, spurred by wind, rage, denial, or fear, and fall off quick and breathless. It's what Louise Glück refers to in the introduction: Levin's "syntax of insistence." Further, Levin persistently challenges the reader to be present, no matter how difficult the subject matter, or lulling the language, as in "The Baby on the Table:"

. . . when will they lower

the kiss, the fist, the sharpened
        scalpel, the angels
are waiting, calm, impassive, the emanations
        of science
in each white face--
        Can you help me sew up
what they're about to open? Can you feel
        the chill of the table
on your own small back?

Levin often uses the poem as a place to question the reader's involvement and expectations or issues of metaphor and narrative: "Have you ever been hurt, have you ever been cut, is it only / physical knives? / Is this how I write about / the baby on the table?" She pushes on, this time in the detached voice of the violent father. "His Defense" is a brutal telling of another personal history, full of its own victimization and misguided faith. The rage on the page is gathering its fingers to a fist when he turns to ask: "Did you hope I was a myth, that I wasn't a monster, / that it was all, merely, psychological?" This chilling question indicts the reader as well as the poet, pushing against the ease in which we collapse fact and metaphor, poem and world.

Any single poem in this collection testifies to Levin's imaginative scope and narrative finesse, but to read these poems in sequence--in consequence to each other--is to walk into a new vision of the world. The poems accumulate images and possibilities, sometimes lifting and repeating entire lines in later poems to anticipate fuller meaning. The book is strung seamless, or rather the seam between poems is stitched ragged enough to recall the phantom limb. And, as Levin knows, it is the presence of what is absent that moves us toward reconciliation.

This insight is especially keen in the third section, World, where earlier poems are recalled not repeated, continued not completed. By now the ghosts are real, not the hovering angels of section one, as if the reckoning of the second section has unnerved those quiet onlookers and turned them into cranky poltergeists. The end of "Banishing the Angels" nails their coffin shut as the narrator stands

in the real light of the unmystical sun, thinking

the girl who is not an angel is something to believe--

the phone booth in the sunlight, something to believe--

Moving out of the intense interiority of "the exhausting round of wounding and healing," Levin steps into the difficult world of witness: a woman is attacked ("her angels, they won't be returning"); "children are sleeping in a litter of beer cans, and cigarette butts, dreamless--"; only the movie screen lets the narrator "give up the burden awhile. / To be an eye. / Perceiver. / God of the kingdom."

To that "unburdened" place of perceiver, Levin returns again and again. But what she perceives about the human addiction to pattern and self-sabotage is the vision of no disengaged bystander. In "Hive" her imaginative powers are at their peak:

Can you crawl out of asking

the origin of sorrow, now, through the grass,
         in the animal moment,
will you nuzzle the roots in search
         of the combs,
the resin like jewels in the burnished
         light?
Climb up, part
         your shattered chest like a veil, and lick
at the honey
         welling over your bones--
It has nothing to do with your happiness,
         or grief.

Levin has the skilled ear, magnificent tongue and fierce mind of the truly prophetic. I can't remember when I've been this excited about a poet, much less drunk on a first collection. Make room for Levin, and keep an eye out for her next book.

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Spring 2000 Table of Contents