Some devastation has struck the soul and the Earth alike, and in Enola Gay, his second volume of poems, Mark Levine surveys the disaster. Here is a volume of poetry approaching Carolyn Forche's The Angel of History as a stark meditation on Blanchot's sense of writing as the "desired, undesired torment which endures everything."
Levine engages the traditional resources of lyric poetry in an exploration of historical and cultural landscapes ravaged by imponderable events. Enola Gay's "mission" can seem spiritual, imaginative, and militaristic as the speaker in these poems surveys marshes and fields and a land on the edge of disintegration. Levine sifts the psychological residue that accumulates in the wake of unspeakable acts and so negotiates that terrain between the banality of language and the need to stand witness and to speak.
Levine's stunning second book, with its grave cultural implications and its surveillance of a distinctly postmodern malaise, offers multiple readings. Here are compact poems with uncanny power, rhythm, and a strange, formal beauty echoing and renewing the legacy of Wallace Stevens for a new era.
Then for the Seventh Night
Jack and Jill
Counting the Forests
Riddles of Flight
The Holy Pail
How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear
By Edward Lear
A Focus on the Elemental Oven (Six Moments)
The Fixed Wing
Elegy (Terence Freitas)
Mark Levine is author of Debt, Jorie Graham's selection for publication in the National Poetry Series in 1993. He has received a Whiting Writers Award and a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts. In 1994-1995 he was the Hodder Fellow in the Humanities at Princeton. He teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. As a contributor to The New Yorker and Outside, Levine has reported on cultural, environmental, and social issues on four continents.
"A man steps into an abandoned church, notes the debris at the altar, misses his mother, and starts to sing. Thus begins Mark Levine's astonishing second collection of poems which meld wit with the profoundest gravity, peculiar narratives with linguistic precision, and hubris with sorrow. Read them."—Susan Wheeler, author of Smokes and Bag O' Diamonds
"Mark Levine's new poems conjure a post-cataclysmic, pre-apocalyptic world. Here things here tend to be rusty, wet, subject to dry rot, incomplete, or just plain out of kilter. People react to each other, but strangely or tentatively; they maybe ‘asleep in the reeds with the migrating sea birds.’ There are unlikely lists: ‘Accordion, bamboo, crinoline, drift. / Burial, crabgrass, demonstration, edge.’ It's a terrifying but hallucinatory interregnum, where ‘. . . the dead and the sick and the poor are singing too. / And the stars begin to fall, and though everybody is waiting / for a terrible surprise, it hasn't come, not just yet.’ The ghosts who are waiting are memorable, and reading Enola Gay is an unforgettable experience." —John Ashbery
Then for the seventh night in as many nights he strayed
into the vacant church and he kneeled in the aisle
with his hands in his shirt and he remembered the song
he wished not to remember; he remembered.
And he sang. And though the words were not familiar,
he kept singing, and he faced the dark altar
where among paint cans and tar paper
and a microphone with its wires torn out, he would have
lit a candle had one been provided.
But he had no gestures to give, only the song
whose disjointed verse he repeated. And he wondered
how many more nights his mission would last.
There was a magnet in his pocket and a hammer
in his pocket and he could hear bats or mice
or pigeons or maybe all three in the decayed choir loft.
He could hear the sound of the one train that came through
each night with its cargo rattling on rattling flatbeds.
He missed his mother. He would look for her still
in the green oblivious woods. And he would sing
the song that her long absence implied, though his voice
was not good and even he distrusted his voice.
From a nail hung a mural that he guessed was left behind
by migrant workers squatting in the church—
a brown field piled with thick red leaves
and in a corner the shadow of a figure.
He hadn't meant to go on so long. He hadn't meant
it. But the song would not go.
And the words no longer sounded like words.
Though he sang with his tongue behind his teeth.
Though he struggled to remove his hands from his shirt.
Sickness was near. All the gods knew it.
The air had been sprayed with the stiff sheen
of daybreak: a curtain fluttering; a window gone dim.
Not that the gods wanted it this way.
Their tent was cold, too. They knelt on the gravel
pondering the sky from which they long ago fell.
Who would carry the foul fumes away?
I kept an apple for Mother but ate the charred skins.
Comes a horseman, lazy on his mount,
helmeted in steel, rising from the pitted field.
How thick were the walls of the intimate crypt?
Thick as a pile. Thick as a blink.
I saw a fly buzz, saw it pirouette through rags of sky
ten thousand feet above the temple walls.
It came to a halt—it studied us—it was less hungry than we thought.
The rains persisted through morning, bringing rain,
the satisfaction of the third of three wishes.
Comes the wedding march, comes the onset,
Comes a horseman on unruly steed,
wounded through his heels.
The gods are not well braced. Their sleeves are
tattered and their flaring rockets
lie disabled by vandals.
Delay is all; all matrimony, plasma,
tokens of esteem, all vows exchanged in the cold heavens....
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 plunged
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.
The question seemed fair game to him, though the wind
was blowing strongly and the bearded man was speaking
too rapidly and the precise content of the question
could not be made out; but the question seemed fair.
He had asked himself the same thing not long ago.
Beyond the collapsed wooden fence
the red and black signs were too faded to read
but they might have been warnings; or they should have been.
He hoped the man would not inspect him for firearms.
An osprey was lunging at a pale blue heron in the marsh
and this was what he'd come to see, he thought,
but each time his gaze strayed past the man to the marsh
the man grew enraged. The man stood too close to him.
Was too visible. His beard three or four different
colors, his yellowed eyes beginning to water,
him wearing one shiny glove that ran up to the elbow.
Is there something wrong with this man? he thought.
The osprey's nest was rattling in the wind above them
on an abandoned telephone pole. He thought of a box:
a damp tin box. The man hit him on the chest
with a heavy stick, then a crop duster appeared
overhead with swirling lights. He could not see the pilot.
But he heard the pilot's voice, which he thought
was shouting "Come to bed" again and again.
Now he saw the man's name was "Susan."
The red stitching on the pocket of the man's
shirt said "Susan Fowler." The plane was gone. The heron
and the osprey were gone. He heard rifle fire
across the marsh. He wanted to laugh but could not decide
if laughter was an appropriate response.
Was it appropriate? Was it too soon to tell?
He thought to himself: "This man needs love."
And he offered the man his hand-tooled snuff box,
a sentimental piece behind whose every dent
there was a story. He thought he would never
leave this place. And for awhile he didn't.
The Great War seen through a glass horse
balanced on a child's finger: the Great War
in the green, green bay; and the clock
on the mantel, and the frozen clouds.
Always the rousing black trumpets of the horizon.
The day was clear. The sky opened a dazzling lane
shaded by elms and by sundered willows.
We unloosed our gaze on the sea.
Almost late. Almost. Almost there.
Rose petals riding the salt-wave; hot tonic in search of land—
I had a vision of a trench and shared this vision
with my peers who typed it into the
"possibilities" file. It was the thirtieth day;
mystic symbols still a long way off. We prepared
our homes for darkness, the shuttered homes of our fathers.
A belief in progress
was general; progress in the acidity of the war-wrought soul.
The Great War seen from the reddest
constellation—the Great War seen through
the thread of my favorite trousers—the Great War
on the cusp of intelligence—the Great War clipped
by the feathers of a very angry bird.
Yes, and the sound of a little city burning.
Yes, and the sound of a child and a paper kite.
We hovered in the sky in a pool of fear,
a fear from childhood—capture and disposal
and rebirth: a sanded vanilla box set adrift
in the cool Asiatic waters in the next century.
Sadness. The ever-changing grasses.
The invention of prison. The crack in the
window that grows longer, not wider.
The sale of our invisible telescope.
A basket of sand on silvered beach.
Red flowers in a square of moss.
Glistening scarves. A battered rosewood mask. Pale breeze.
Mallards in flight.
A plywood hut feathered with sawdust.
Ovals stamped in a clay box.
I have been unwinding wire from a spool.
Next I will sit at the loom.
Removing the lid to study marigolds.
Marigolds stuffed in her pockets like fists.
A blue arrow of painted logs.
A demonstration of games of chance.
White dog in my garden, white dog in their garden.
He galloped through the chill.
His purse rattling with pills.
On his tongue a desolate trill.
He pried a sack of rice
from a man with yellow eyes.
His name was Jack and Jill.
He clutched a steel device
against his ribs. It saved him twice,
once from x-rays, once from vice
and a woman. The land was ill.
His name was Jack and Jill.
His was a special case.
At dawn he scrambled pell-mell
through the woods to the shadowed rill.
He was hungry. Was he real?
Was he a rhyme? Was he a trace
of purple smoke escaped from base?
He'd taken a great spill—
he swallowed rain; he had a taste
of precious metals and malaise.
Is it easy to give praise
when his name is Jack and Jill?
He is rinsing his stained surface
with heavy water and a drill.
We had little to work with. That was his plan.
He was out until daybreak or nightfall or until
the reappearance of his servant who had fled
to the mountains during the ice storm.
He was out; he was out and his voice
was gone too. We heard streetcars scraping
down the hill outside his room; we heard drills
pressing the walls of the blue quarry.
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 was vast
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 tensed wings.
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 forest
he could see into the stone forest and could see
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 the forest
of the forgotten tropics and the God-forest.
What could he say to his accusers?
He set out in darkness. In darkness
we waited at the corner of the forest
for his reappearance. So many forests!
Somewhere was a silent forest. Ice above, ice below.
Somewhere was a coldness with a rope in it
like a memory-braid or a pair of braids.
A new instrument slipped from the swinging shelf
and clasped in its blanched stem: daylight
—bringing to mind; bringing to mind—
and lodged in the mire among lost seed.
There went day.
Day passed. Day's cloud drew upon us
with its whistling machines leaning out for a sniff
and retreating. The women we hired
hauled wet sand from one mound to the next
in their flat shovels; not cautious; no;
examining the ridges of illuminated pests
lodged in them, their scarves, their headpieces.
I slanted atop my animal and watched
in the bristling rain. And when I could watch no more
I undid myself and watched.
A sick-room blossomed here once amidst the furred walls.
Two doors in; one door out;
the oil-bearing processions growing tangled
with insemination and then like migratory birds
staggering back to the weeds,
harm done and done.
I stayed put a long time getting to know that wall
and fed it scraps of breath and gained in return
a pinprick beneath my soul daily, twice daily, weekly.
Not for me only. A groping; an animal elegy.
My wall was spiked with
flowers whispering into the night, blue whispers,
eggshell, the maudlin unfurling and drying-out.
The sick left the sickroom; dropping
their white robes for shredding.
It was a model of passion. A flame-painting.
The grain of a so-called urge.
One eye disavowed what the other eye saw.
We sat there on the workbench with a jar of steaming fluid
there, in the theoretical fourth chamber.
It was time to learn a new word.
It was time to paste stars on the frosted window
to soothe the restless spirits.
It was criminal time. It was time to get his teeth
fixed by a friend of the family.
Time for charcoal. Time for clasps.
The fallen cedar blocked
his mother's closet and blocked his survey of the orange bark.
The suspicious orange bark. The suspicious stars.
"Coagulate." He sat on the bus across from a man
with a grandfather clock across the lap of his raincoat.
The man tapped his foot. The man had a thin
purple scar on one side of his nose.
The man looked at his watch and then looked at the clock.
The man said "This is my grandfather's grandfather clock.
He was a clockmaker. So was his grandfather.
He's in prison now. He thinks I'm dead.
He has lung disease. He'll go any day.
He's a hundred and four years old.
"There's something wrong with my blood," said the man.
It was time to learn a new number.
Is a number a word?
He took the bus to its last stop
on the edge of the desert and he ambled
through the desert to the assigned meeting place.
It didn't look like a desert. There were shrubs.
There were glass monuments and windmills and an open wagon
crowded with singing schoolchildren
and there were vacant guard towers painted like the sun
and there was a pipeline stained with birds.
A tree was burning, dressing the sky.
It was a kind of prayer and a kind of warning.
He reached the spot marked in the desert
by a bright red antenna. Eight or nine others
were already there. He greeted them.
He counted their pieces. He talked of old times.
He lay among them in sand, wrapped in sand,
waiting for the sun and for the music
that would follow the sun. "It's time," he said.
Was it already time? He scratched his watch.
Copyright © 2000 The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.