Book Reviews, Features

Shin Yu Pai: “Grace Notes – Carol Levin’s Confident Music Would Fly Us to Paradise


Confident Music Would Fly Us To Paradise
Carol Levin
MoonPath Press, 2014

For 20 years, poet Carol Levin worked with Seattle Opera as one of the company’s supernumeraries, a non-speaking role in the opera. Levin’s fourth collection, Confident Music Would Fly Us To Paradise, celebrates the opulence, stagecraft, and literature of the operatic art, through musings upon various performances that cast her in roles such as a Grecian Grace in Tannhäuser and a torchbearer in Electra. Throbbing with songs of “lobes of lung in minor keys,” Levin’s poems embody the opera’s music, likening the chambers of symphony hall to the chambers of the pericardial sac, “octave surge and oxygen/vital as melody heaves through my respiratory tract conducting air/filled with grace notes/into my bronchial tree.”

The most interesting poems in Levin’s new book play with form while taking on the subject of modern dance, as in “Mark Morris: Paul Hindesmith, Kammermusik No. 3”:

We made vows to art
it was all about art,
this silence

+++++++++++And dancers
++++++++++++++++ moving, weaving
++++++++++++++++++++++against the backdrop
of silence, steady,
in the silence

of their own accompaniment.
++++++and then
although we didn’t see,
+++++++++++the pit musicians lifted
+++++++++++++++++their work so dominant
++++++++++++++++++++++cords shimmered over us
and dancers
++++++walked into skips
+++++++++++skipped into runs ran
+++++++++++++++++in jumps
++++++++++++++++++++++and leaping flew

extending arms, legs, toes

catapulting an existence
religiously exaggerated
until we couldn’t
+++++++++++++++++sit,
++++++++++++++++++++++couldn’t stand
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++to sit still.

Levin’s muscular language animates the silence of the page to create a compelling counterpoint to her more narrative writing on the opera. Reaching back to Levin’s earliest experiences as an anonymous extra, her poem “The Prop Bag Needed A Body” casts the poet as an unruly child, alongside her musically inclined mother onstage. In a performance of Rigoletto, the 12-year-old girl holds back rage and laughter, while being dragged across a floor in a burlap sack.

Intimate poems on Levin’s upbringing and family life are woven throughout the book – pieces like “Mostly, Silence” illuminate the experiences of a childhood passed in quietude, except for times when she engaged her mother in heated argument. Passions high, the speaker of Levin’s poem “cried sound down/my cheeks, mother/never heard it.” In “Onomatopoeia of a Sister”, the poet’s longing for engagement conjure an imaginary childhood friend that connects the narrative of the book’s more personal poems to the collection’s larger arc – the rich, imaginative world created through the production of the opera.

The theme of mothers and mothering appears throughout many poems. Assigned the role of Madama Butterfly’s mother, Levin’s speaker wields the power to “upend/the outcome/of this entire opera” by conferring her wedding blessing. Elsewhere, she is cast with her daughter-in-law Suzanne in a performance of The Daughter of the Regiment. Aware of stereotypical depictions of mother-in-laws as “the brunt of comedians/and old boys in bars”, Levin muses upon the complex relationship between a daughter and mother-in-law as spun through the opera’s narrative, in contrast to her own experience. “The Relatives in My Own Libretto” places her family members in a drama alongside her mother: “Outcast and homely/she sang opera/and loved…/I’m a braided daughter in pj’s/holding the alarm to her/earring’d ears every morning/puffing-up air to the tune of Many a New Day/(non-singing role) Here’s me, applauding.”

Levin’s previous poetry collections have a history of exploring her relationship to music and the performing arts. In Red Rooms and Others (Pecan Grove, 2009), Levin wrote of her experiences of rehearsing in Umberto Giordano’s Andres Chenier, and many of her poems generally explore the relationship between performer and audience. Her debut collection Sea Lions Sing Scat (Finishing Line, 2007) included poem inspired by Glenn Gould and the songs of sea lions outside her patio transformed into jazz vocalists. Grounding her writing firmly within her experiences in Seattle, Confident Music Would Fly Us To Paradise signals a maturity in Levin’s work, in assembling a collection that reinterprets a commitment to place-based writing, while revealing a more complex range of emotional notes through pushing past biographical subjects to illuminate how the awe and inspiration of the arts shaped an internal life to redress the unmet needs of childhood.

Shin Yu Pai is the author of Aux Arcs (La Alameda), Adamantine (White Pine), Sightings (1913 Press), and Equivalence (La Alameda). Her limited edition book arts projects include Hybrid Land (Filter Press), Works on Paper (Convivio Bookworks), and The Love Hotel Poems (Press Lorentz). She is a three-time Fellow of The MacDowell Colony, and has completed residencies at Centrum, Soul Mountain, Taipei Artist Village, and The Ragdale foundation. She holds an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and currently lives in Ballard with her husband and 1-year-old son.