by Jeannine Hall Gailey | Contributing Writer
I have been a fan of Dana Levin’s work for some years, so I looked forward to reading her fifth book from Copper Canyon Press, Now Do You Know Where You Are, as a way to distract myself from endless news of war and pandemic. Written during the Trump administration, the collection is concerned with all kinds of disorientation—literal, figurative, physical, and spiritual—and the despair that comes with navigating unknown terrains.
Though this book echoes some themes from Levin’s previous books—the apocalyptic foreboding of Banana Palace, the body trauma of In the Surgical Theater—here Levin confronts the subject matter more directly than previous books. The poems engage with the history of St. Louis (one of the book’s geographic centers) remarking on the civil war court case of Dred Scott, Ferguson, and further histories of Missouri before expanding to the scale of national politics in the poem “2016: a Biography.”
I had wanted to think that America
was incidental, that I could go on with the same
lyric project, to lament the soul
in exile, having to endure the jail
of the body, what was
The longer and more complex poem, “You Will Never Get Death / Out of Your System,” (dated November 2016) starts with the age of the earth then continues into the systems spiraling out of order. “Some people love death so much they want to give it to everyone,” she writes. The end of this section has two apocalyptic poems, “Heroic Couplets” and “No.”
The book includes both crafted lyric poems and longer pieces that feel very much like lyric essays or memoir. Maybe, in a time of crisis, poetry becomes a too-difficult, too-strict container. I’m reminded of Levin’s poem about poetry “Quelquechose” from her second book, Wedding Day: “You want to get in and then out of the box. / form breakage form.”
Written almost entirely in prose, “Pledge” is an eleven page prose diaristic piece at the center of the book, with dated entries detailing the speaker’s losses during the move from New Mexico to St. Louis, the loss of her elderly cat Murray, her interactions of frustration with social media, teaching, dreaming, and writing through her stress. Tipping closer to memoir than poem, this section owes the most to C.D. Wright’s style of merging prose and poetry and the personal with the collective. Now Do You Know Where You Are takes its title from Wright’s book-length poem, Deepstep Come Shining. Wright’s influence is felt throughout this collection, from its quotations to its sometimes meandering philosophical narratives to its form, which blends memoir, essay, prose, and poetry.
Another thread of the book is the speaker’s search for wisdom and ways of understanding the connection between the soul and the body. This search brings her into relation with healers and thinkers both living and dead.
The body is at stake in the long, memoiristic piece called “Appointment” about an appointment with a holistic healer/chiropractor/“incarnation specialist.” The speaker muses about the trauma her body went through as an infant because of Rh incompatibility (a problem common in earlier generations that almost killed my mother as a baby as well), as well as the pains of her aging body, and once again, her state of disorientation – this time, within her physical self.
In “A Walk in the Park,” the speaker invokes fate, Plato, Dante’s “Paradiso,” fairy tales, and Buddhism. “How To Hold the Heavy Weight of Now” contains an almost dance-motion metaphor for holding the weight of the world:
She said, “You just make this gesture with your body—” and opened her arms as if she could barely fit them around an enormous ball—
“Make that shape again. . . . Now let it change,” she said, and I did—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
my palms open, pushing gently forward, leaning my body forward, I watched them
let a bird go, I watched my hands
The poem returns to the physical body, via image, to capture that sense of loss and surrender that the poet is experiencing.
The book concludes with the title poem, “Now Do You Know Where You Are.” In addition to C.D. Wright, other poets are invoked throughout—T.S. Eliot, who came from St. Louis, but also Gregory Corso, Gertrude Stein, Rilke, G.C. Waldrep, lyrics from The Who, and even a line from Exodus. Like Dante, Levin is invoking guides for the difficult spiritual voyage this book documents.
When we met years ago, we talked about getting located. You were a practitioner of deep coordinates, writing from the intersection where eternal forces meet history and place. Where the soul and the body press against and into one another—so many bodies a soul has to press through: personal, familial, regional, national, global, planetary, cosmic—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Dear C.D Wright, I don’t know where I am, but you are helping me to get there.”
In a clear struggle with displacement in a new city, with a new president, and a sense of foreboding, Levin’s speaker looks to various spiritual guides to inform and divine her life journey. This speaker, a slightly cynical spiritual messenger, makes a perfect companion for unsettling times.
Jeannine Hall Gailey is a poet with MS who served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She’s the author of six books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers,The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, Field Guide to the End of the World, winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize and the SFPA’s Elgin Award, and the upcoming Flare, Corona from BOA Editions. Her work appeared in journals like The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry. Her web site is www.webbish6.com. Twitter and Instagram: @webbish6