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Apr/May 2012 Reviews & Interviews

Bringing Down the Blade

Sky Burial
Dana Levin.
Copper Canyon Press. 2011. 78 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-332-1.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Buy now from Amazon! As most comments on this book have repeated, the poems of Dana Levin's Sky Burial were written after her parents and a younger sister died in quick succession. There the commentary tends to fall silent. The commentator quotes from a favorite among the poems, perhaps.

Certainly, there is death all through these poems—more to the point, a review of various systems of disposing of the body and of entering the afterlife. Not surprisingly, where a bit of life makes its appearance, in between, it can feel particularly tenuous given the context.

One such system is the sky burial practiced by Tibetan Buddhists on high elevations where timber is not available to cremate bodies (as is customary at lower altitudes) and cleanse the earth. There the body, empty of the soul that is everything, is disposed of by ritually cutting it up and feeding it to the vultures. The ritual dismemberment and cutting in strips is done to speed the eating process and assure that no part of the body is left behind to decay.

Levin's choice of the image of the sky burial would be inspired if her esthetic would have permitted her to explore it more fully. Instead she is cryptic about all but the disembodied gory details of dismemberment, or whatever other manner of dealing with death which it might seem intrepid to face without flinching. Until near the end of the volume, the prose poems seem clearly the better in the book, having, as they do, connective tissue to support beautifully and immediately human stories. The rest is fragments, some quite arresting, that hold together inasmuch as the reader brings to them a knowledge of the spiritual systems that inform them.

In the poem "Cathartes Aura," the poet "helps" the ritual preparer of the body carve up her mother. The image suggests itself—probably by design—that the reader will devour the fragments of her mother fulfilling the vulture's part in a symbolic sky burial. But even this brilliant trope is not enough to overcome the sense, in the attentive reader, that the poet is substituting esthetics for emotion, that she is being trendy at the worst possible time.

Then it happens. In the poem "Zozo-Ji," Levin visits a famous Tokyo temple, dedicated to dead children, on the Internet:

It was a temple
for the babied dead. I found it via the Internet.

Where they offered pinwheels
and bags of sweets
for the aborted ones, or ones who'd lived
but not enough...

Although she is not there, she is there and the reader is there with her. A few lines later, a haunting quote:

When her lord asked her again how it died, she said
As an echo of the cliffs of Kegon.

This and the next three poems (altogether the last four poems of the volume, that is to say) of the book, are stunning: among Levin's best. Still fragmentary—and still frequently harsh, intrepid—her emotional presence makes the lines strangely lyrical.

But why the babies? Levin's emotional investment has brought her to that irrational space which is "grieving". Her conflicts with her mother bubble to the surface together with their love. If anything, she has possibly become too revelatory. Her mother is impersonal, suffocating, responds selfishly when Levin tells her she has the clap. In the next poem, "White Tara," Levin buys a statuette of the Buddhist goddess of compassion, of that name, following her mother's death, not only to remold her mother to a more compassionate figure:

...how could she
be the murderer

when the murderer is in the mirror—

Foremost, the White Tara must help Levin to learn sufficient compassion to forgive herself. She has been to the temple of Zozo-Ji because, smothering though her mother may have been—as all mothers may seem to their daughters—at least her mother chose to have her. Her own child ended in the womb, a fact for which she can hardly forgive herself while holding onto her accusations against her mother.

In the next poem "Bardo," her mother's soul wanders in Levin's memory, corollary to the bardo-state the soul is believed, in Buddhism, to go through before escaping completely into death. The dead can reveal themselves in dreams during this time and this would seem to be what the poem describes.

In the final poem, "Spring," Levin wanders through a "body-farm," in her imagination, observing in detail the beauty of the natural processes of decay of the corpses that the forensic scientists study there. In this way, the esthetic danger of sentimentality is rigorously avoided. It is a place of ironic beauty. In the final line, she has arrived at enlightenment.

Employing esthetics and religious systems, as panoply, is actually quite an honest reaction to the death of those close to us—arguably, many mourners never get past them. The more esthetic poems that dominate much of Sky Burial, then, are to a point, even if it is not a conscious one, and, in swatches, exceed expectations threatening to break free. Levin is too good a poet for anything else to be the case.

Sky Burial shows an honest struggle with death. The final poems rise above esthetics in order to arrive at going on and a harsh beauty: the only vision that honesty can achieve.

 

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