“You Carved the World Because You Craved the World”: On Banana Palace by Dana Levin and Blackacre by Monica Youn

Jonathan Farmer

Banana Palace. Dana Levin. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 2016. 96 pages. $17.00.

Blackacre. Monica Youn. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2016. 88 pages. $16.00.

A poet’s job, in as much as one exists, is to make something. Out of the ancient, imputed dominion over earth and animal, poets add more words, configurations, noises, data, drafts, ink on paper, graphite, the pixilated terms of our regard. Even in dismay over humanity’s greed, its endless grafting its appetite so thoroughly into the earth that the earth buckles and retreats, recoils and then revolts, our outrage is additive. Poetry, like all forms of making—even the mandala, even the erasure—adds.

But making, including its reckoning with that paradox, is not only inevitable (or maybe it’s just inevitable that we’ll tell ourselves it is); it’s sometimes wonderful, too. Consider, for example, Dana Levin’s “At the End of My Hours,” the last poem in her new book Banana Palace. She opens the final section looking back on her earlier life from after an apocalypse, on that time when “I couldn’t stop yammering / over the devastated earth / pining for nachos—prescription drugs / and a hint of spring.”

“Couldn’t” is an exaggeration, of course; she’s mocking herself. But she’s having fun, too, as in “pining for nachos—prescription drugs,” with its veering through incompatible terms, the pronounced alliteration linking the two phrases at their first note, and the loose meter that settles gracefully in “prescription drugs / and a hint of spring.” The poem ends imaging a few survivors out hunting for food, yearning for

               the scent of meat

however mean and a root

sending an antenna up, to consider 

greening—what poems built their houses for 

once, in a blindered age, teaching us 

the forms we felt, in rescue—hoarded-up scraps 

whirling around my cave

trying to conjure peaches

You could make a case that this is incredibly bleak, and you might very well be right, but you’ll have to make it without me. I finish reading this, every time, delighted and in love with humanity that can’t keep from destroying itself but also, “however mean,” like meat (which, Levin points out repeatedly in this book, we are), capable of beauty. The poem’s headlong hurry driven, it seems, not so much by hunger as by pleasure, by marvel—which is, I think, Banana Palace’s dominant mode. By awareness of just how persistent life—including human life, with all that it, in its making, destroys—remains.

Levin frequently manifests such marvels in the unlikeness of an individual phrase: “so much meat born / every day // amongst the racket of bones”; “Having to make eye contact / with the economy”; “I gap my craw / and the bakeries of the cities fall”; “an echo-pearl of ‘you’ along time’s string”;  “kissed fissures / in the world’s despair”; “to keep time alive / inside a tomato”; “another mouth / pearling the wheel of appetite.” Here, as in so much of Banana Palace, Levin works in a mode that effects an unlikely fusion of earthly and disembodied, part Buddhist detachment, part American carnival of appetite and information, and somehow simultaneously childlike and self-aware. It lends an air of absurdity to experience, but never devalues it and never feels smug. “. . . [A] meat-sack / with another meat-sack for a pet,” she calls herself in another poem. It’s a good joke and an even better piece of poetry; a self-diminishment that sees just how large and tender a thing selfhood is.

That kind of slapstick beauty can quickly lead a poem astray. Too many poets seem to string together such magpie amazements with a quick disregard that makes me feel as if the poem is more interested in securing my admiration than in sharing anything with anyone. Part of what makes Levin different is the worldview that seems to inform these unlikely marriages: devoid of superiority, its apparent unseriousness a kind of compassion, a distance from which to see more clearly the want that drives us so hard that even her stepping away from want makes wanting manifest.

In the title poem (it refers to this image) Levin mocks our obsessive relationship to Facebook and smartphones and our blindness, looking into them, to the very world they show. Writing once again post-apocalyptically, this time trying to address someone who has survived and found this poem (“You, future person,” she says early on, “star of one of my / complicated dooms”), she explains:

Information about information was the pollen we
deposited—
           while in the real fields bees starved.

And then, a little later, she tells that imaginary future person how much they will need all our books, as if the information won’t stop mattering, even after

           the fuckcluster of bombs
           we launched accidentally,

           at the end of the era of feeling like no one
           was doing a thing

           about our complicated dooms—

Helpless and braced we sat in dark spaces

submerged in pools of projected images,
           trying to disappear into light—

           Light! There was so much light!
           It was hard to sleep!

This time I agree: it’s bleak. But even here I hear something else, too: a sense that we would have been worth saving, even as it’s hard to imagine us getting over our loneliness long enough to see beyond ourselves. She repeats the term from earlier (“complicated dooms”), and the generality of it seems to be another kind of parody, unleavened this time—an implication of our inability or unwillingness to define our fears, of our tendency, as in our constant complaints of being busy, to put the problem out of reach, to keep it safely in the realm of self-validating complaint. But again, there’s more to it than that.

Levin opens the poem, addressing the future person, “I want you to know / how it felt to hold it, / deep in the well of my eye.” By “it” she means the banana palace, an image she found on social media, on her phone. She wants, pun intended, to share it. That’s what the poem tells the future person it is, though the noun might not mean anything to them: a share. The picture’s beauty takes on tricky implications, as does the poem’s attempt to manifest it. Levin ends with the declaration “I hunched around my little screen / sharing a fruit no one could eat.” And just before that she writes,

There came a time
I couldn’t look at trees without
           feeling elegiac—as if nature

           were already over,
                      if you know what I mean.

But the banana palace isn’t just an image of the world we’ve broken; it’s also an emblem of the human capacity to see nature—in its thriving, in its ongoingness, which will survive us in some form or another—in ways that reach beyond and then back to human perception. “Even now,” she explains, and the “now” wavers a little in time, “when I say it, cymbals / shiver out in spheres. It starts to turn its / yellow gears / and opens like a clam.”

Levin concludes one poem with an italicized phrase, “you / carved the world because you craved the world.” So often in Banana Palace, she writes about the soul. The first section of the book is full of people, including her, hoping to get free of flesh, of need, of nattering consciousness, and to undo the “soul-and-body lashings,” a phrase she uses early on, explaining, “They really called it that, the ropes they wound / round oilskin / to keep out sea and storm, our sailing men.” There’s an echo in there of Odysseus commanding his men to control him, having them lash him to the mast so that he can hear the beauty of the Sirens signing and yet not give in to it, wanting the hunger but not its result. But even the hunger for soul sends Levin back to the world where, she acknowledges, “no matter how much / I loved the world, to hunger / was to be / a destroyer.” It’s almost like a dog chasing its tail as it gets closer and closer to the cliff’s edge, except how like a dog it is to chase its tail, and how gracefully, how joyfully, it leaps after itself, and how much, watching it, we want it to survive so it can run after itself some more.

• •

In Blackacre, Monica Youn’s new collection, the compulsion to make doesn’t so much tilt toward our pending self-destruction as it does tangle in the fact the world is always already complete. The sequence “Epiphyte” does double duty in this regard, with the epiphytic seed’s burrowing into a healthy tree tangling in the work a “you” undertakes to make sense of the scene. As the plant at last begins to thrive, Youn writes,

And the roots go
ribboning down

(prodigious)

and at ground level, a feast
that is inexhaustible,

so that its mode
now shifts

from hunger
to celebration

(the excuse of survival
fallen away).

It is almost unseemly—

this exulting—
the maypole

the seed has made of its body.

Characteristically, these lines never mute the pleasure of their own making, nor do they tone down their own profusion, which seems to sprout into parentheticals as the sentences hurry along. However problematic creation may be, Youn doesn’t find any virtue in abstention. At one point, she explicitly criticizes Odysseus, lashed to the mast, for “seeking knowledge sans / experience.” (She also describes his situation, in a phrase that crosses currents with Levin, as “a test / (or a tease) // of the tame, / the sane / meat.”)

In fact, Youn is most often critical of the fantasy of a pure origin (“as if,” she writes in “Goldacre,” “every origin story didn’t center on the same sweet myth of a lost wholeness”) or a blank slate, both of which she frequently connects to whiteness’s false presumption of being without color or race. “Goldacre” (it’s actually one of two poems with that title in the book) plays with the double-meaning of “Twinkie,” both the imperishable snack cake and the ethnic slur, which she describes in a distressing and compelling essay on the Paris Review Daily that also shows just how much imaginative work can be involved in pushing people inside of stereotypes. Another poem, one of the book’s two “Brownacre”s, begins with the meticulous unmaking of a field, then asks another “you”:

Why is it hard to admit you couldn’t live here
No one could live here
This is not the texture of the real, lacking attachment, lacking event
This is neither landscape nor memory; this is parable, a caricature of restraint

Youn uses the term “parable” dismissively here, as a description of the cleared terrain, even though the poem itself is a kind of parable—and even though her style often suggests an allegorical disposition. She’s endlessly compelled to read through the implications of all that we are given, including seemingly natural landscapes, with their inherited suggestion, for us, of meaning, of the need to interpret, even though part of what she reads there is a partly illegible complexity.

The book’s first section features poems that respond “loosely,” she writes, to François Villon’s “Ballad of the Hanged Men.” Those poems identify their various men and women only as “Hanged,” as if the lives that preceded those hangings have become irrelevant. In the poems themselves, they often become emblematic of the failure to see a person in a way that is more complex—which of course once again treats them reductively. And yet the poems are never simple. The complexity of the scenes press into an apparent reality and into Youn’s persistent gift for song. Here she is, for instance, concluding “Portrait of a Hanged Man,” the spill of sound—half-rhymes in brief spans, dense stresses, lines breaking mid-phrase, new phrases starting up mid-line without any punctuation to mark the way—racing over short lines in a hurry that is both exhilarating and, given what they describe—the head ripped back by the hanging in a pose that feels eerily reminiscent to a baby bird reaching up to be fed—awful:

           the taut neck

stretching up
to that lipless

rictus that almost
unwilling first gasp

fixed in recollection
as if cast in liquid

glass that poured
into you that first time

you let your mouth
fall open that first

second you felt
yourself go slack

Notably, those poems don’t question why the various men and women were hanged. That is, in these poems, over and opaque. On the New Yorker’s Poetry Podcast, Youn refered to the book’s title and the various poems whose titles play on it, including “Brownacre” and “Goldacre,” as an attempt to think about “what we are allotted and what is the power of the imagination to transform what is allotted to us.” The allotments Youn tries to both transform and recognize are dauntingly numerous and frequently learned, including Villon as well as Milton; the English language, with its own long roots; The Edda; ancient Roman origin stories; ancient Greek philosophy; her own childhood; the parable of the talents, in which a man is punished for merely preserving what his master placed in his care; paintings, film, literary theory, commerce; and, of course, the very earth on which all of this exists. They are also, more basically, lots. The title, as she explains in an endnote, is a term that serves in property law as the equivalent of John or Jane Doe. It instates ownership even before the property or owner has been identified, implying that the earth is already apportioned and possessed, already named.

The book ends with a fourteen-part prose sequence, each section based on one of the rhyme words from Milton’s sonnet “On His Blindness,” that proves to be, given all it does, remarkably persuasive. It often poses as a scholarly text devoted to tracking the implications of these words in the poem, but a more lyrical impulse keeps pulling on the poem, leading to interpretations that are anachronistic and inapplicable, which she then cops to later on. It is, nonetheless, an agile reading of Milton, full of astute observations, such as the fact that his poem includes no articles; the nouns are generally marked by possessive pronouns: “my” in the octave, “His” in the sestet.

“Blackacre,” as that final poem is once again titled, is also, alongside and often simultaneous to that, a poem about Youn’s attempt to get pregnant. And then, in between or askance from those two, it also becomes a poem about sexism, particularly as it relates to women having sex, ownership, usefulness, and, impressively, given the sequence’s ongoing coherence, quite a bit more. And it is, of course, a poem about the desire to make something—her wish to have a child; Milton’s wish to keep writing—poured into an explication, which is itself something added to something already made. And it is, quite often, stunning. Here she is, late in the poem, when lyricism has become the predominant mode, offering one of several definitions of “rest”: “those who are left when thousands have sped away, the bereft, who litter the land, with husks for hands, vacant-eyed, vacant faces raised like basins under the contrail-scarred sky.” And here she is, a little earlier, writing about “prevent,” the final word in the octet:

A white egg bursts from the ovary and falls away, leaving a star-shaped scar. Corpus albicans, the whitening body. Such starbursts, at first, are scattered constellations, frost embroidering a dark field. But at what point does this white lacework shift over from intricacy to impossibility, opacity, obstacle—the ice disc clogging the round pond, the grid of proteins baffling the eye?

The passage moves from beauty to barrenness, and yet it grows richer as it proceeds; Youn’s metaphors, as they often do, draw in more information, more particulars, more realms of knowledge and imagination—still hungry both for understanding and for experience, which then asks for understanding again. In the final section, writing on the final word in Milton’s poem, Youn observes, punning, “To stand and wait is far weightier than simple waiting. It is to permit the distractible body neither ease nor action . . . ; it is to pit the body in enmity against its own heaviness.” She seems to be implicitly describing both the paradox of Milton’s poem, which is not a form of waiting, and her own vision of hell.

Like Banana Palace, Blackacre is a form of bounty, the human hunger for making made useful by the beauty of what it makes and the way in which beauty, it seems, is always incomplete, always asking us what we make of it.

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