AUGUST 16, 2022
THE TITLE OF Dana Levin’s new book, Now Do You Know Where You Are, is also its central question. Levin wrote the book between 2016 and 2020, a time of outsized dislocation and disorientation. Caught between myth and fact, identity and collectivity, long-held belief and undeniable reality, many asked: “What does it mean to be an American in the age of Trump?” Which America — whose America — are we in, anyway? To quote Levin in a recent interview in Plume:
I think my book is driven by this call to wake up to where we are, as a nation, to where I am, as a poet, a citizen, a human — to not fall asleep to peril, which in America has to do with the fragility of our democratic processes and the rise to power of the country’s most violent, bigoted, and corrupt qualities; and peril in the self, where these corrupt qualities are harbored.
Reading Now Do You Know Where You Are, I felt, again, what it was to be alive during the years this book was written and takes place.
These “corrupt qualities,” as Levin rightly implies, have always been present, not only in the United States during these years but also throughout the world and all its history. In “You Will Never Get Death / Out of Your System,” Levin writes: “It has always been very busy on Earth: so much coming and going! The terror and the hope ribboning through that.” All this coming and going, of course, makes us anxious and afraid. In the book’s opening poem, “A Walk in the Park,” neither the reader nor the speaker can be sure of where we are, even during those few moments within the poem when we think we do. The opening image of a spindle dislocates us between symbol and reality:
I mean I knew
what a spindle was
from fairy tales — how it could
from a testing finger, put a kingdom
to sleep —
did it actually do, how
did a spindle look
in real life?
I didn’t know. As with
so many things:
there was fact and there was
a believed-in dream …
Levin’s use of space on the page — the unexpected enjambments, the short and disjointed lines — creates a sense of extreme unease as the reader’s eyes dart jaggedly back and forth across the page. The speaker’s project is to search past the spindle’s fairy-tale connotations for the hard physical reality — what is or was it, actually?
“A slender rounded rod
with tapered ends,” Google said. Plato’s,
so heavy with thread,
when viewed from the side,
looked like a top —
Attempts to answer the question only raise more questions. The juxtaposition of Google and Plato dislocates the reader further in time, while the speaker’s pursuance of the thread image blurs the boundaries between individual and collective, selfhood and belonging: “Your thread. / Everyone else’s. / Nested one / inside the other.” Each individual “I” is necessarily fluid, because it is bound up with everyone else’s “I,” dependent on and defined by the world of “Is” of which it is a part. Later in the poem, the speaker illustrates the illusiveness of personal autonomy with a personal experience:
To walk alone deep in thought
in a city park
for several minutes,
thinking about spindles.
Before the vigilance
of my genderdoom
kicked in —
And there it was, the fact
of my body —
In the space of minutes, the speaker shifts from being lost in individual thought to being hyperaware of her body in space. As with the spindle’s existence as both a mythical symbol and a concrete object, the speaker experiences both the dream of being “bodiless // and free …” and the corporeal reality of “all the nerves in my scalp / and the back of my neck,” of being in a “female body — / Jewish body — inside my / White body.” The reader, along with the speaker, is instantaneously reminded of the perils that await those who forget, even for a short time, the fact of their physical bodies. This is especially true for those who inhabit bodies that are gendered, racialized, or otherwise marked by society. “How painful it was!” the poem ends. “To be / such a split // creature —”
“Immigrant Song” struggles with dislocation in a very different way, describing from multiple angles a family’s separation from their country of origin. Each section deals with an individual family member, separated from the other family members by hard section breaks. At the same time, rhymes, recurrent sounds, and images link these disparate pieces inextricably together. The “Silent Father” section opens: “Rain, stars, sewage in the spill, / hush the river.” In the commingling of stars, water, boats, and names, the personal identity is blurred, and, in a crucial sense, lost altogether: “[D]umped your name in the black / water—” The section’s last stanza presents an image of the violence the father has left behind: “In the village they pushed the rabbi / to the wall.” The off-rhyme of wall with the earlier spill ties together the violence in which both collaborate — the spill an erasure of a person’s identity, the wall a physical enactment of violence against a person’s body.
This relationship between symbolic and lived experience is further explored in the sections focused on the “Angry Daughter” — “Chicago, I will live in your museums / where Europe is a picture on the wall” — and the “Obedient Child” — “In my black boat I hid. / I hid in pictures on the wall.” The use of “I” and the theme of self-concealment in both sections leads me to think that the Angry Daughter and Obedient Child are two facets of a single speaker, linked to one another and to the parents by echoing sounds and images. Obedient Child ends the poem:
I said, I am here in America,
your hero, your confusion,
your disappointment after all.
How did you end up so bad
in a country this good and tall.
The rigid finality of “your disappointment after all” is heightened by the rhymes throughout the poem with tall and wall. These rhymes also call to mind the border wall, that symbol against immigration much invoked between 2016 and 2020 and, like the walls in the poem, both physical and symbolic. It represents the America of 2016–20 from which the speaker is writing, both like and unlike the America to which her parents immigrated, an America that tells certain people they are “bad / in a country this good and tall.” This could also be read as an origin story for the speaker and countless other first-generation Americans, the separation from the parents made tangible via section breaks and explored sonically and imagistically in the poem’s final lines. The America from which the speaker is writing means something entirely different to her than it did to her parents in an earlier time.
“Two Autumns, Saint Louis” also grapples with an ever-changing America and the individual’s place in it. At several moments, the speaker calls attention to a legacy fraught with racism and other forms of bigotry, both in Saint Louis specifically and in the United States as a whole. In Section Six, she reflects: “It’s exciting to be living in the city that birthed / T. S. Eliot / even though he was a casual / anti-Semite.” Section Seven ends with a litany of place names left over from slavery, all encountered while “driving around Saint Louis (Confederate Drive, Plantation Drive, / Creve Coeur, Heartbreak —.” And in Section Eight, at a park with a friend, she comes across “the Angel of the Spirit of the Confederacy, / a statue / dedicated / fifty years after slaves were freed.”
The speaker is aware from the outset of her own positionality among these complicated histories. Section One ends ironically and introspectively: “Later, talking about Ferguson over mussels at Peacemaker’s, nothing but / White people in the room.” In Section Six, reflecting on Eliot’s anti-Semitism, she inserts herself into the narrative: “I stand here DLev, / one of the roughs — aspirated, liberally / educated, / shtetl-fed.” By listing these many identities, with her own name embedded, Levin acknowledges her individual connection to bygone events and people. But it’s not until the poem’s final section that she gives the problem of the individual’s stance in a bigoted society a diagnosis, rooting it in a uniquely American mythology. Section Eight of “Forest Park” calls back the setting of the book’s opening poem, in which the speaker finds herself suddenly aware of her many selves, all converging in one body, and the limitations on that body’s ability to move freely while walking in another park. In so doing, she deconstructs
an American idea: that
you could cross over — from heavy-chained
to free —
Who got what kinds of free. Who
still believed …
Through this twisted logic, the myth of American freedom and the realities of American slavery, though diametrically opposed, coexist. However, “who got what kinds of free” depended, during slavery as it does now, on the “I” and its physical manifestation. Levin continues:
“To rub the heels
with cypress resin
to walk on water,” the Symbolicum said,
“since it makes the body light.”
Who is included in the “one” that supposedly can walk on water? Some bodies are “light” in the United States, while others are much heavier to carry.
How do we deal with a collective history that is, to varying degrees, heavy to carry? In “You Will Never Get Death / Out of Your System,” we get a glimpse of how some responded during the 2016 election: “Voting backward, into what / has already died — // Voting Zombie in the name of ‘change’ —” At times, the speaker is also resistant to change and movement. In “Pledge,” a long poem through journal entries written in the months leading up to the speaker’s move across the country, the speaker acknowledges her own inertia:
I haven’t been sleeping well, but then last night I let myself
object strenuously to this move, to leaving New Mexico, to
killing my cat, to leaving my friends. I don’t want to, I don’t
want to, hot hot tears — and then I slept.
After weeks of journaling, the speaker admits to the discomfort she feels toward such a drastic life movement. Acknowledging this, even to herself, is what enables her to finally sleep. The impulse to stay here, in terms of time as well as space, is also present in “The Birth and Death Corn”: “I was feeling so / scared of walking into the future — when the present felt so / dark and changed —” I’m appreciative of Levin’s honesty here. To a certain extent, we all share this resistance to change, this proclivity toward the here and now, even those of us who strive to maintain an awareness of where we are and continue to ask the way forward. Change can create a sense that “everything’s all dissolving,” a fear that agreed-upon norms, once dissolved, will leave an unfillable void.
Which is the way forward? How do we persist and endure? The book’s project is not to answer but to continually ask these questions. In “How to Hold the Heavy Weight of Now,” Levin zooms in on a physical gesture, making the intangible tangible through close-range description: “She said, ‘You just made this gesture with your body —’ and / opened her arms as if she could barely fit them around an / enormous ball —” The speaker is then encouraged to “let [the shape] change.” She responds willingly, “slowly closing the space between my arms, fingertips / converging / until they touched —” The second half of the poem details the physical manifestation of the speaker’s adaptability:
I watched my hands turn together, align pinkie-
side to pinkie-side, I watched
my palms open, pushing gently forward, leading
my body forward, I watched them
let a bird go, I watched my hands
an offering —
The anaphora of “I watched” emphasizes the speaker’s lack of agency in this transformation, the inevitability of change whether the individual wills it to happen or not. Nonspecific nouns in the poem’s last three lines (“bird,” “hands,” “offering”), along with the gradual disappearance of the physical poem into the white space of the page, push the gesture’s significance beyond the tangible into the realm of the symbolic: how to hold something heavy, physically or otherwise, without keeping it entirely to oneself; how instead to push it forward, and make an offering.
How do we “hold the heavy weight of now”? Drawing ever more deeply inward is never the answer, or at least never the complete answer. In “Appointment,” the speaker is understandably “feeling confused and troubled by my inclination to mine the personal past, when the collective present needs so much attention and aid —” The stakes are high. The speaker posits what will happen if we fail to acknowledge, or act on, the collective present: “Each of us alone inside our bodies, each of us marooned, in the suffering exchange, while the world burns —” Needless to say, this is not the future any of us wants.
Whatever the way forward, the only thing certain is that we have to go there together. The title poem, the book’s last, rises to the challenge of “getting located” in both space and time. Channeling the late poet C. D. Wright, Levin writes, “I don’t know where I am, but you are helping me to get there.” She highlights the sacrosanct importance of connection with others and the world, how fragile each of us is individually and how dependent we are on each other to find our place in the world and society. Addressing Wright as “Spirit I only met once,” Levin leaves us with this thought: that our lives are inextricable from one another, whether we meet in passing, only once, or not at all.
Liza Katz Duncan is the author of Given (Autumn House Press, 2023), which won the Autumn House Press Rising Writer Award. Her poems have appeared in AGNI, About Place, Poem-a-Day, Poetry Northwest, National Poetry Review, and elsewhere.