One way into Dana Levin’s Now Do You Know Where You Are is music. A kind of dancing, doubting line—always intensely, beautifully doubtful—a line William Carlos Williams might’ve admired, but one that also veers into rhyme when it feels like it: “One says No and the other / says nothing at all— // Chicago, I will live in your museums / where Europe is a picture on the wall.” Another way in is prose. The book weaves in and out of prose, and it’s no wonder that the haibun is the generative form in these pages. A form invented by Basho so that he could move from the prose of his travelogues to the quick intensities of haiku, back and forth. Emily Dickinson does the same thing in her letters. And because this is a poet of the western United States—born outside of Los Angeles and raised in the Mojave, then two decades in Santa Fe, now in middle America, St. Louis—maybe it’s right to think of her work in terms of storm clouds: if the prose is an anvil cloud, the flash of poetry at the end is lightning. And it’s fitting, too, because this is a poetry not at all resolved to the peaceful coexistence of its contradictions: “How painful it was! To be / such a split // creature—” … lines which end a poem called “A Walk in the Park.”
The voices in this lightning-and-thunder of a book have awakened in a stormy present, and are split in all kinds of ways. Split between the bad news brought by a bad president and the old news of old wounds—old, defining wounds—glimpsed more clearly than ever. “‘Everything’s all dissolving,’ I wrote G.C.: cat, home, norms, nation?” Or, more mythically: “Maybe it wasn’t Future Death hounding me but / Past Ends—not popular Apocalypse but // cracked Atlantis, golem / Ozymandias, all the millions millions really dead …”
But mostly it’s very personal, equal parts confession and a kind of spiritual bookkeeping: “Appointment,” the book’s crowning achievement, details the poet’s harrowing birth and battle with “hemolytic disease of the fetus and newborn,” which she survived because of a then-brand-new procedure. What used to kill 10,000 infants a year became for her a hellish journey into bodily existence, a sequence of surgeries and disorders and—maybe—healing at the hands of one M. Jensen, Incarnation Specialist. His bodywork seems an analog for the work the prose does amidst the poetry, generating it, coaxing its images, which come in Dana Levin’s work—in all of her books—like searing epiphanies.
In this latest bouquet, the lyric flowers with particular force because the prose sets up the metonymies. “Heroic Couplet,” for example, which is mostly prose—“Definitely in range of drought, storm, flood, famine, pandemic, riot, economic collapse, dirty bomb, mass shooting, rape, carjack, burglary, stroke, heart attack, cancer, mechanical failures of all kinds”—also produces this modern-day Blakean flash of a couplet: “I felt the cogs of Era turn—and had to pop a Klonopin—”, which is to say the story, in Levin’s latest, consistently implies poetry, and poetry lights up the story.
JESSE NATHAN: How did you find your way into this book? Do you believe in diligence?
DANA LEVIN: This collection really began with a voice.
After C.D. Wright died, her voice entered my head with fervor. It was odd because, while I loved many of Wright’s books, I would not have pegged her as any kind of guiding force in my writing. Yet in January 2016, her prosemetric book of notes, musings, and essays, The Poet, The Lion…, was making a deep impression on me, both as an example of a miscellany and as an encounter with a voice. In it, her voice is direct and prophetic and fiery, even in meditative and playful moments. In this, she seemed a daughter of William Blake, a central poet for me. Then, just as I was deeply entering this book, Wright died.
There’s this mystic idea that when someone dies, all the wisdom and character—their sensibility—explodes and expands out of the shucked personality, becoming available to anyone who has an antenna up. I definitely had an antenna up in 2016, because so much of my life was profoundly changing—and then, late in that pivotal year, we elected Trump, and my sense of disorientation went into overdrive. I mainly worked on this book from 2016 to 2020, a time when it seems we firmly entered whatever the 21st century was going to be about. If I had to give that “about” a single characteristic, I’d call it crisis: ecologically and sociopolitically. And if I had to give the human reaction to this time of crisis a single name, I’d say anxiety.
After the 2016 election, into my anxiety, came the ghost of C.D. Wright, saying, “Now do you know where you are?” In her very Arkansas twang-drawl voice. It’s a line she repeats three times in Deepstep Come Shining. I heard her saying it for months and months, on loop.
This question, which was a call to attention, had extra resonance too because I was getting ready to leave Santa Fe, New Mexico after nineteen years, to move to Saint Louis, a city I knew little about. In the midst of this, Murray the Cat, my beloved, sole companion of thirteen years, was dying. I had just turned fifty, and was shocked to find out that the mid-life crisis was real. It’s where an accounting begins: How have I lived? What never happened that I had hoped would come to be? What do I do with disappointment and ambition, with youthful longing? This accounting was going on while I was realizing a lot about my position in this nation, a realizing that was prodded by Trump’s election and all it unleashed, by the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, by setting up my life in Saint Louis in the wake of Ferguson, and by my students and the young poets I know, who are always teaching me what the present cares about. I had to reckon with being someone with a lot of privilege, a woman, a poet, an intellectual, a Jew, which in America is a person considered white by many and alien by others. I had always understood how precarious my life could be, under certain political conditions, but by early 2017 I could also feel it.
I came under the crushing thumb of writer’s block. Maybe when you have to find out where you are, you need to take a minute. But this is an aftermath thought. While I was in the grip of it, it was miserable and demoralizing. I had a complete breakdown in creative confidence.
Finally, my wiser older sister said to me, “I’m so sick of hearing you say you’re not writing. I want you to take a pledge: to write in your journal for twelve weeks, every day, about your feelings.” I can’t think of a more unpalatable assignment than this. And yet I felt a little thrill of interest as she proposed the challenge, which surprised me. And with a “what the hell” feeling, I took up the challenge. I didn’t always write about my feelings, but I did write about many things I had never really written about before. The material in what I came to call the Pledge journal informs nearly every piece in the book, with the poem-diary “Pledge” its closest facsimile.
So prose came into the book this way, via diaristic writing. But it also came in because I was embarking on a prose project, something crafty and memoiristic, and sometimes I’d get confused about where a piece belonged: in the poetry book or the prose one? Does this piece want to be in verse or in prose or something in between? In retrospect, I think this confusion really loosened up all my ideas about and attachments to formal coherence, and the poetry book started to get rangy and varied in structure, piece by piece. I was often nervous and afraid, writing this book, because it felt so formally all over the place. Wright’s work became a source of permission: her approach to form is capacious and adventurous and slips formal categorical yokes, especially in books like One with Others and One Big Self, which include both prose and verse. Japanese haibun also became a source of permission and interest: the prose journey and the verse expression of that journey’s essence. I ended up seeing that, once again, the spirit of my book knew better than I did. It wasn’t going to answer Wright’s question on loop in my head—it was going to say what it’s like to not know, in form as well as in feeling.
You ask if I believe in diligence, so I had to look up the word in my trusty OED. Etymology is a great locationary tool for me. The word comes from the Latin dīligent-em: attentive, assiduous, careful; a present participle of dīligĕre: to value or esteem highly, love, choose, affect, take delight in (doing). This last set of meanings was surprising to me, because I always associate diligence with duty, and perhaps drudgery. But another phrase that cycled through my head during the writing of Now was from Stevens: It must give pleasure. This is my current cry of the heart! I hope my writing brings forms of pleasure to the reader, but over that I have little control. I do however have some control, currently, over my own pleasure, and if I’m not feeling pleasure when writing, why do it? It must give pleasure can be a fraught command to follow when you’re working on something that feels eccentric, as this book certainly did, or when you’re really unclear if readers will want to go where a book wants to take them. So I was diligent about pleasure! Which meant experimenting a lot, and working in a wide variety of forms, as I mentioned, and not getting too hung up on conventional categories of essay and poem.
“Diligence” also means doing your utmost—to see something through, despite obstacles, despite all doubt and convictions of failure. I doubted this book all along the way, form and content. Some of my trusted readers doubted it too, in its early, incoherent phases, which was an education and a challenge to contend with. But this book would not be dissuaded from being born. It wrote itself despite me. So maybe it’s truer to say the book was diligent, and I was a servant to that. The very last significant thing that happened in the composition of Now, in late 2019, is that I finally chose the book, long after it had chosen me. And then there was true pleasure and breakthrough, which carried me into revision, and through the waves of the pandemic, where C.D. Wright’s question took on new meaning, every day.