"Enola Gay" by Mark Levine

A forceful book of poems about our barely disguised appetite for destruction.

Published May 30, 2000 6:00PM (EDT)

There is a gravity to Mark Levine's second book, "Enola Gay," the first of three volumes in a promising new poetry series from the University of California Press. The poems in it bear a sense of having struggled up from beneath great pressure to reach the page. It's not that the writing seems labored; rather, the words feel as if they've come to be bound together gradually. In one poem, Levine refers to "a fleet of morbid dreams seeking inland passage," which is a perfect description of the images and difficulties that fill the book. They are at once lugubrious and desolate, and they travel in numbers. The landscapes Levine visits, both physical and emotional, are drowning in the aftermath of enormous destruction; he's there to provide the post-disaster analysis.

One of the book's most satisfying poems in this vein is "Eclipse, Eclipse," in which an appropriately creepy horseman appears on the horizon over and over again, a grim reaper arriving to claim a world balanced perilously on the edge of death:

Sickness was near. All the gods knew it.

The air had been sprayed with the stiff sheen

of daybreak: a curtain fluttering; a window gone dim.

Not that the gods wanted it this way.

Their tent was cold, too. They knelt on the gravel

pondering the sky from which they long ago fell.

Who would carry the foul fumes away?

I kept an apple for Mother but ate the charred skins.

Comes a horseman, lazy on his mount,

helmeted in steel, rising from the pitted field.

The cosmic order of the universe has clearly been compromised, and this horseman -- one can't help thinking of William Butler Yeats' famous rider, whom he commanded to "Cast a cold eye/On life, on death./ Horseman, pass by!" -- is moving in to complete the damage. Levine continues:

The gods are not well braced. Their sleeves are

tattered and their flaring rockets

lie disabled by vandals.

Delay is all; all matrimony, plasma,

tokens of esteem, all vows exchanged in the cold heavens ...

The law is coming, three battered islands hence;

the splash is coming, the radar is coming, the law

is coming wearing Mother's private wig.

Comes a horseman, steady on the climb, a blade

against his thigh, a rumor on his spine.

"Eclipse, Eclipse" finishes out with a final flourish in the direction of its dark prince:

A pencil in his glove and a shovel in his soul

and big plans for a secret farm: comes a horseman.

In other poems, strange, moldering materials accrue into rotting piles. We get "The strain of heat. The wounded green/fabric, the thinking, the wan starling/crumpling into a stray eastbound train." Elsewhere, in one of the lists for which Levine seems to have a great fondness, we get a collection that has, like so much of "Enola Gay," a faint whiff of the plague about it: "Brine. Tweezers. Surrender. Rain." Just who or what is surrendering to the machinations of those briny tweezers? And why is the cleansing rain so necessary? There is also a garden "choked to its seams/with weeds and coiled roots and vines lurching," about which Levine asks, "Can you hear the crystal voices trapped beneath the growing?"

Not every poem in "Enola Gay" bears up under the enormous, melancholy burden Levine places on his work. He's not at his best when telling a straightforward story, as he does on several occasions here, trying to imbue it with deep meaning by pinning on some kind of moral or coda. In the more abstract poems, he runs into trouble when the things he gathers together fail to add up into a whole. This is perhaps no surprise, since Levine is a protigi of Jorie Graham, famed for her lush but occasionally incomprehensible offerings, but it can be frustrating, especially since some of the poems in which Levine hits the mark are lovely amid the pervading gloom. Indeed, they provide some necessary relief from the heaviness of "Enola Gay," which can be a bit much at times. One in particular, "The Holy Pail," has a great delicacy that shines forth from the muck:

The holy pail. The mint of the colony.

The radiant fuel. The arrow. The wheel.

The bevel. The palm. The increase. The warp.

The tiller. The rut. The imaginary island.

The cathedral afloat. The prospering mercury.

The silo. The wish. The entrance. The rung.

The zero. The dome. The terminal carpentry.

The blighted soprano. The damning. The slack.

The hunting of mushrooms. The frozen instruction.

The breeze in the wardrobe. The silver. The silver.

The cracked archipelago. The eyesight. The law.

The pillar. The shift. The impeccable prey.

The valuable memory. The greed of the foliage.

The worry. The servant. The shovel. The like.

The emergency precinct. The motor. The milk.

The mother. The matter. The fabric. The fold.

The poem reads like a periodic table -- a guide to the elements of human life, complete with danger and longing. Elsewhere the poet poses the question: "Who doesn't love intrigue? Contagion?" The point being that even those of us who deny our fascination with the forces that push our lives ceaselessly toward death can't squelch our morbid curiosity entirely. As Levine rightly guesses, his book is attractive precisely because it provides evidence that everything, eventually, returns to ashes and dust.

By Melanie Rehak

Melanie Rehak is a poet and critic.

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