We’re thrilled to talk with Dana Levin on the eve of the April 2022 debut of her amazing Now Do You Know Where You Are. Because Copper Canyon was kind enough to send me a hard copy galley to prepare for this feature, I had a sneak preview, and dear Readers, let me tell you, it’s a wonder, as you’ll see in the four poems following our conversation.
NM: The title of the book, Now Do You know Where You Are, is taken from lines in Deepstep Come Shining, by the late C.D. Wright. In the title poem, you hear this phrase as a call to WAKE UP, Get your bearings, Hear the trees. What exactly was it about the momentary age of Trump that this call became an urgent command with a new ring of sound?
DL: It was uncanny, the way that phrase—now do you know where you are —ran through my head for months in the wake of the 2016 election. Wright had died at the start of that pivotal year, and it felt like visitation and instruction, hearing that phrase over and over post November. 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.
NM: This collection of poems chronicles a fervent quest to locate yourself in coordinates, the intersection where external forces meet history and place, where the soul and the body pressed against and into one another.
DL: Yes, the need to get located was profound for me after Trump’s election. In 2017 I found myself traveling through concentric circles of change. I was readying to leave Santa Fe, NM after nineteen years, to move to Saint Louis, a place I knew very little about, beyond Hollywood movies and Michael Brown’s death in 2014 at the hands of police in nearby Ferguson, the protests his death had sparked. I felt as though I was about to move to the navel of the nation: Saint Louis, source of so many American gifts and grotesqueries. Trump’s election and the hostilities it condoned also made me deeply afraid, as a Jew—a feeling shocking and new to me, though familiar to so many. Intellectually, I’d always understood antisemitism as a threat, but in 2017 that threat stopped being purely conceptual for me. My assumption of personal liberty, which I had always had the privilege to imagine strong, began to fray. Of course, that assumption has always been an illusion, but the American mythos of personal freedom carried me along for a long time. It was startling to discover how much I had internalized that mythos: me, a woman, a Jew, a daughter of immigrants, a poet!
NM: I can’t help but think of Robert Hass’s identification of the dynamic between individuation and submersion of the self as the psychic basis for rhythm in “Listening and Making,” from Twentieth Century Pleasures. If we agree with Hass, then the rhythm would change as the assumption frayed. How did this and the urgency to locate, or relocate, impact the rhythm as well as sound and form in these poems?
DL: I became formally restless. What is a poetic form but a house? A poem is a house made of stanzas, which is the Italian word for “rooms.” I didn’t know how I would be housed, in my new 2017 realities; my work began to house hunt: open verse, haibun and variations thereof, sequences, short poems, long poems, etc. I deeply love working with enjambment and the open field of the page, so it was startling to ride that sense of urgency and seeking into a longer line, all the way into prose. A long line makes for a speedy read, and I certainly felt as if I, and the nation, was hurtling breakneck towards…(now do you know where you are?)
NM: House hunting—yes! You know, structurally, “For the Poets” could be two square apartment buildings, poet ghettos, located in the ether of social media. And “2016, A Biography” is a spiral into Dante’s first ring of the inferno…where he has crossed the Acheron and meets Virgil (aka C.D. Wright) who leads him to the abyss of Limbo.
DL: Wow! I love that. The spiral quality of “2016:” well, that just happened without intention, as form often does, when writing. But the formal intuition has a consciousness, it speaks in shapes. Your comment actually made me think of Botticelli’s schematic of Dante’s Inferno:
This makes me think about my poem’s last line: “to me” –and how that is where the devil lives.
NM: Yes! In the mythic descent into the underworld doesn’t one always meet oneself? And only in facing that self is the ascension possible? We see this in “For the Poets,” which honestly questions whether the ancient human compulsion to be seen—to share, to tag, to tweet—is driven by a need to bear witness to the moment—I was here, I/ lived in it, I/ died in it, this shit // Paradiso—or by the ego’s insatiable greed. If it’s the latter, then we’re in a vortex as powerful as Dante’s inferno, constantly fueled by the endless meta-loop of social media.
DL: I think both bearing witness and ego-greed are constantly going on at the same time, all over the digifields: sometimes it can be hard to tell which one exactly is at play in any given social media post, especially if you’re the poster. I spend more time than I’d like inquiring into that, when I feel the urge to post something to social media: no post without first asking, Why? What for? I end up deleting a lot of posts.
NM: I want to tell you … reading the book again before sleep, I woke up with “find the guides.”
DL: Nancy, I love these hypnagogic notes! If all we did was talk about my book in relation to the prods from your unconscious, I’d be happy.
Invoking the guides was something that the book just started to do: guides living and dead, artists and not. This makes sense, in retrospect: I’m writing a book about getting located! Sometimes, when you’re lost, you have to ask somebody for directions.
Obviously, C. D. Wright was a primary guide for this book, both in terms of its form(s) and its central inquiries: she has a capacious and fluid approach to form, from classic lyric to documentary poetics, from the tightest kind of open-verse to what she called prosemetric work, like the fantastic The Poet, The Lion…And I think she demonstrated in books like One with Others and One Big Self the through-line from individual to collective experience, from the private to the public: I am deeply interested in plumbing these lines, and hope my new book wakes up a reader, or deepens a wakefulness they already have, regarding the interplay of the interior mind and the world we live in.
NM: There is no way anyone who reads this book will not be awakened, as you were, by a new ring of sound. Now Do You Know Where You Are continues the bloodline, C.D. Wright’s through-line, between the individual and collective. This book is a survival guide!
By the way, this morning re-reading the book again, I closed my eyes and … a business card: “D-Lev, Messenger”
DL: I should get some of those right now.
For the Poets
To post, to share, to tag, to tweet, to have an audience for feats,
Beowulf granted the glory of winning, Grendel driven under the
fen-banks, fatally hurt, and the whole panoply of insulted Greeks,
Agamemnon the most grasping man alive, but Who if I cried out
would hear me amongst the angelic orders is the common
condition, if only three people like a tweet does anything you
offer sound in the forest? The history of civilization is replete with
selfies, from Pharaonic monoliths to portraits hanging in the
Louvre, LUCIUS WAS HERE scratched in Latin on Colosseum walls,
even the earliest handprints in the famous caves, we’ve always
been Tommys SEE ME, FEEL ME, TOUCH ME, HEAL ME climbing
platforms to sashay the wealth, not plunder now but diamond
contacts, accolades and golden “news,” the flashy bling of being
dread and hope and fear to hope that the work will live in some
greater way in other minds, the confrontation with Time and
wanting to matter while inside it, I’m Nobody! Who are you? Miz
D’s morning cleanse or Uncle Walt’s Jupiter tonic I celebrate
myself, which is to say I was heading into one last student reading
at a college I was leaving, to hear first poems about earth and sex
and blood and stars, about the great forces and the dispossessed,
parents, harm, and the Boot of the State, why, I thought, do any
of us do any of this, because (and then verse came, such as it
I was here, I
lived in it, I
died in it, this shit
2016, A Biography
I had wanted to think that America
was incidental, that I could go on with the same
lyric project, to lament the soul
in exile, having to endure the jail
of the body, what was
Into the Next Eden
I was supposed to go back to the sea
but plague prevented me.
In a city by a river no ship could take me
and planes, well—
I stayed home for days with weekend drives
to see my love,
who didn’t live with me.
Night cranks up its float of stars. They inch
I was supposed to go back to the sea but nature
It said, “Sit right down and let me
clear the air—”
The sudden blue
of the natural sky after years
behind the smoke of money.
Mother Nature, who had had it
that was my theory.
So economical, how she laid us and all our wrecking
In another world I’d perched
on petrified lava, watching the sea go.
I wanted to snatch each bit I saw and secure it
in a book of glass—
A rock in tide. Someone
on the opposite cliff, smoking.
A schooner cloud.
Its reflection appearing—
in a book transparent and indestructible.
Would the book even make it
into the next Eden.
I watched as a plant watches, rooted
and waving in wind—
One of those scrubby plants you can’t believe
blooms from a cliff—
Sturdy miracle. Flexible and porous
so change can get in…
The sea never stopped happening, it unfurled
over and over
its massive rose—
love and death
love and death
love and death
beating the cliff down
to a nub.
I was supposed to go back to the sea
and so I’ve come.
Standing again inside my mind
on Big River Beach—
There, river tide and ocean tide
push and marry—
Seals swim up the river’s finger
for as long as there’s salt—
Standing again as I stood that day,
watching a mother—a baby
against her breasts, facing out—
eyes round, mouth round
as an o—
“It’s the first time she’s seeing the sea!”
the mother said, when she saw me watching—
The ocean wind blew our long hair
We stood as flags pitched in sand, staking
the human claim—
Of being alive. Of seeing the sea. The baby
looking and looking—
And then a thing like joy, yes, did I know it? This
open drinking in
on her round face. As if she were seeing again
something novel and lost—
I thought of the reincarnational memory
waking up inside her.
How some things you are happy to see again
when you return,
like the sea.
Now Do You Know Where You Are
It is another way of saying WAKE UP.
Of saying, “Get your bearings. Hear the trees.”
Itself a command with a new ring of sound, here in the momentary age of
Momentary. No one lasts forever. Everything rises, hovers, and falls. “Nothing
in the world beats time,” you said.
You said, “The light murdered, that the truth become apparent.”
I’m feeling that today, on the tenth day of the first one hundred, of America’s
new mad king.
All of us hurtling into the year of the Fire Rooster. Which is like saying Mars x
Mars. Which is to say combustible. But also the purifying fire embedded in the
Greek conception of “crisis” (In a word, as you’d say, a world).
When we met, many years ago, we talked about getting located. You were a
practitioner of deep coordinates, writing from the intersection where eternal
forces meet history and place. Where the soul and the body press against and
into one another—so many bodies a soul has to press through: personal,
familial, regional, national, global, planetary, cosmic—
“Now do you know where you are?”
I’ve been hearing you say that for months. You say it at three different
junctures, in Deepstep Come Shining.
Dear C.D. Wright, I don’t know where I am, but you are helping me to get there.
Spirit I only met once.
Thanks to Harvard Review, APR, and Sewanee Review for first publishing the poems appearing here.
Photo cred: B.A. Van Sise
Dana Levin’s fifth book is Now Do You Know Where You Are (Copper Canyon, Spring 2022), a Lannan Literary Selection. Recent books include Banana Palace (2016) and Sky Burial (2011), which The New Yorker called “utterly her own and utterly riveting.” She is a grateful recipient of honors, including those from the National Endowment for the Arts, PEN, and the Library of Congress, as well as from the Rona Jaffe, Whiting, and Guggenheim Foundations. Levin teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis.