Review of Sky Burial by Dana Levin

Dana Levin. Sky Burial. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2011. 75 pp. $15.00, paper.

When the language of an exterior source usurps poetic meditation, the writing risks diffusion into ephemera. Some poets, however, assimilate into their verse this massa intermedia—an anatomical term for a functionless gray mass within the brain, used here to describe language dormant in its original context—so as to invigorate the writing, through adjacency, toward synaptic electricity. Dana Levin’s Sky Burial, with an aberrant prosody and form, uses transplant-language to create a pneumatic mutant of a voice, enrapturous as strange.

A “chorus comes roaring out of her / single mouth,” writes Levin in “Sibylline,” and although the allusion casts the poet as a kind of sibyl, perhaps she is less oracle than oracular medium and each poem, a quantum thereof. That’s not to say Levin meek or that she submits entirely to some external force, rather she asserts herself as the origin of the collection’s reckonings—most palpably with death which, stubborn and protean, invades the personal narratives of the poems, the consciousness, often leaving a speaker “Lost in the mind’s / imprisoned winds, its many-headed forms.”

Perhaps it is this multiplicity of the self that allows the myths of Xipe Totec, the Aztec god of Spring, and the Buddhist text, “Tsong Khapa’s Praise of the Inner Yama,” to speak for or with the speakers’ experiences, making the old relevant and the immediate entrenched in time and therefore, context. Consider the opening of “Refuge Field” in which the image making reflects the vicissitude captured between two voices:

 You have installed a voice that can soothe you: agents
   of the eaten flesh, every body

   a cocoon of change—

  Puparium. The garden
   a birthing house, sarcophagidae—

Here again is death, but its origin is life. “O voice of a different timbre—,” one bows and ushers in another at the end of “Sibylline,” and though it might be said that the birth of one voice is the death of another, the Buddhist-influenced movements suggest rebirth of what’s lost—persons, civilizations, possessions—even if through poetry, the body in which all is re-manifest.

But the poems of Sky Burial are less elegies than tender autopsies in which Levin searches not for the cause of death but rather of life, the meaning of being the ritualizer instead of the ritualized. In this, the collection does not presume to reveal the ineffable but how to survive, transcend its silences.

“What is a body but a bag of alms,” asks the speaker in “Cathartes Aura,” and though what’s offered is sent, as the collection’s title suggests, in two metaphorical directions at once—skyward and into the earth—Levin offers all of it to the reader, in language that is succulent and invasive, following her own imperative: “Build it from rot.”

Emilia Phillips received her MFA at Virginia Commonwealth University and serves as the associate literary editor of Blackbird. Her poetry has appeared in many journals including AGNI, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and The Kenyon Review. "In vacuo, Universal Studios" appears in her first manuscript, Signaletics, which was selected as the editor's choice for the 2012 Akron Poetry Prize and will be published by the University of Akron Press in 2013.