The poems in Debt are a simultaneously disorienting and poignant reflection on the inner landscape. Through the fragmentation, or disassembling and reassembling of persona, themes like alienation and the strangeness of identity, culture, work, war, illness and death emerge. The personae shift in and out of themselves, become objects, speak after death. This dislocation of a centered self allows the poems a tectonic exploration of the individual in community and of the deep inner recesses where the self resembles a fun-house mirror.
The poems work their way through a vast collection of geographical and historical backdrops (realistic and imaginary): Toulouse, the Crusades, Prussia, the Greyhound men’s room, the Volga, Poland, WWII, England, France, the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, Versailles, the Wild West, the Berlin Olympics, election night, an airport, the prophets, the hospital, the scene of a death, the bedroom. The place held by you or I or other shifts from poem to poem, and sometimes shifts within the poems.
There is a punched-in-the gut seriousness to the poems; the personae play the role of victim or perpetrator, who may justify or fail to understand. War and war language permeate the book: “dog tags,” “rebels’ compound,” “nerve gas,” “Uzi,” “uniforms,” “barracks,” “Commander,” and the language of work: “punched the clock,” “Door-to-door I give my pitch, clutching my sample bag,” “Boss,” “pink slip,” “worker.” The personae are most often caught in a Kafkian world—unable to make sense of what is happening and what is expected. The personae ask rhetorical questions: “Commander, can you hear me?” and may answer them: “I am here, clamoring to be let in./In. Where is that?” There is a weariness in the voice of many poems: “Ah, love, let us be true./We’re all a bit tired/to be killing too much, but we continue.”
In Poem, which seems to take place in a village during WWII, there is a woman who must be killed for her own good. The speaker says: “I had to tear her apart to free her,” representing the kind of twisted thinking mankind hires to wage war. Self as misguided reasoning,
Those villagers dug my stake
straight through the belly of a woman
who – who knows – might have been my mother.
The dead we kill in war are a part of us, “might have been my mother” – identity is not delineated so neatly in these poems. The personae overlap and react endlessly to the others in the poems. In Morning Song the speaker says of “Boss”:
I remind him
of his mother, and his sister, and his son, and himself.
I bring tears to his eyes.
He’s been to me like the father he killed.
This blurring of self/other prevents the poems from becoming didactic, and reinforces the idea that humans live in a collective. These poems are not about a speaker walking through the woods and feeling kind of religious. They are about what it is to live in a complicated layer of contexts – blood relatives, time and place, scientific, economic and historical backdrop, individual role in the workplace – many factors affect our experience.
Several of the poems in this collection touch on death. In Sculpture Garden, there are three voices: the speaker, the father and the mother. Mother is dying: “My mother in bed with a ten-syllable disease.” The father is metaphorically “crumbling” over the reality of the mother’s death. There is a shift in the roles of the characters: the father, once metaphorically monumental in the speaker’s life, cannot speak or sleep or care for himself, seems to blame himself for the mother’s death:
But my father, not
sleeping for six weeks, turns
into the crumbling Czar-on-horseback
statue in the central square of his birthplace.
He just stands there, life-like.
Later, “They died. He didn’t. It wasn’t his fault.” [author’s emphasis]. The breakdown of the mother’s role decimates the father’s ability to act out his own part. The speaker doesn’t know how to cope with this shift in role; where once his father had substance and authority, there is a void: “Why am I looking at him like this?” “Should I talk to him when he doesn’t talk back?” “Should I touch him?” It is the same with the dying mother. The speaker is separated from her as she lies “in the sickbed”; he can no longer find an intimacy with her. “Once in a dream I made love to my mother./It did no good.” He cannot heal the wound his birth made, nor give back the life that he took from her. He cannot take the place of the deteriorating father.
There is an alienation in each voice in the poem. In addition to his loss of footing in the family dynamic, the father has already lost cultural identity. His birthplace is apparently Russia, where there is a Czar-on-horseback statue, and now he is apparently not in Russia, but in some new place (America?) where he rakes dirt into a Japanese garden, under French windows. There are other cultural identities available to him, but they are inauthentic, not his. The house is crumbling—a place where one would seek solace—“There is a crack in the living-/room wall. There is an icy roof./ He is watching the plaster./Certain the house will collapse.” The father is losing all exterior and interior markers that tell him who is he is. The mother is also losing everything, to death. The speaker tries to make a connection with the mother and father, but he can only stand separate from them and observe what they are doing. When mother and father are unable to know who they are, or be who they were, it leaves the speaker with an utter breakdown of hope and meaning. The last lines are the speaker:
I sit in my room hands blackened with newsprint.
Why not believe the papers.
Things turning wrong.
Gets in the dirt gets in the water.
Gets in the dirt gets in the water.
What the speaker learns soils him; he learns that we will die, that we will lose everything we try to hold onto. When he no longer receives information within the context of his familial and cultural meaning, he is overwrought with the darkness of knowing. It can’t be denied; it is everywhere.
Not all the death poems deal with death as a third party might experience the death of someone, or might learn of their impending death, or imagine a future death. These poems are in and out of a death reality; some of the personae are corpses; sometimes death has impermanence. Poem has a speaker persona, an unidentified “you” and others – villagers, soldiers. It takes place on a battlefield – there is fire, gas and death. The speaker is both dead and not dead:
They prop my mouth open with splinters.
They carve their initials on my thighs.
Their placard hangs from my cock.
Their time clock ticks at my feet.
Later, “Where is the spot on your body where I’m planted?” Yet the speaker says “I smell gas,” and “I drank my radium today. It’s made me brave”; the speaker is both dead and capable of thought and experience.
Judaism is a thread that runs through the poems, and again, gets mixed up deeply in the personae. In the title poem Debt, the “I” at the end is named “Jew Levine.” He goes through the poem being singled out, separated from his efforts to be integrated into a work and social community. The “debt” he is strapped with is his historical identity as a Jew: he must pay for the reasons people have hated Jews. He must endure their proselytizing. The poem is devoid of emotion on the part of the speaker – he gropes around looking to find out what it means to be a Jew – how it refocuses his past, but this persona is disconnected from human emotion. The poem begins in media res, “That reminds me,” an insouciant beginning for a poem about persecution.
The narrators often speak in short, clipped sentences; most of the lines are end-stopped. It gives a kind of truth-telling feel to the voice, each sentence building up the story, bit by bit:
The moat is nearly done. That was one of my projects.
I can’t complain. Boss has his moods,
but I know my value.
There is a visceral quality to the poems: the personae are often sentient beings, the poems are corporeal. Not just life and death, but body parts: “I pull my head from my scissors,” “He ripped the skin/off my family and kept that too,” “He says his tongue/will be arriving in the mail.” “I get paid to stand with my mouth open.” This enhances the perception of a fragmented self, a collection of parts having separate experiences.
It is not just parts that separate from the whole; the personae themselves sometimes break into other selves. In the poem Self-portrait, the narrator both sees from within himself, and sees himself from outside: “I wake next to me on the too narrow for two bedcage.” The body, a self distinct from the persona, is ill, “scrawled with tubes.” While in the act of trying to see oneself, there is a risk of myopia; in this poem the speaker is too invested in the other self to see it with any more clarity: “At last I see myself a box of sorts a picture window who am I kidding.” The self resists definition by its measurements on hospital equipment. Others, outside the two selves, visit, but cannot meaningfully connect with the speaker. “They stuff towels in their mouths,” they don’t want to speak of their fear or repulsion. They don’t want to be there. “They seem bored…” The speaker looks at himself. One self looking onto the other self does not provide a more objective way of seeing the self; there is no clarity in this view, but a kind of intimacy with self, perhaps the way the mind loves the body:
Late night I crawl back into bed very slow not to hurt
the one lying there hard flesh and cold.
I turn him I open his gown I am gentle God I do love him.
We make love the two of me like a beautiful machine
The machine in this poem is a humanizing biology, not the dehumanizing machines that some personae become.
Levine is in dialog with other poets from various schools throughout his body of work. The poems have a confessional feel to them – in the way they deal with personal failure and disappointment, in their unabashed nudity. However, unlike confessional poems, there is not a singular persona in these poems who is an obvious extension of the life of Mark Levine. Some of the poems have a Frank O’Hara feel to them, in the way they place a persona in some kind of (largely speaking) neighborhood. There is also a New York School familiarity in the characters, yet we don’t know if they are real or invented. Capitalism takes up Charles Olson’s critique against an economic system that damages the individual (not that Olson was the only one to make this charge); Olson also wove historical elements into poetry. Levine’s work also shows influence of Language Poetry in its disjunctive nature; however, the poems in later books Enola Gay and The Wilds reflect more of a trend toward the lack of narrative and summary.
Work Song is a poem that echoes of John Berryman’s Dream Songs. In Work Song, the persona is Henri, a French version of Henry, just as impulsive. Sabrina Orah Mark asks, “Who, after all, is Henri if not Berryman’s Henry started up again, like a sputtering machine, at the end of the twentieth century?” (37). As in Dream Songs, the identity of the persona shifts, dream-like, begins with a strong first-person voice and imperative: “My name is Henri. Listen. It is morning.” Then Henri refers to himself in the third person: “It’s easy to replace a child./Like my parent’s child, Henri.” Then Henri takes on non-human forms: “I am a zipper. A paper cut…I am confetti.” Then Henri is outside of himself, looking on, “I am an astronaut/waving from my convertible at Henri.” Then he makes a commentary on the Henri he sees: “Henri from Toulouse, is that you?/Why the unhappy face? I should shoot you/for spoiling my parade. Come on, man,/put yourself together!” (An interesting thing to say to someone with a fragmented identity. Parallels Berryman’s narrator remarking on grouchy Henry). Then the persona explodes, back into one voice of Henri who embodies history, religion, tradition, witness, accomplishment, sexuality, objectification, obsolescence:
My name is Henri. I am Toulouse. I am scraps
of bleached parchment, I am the standing militia,
a quill, the Red Cross, I am the feather
in my cap, the Hebrew Testament, I am the World Court.
An electric fan blows
beneath my black robe. I am dignity itself.
I am an ice machine.
I am an alp.
This rings of Dream Songs Of 1826:
I am the enemy of the mind,
I am the auto salesman and love you.
I am a teenage cancer, with a plan.
I am the black-out man.
I am the woman powerful as a zoo. (Berryman 103)
It is also hard to resist conjuring up Henri Toulouse-Lautrec in Work Song; besides the obvious name references there is a synchronicity in a socially marginalized character painting the seamy side of things in garish colors, in using color and image to produce illusion: “I live in Toulouse, which is a piece of cardboard./Summers the mayor paints it blue, we fish in it.”
Compared to Levine’s subsequent books, the idea of persona was particularly cultivated in Debt. Levine writes that
in writing my first book, Debt, I experienced as a liberating gesture the assumption of persona… I insisted on placing my speaker in what felt like a specific place and a specific moment, and I tended to activate some kind of narrative to guide my way through the poem. (“Statement” 28 )
If we as readers experience either a sense of discovery or an unresolved disorientation in these poems, we are fulfilling Levine’s plan – a kind of unintentional unintentionality. In an interview with Srikanth Reddy, Levine notes,
It always surprises me (and sometimes worries me) to realize, long after the fact, how little aware I am—or how ill-informed I am—of what my preoccupations are when I’m writing, and how very partial is my understanding and command of what I’m saying…It may not be very respectable to admit to being clueless about what could be considered very fundamental questions of subject matter in poetry, but that’s how it is for me…It troubles me a bit that, as poets, we seem to be required to pretend that everything we put in poems emerges from a very supportable rationale… But why, with all the hand-wringing poetry talk out there—our own, no doubt, included—are there some matters that, it seems, are very rarely aired…? Embarrassing questions, like: How much do you know what your poem is about when you’re writing it? Do you know who is speaking? Do you know what the situation is? Do you know what your themes are? When you get right down to it: Do you know what is happening—what is going on—in your poem when you are writing it? I don’t know about you, Chicu, but I’d often be lying if I answered most of these questions in the affirmative. I don’t even want to be able to say “yes.” If I could, I’d wonder why I was writing a poem. (jubilat 24)
Even when Levine is speaking as Levine the writer, the ideas shift; he does not decide whether or not he wants to completely know what his poems are about. Earlier in the interview, Levine tells Reddy of the importance and authenticity of uncertainty in contemporary poetics. We, the readers, experience the poems in Debt in this fluctuating way of perceiving. We are drawn in to the immediacy by the use of “I” and “you,” we may have in common with the personae psychological experiences of alienation, disappointment, revulsion, memory, as well as any cultural references of Europe or Judaism, the common experiences of work, family, illness, death. We experience the poems through the body’s perception as well. These personae and their voices and attributes are the anchoring force in an often unclear and unresolved narrative; for their uncertainty, they are, ironically, what give the poems their grip.
Berryman, John. Selected Poems. Kevin Young, ed. 2004, Library of America: New York.
Levine, Mark. “Interview With Mark Levine.” Srikanth Reddy. jubilat,13 (2007).
Levine, Mark. “Poetics Statement.” American Poets in the 21st Century. Claudia Rankine & Lisa Sewell, eds. 2007, Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, CT.
Levine, Mark. Debt. 1993, William Morrow: New York.
Mark, Sabrina Orah. “Mark Levine’s Poetics of Evidence.” American Poets in the 21st Century. Claudia Rankine & Lisa Sewell, eds. 2007, Wesleyan University Press: Middletown, CT.