Issue 1 – Winter 2001 – Kathleen Washburn on Dana Levin (Review)

Of Scalpels, Angels and “Miraculous Healing”

Dana Levin, In the Surgical Theatre. American Poetry Review. 81pp. $14.00

With the distilled power of incantation, Dana Levin’s first collection In the Surgical Theatre recalls the graphic iconography of the Catholic saints: bodies posed and pierced with neat precision, the mournful eyes gazing skyward, away from indifferent cruelties, and the attendant angels marking the limits of pain. In a refrain of anguish, these fervent poems repeatedly reenact scenes of flesh, blood and spirit in search of a moment—any moment—of transformation. Yet Levin rejects the holy gore and mute resignation central to this standard tableau of suffering—and resists any simple configuration of pain as the crude means to revelation or redemption. Instead, these harrowing poems grapple with the terrible chaos of living and marvel at the wonder of surviving “the exhausting round of wounding and healing.” Seeking the transmutation of the spirit—or perhaps just a glimpse of wholeness—Levin unravels the sinews of the body to lay bare the rough mechanisms of what can be felt but not seen. These poems eviscerate with a “furious rapture,” only to discover “hearts beating / with ambivalence.” With a vision that is stark and unflinching, this grim and beautiful book traces the relentless struggle of “the visible and invisible clashing together.”

Selected by Louise Glück as the recipient of the 1999 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize, In the Surgical Theatre is impelled forward by an accumulated intensity, a feverish attention to disassembling and reassembling, slicing open and stitching together, wounding and healing. Central to the collection’s fierce vision is a muted horror at the body’s vulnerability to pain—to being cut, broken, shattered. Organized around the central image of the surgical theatre as “spot-lit stage,” Levin animates bodies and spirits in a world made strange by interpenetrating forces, hovering in the moment between annihilation and transformation. This world operates within a glare of suffering that is both inescapable and unbearably impersonal. For Glück, this ambiguity is manifested as “healing that looks like assault.” In “The Baby on the Table,” the speaker regards such manipulations of the body with wonder and a rush of anticipation:

                                 Will they do it? Will they dip their hands
                 into the light?
                                 Will they fish out its heart, its lungs, its soul
                 like an aspirin, lifting it bloodless
                 from the milky white?

Yet the hypnotic lure of this methodical and anonymous violence is invariably shaded with fear:

                                 in a circle of light—when will they lower

                 the kiss, the fist, the sharpened
                                scalpel, the angels
                 are waiting, calm, impassive, the emanations 
                                of science
                 in each white face— 
                                Can you help me sew up
                 what they’re about to open? Can you feel
                                the chill of the table
                 on your own small back?

In Levin’s pulsing world, things visceral, mechanical and ephemeral often become indistinguishable, so that “soft machines inhale, exhale” by drip-bags “heavy as flowers,” and the peeled-back layers of the patient’s body seem to breathe, “fluttering as veils over the solid.” With an anatomist’s eye, Levin thus fashions poems that are at once aggressively physical and curiously disembodied. Here unseen bacteria swarm over bodies living and dead, angels bump up against the surgeon’s knife and scars beckon with the promise of unrevealed knowledge:

                 If you’d listened to me before you’d know what I was saying.
                 You’d know that I was saying

                 the upraised scalpel, a glint in the light.
                 The upraised scalpel, the brush of a wing, invisible.

                 Because I have this compulsion, to lift the shirt over my distended belly,
                 to show you the scars.

                 Like a revealed religion, the cross, the x, slicing into the skin,
                 Ave doctorus, Ave angelus, white caps floating like wings on the air—

                 Reach in.

Whether dissecting fear, fury or longing, Levin asks not who only who can be saved—and by whom—but what does it mean to be wounded, reassembled, scarred? What changes are wrought through the forces of will or desire?

Levin grounds her poems in a visceral struggle of bodies that are pulsing, bleeding, and intensely alive at the brink of dying. Yet nowhere is this refusal to sanctify individual suffering more evident than in the pervasive image of indifferent angels that crowd at the edges of blood and bone, intent upon some silent task. Moth-like, oblivious to human torments of body or spirit, they perch in the interstices of known experience: “In the moment between / the old heart and the new / two angels gather at the empty chest.” Dutiful as insects, they flutter incessantly, “alighting,” “falling around” and “settling in drifts” until finally this whir of motion becomes “a roar of angels swarming over the body, burrowing headfirst / into every pore.” Like the white blur of nurses gliding among cold rooms, these are not ministering angels. And, as in the title poem, they offer neither judgment nor comfort:

                               in orange fire, the angels turning
                  to face you poised at the hole’s
                               brink, their eyes in flames, in sprays of blood
                  their wings beating
                               against the steel wedge prying open the rib cage, is it
                               for you? Are they protecting 

This dual sense of hope and doubt, of possibility marked by uncertainty, is interwoven throughout this tightly drawn collection. Divided into three sections—”Body,” “Home” and “World”—In the Surgical Theatre oscillates between desire and dissolution in a brutal paradox: “I don’t want / to feel, but can’t bear / not feeling.” The first section investigates the integrity of the body, ranging in focus from the impersonal ministrations of the embalming process in “Lenin’s Bath” to the anonymous sexual encounters of “Bathhouse, 1980” and the surgical excision of the heart in the book’s title poem. Brimming with questions and demands, Levin’s poetic rhythms shift quickly and easily from a shout of astonishment to the pleading tones of entreaty or quiet imperative. This urgent tone also pervades the second section, which interrogates the pull of “Home” as both self-discovery and self-destruction. In “Wind,” memory and emotion are condensed in unadorned language that invokes biblical rhythms:

                  My house was a house of winds
                  and my father was of the wind
                  and we were of the earth
                  and we were torn by him,
                  we were stripped by him,
                  by the bellows of his body,

Here, a father’s rage replaces the surgeon’s knife, and this elemental force resounds in stripped-down lines that build momentum with the compressed accumulation of verb forms:

                  …so I ran out to the field
                  and opened my arms, the flayed skin of my coat
                  rippling behind me, the voice of my sister,
                  calling my name, as I streamed out like a flag
                  into the currents and felt the wind slam 
                  into all of my sockets, and stood like a stick 
                  and was whittled to pieces,

It is the intensity of Levin’s sustained vision that gives the collection its stunning power. Indeed, her poetry is most successful when it is most ambitious, both in voice and substance. On the rare occasion that this animating force gives way to more circumscribed reflections, as in “Power,” the focus seems bounded and small in comparison. By the final section “World,” Levin extends her imaginative reach to more overtly political encounters. With an enduring (and perhaps desperate) faith in the possibility of “miraculous healing,” this book accomplishes what few collections can: it forges an explicit poetry of witness that encompasses the intensely personal as well as the insistently worldly.

Dana Levin’s In the Surgical Theatre proclaims a fierce vision with singular intensity. It is no wonder that for Glück this “prophetic voice” hearkens back to the dense power of Blake or the Old Testament. Like a Greek seer, Levin reads the spirit in the exposed entrails of the body, a divination that unites graphic physicality with the most ephemeral of desires. Calibrated in degrees of pain, this collection plumbs the depths of felt experience, but refuses to indulge the self-serving impulse to cast human suffering in noble terms. As the wild and beautiful force of “Hive” illustrates, exposing damage is not enough to explain it:

                  Climb up, part
                                     your shattered chest like a veil, and lick
                  at the honey
                                     welling over your bones—
                  It has nothing to do with your happiness,
                                     or grief.

For Levin, to be wounded is not to be saved, to be scarred is not to be chosen, to be hurt is not to be transformed. Instead of release, escape or purification, such suffering is its own dreadful event. Fusing sorrow and wonder in a terrible and transcendent vision, these poems are pulsing, ecstatic and carefully wrought. Brutal, ardent and wildly alive, In the Surgical Theatre is a stunning debut.


Kathleen Washburn is pursuing a Ph.D. in American literature at the University of California in Los Angeles. She received her M.A. from North Carolina State University, where she wrote on figures of travel in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Derek Walcott.