I’m listening to The Smiths as I read through Lauren Levin’s debut poetry collection, The Braid. The poems brim with pop cultural references, much of them retro because the author’s motherhood led her to relive her own childhood in the 1980s:
Alejandra sits on my lap
and eats my cereal with me, dipping her spoon in and out
I quickly try to eat the blueberries before she gets them all
I am more
of a time-traveler. In that my emotions of parenting
Are like the forgotten emotions of my childhood
piercing, loud, constant, stirring
dissolute and selfish, self- and world-dissolving
For the most part, The Braid is composed of long-lined, whole-sentence tercets, although some sentences fray at the end, without a full-stop. The book is a patchwork of nine poems, with lines that run from one thought into the next. In “The Lens,” Levin mentions Dream Boys and Bastards from Hell, which leads me to think about British post-punk, which springboards into a mental list of all the things I refused to pay attention to growing up. I’m stubborn, y’all, and as a kid the best way to get me to do something was to tell me not to do it. This stubborn streak is how I came very late to the party where the Smiths are playing — which is to say that, for anyone who lived through the ’80s, these poems will take you back with them.
As it turns out, dogged stubbornness is a fitting characteristic for readers of this book, which weaves a complex tapestry of refusals. Take, for example, its Melissa-Febos-like refusal to choose between the body and intellectualism. On a recent panel about confessional writing, Febos, whose book Whip Smart chronicled her time as a professional dominatrix, declared, “If I’m writing something about my period, it doesn’t mean that I’m not an intellectual. I can be totally intellectual about my period. I can write an intellectual essay about my navel or a whole book about my period.” Levin’s book is living proof of Febos’s conviction, replete with the reality of that body, which holds onto its period for nine months. It contains an anxious body that lusts after its husband while growing another body within it — “my body fundraising somewhere down there.” It contains an adult body falling asleep next to a baby’s body; a breastfeeding body; the body symbolizing a storefront; and “the pain I feel continuing in these registers… a cash register of emotion.” It is stocked with the experience of a woman’s embodiment and it’s intellectual as hell. Take, for example, this short braided strand from the title poem, “The Braid,” which includes Reaganomics, a philosophical and Marxist configuration of time, an epistle, and a list of things one teaches a child:
A love that comes close to the world seems hard to imagine
or a late style while the baby is still young
When I was having uterine bleeding I wouldn’t write in red or wear pink underwear
I’m writing as fast as I can because I’ll never have much time left to write
I’m writing in and out because I don’t know how else to weave
Alli said if I don’t know what to do then write a letter —
Dear Sean Bonney, I came in late
You were celebrating Thatcher’s death day I thought of Killer Mike
(my favorite) I’m glad Reagan’s dead I felt secretive and inert
But also full of something beautiful and hectic I want to pour into her cup
Money accumulates as time it pours out buys other time
and the things I teach: Washing, cleaning, not going there, fish (wave hand), a cow says “Mmmmmm,”
Make a Y, put your hand on your head for the cow’s horn
To build time, it goes on for a while, and with a settling in on fear
Reagan’s welfare axe on the cover of Time Magazine
Time has too much intake,
there’s no way to hold up structure long enough to build into it,
too much outflow. I curse at people while I’m pregnant […]
The free association here is thick, a style that conjures a chain, as though the author is hopping from link to link. A single poem, “The Diamond Skull,” references Terminator 2, ACT-UP and David Wojnarowicz, Jeff Koons, and Marie Antoinette. Over the course of The Braid it becomes clear that her associations are less linear than circular. The strands of thought keep doubling back with so much density to their shape that the braid is discernible to the reader only with some distance.
The braid — whose form is predicated on a return — is a reminder that the past is woven into the present. This leads to the second thread of refusal in Levin’s book: refusing the artifice of the pastoral, Levin continually picks apart pastoral representations as staged, in order to refute their enticements — as fake news. While our longing may be real, we’re misdirecting it: there is no going back to a better time. The narrator watches her own yearning for Gondor, which, she points out, is really New Zealand. She notices that her repeated use of “California” signals a romantic ideal more than a specific location, like “Richmond” or “El Cerrito,” would. Levin punctures the veil of idyllic nostalgia in the same way that the Language Poets attacked the artifice of the “I” in poems with a meditative structure.
Longing for the good ole days shows up in our present lives in pernicious ways. In the wake of the 2016 presidential campaign, it feels eerily prescient to read Levin’s critique of Reagan-era politics. She calls Reagan a “forgetful […] Blissed-out shepherd” while recounting his presidential visit to the Bitburg Cemetery in Germany where a large number of SS members were interred. Readers may recognize our present era in these pages, which make visible white supremacist dog whistles and strains of neoliberalist thinking. “I started writing these poems to think about that phrase / ‘a Reagan childhood,’” the poem “Return of the King” declares.
And what does the author conclude? That while the “old days” may not have been so good, they also aren’t gone. Like the graves of SS soldiers in the background of a ceremonial tribute to heroism and sacrifice in WWII, specters of the past and repercussions from it continue to thread themselves into the present. In a sense, Levin’s weaving of Reaganomics, childhood, parenthood, and an undead, pastoral return seems a close cousin to Joyelle McSweeney’s formulation of the necropastoral. The Braid reminds us that the pastoral gaze is a living grave inside every one of us.