One of the qualities I admire in Santa Fe poet Dana Levin’s work is her willingness to address difficult issues head on. In “Moo and Thrall,” the speaker of the poem goes looking for coffee and walks straight into a graphic anti-abortion demonstration. Thematically, the poem weighs avoidance and confrontation, the status of rationality and information in an age of spectacle, and women’s rights and the omnipresent patriarchy. It’s a difficult feat Levin accomplishes here, to enter
a politicized situation and address the politics of it without slighting the human needs at play. "Who am I to judge / what another person needs," she muses at first. Then she feels the intrusiveness of the whole "carnival of death": "Who am I to have to pay / attention—" Then she tries the long view: "death was always ho-humming it." And yet these particular deaths among the multitudes of others are the focus of attention.
But not everyone is on board. One woman has scrawled "in girlish curlicue," a phrase that characterizes the girl's bravery and outrage in a single stroke, "Get Your Fucking Hands / Off My Body." And there's a counter-demonstration across the quad, where "the rational young" "offer … info." But, Levin writes, "they couldn't compete / with lunchtime Grand Guignol." With this comparison of the antiabortion demonstration with the Grand Guignol, Levin quietly opens a door into the human psyche. The Grand Guignol was, after all, a theater that exploited the human fascination with horror and gore.
Could it be that fascination is at the root of this particular demonstration? Could there be some deep connection? She drops the subject, though, or leaves it open, with an enigmatic dash.
The poet's greatest challenge when navigating a politically-charged subject is to remember, as Stéphane Mallarmé once said, that poems are made of words, not ideas. Levin attends to nuanced language throughout. Thus, we get the surprising "one still latched to the cord," the "kill-display," the "free speech board" made of "white butcher paper," and the title phrase, "moo and thrall"—"moo" suggesting passive herd behavior and "thrall" alluding to the complex power relationships that underpin the scene. Reading these phrases, I am reminded of the philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who claimed that poetry's calling was "to render speech unforeseeable."
Readers often challenge explications, like this one, of a poem's craft. "Oh, come on," they say, "the poet could not have done that intentionally." But intention is beside the point. Did Michael Jordan, in one of basketball's most iconic moments, intend to begin the layup with his right hand, pull it down and shoot it with his left instead, defying logic and gravity? No, but it also was not an accident. The skills and instincts honed on the practice court made it possible. So it is with a poet's craft.
Though the voice in "Moo and Thrall" seems conversational, that's an illusion maintained through conscious—and unconscious—craft. Levin, for example, begins with two six syllable lines, the second of which, with that multisyllabic "spectacularly," seems like it might not be poetry at all, but that second line is an exact mirror of the first, metrically speaking, making it, in this context, musical.
Levin's rhythmic pleasures and surprises are often strategic. In the line "Just-dead flesh-babies twelve feet high," all but one syllable is accented, miming the visual assault on the speaker's sensibilities. This is followed by the jaunty— and haunting—nursery rhyme rhythms of "Monkey-head strapped in a test contraption." Rhymes and near-rhymes contribute to a garish irony: "trapped / contraption / caption." There is plenty more one might say about the manipulation of rhythms: the three accented syllables of "free speech board," for example, that get mirrored in the concluding stanza, "YOU / ARE / LOVED." Which circles us back to thematic concerns. What is the tone of those last "smeared" lines? How do they resolve the speaker's dilemma?
Santa Fe Reporter