You May Say Fist, You May Say Teeth

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The unsentimental and honest display of Levin’s attitudes towards loss – her own losses as well the ways that others grieve their lost loved ones – is both moving and strangely distancing, as if by holding her emotions to the cold light of language itself the writer might obliterate them.

Dana Levin’s third book, Sky Burial, takes us on a virtual tour of responses to death, from human sacrifice to scientific interest in decaying corpses, from mythology about the River Styx to Buddhist temple offerings for lost babies. “Sky burial” is an elegant phrase that refers to a rather gruesome Tibetan burial ritual, that of flaying human bodies and feeding them to vultures and other predatory birds as a practical alternative to burying dead bodies in the unforgiving Tibetan rocky terrain. The attitudes of different cultures towards death, dying, and the body are examined in this collection of poems which echo the title – an elegant set of words about the grislier realities of human death rituals. The unsentimental and honest display of the writer’s attitudes towards loss – her own losses as well the ways that others grieve their lost loved ones – is both moving and strangely distancing, as if by holding her emotions to the cold light of language itself the writer might obliterate them:

And the poets say,
        You may not admit to bone or flesh, you must not have nerves
                in the tips of your fingers—

        You may say fist, you may say teeth, but you must not
                put them in a sentence
        together, you must not put them
                in a body

In an interview with the Kenyon Review, Levin said that she wrote this book after suffering several losses in quick succession, her mother and father in one year, and then a few years later, her sister. After Levin’s Wedding Day, her fascinating second book about the fusion between aesthetic and emotion, the poems in Sky Burial feel more open, less self-conscious, more spacious, in both a literal and figurative space. Trying to wrestle with themes of death and religion while confined in poetic form seems to force space into her lines, into her poems. The poems themselves invoke the recurring spaces between things: between worlds, between liquid and solid, death and birth, this world and the next.

What I like most about the poems that explore the mythologies of other cultures, peoples, and religions is the way they shed insight on the writer’s particular suffering. In “Zozo-Ji,” Levin describes entering a web site of a Buddhist temple in Japan for lost babies and aborted children, the incongruities of “Hello Kitty” decorations and pinwheels left by grieving mothers in the beautiful garden, the combination of technology and ancient ritual that allows her to “visit” the temple via the net. Her note on “Zozo-Ji” at the end of the book describes the Japanese idea of the “Floating World,” a land between death and life, the subconscious and the conscious. “Zozo-Ji” grapples with the spare aesthetic of grief in Japanese poetry, the imagistic leap that allows the unspoken to linger in the word-pictures of bird, river, cliff.

            One cry from a lone bird over a misted river
      is the expression of grief,
            in Japanese. Let women
      do what they need.
            And afterward knit a red cap, pray—

…When her lord asked her again how it died, she said
      as an echo off the cliffs of Kegon.

It’s a touching moment that allows both for real sorrow and absurdity, for an internet memorial to become transcendent. Levin’s desire to reach out into the traditions of other cultures is a testament to her drive to create a mosaic of spiritual understanding of mortality, of what to do with the body, of how to make sense of the inevitable losses we sustain.

In the final poem of the book, Levin’s gaze turns back to American culture and its celebration and denial of death, in “Spring.” The poem discusses the scientific study at the University of Tennessee of the life cycle of insects with human corpses: “What to harvest/ from the sloughed off suits of the dead.” While this may not seem like a cheerful note to end on, it is surprisingly life-affirming, this attention to the stubborn buzz of life within the cycle of death.


Jeannine Hall Gailey served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She is the author of five books of poetry, including her her most recent, Field Guide to the End of the World, winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize and the SFPA’s Elgin Award. She’s also the author of PR for Poets. Her website is www.webbish6.com and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @webbish6. More from this author →