Girl In Cap and Gown by Harriet Levin

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Filmgoers this year who saw the documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3-D (or not) entered the prehistoric Chauvet caves of Southern France in a stunning modern way. The labor to return to the stone womb felt transformative but untranslatable. The viewer lacked the keys to that kingdom. Questioning whether poetry is/has a door at all, I nevertheless went looking for a key into Harriet Levin’s new, second collection of poetry. There, I found her poem “Key,” and along the researching way, Colin John Holcombe, an impressive polymath living in Santiago, Chile. He explains, “Modernism is where we are now, broadly speaking, if we include Postmodernism and experimental poetry. Modernist poetry is the poetry written in schools and poetry workshops, published by thousands of small presses, and reviewed by serious newspapers and literary journals — a highbrow, coterie poetry that isn’t popular and doesn’t profess to be. To its devotees, Modernist styles are the only way of dealing with contemporary matters, and they do not see them as a specialized development of traditional poetry, small elements being pushed in unusual directions, and sometimes extended beyond the limits of ready comprehension.”

In a recent interview, Harriet Levin explained herself, “My poetry is hard to describe because it varies from book to book. I wrote my first book after grad school (University of Iowa Writers Workshop) so I guess I was responding to what I learned there and trying to subvert that in some way.” Her first book, The Christmas Show, was selected by Eavan Boland for a 1996 Barnard New Women Poet’s Prize and was a winner of the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award and a Grolier Prize; it was a Philadelphia Inquirer Notable Book. “My second book,” (A 2009 National Poetry Series finalist), “was written also as subversion, largely as a response to a reviewer of my first book, who said I should stop looking out through the ‘lens of rape.’” That criticism can’t be leveled at her new collection, whose perspectives are varied but unified by intense focus, much like the eyes of bees. Hive is a word that recurs, and the nervous energy of the poems gives the reader a non-alcoholic buzz.

Levin’s introductory selection of a quotation from Isaac Newton’s Principia directs a reader’s point of view: “in philosophical disquisitions, we ought to abstract from our senses, and consider things themselves, distinct from what are only sensible measures of them. For it may be that there is no body really at rest, to which the places and motions of others may be referred.” But I found among the poems in Girl In Cap and Gown the greatest charm in many invitations to reflect in tranquility, the title poem a case in point. Along with its persona of a young woman who resembles a murdered co-ed, you lose and regain yourself again.

I gasp…
What happens is
they put me in her place
at the bottom of a deep ravine.
I close my eyes. I hold my breath,
the possibility becoming next.
And then it stops,
and I come back.

The 38 poems are organized in three sections titled Girl in Cap and Gown, A Lens, and Survey of Debris. My favorite in the second grouping invokes Beowulf’s welcome by Hrothgar, its title Hine halig God/For ar-stafum us onsende, (Beowulf, ll. 382-383). This translates, “Blessed God out of his mercy this man hath sent,” and arises organically out of the poem in which the father’s love for this fragile boy mirrors Beowulf’s heroic/tragic narrative.

Alone with the boy
in the cabin all winter,
the wood creaking
and the fire crackling,
reading him to sleep
from the text
that as he worked on the translation,
clawing open steel-edged consonants
to slip in vowels,
words that grackle in Anglo-Saxon,
thud to the ground,
now hold the hush
of this father’s love for this fragile boy.
…He kissed the back
of the boy’s neck
before getting up
to throw another log on the fire,
smoothly rolling it
into the flames,
resisting the temptation
to let the fire die out
for the boy’s peace of mind.
…He pictures the boy
shaking snow from his hair
as if sensing death,
he did not want it
to touch him…

The ambiguity/double entendre of those masculine pronouns causes a full stop, the last lines inviting the experience of tranquil reflection. The evocation of the ancient poem and the use of turgid Anglo-Saxon diction achieve a temporal dimension for a reader’s inner eye which I enjoyed again in the crescendo-like poem “Vestigial” from the third section.

She slips on snow packed steps
rushing for the subway.
She zooms through tunnels,
goes through a dark time
emerges, then goes through it again,
creeping along, heavy enough to muffle thought,
the bitterness of clove,
the pungency of cardamom
and the coarseness of coriander,
traveling away from the dark soul
of the pot, cast iron with baked on drippings
of garlic cloves…

“In A Jam,” also from the last section, includes another show-stopping double entendre (so much depends upon a so):

The river is a miracle of attentiveness,
eyes and blood, wandering
through a passage so labyrinthine
grief is released,
unlike the place we inhabit
which stands so certain
with a door to lock
and a key to fit inside it.

And “Key,” at the end of Survey of Debris, turns out to be an imagist expression that feels as sprung and affirmative as the Gerard Manley Hopkins Birder that closely precedes it.

Through canopies of whirling woods,
whippoorwills, woodpeckers, warblers,
finches, cardinals, swallows stippled
at dusk, delight, stir,
rouse and rescue him in such
abundance, he will not fall.

Arm’s yield, body’s fit.
Let guilt not create
the opening.

Forced to turn. Stopped short.
Clasped in one hand.
Vines cut down to reveal
the dappled on.
I am waiting.
Sitting on rattan
among the scented,
focused on emptiness,
a single notch, a slit,
grooved, declivitous,
sliding into an intensity
that is neither unrepeated or

That Key sent me back inside the Chauvet cave all the way to Coleridge’s Xanadu, paved by Harriet Levin’s double negative affirmation of repeated, undiminished orgasmic pleasure in what remains & renews. From now on, we can also read the pronoun:

For s/he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

In 2009, L.S. Bassen was the winner of the Atlantic Pacific Press Drama Prize. She has won a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship, and over two decades has been published (poetry/fiction) in many lit magazines and zines. Recently moved from NYC to RI. She is a prizewinning, produced, and published playwright, and commissioned co-author of a WWII memoir by the Scottish bride of Baron Kawasaki. More from this author →