I eagerly awaited my advanced review copy of Dana Levin’s fourth book, Banana Palace, after talking to an enthusiastic intern at Copper Canyon about it a year ago and finding out it was all about apocalypse. Apocalypses have been one of my own pet poetry topics for a while, not just in writing, but in reading, so I was very excited that Levin was going to tackle the end times. Where her last book, Sky Burial, investigated the rituals of death and dying, Banana Palace celebrates the uncertainty of our times, involving some of my favorite things: pop culture, technology, mutation, and eschatology.
And I’ll say right up front I’m a big fan of speculative poetry, which is how I would classify this book. I belong to an organization called the Science Fiction Poetry Association, for goodness’ sake. So, if a book has robots, time-travel, aliens/spaceships, or obscure scientific references, I’m pretty much on board. And this book definitely veers away from safe, quarantined “poetry subjects” to take on things like futuristic dystopias, digital immortality and the science of banana cells.
Levin’s book is delightfully wacky in places (in one poem, a speaker performs such acts as breathing and digestion for a futuristic talk show where such things have become exotic) and somber in others. The title, “Banana Palace” feels like it was meant to invoke the ridiculous; the cover art, “Fractal Galaxy” by Silver Sky, is awe-inducing in its swirling space imagery. This juxtaposition is a good indication of what to expect in these poems—the Aeneid, Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” Facebook, legendary Mayan women, and the art house apocalypse film Melancholia all share space in Levin’s pages.
The style of the poems, sometimes spare, sometimes sprawling and often stuffed full of ruminations and digressions that make the poems veer into unexpected territory, doesn’t fall into conventional rectangles—long lines and short lines alike take up space. moving the eye around the page. The book is broken into three sections, the first and third of which are collections of comparatively short poems, the second of which consists of one long poem in numbered parts, called “En Route.”
A few poems into the first section, “Morning News” begins with the very promising lines: “We were mutants, we were being/ put into groups.” These are poems unafraid of the odd and the imaginative. In “Dmitry Itskov: A Cento” a tech billionaire envisions how to make himself immortal through computer technology, “decoupling the mind from the needy human body.” This idea of the broken and frail body is a theme that runs throughout the book, particularly in the longer poem “Urgent Care” where the speaker notes the dehumanization of human medical care:
“Urgent Care. That was pretty
multivalent. As in:
We really need you to take care of this.
We really need you
to care for this.
To care about this. We really need you…”
The long poem “En Route” that comprises the middle section is the least narrative of any in the book, some of the numbered and titled pieces consisting of apparent snippets, online status updates, random utterances from strangers in the street. It also contains some really funny pieces, such as the first line of Part 2., “Office Hours”: “You changed your religious affiliation to FOOD,” and the last part, part 10:
“Mon semblable, —mon frere!
—inexplicable clown wig lurching away with a haul-swing of coats—”
In the third section, simple, smaller poems are presented next to larger multi-part poems. Here is “Fortune Cookie,” a nicely foreboding short snippet of poem:
“You will never get death
out of your system.”
This is followed by the longer title poem, “Banana Palace,” which begins by the speaker trying to explain Facebook to a non-specified post-apocalypse future listener:
“Mine was the era
of spending your time
______in town squares made out of air.
…sharing pictures of animals looking ridiculous—
trading portals to shoes, love, songs, news, somebody’s latest
______rabid cause: bosses, gluten bacon, God—”
Towards the end of the poem, the speaker’s mood turns to a gentle sort of mourning:
“Light! There was so much light!
It was hard to sleep…
We broke the world
you’re living in,
…There came a time
I couldn’t look at trees without
_____feeling elegiac – as if nature
were already over…”
There were times I wished that Levin had extended herself further into these poems. Where she turns elliptical, sometimes I wish she’d swerved towards clarity; where she moves into generalities, I wish she’d invested in specifics. (Because who doesn’t want to read more specifics about imagined apocalyptic futures? Nobody, that’s who!) But maybe that’s personal taste. After all, Levin’s language play, big ideas and innovative forms are all parts of her charm as a writer.
Though Banana Palace may include terrifying and terrible things, ecological disasters and futuristic dystopias, it’s a playful rather than oppressively dismal take on the end of the world. Life may, in fact, go on, as is indicated in the last poem, “At the End of My Hours,” where she mentions steak frites, Klonopin, chocolate…and despite the fact that “order failed/ and dogs then people starved in char I remembered/ an extraordinary peace…” The very last lines are “whirling around my cave/ trying to conjure peaches”, indicating hope for a future generation that might not remember that fruit, a memory of the delights, as well as the despairs, of the physical and sensual.
This adventurous, enjoyable book—Levin’s most ambitious yet—should be celebrated for its vivid and compelling portrayal of the betrayals of the human body and the bleak possibilities of the future of our broken world. Definitely one of my favorite books of the year, and a must-read for fans of Levin’s work or fans of speculative poetry, or poetry that dares to go outside the careful confines of the typical.
Photograph of Dana Levin © Anne Staveley.