The Last Book I Loved: Re-reading Dana Levin’s Banana Palace in 2019

By

In 2016, Dana Levin’s Banana Palace announced itself as a book that was deeply skeptical and playfully amused with certain mechanisms of modern life, specifically overreaching technology and the American fascination with advancement and development. The book imagines worlds of ecological crisis and technological infringements, and reviews of the book heralded Levin’s poems as thought-provoking hyperboles of modern times. Now, a mere three years later, we have experienced one of America’s strangest elections, numerous devastating climate reports, shocking data breaches, investigations into social-media related scandals, and an aggressive ideological shift that prioritizes power and prosperity over justice, sustainability, and equality. In the context of the these developments, the poems in Banana Palace appear disturbingly less hyperbolic and thought-provoking and significantly more prophetic and cautionary. What appeared first as imagination and conceit has materialized as reality, and we have come to live in a world resembling speculative literature. In such a context, Dana Levin’s particular apocalypses deserve another look.

Banana Palace takes readers to the other side of civilization, scrambling to make sense of a world marred by famine, struggle, and existential pointlessness. More than simply being about disaster, though, Levin’s poems embrace apocalypse as a recurring conceit through which to productively recast our present circumstances. Reading the book when it first came out, I enjoyed its numerous imagined apocalypses much in the same way I enjoy the novels of Jeff VanderMeer—abstractly and as a thoughtful spectator.

That is to say, three years ago Levin’s ends of the world seemed to me something very interesting to think about. Although at the time I was transitioning to a vegan diet for ecological reasons (I have a distinct memory of reading Levin’s poem “Murray My,” about the things we destroy to feed ourselves, and feeling I had not been productive enough to earn my hunger), I had not given serious thought to an actual end of the world. I admit that my own lack of apocalyptic ideation stemmed partially from an aloof and uninformed stance, but in the years since Banana Palace’s publication, I have often found myself returning to these poems with fear and trembling.

Aloofness or no, recent years have piled up entire stacks of evidence, all of which seem to make overwhelmingly clear the fact that human-made disaster is both possible and impending. Rereading Levin’s book in 2019, in the wake of numerous frightful Climate Reports (like this one from the Global Change Research Program and this one from the International Panel on Climate Change) as well as a number of ecological disasters, the poems take on a sense of urgency, vision, and immediacy. In a similar way, as 2019 continues to expose the ideological and existential threats of Big Data and virtual personhood, Banana Palace rings out with tales of caution, befuddlement, and change. Although Levin’s book does not predict actual events, such as the Cambridge Analytica data breach, its concern for our cultural tendency to willingly commodify our personalities and ideas puts the scandal into a shocking context. Research and exposure to the sources and expedients of climate change have re-orchestrated Levin’s poems in my mind, shifting what I read as poetic conceit in 2016, to genuine concern and fear today.

Such is the experience of rereading books written by visionary and insightful people, and such is the experience of rereading Banana Palace. Revisiting the book, one might become overwhelmed with the stark and prophetic depictions of human error and the extent to which consumerism has altered our relationships to ourselves and the world around us. At the same time, a reader attuned to Levin’s genuine optimism and wonder might find in Banana Palace positive alternatives to the status quo that has been the cause to the effect we are experiencing. While consumer capitalism encourages us to conceive of the natural world (if we conceive of it at all) as an infinitely exploitable resource, Levin forces us to see it more accurately as the beautiful and tragically disappearing miracle it is. While more and more Americans forfeit the complexity of their human identities in favor of simpler, prefabricated labels offered by social media and other technological presences, Levin forces us to embody our conflicting and overlapping selves and exist somewhere between known and knowing. In 2019, Banana Palace resurfaces as a guidebook on living through our trying times with one’s humanity intact.

 

“you changed your religious affiliation to food”

One apocalyptic subtopic of particular interest to me is Banana Palace’s fascination with the essential human process of hunger—“eating to live to kill to eat.” Having worked on small, organic farms for much of my adult life, I believe food is one way we connect to the natural world. Nonetheless, reading Banana Palace in 2016, many of Levin’s deeply pragmatic concerns regarding famine and food production registered to me as metaphor and hyperbole. “At the End of My Hours,” for example, is spoken from the other end of an ecological disaster, after “the bees collapsed and the sea rose up / to say Fuck you.” The people who remain are “perplexed by how it hadn’t been / unfailingly compatible, our / being numerous,” despite, we might imagine, numerous reasonable warnings about the Earth’s dwindling resources. In this post-disaster world, Levin’s speaker is left pitifully remembering a world “where you could stand in market aisles / still expecting cherries”; where you had “the privilege / of being left alone with bread to eat / and famous butter ‘the chefs use.’”

Although the real possibility of this imagined deprivation was not exactly clear to me in 2016, there is no denying today that the American diet is unsustainable, even for the aloof and uninformed such as me. Meat and dairy products—staples of the American diet—are among the worst culprits in terms of carbon emissions. American eaters have an unmatched hunger for meat, and industrial meat farms, which use high amounts of fossil fuels and contaminate local water sources, place enormous strains on ecological systems, and exacerbate the mechanisms of climate change that have made food growing more and more difficult (for more information, see this report on the effects of industrial farming). In the face of the IPCC Climate Report, for example, which predicts millions of people plunged into extreme poverty “mostly through impacts on agriculture and food prices,” imagining a world in which the average American cannot expect to buy fruit at the store might be closer to reality than readers might initially expect.

In some of the hunger poems, Levin seems simply to imagine, as clearly and unromantically as possible, what the future might hold for us. When Levin’s speaker finds herself in an improvised rescue shelter “next to a woman who grew food from her skin,” as she does in “Morning News,” there is no sense of imaginative overindulgence. Rather, Levin’s ecological fears and warnings strike a tone of reality and believability unmatched elsewhere in the conversation around climate change. Compared to the doomsday rhetoric scientists and news reporters have resorted to when describing climate change, Levin’s poems read simply and matter-of-factly. It is impossible not to notice the urgency the discourse on climate change has taken on in 2018 and 2019, with headlines prophesying “catastrophe” and “crisis” a mere fifteen years in the future. Things have even gotten so turned around, it seems, that teenagers have shouldered the burden of showing their parents a more rational and informed way forward, and are leading protests, giving TED Talks, and being nominated for Nobel Peace Prizes. Against the backdrop of an everyday apocalypse, then, Levin’s poems speak to us because they provide exacting and visionary depictions of our hard-to-grasp cultural fears.

In Banana Palace, though, hunger is not merely the mechanism of our self-destruction; it is also the means of our spiritual actualization. For example, the figure of the butcher empowers and validates the speaker in “The Living Teaching.” As one acquainted with the particulars of slaughter and food making, the speaker demands a certain level of respect and attention. The reader is powerless to do anything but witness the depth and breadth of the speaker’s appetite as “bakeries of the cities fall” and then “the silos / on every farm, the rice // from the paddy fields, the fruit / from all the orchard trees.” Following the butcher’s practice as a spiritual guide, the speaker unashamedly quarters and destroys entire bits of the world in her process of being and becoming.

In a similar way, the speaker of “Murray, My” learns stark lessons in hunger from a “teacher-beast” cat. In a clever inversion of a common cat trope, Levin wonders if the reader would “hesitate to eat your cat / in the new extreme / of flood and flame.” Again and again in these poems, Levin forces us to realize that the human capacity for self-preservation is almost always greater than the capacity for love. How else to describe our impulse for survival than to admit, “no matter how much / I loved the world, to hunger / was to be / a destroyer”? Furthermore, Levin’s willingness to enact and participate in the existential contradiction of killing to live, rather than merely condemning it as human folly, adds layers of depth and resonance to her voice.

Given that the cultural conversation around climate change tends to downplay, undercut, or flat out deny the facts, Levin’s clear-eyed stare-down with the repercussions of human behavior strikes a refreshing balance between two poles. It is difficult to convince some people that climate change and ecological destruction will actually change the way we live in the world. The very issues of overpopulation and dwindling resources have been heralding attention for more than one hundred years, yet people are reluctant to respond to the numerous warnings because day after day, the world still exists as it did the day before, and day after day, we rejoice in our ignorance of it. A marvelous thing about Levin’s poems in Banana Palace is that they delight in this foolishly optimistic human tendency even as they caution against it: they warn us of ecological ruin without mincing words and also embrace wonder and astonishment.

And yet, in Banana Palace Levin deftly avoids proselytizing. Instead, she offers a full-fledged examination of what it is we are and what that means for the life around us without tending toward pessimistic nihilism. If anyone finds themselves—like me—oversaturated in sugarcoated stimuli and looking for a way back into their bodies, Banana Palace’s prophetic accounting of life in the current moment is a surreal guidebook on being a body, in the best way possible.

“Go make technology happy”

Adjacent to Levin’s attention of ecological concerns is her bemused descriptions of technological landscapes and the way they alter human relations to self and each other. On first read, I was struck by how Banana Palace imagines a future world where bodies become obsolete. Many of the poems, for example, attempt to document and explain what it meant to be an embodied spirit, surrounded by other embodied spirits. “Talk Show” imagines a carnival freak-show style interview where the speaker is asked prodding questions about what it means to eat and breathe. Audience members ooh and ahh at the speaker’s limbs and the fact that she can use them to stand up. Again, on first read, these poems didn’t reek of prophecy, but instead blended in with a number of other witty and cutting commentaries on technology in the modern world. Now, however, her technology poems seem frightening and cutting because they seem utterly possible.

In one example, Levin’s eerie conceptualization of disembodied existence rises not from science fiction, but from the actual world, as her poem “Dmitry Itskov: A Cento” demonstrates. Constructed almost entirely from statements published in two news articles, Levin’s poem imagines a world where “decoupling the mind from the needy human body / could pave the way for a more sublime human spirit,” a world where

we’ll frequent ‘body service shops,’
choose our bodies from a catalogue, then
transfer our consciousness
to one better suited for life on Mars.

Dmitry Itskov himself is most famous for his 2045 Initiative, whereby he hopes to achieve cybernetic immortality by the year 2045, and in the context of such a goal, Levin’s imagined technological world seems unavoidably possible. In fact, I attended a conference less than a year ago where an elderly gentleman was paid to bemoan the existential implications of “uploading human consciousness to robot bodies.” My first and only reaction was to think back on Levin’s poems.

Also on the chopping block in Banana Palace is the problematic degree to which virtual reality accounts for and creates our spiritual and emotional identities. The collection’s title poem describes the experience of finding something beautiful on Facebook to an audience born after the technological apocalypse. If forced to explain our choices to an unaligned third party, how much of our life would seem utterly ridiculous? How much would seem astonishing? Forced into such a situation, Levin’s speaker describes social media, saying,

You invented a face
_____and moved it around, visited briefly
_____with other faces.

_____Thus we streamed
_____down lit screens

_____sharing pictures of animals looking ridiculous—

_____trading portals to shoes, love, songs, news, somebody’s latest
______________rabid cause: bosses, gluten, bacon, God—

Here, Levin captures both the absurdity and the beauty of our lives in a single gesture. What does it mean that the speaker’s sole cultural heirloom is this vapidly mundane experience of scrolling through Facebook? How much of our identity have we outsourced to processes of technologically induced consumption? Even as technology distorts and simplifies reality, it creates beautiful instances of discovery and possibility. When the moment of enlightenment comes after all, Levin’s speaker can’t help but be grateful for whatever socio-technological process brings a “cross section of banana under a microscope” to her unbelieving eyes. And what is more human than endangering the spiritual self and the natural world in the name of one day finding a beautiful thing amid the dross of social media feeds?

At this point, we’ve all experienced enough of our own technological absurdities to understand the extent to which the construction of digital identities has changed us. What is more interesting to me is the acutely amazed way Levin describes the process of our self-inflicted cyborgefication. “Urgent Care,” for example, describes a waiting room where one man collects CAPTCHA tests and responses while all patients imagine

each of [their] heads
fitting like a flash drive

into the port of the healer’s hands.

Despite the extent to which Levin stares, clear-eyed, at the climate and technological crises destroying our world and our attention spans, she remains utterly unwilling and unable to veer far from astonishment. Reading the collection, we get schooled on social and ecological degradation, yes. However, there is an equal— if not overwhelming—affirmation of truth and existence that makes the world we live in appear nearly hospitable. In searching my copy of Banana Palace’s prophetic cynicisms, I was surprised by refreshing poems like “Meanwhile” and “Moo and Thrall,” which find astonishment in everyday situations. And “A Debris Field of Apocalypticians—A Murder of Crows” suggests to us that hope is not obsolete, and the apocalypse will never quite extinguish human optimism. “Belief in God is not a disease,” Levin writes, even as we live “wheeled through an age of unpardonable crimes.” One way to reread Banana Palace is as an extended exploration for the “smudged / and swoony words that prove [us] human.” As a study in humanity, the book leaves no part of us unexamined, and exposes us as we are: damned and maybe holy.

Maybe my own relationship to Banana Palace illustrates an important way people engage with poetry. As many religious groups look to scripture to prophesy future events, a new generation of poetry readers expects poetry to advocate for and comment on the most immediate of our personal, political, and social concerns. And so, as the Earth aches with our many manipulations of it, we return again and again to our bookshelves, holding up the world we see to the worlds poets create with their words, comparing notes, and as always, keeping on.

In 2019, three years after its publication, Banana Palace positions itself uniquely at the center of some of civilization’s largest questions, and in rereading the book the necessity and relevance of Levin’s imagined apocalypses becomes immediately clear. Between one population shouting ecological warnings and one population calling bluff, Dana Levin appears, showing us the future we have likely created for ourselves. Without letting us off the hook for the damage we do to each other and the world around us, Levin is able to look at the world we make with astonishment and awe, insistent on remaining alert to beauty. In her hands, our future will be shaped by hubris and ignorance, but it will also be a future filled to the brim with foolish optimism and the hope

that [our] soul[s] might be allowed
_______to flourish—

Make a success
_______of threading flesh, to participate
again in time.


Wesley Sexton is an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and his reviews have been published in the Adroit Journal, Tupelo Quarterly, and Story South. More from this author →