Jeff Alessandrelli reflects on the recent re-issue of Mark Levine’s Debt.
Mark Levine, Debt (Letter Machine Editions, 2018), 101pp.
In its preoccupation with persona and not-knowing – “I’d rather not know / what it is I’m doing” the speaker states in “Abstract Poem” – Mark Levine’s re-issued collection Debt (1993) seems an anomaly within American poetry in 2019. Authenticity and sense of self are highly prized in a multitude of contemporary poems and essays: certain readers long for an experience that eschews all manners of artifice. For such readers what rings true on the page should have some type of connection to the fingers typing the letters. For its part, though, Debt submits to its readers poetic experiences that are made more real by virtue of their being false, or at least suffused with imaginative half-truths. The license of such an authorial stance has its contemporary detractors. For better or worse, the “I” doesn’t always seem to be an Other in twenty-first century American poems, and for those who choose to take it in that way such a mindset can overshadow all else: what a poet is allowed to write directly corresponds to who that poet is as a living, breathing person. “I am the sum of what / they say about me” asserts the speaker in “At the Experimental Farm,” and such is the fear of every red-blooded “I” – who we are is only how we’re seen and heard.
The power of a mask, though, rests on its ability to illuminate that which its wearer can’t, for whatever reason, bring into the microphonic light. Fleetingly embodying a variety of historical places and positions, including (among many others) the crusades, the Second World War and the French Revolution, not to mention an acutely oblique anxiety known only as “The Past,” Debt takes as a given the notion that the more assured one is of something (whether a person, an identity or a place), the less stable it actually is. This quicksand-as-solidity concept reads differently today than it would have in 1993, before the advent of widespread internet use. “The show is called Could I Be Anybody // and can’t be turned off by remote. / There’s no need to turn it off. / There’s no remote” states the speaker of “The Screen,” and in 2019, of course, anybody can be anybody, one’s multitudes changing from (anonymous) virtual wall to (anonymous) virtual wall, from Twitter to Instagram to Facebook. Even when signed out, set to silent and back-pocketed, still the “remote” is not turned off; our phones announce our place in the world and we can’t go anywhere without them. They are the show, and in a perverse way “The Screen” both predicts and enacts this tenuousness.
In its evasiveness and refusal to fully situate the reader narratively, imagistically or linearly, Debt further presages the rapidity that encompasses so much of modern technological life. The poems in the collection don’t come into focus. Surely this speaks to their harrowing subject matters: war, loss and personal and societal emotional dilemmas all feature prominently. To say the thing by coming at it obliquely is often the only way to say it at all. In a 2013 essay in Poetry, Levine writes how his teacher and mentor Philip Levine taught him how, in facing his mother’s impending death from cancer, “to turn to poetry in an effort to specify emotions that were otherwise too harrowing for me to bear or to confront.” This turning is everywhere in Debt and the double-and-triple-headedness of the volume’s many speakers might even relate back to that formative class that Mark took from Philip in 1985. If one’s teacher was a previous iteration of one’s self, transmuted through entirely different experiences, sensations and positions, how might the world later announce itself in language to the pupil? “I’ve been watching you watch yourself watch me. / I like what I see. I’ve learned some tricks” is the way the speaker of “Morning Song” talks to his “Boss,” and although any pseudo-Freudian reading here is problematic to say the least, it is worth noting vis-à-vis Mark Levine’s transmutation of Philip Levine’s advice and work into his own. The two poets are profoundly different, yet they share a singular vision.
Debts change from generation to generation: what one values the next either disregards or considers paid. However, as Srikanth Reddy writes in his introduction to Debt, “Our heaviest debt, the most timeless poems remind us, is to the historical dead.” In this sense Levine’s collection is indeed timeless, in that its poems make clear that, as lines in “Warrant” read, “Everything sounds the same / when it burns, like newsprint, like the telephone book / like name, rank, number, date of birth.” As readers and as humans, our debt to the world lies in forcing ourselves to calculate the burn – and in doing so to remember it. In 1993, as in 2019 (and beyond), Debt helps us along the way.
Jeff Alessandrelli is a writer living in Portland, OR. He is most recently the author of the collection Fur Not Light (Burnside Review Press, 2019). Find him on the World Wide Web at: https://jeffalessandrelli.net/.