16 January 2014

Reports by Kathryn Levy

Review by Elizabeth Kate Switaj

Kathryn Levy
New Rivers Press, 2013
Paperback, 84 pages
ISBN: 978-0-89823-286-8

In Kathryn Levy’s Reports, everything already contains its opposite, in form as well as content. These paradoxes startle, but they do not confront or confuse: they are neither baroque nor disorienting. Rather, they teach us to remember that “each greeting is filled / with goodbye” and to recognize that we can live, with hope, in the world in which those lines are true.

Levy’s poems are simultaneously long and short. Most of the lines contain five or fewer syllables, but most of the poems are longer than a page. If the lines were longer, the poems would not do so. Length, in Reports, is an artifact of brevity and the way we measure poems. The opening section, “Driving All Night,” consisting as it does mostly of numbered rather than titled pieces, combines short and long in another way: the reader is left to decide arbitrarily whether these pieces are parts of one ten-page poem or six (seven if one counts the “The Traveler”) shorter poems in sequence. By opening with this section, Levy foregrounds the tension between poem-as-part and poem-as-shorter-whole that exists in any thematically coherent collection.

Later, in “The Middle Way,” (both the third section of the collection and the poem that opens that section), a line break more directly shows how an idea contains its opposite: “flowers would erupt—the un / believable flowers.” It would not be necessary to call these flowers unbelievable if there were not believable flowers, or if it were impossible for these flowers to be believed. This enjambed word is as close as the collection comes to technical ornament. The opposites being brought together are far too basic and essential to be adorned: safety and danger, life and death, love and hate.

Safety and danger, or the perceptions of them at least, exist only in relation to each other. The second part of “Driving All Night” opens:

I can travel to the crack
in the world on the deck
sitting in the sunlight
claiming: it is safe here

Without the dangers implied by a fissure in what is known, there would be no need to claim, or to perceive, safety. Menace creates sanctuary.

Similarly, news reports bring horror but are also a necessary part of home. In the first part of “Driving All Night,” Levy’s speaker tells us:

there are
reports on the news
I can’t ignore:
the government denied it all
the killer escaped
the tidal wave killed 300
and 58
that was far away

Despite the risk posed by the escaped murderer and whatever the government is (surely) lying about, she concludes:

listen: the important thing is
to get to a home
hear the reports
from every corner
one more
tune of our lives
—so distant

Without the reports of terrors too far away to pose a real threat, a home is incomplete. Misery and fear are the reasons getting to a home matters, and a home exists only in contrast to that from which it keeps us safe. Home not only allows us to become, in “We,” “the watchers / of the war on the TV” but also exists only when we can watch, or listen, at a distance; “a home” only becomes part of “our lives”—the indefinite article is only replaced by a possessive pronoun—when word of what happens to people outside the home, outside a safe place, travels from wall to wall and corner to corner.

In the the next section of the collection, however, we find that home may not always be a real haven from dangers. The poem that gives part two its name, “The Lovers,” opens:

Locked inside
a narrow room
for 8 months
the prisoner reports

I have found my home.

Home is a place where one feels secure, whatever the reality. A home can, in all reality, punish as well as protect—or protect someone other than those who call it their home.

In “Exposed to the Winds” in the book’s final section, “Bedtime Stories,” home is itself in danger, literally and figuratively. The poem begins:

Exposed to the winds
the house is
beaten by rains
the child huddles
crying all night
for her broken doll
a lost friend
her father who screamed
too loud

as they took him away

The storm threatens the home, even as the home protects the child from the wind, but the home cannot protect the child from the metaphorical destruction of the home—the loss of a parent. The failure of the home causes the child to see the home as inherently dangerous, even when the storm has passed:

the man in the trees says
the attack is over
listen to the silence
all its doors:
you are grownup now
powerful free
to turn on every
light in the house

If one, as an adult, returns to these sites of supposed safety that failed to provide, one will see, if one really looks, “ . . . pictures / of mother father some / terrified child,” an unrecognizable self. Home is both protection from terror and a site of terror. In either case, it is defined by fear.

In such a space, the cure for any ailment also contains death. In “Something to Say,” “the ambulance sped / towards his death.” In the third part of “Driving All Night,” the doctor or the father says:

. . . don’t worry
this won’t hurt—
but you know each needle
will change your life
you won’t survive
for one more second
those monsters who lurk
inside your shoes

The monsters may be microbes, tumors, or some other biological deadly that live on and destroy your body and thus, metonymically, in your shoes. They may also be memories of something more psychologically sinister:

you can cover your face
with your favorite pillow
while your father presses
into your body . . .

The pressing could be father holding down a seriously ill child to give her a necessary injection, given that the needle comes two lines later, or it could be incestuous violation (in which case, home once more is not safe). Cure and violence—life-saving and life-destroying—exist ambiguously within each other, a state emphasized by the minimal punctuation and capitalization that lets sentence after sentence, in this poem and many others in the collection, blend into each other. This ambiguity may be the origin of the blending of love with hate and violence. Part six of “Driving All Night” commands:

Place your lover in your hand
and crush him

To gently crush seems at once a contradiction and the very definition of how one holds the beloved tight. More directly, in “We” comes a description of “sleeping next to a lover / a hater.”

Love and hate, cure and kill, believe and disbelieve. These are the contradictions that contain each other in the recognizable lives of Kathryn Levy’s Reports. And as we readers recognize them, we also see how to live them—how we can, as in the final, eponymous poem of the collection, at last conclude with “our only choice: / Begin.”

Elizabeth Kate Switaj is a Liberal Arts Instructor at the College of the Marshall Islands. Her first collection of poetry, Magdalene & the Mermaids, was published in 2009 by Paper Kite Press. Recent poems have appeared in Compose and Sundog Lit. Her website is www.elizabethkateswitaj.net