For poet Dana Levin, St. Louis is 'the navel of the nation'
Dana Levin’s new book of poetry confronts many things — the conflict between body and soul, the 2016 presidential election, the feeling of disorientation that can overwhelm us. And it also confronts St. Louis. The custom of jokes on Halloween. The legacy of Dred Scott. The all-white diners digging into mussels at a fashionable restaurant.
A California native, Levin came to St. Louis in 2015 as a distinguished writer in residence at Maryville University after years in Santa Fe. (She moved here full-time in 2017.)
“Coming here was amazing to me, because what did I know? I knew ‘Meet Me in St. Louis,’” she recalled on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. “And I moved here in the wake of Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown, and it was really eye opening.”
She added, “I just felt like I had moved to the navel of the nation. Everything that is promising about America, everything that is pathological about America, it is all right here.”
That is reflected in her new book, “Now Do You Know Where You Are,” which is out April 19 from Copper Canyon Press. In poems like “Two Autumns, Saint Louis,” Levin takes stock of the city’s history and its still-gaping racial wounds.
At one point in the poem, Levin visits “the fenced-in parking lot” that was T.S. Eliot’s childhood home. She’s amused by the idea of the great poet living in a literal wasteland.
As she writes, “It’s exciting to be living in the city that birthed / T.S. Eliot / even though he was a casual / anti-Semite.” The Jewish poet proudly announces herself: “I stand here DLev, / one of the roughs — aspirated, liberally / educated, / shtetl-fed.”
Explained Levin, “T.S. Eliot was a terrible anti-Semite. But he was also my first introduction and first love for poetry. So it's a complicated relationship between me and Tom.”
Even as she acknowledges that history, she won’t stop reading, or teaching, Eliot.
“When we get caught in the binary between ‘this was great art’ and ‘the person who made it was a horrible person’ and that somehow we have to choose between the two, we are losing an opportunity to look at human nature,” she said.
Of Eliot, she added, “He's central. He’s important. He’s also a great poet. He's written some of the greatest poems of the 20th century. But you have to teach the whole man.”
Levin is intent on not getting trapped in the binaries. As one poem acknowledges, even viruses have benefits.
She likes the idea of life as a “suffering exchange,” sort of a riff on the stock exchange except we’re all trading the pain of life. And somehow there is hope in that definition.
“You can sit there and be like, ‘Wow, this world, it's a veil of tears,’” she said. “And it is, but as I get older, I think about what helps us deal with being stuck in the suffering exchange, and I come back to kindness and compassion and education, and trying to give everybody as best as possible the benefit of the doubt.”
She added, “I'm always trying to remind myself that's what is going on when somebody is short with me, or impatient, or treats me in a way that I don't like, and then I try to also watch this in myself. Because I don't think the suffering exchange is gonna go away.”
What: Dana Levin with Diane Seuss and Jane Huffman
When: 7 p.m., Tuesday, April 19
Where: Left Bank Books Facebook Live page
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.