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A Review of Dana Levin's Sky Burial

by Aaron Vialpando

Every poem in Dana Levin’s Sky Burial has been carefully tailored to bring the reader into a state of the intense feeling of death in a variety of ways. Those who read this collection need to approach it as a person who respects the dead due to its moving and powerful descriptions. Ms. Levin, does not confuse the reader with boring descriptions. They actually have life and can be felt through the conscious mind of the individual. She simply allows them to walk through them and experience everything as a witness and not as a person who is always dreading the thought of reading poetry. They are basically engaged within the text. Everyone of them has a different version of the death theme from one another. For example: some of them talk about the dead when they were suffering as a live person, some are about the entanglement of the history from different cultures, and some of the personification of animals is echoed within them. When you first read the title you expect it to be possible referencing to the Native American people who buried their dead high in the sky. Well, it is actually not about that. It is simply an ode to the dead in all of the twenty-eight poems. The entirety of the book cannot and should not be described in one poem due to her nature of freedom. Simply, it would be an injustice to her work, since she shows us a variety of death. It would be different if she had only one version of it in this work. The only poem that speaks of a sky burial is “Cathartes Aura.” All of the poems are in English; however, Latin and Spanish. The cultures of Mexico, Greece, Japan & Tibet are mentioned.

Each one is not written in the same format. In all of her work there is no apparent rhyme scheme; so she is writing in free verse. She uses gyres in several of her poems. The structure of everything varies from poem to poem.  Some are very quiet while others are very loud. The shortest is ‘Art Sutra.’ It is only seven lines long.  Here is an excerpt:

to find a conduit to awakening that is not suffering---

                        in the shiver of one candle, it makes of the shadow

                                           a crown.

She likes to experiment with prose poetry and enjambment. Plus the non prose poems tend to move in the way they are structured. They do not follow the tradition under each line approach.  They feel like you are standing on the waves of the ocean. Here is an example of her enjambment in Refuge Field:

            The assembly of sages you would have yourself


            to hear the lineage


It is amazing that in several poems the lines have an echo of history. The most impressive is the one that speaks about Charon leading the dead across the River of Styx. This is a poetic the telling of the Greek Myth of when a person enters the underworld upon their death. The person has to pay a coin to Charon in order to cross the river of the dead. Plus it is about a person committing suicide. This also invokes the theme of the isolation of the individual since he is walking into the river with a bag tied around his head. The collection opens up with a historical reference and ode to the Aztec people entitled ‘Augur’:

Body of Ra. Solar victory. If one can believe the book

of symbols.

Not only does it echo history but the reader feels like they are the hawk. It simply allows the reader to take part of the poem instead of reading it like an average newspaper article. I do not intend to berate Ms. Levin; however, the only problem with this poem is she has switched out the eagle for a hawk and that is historically inaccurate. Historically, the Aztec people were told by their god Huitzilopochtli to keep traveling until they saw an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its mouth. When they saw this they were instructed to build their capital city Tenochtitlan. We call this place today Mexico City.

The overall tone of her poems are dark, mysterious and have the conception of death. Due to her life being a tragedy one after the other this is why she writes in this manner.  Here is an excerpt from Ichor:

The father died and then the mother died.

            And you were so addicted

When it comes to her prose poems they are different from one another. There is a total of four. The longest one is ‘Among the Living,’ and the shortest one is ‘The Water.’ ‘Letter to GC,’ is written in sections while ‘Among the Living,’ is written in two long stanzas; obviously the second one is too long to quote. Well, even with their variations in length they all tell a story that is short. To make this point hold water; the second stanza in ‘The Water,’ is an excellent illustration of this.

She was autistic, fifteen, a torment, and you were her mother:

elephant-legged and kidneys failing, twenty liquid pounds in

each thigh; R fills  to the brim a tall plastic cup. The drowned

speak through  the water.

 The most compelling of her numerical section breaks is ‘In Honor of Xipe.’ This one is about the Aztec God of Spring. This is also the longest poem of the book. For a total of five pages. The final poem is written in the nontraditional format of line poetry and is broken into numerical sections. What this one does is bring us out of the feeling of a dark description of death. it shows that not all death is dark and malevolent. Some of it is actually peaceful. Just like an old person lying down for the night and in the morning they have a smile on their lips with no heart beat. Simply, a light at the end of the tunnel. The focus of death is placed upon honeybees in section five:

What to harvest

            from the sloughed-off suits of the dead.

Like seashells cupping the ghost-tongue of the sea,

            their black mouths speak ---

You crouch to the hum with a bag and a blade. You

the god it sways.

Cheers to this collection of poetry. It is the work of an author who honors the dead through a beautifully carefully crafted mystery in multiple ways that enhances the perception of the reader by the heart and does not let go until the last poem is read. All of the poems feel like an ode and at times the description of a crime scene. Some even have the feel of being pastoral; since, it feels like the reader would be listening to a similar sermon in a southern church. The prose poems tend to be the best describers of the subject at hand. All of the other works would work better in a prose format. Congratulations Dana Levin, for writing a masterpiece.

Sky Burial by Dana Levin

Copper Canyon Press, 2011
Paperback: 69pp; $15.00


Review by Aaron S. Vialpand