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declares the upper right-hand corner, underlined twice and just to the right of a jagged lightning bolt. Mid-page, the bolt splits WORM from REFUGE FIELD in a doodled throng of stars and boxes, a festival of snaking lines, then: every body // a cocoon of change―and a command banding the page-bottom: CULTIVATE THIS FIELD OF BLISS. Four phrases, black as stamps: 9/23/03.
My father and then my mother had died.


Emotion finds its root in Latin: e – motio, to move out. It’s a given that those of us who are called to the poetic art are often following the voice of strong feeling: every poem, at its heart, an involuntary cry the poet has made into song. Listen for the gasps of outrage and ecstasy fueling Ginsberg’s Howl, the “ill-spirit sob” of Lowell’s Skunk Hour, even the round-mouthed eurekas at the core of Stevensian cool.

Knicked skin, sudden win, night caress, someone dies: something happens, and it makes you open your mouth. You’re struck―you let out a sound.


When death has pierced you (first him and then her in the space of six months) and you deny yourself lamentation―when you deny yourself available forms of grief (you, a believer in forms)―when you refuse to memorialize, eulogize, or in any way sing before a tomb―

Forms have feelings. It was the feelings offered by traditional elegy I rejected: “Classical elegies start out with a statement of the subject (usually a specific death), followed by the lamentations or mourning of this death, and finally consolation, as the poet comes to accept the loss,” states Padgett’s Handbook of Poetic Forms. Mourning? It was a private hell, writing about it head-on unendurable. Consolation? It seemed beyond the depths of my death-shock. Acceptance? Well, there was acceptance and then there was acceptance: NO ELEGIES I scored, with a black Staedtler pigment liner. I wanted to look that fucker death in the face.


Emotion: a stirring, a moving, an agitation, a perturbation, a migration; so says the OED. I refused to prop my bare grief up on the dais of the page, but still it felt autonomous, it demanded audience (L. audientia, to hear). Circumventing elegy meant finding new forms for the grief-cry, new lenses through which to see the human end. I began to study corpse-decay, the life cycles of diptera; became an adherent of Tibetan Buddhist teachings, which hinge on the fact of our impermanence; meditated on psychedelic images of White Tara, Tibetan mother of compassion and long life; examined photos of sarcophagidae, the pupa of the cheese-skipper “recovered in Egyptian mummies, Mexican tomb shafts, and in the skulls of ancient bison.” I began to write poems based on research and dream, taking dictation from the worms and the gods.

Refuge Field, The Mentor, and Augur are some of the fruits of that first refusal of elegy. The Mentor stems, verbatim, from a dream journal entry, and preserves that initial prose form. I began to write many prose poems, and short lyrics, and long verse sequences: turning from elegy left me formally restless; in aversion I found invention. Death as muse led to poems like Refuge Field, where the worms and the gods met at the charnel ground: the Eight Great Cemeteries mentioned in the poem were prominent cemeteries of ancient India, important meditation fields for tantric adepts and monks to confront impermanence in the raw. It was, of course, not the charnel grounds of India but my backyard, with its night-crickets and cicadas, its larvae and webs, that became my devotion field.

And Augur: it was the last to be written and is the first to appear in the book that developed from my grief conversions. Such a placement―the poem of aftermath opening the book of loss―seems right for a poem called Augur, named for the ancient Roman seer. I consider it a reverse elegy: its long lines spool out and reel in short, spool out again in a kind of frantic seeking, a seeking against lament. Four years after my parents died, my sister died: well and then sick and then dead in three weeks. I was sick of death, and I was sick of grief: I looked to signs, wondered if I could live, find a new song in my mouth.

Refuge Field

You have installed a voice that can soothe you: agents
            of the eaten flesh, every body

            a cocoon of change―

Puparium. The garden
            a birthing house, sarcophagidae

And green was so dark in the night-garden, in the garden’s
            gourd of air―

green’s epitome
            of green’s peace, the beautiful inhuman

leg-music, crickets’
a pulse

            to build their houses by,
            successive molt

a tent of skin
            in which skin can grow, the metallic sheen
of their blue backs

            as they hatch out, winged and mouthed―

Like in a charnel ground, you sit and see.

In one of the Eight Great
            Cemeteries, you sit and see―

How the skull-grounds
            are ringed by flame, how they spread out under

a diamond tent, how the adepts
among bones―

            saying I who fear dying, I who fear
being dead―

            Refuge field.

            See it now.

That assembly of sages you would have yourself
to hear the lineage
            from mouth to ear, encounter the truth-

saying, Soft eaters, someone’s children, who gives them
            refuge from want―

Cynomyopsis Cadavarena. On every tongue
            they feed.


The Mentor

The Mentor was in town to give a lecture, he was staying in my apartment. Too sick to attend, his wife stayed behind and I to nurse her. That night, the Mentor still away, curled in pain, she crept to my room to sleep with me. Hunched in bed she cried and shook, and in the morning when I woke up she was dead. I cradled her dead body in misery, for now I had to tell the Mentor.

I tracked him to a diner and found him in a booth drinking coffee. He was jovial, began showing me a collection of organa: eggs, sea shells, stones, pond water in jars―I grab his hand mid-flourish, say, “Have you seen your wife?” And he looks confused, something gassing his eyes, he says, “Is she gone?” getting upset, and then smiling, saying, “When she comes back, I don’t think she’ll come back as a person, I think she’ll come back as her clothes―she loved them so, the threads, the dyes―” Then he is staring into a tin can full of water, murky water almost red, and I know this will be our science: mourning her.


Hawk perched low on a hedge of vine.

On hunt for what hid
            in the tangle.

The small citizens, mouse and gopher.

Body of Ra the hawk signified.

In the symbol book, which I opened after climbing the stairs,
            after the hawk fanned out its banded tail like I should

            pick a card―

The book was a prisoner of my ardor for the dark―through it I stalked,
            a seeker.

It was a character out of a Victorian novel―Symbol Book, an
            imbecile, a Dutch inventor.

Saying, You must bow
            to the Hippogriff (half-raptor, half-horse), it must

            lower its head to your hand.

Halcon Pradeno. Mexicano. Come to me for my winter ground.

According to whatbird.com.

Hawk perched low on a hedge of vine. Going
            heel to toe, so as not to startle.

Cloud unhooding body of Ra a pale pearl of winter sun―

Renaissance printers
            often stamped their wares with a hooded falcon,

            emblem of the dungeoned seer.

That “hope for light” the darkened nourish.

Closed books, post tenebras spero lucem along the spine―

I found the phrase in the Office for the Dead, in the Latin Vulgate:
            after darkness I hope for light―

Then: hell is my house, and in darkness I have made my bed―

I thought of my father and mother and sister being dead, I was so sick
            of feeling anything about it―

The hood stood for hope of liberty.

Of wanting to swoop and soar over enormous swells,
            as in my dream.

I hovered high, I could see the mammals in the raucous waters, their slick skins
            of danger and wonder.

My soul hath thirsted, the Vulgate said, He hath put a new song
into my mouth.

The hawk appeared. Unhooded.
            An auspice, from auspex, avispex, ‘one who looks at birds’―

I’d been wanting to know if it was all right to live.

An ascensional symbol on every level, the symbol book said.

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


Sky Burial is Dana Levin’s third book of poems. The New Yorker writes: “Sky Burial brings a wealth of ritual and lore from various strains of Buddhism, as well as Mesoamerican and other spiritual traditions . . . the intensity and seriousness and openness of her investigations make Levin’s use of this material utterly her own, and utterly riveting.”  Sky Burial was listed one of the Best Books of Poetry 2011 by the San Francisco Chronicle, Library Journal, and Coldfront Magazine.