Dana Levin and the Problem of Light


Dawn Treader Book Shop

by Nick Rombes

I had been working on a long short story, “The Messiah Detective Agency,” when I came across Dana Levin’s book of poems In the Surgical Theatre. This was sometime late in 1999 or early 2000. I was on my way to meet a friend who was riding his bike across the country (so he claimed) and I stopped at Dawn Treader Book Shop to find a used book—any book—to talk about with my friend because I was afraid that, despite the closeness of our childhood years, we’d have little to say to each other now, thirty-years later. An object like a book, I figured, was something I could slide across the bar during an awkward silence and say something like, “Seen this?” I suppose I chose In the Surgical Theatre because of the title and the cover image, “The Infant and Womb” by Leonardo da Vinci. As I recall it was perched atop a stack of books (there were scores of these stacks and half-fallen stacks around the store) on the floor because there was no room to put them in the stuffed shelves. I opened it to these lines:

                        make us, make us be


                        something else for awhile.

                                    Or nothing else for a while, a series of stunning self-

                        destructions: point A

                                    where we slit our throats, point B where the paper shredder

                        churns us up, and

                                    C the slash, the cuffs, the gun, all evil bloodied

                        and done—

Well now here is something, I thought. Something spectacularly crashing and dangerous, and as I held the book open to those lines I felt the eyes of someone watching me, but of course I was alone except for the young woman at the front, behind the old cash register, reading a tattered book of her own, her black hair pinned back above her ear with a pink barrette and a tattoo on her forearm that was also pink, in the shape of a smiling skull.

So I bought the book and made my way to the bar to meet my friend. The line “a series of stunning self-destructions” rattled around in my head as I made my way in the sun past the old theater with its grand, faded yellow marquee and then cut through the back alley from the commercial to the grubbier college district. I thought of the character in “The Messiah Detective Agency,” Chiyuma, and how he himself—in an effort to solve a murder—had been drawn into a dark world he wanted to be “something else for a while.” At the bar, which one entered at the bottom of a long, dark set of wooden stairs though a non-descript alley door marked simply, in white chalk, with the letters A  x A, I found a booth at the far corner, beneath a small window that let in a trail of sunlight, and learned more about this Dana Levin. In her brief introduction, Louise Glück wrote that In the Surgical Theatre was “a book of terrors and marvels” and mentioned the “tidal power” of the poems. At the back of the book I looked for a photo of Dana Levin, but there was none. I learned from the bio that she grew up in Lancaster, California in the Mojave Desert and I immediately had an image of her, as a girl, separated from her family, and just at the point of exhaustion and dehydration, I imagined her coming across a sheer white skull of some small animal and, lifting it out of the hot sand, deciding that she needed to invent a new order of words to capture this moment.

I ordered a beer and set it just within the triangle of sunlight on the table’s surface. In the book, on page 31, a poem entitled “Field” opens with these two stanzas:

            The antelope white against the charred hills

                        eaten by fire,

            the golden trees, the upstairs window,


            is running across the field,

                        can you see it coming

            through the yellow grass, can you see it coming

                        from the windowpane,

            are you closing the shutters, do you think it is rain?

There is something topsy-turvy about those opening lines, the way they take us from the wild to the everyday and familiar: a window. The window is imbued with a certain terror, but how? The stanza ends with the cryptic “something” with no punctuation to help navigate us in or out of meaning. We are stranded, in the most pleasurable and terrifying way possible. And then: “can you see it coming.” The fact that it’s coming—the antelope or the rain or, more likely, the evil—is inevitable: there is nothing to be done about it, not way to stop it. I thought of my character Chiyuma, in his sad detective overcoat and his short-cropped blonde hair, like a procedural Sid Vicious, who kept leaking out from the pages of “Messiah Detective.” A murder. Another one of the “lamppost murders” attended to by fireflies and swarming bats filling the sky like stuttered, torn frames from a broken movie.

In my story, the latest victim’s body is found, like the others, hanging from a lamppost on the dusty outskirts of the city. It is just after midnight. By chance, a taxi had suffered a blowout nearby and the sound of crows upon the body alerted the driver as he changed the tire. The police arrive and, by flashlights (swarmed by nighttime insects), the man’s body (his face mutilated) is cut down. Safety-pinned to his torn sweater is a folded note, which, because of the recent rain, is practically ruined. It is splotched and bleeding with ink, except for one partial phrase which remained: a man of theory–

The handwriting, Chiyuma thinks, is soft, as in a love letter. There is a sense among Chiyuma’s deputies that this phrase is both petty and perhaps the key to everything. The dark truth is that everyone was a potential victim; no social or ideological class had been spared. Priests, grave diggers, teachers, politicians, military leaders, the homeless, farmers, miners, all were in danger of finding themselves gasping blood at the end of a rope. These reasonless killings had become such a part of life in the city, such a routine, that, in strange way, they had put an end to chance. It was as if—and how does one say this without sounding like a monster?—it was as if the murders provided a sort of comfort. Even those whose lovers were among the victims had to admit this, if they searched their souls. The mutilations and murders were the one constant in what had become an age of unreasonable variables. The discovery of the bodies was a balm, a reassurance, and, indeed, for one month in July of last year when no bodies were found a terrible unease had gripped the city. In truth, the city was healthy with the predictability of the murders, and sick when they stopped. The job of the police, unofficially of course, was to insure that the murders remained unsolved and continued.

In this regard, District Attorney Chiyuma posed—at least at this moment—a grave threat to the order of things, or so he thought. For in his heart, we wanted very badly to solve these murders. This was (as he would be the first to admit) not because of his idealism or humanism, but rather out of a notion that the murders had begun to constitute the very architecture of the State itself, and that the author (or authors) of this architecture ought to, at the very least, identify themselves. This theory, which verged on the heretical, ran counter to the widespread belief that it was the very anonymity of the those responsible for the murders that had helped create the healthy order that had graced the State since the murders began over twenty years ago. Common wisdom held that the very act of not-knowing was a great equalizer: grocer and judge; maid and banker; brick layer and energy executive—all were linked and bonded in their ignorance, and all were potential victims. And it was the duty of the police not to solve the events (they has ceased being called “crimes” some years ago) but to guarantee their continuance.

This, anyway, is the part of the story I was turning over in my head as I awaited my friend. The sunlight had moved across the table. I ordered another beer and opened up Levin’s book. “Movie” is a poem about just that, and in the fourth stanza the speaker observes the crowd in the theater:

                        And the two kids: what did they want?

            A little chaos, a little blood

                         to make their day, their unpredictable fragmented day-

            And the man,

                        what did he want?

            O long tunnel out of despair, distraction of someone else’s


There in that bar, not too far from anyplace and not too close either, the words of Dana Levin—a person I had never met but felt as if I had known for as long as I remember knowing people—moved around on the page and rearranged themselves in black and white.

The longer I waited, the longer I was certain that my friend would not show up. The tone of the bar turned devious. A woman with shocking pink hair spoke quietly but intently into her cell phone, and somehow I knew that there was no one listening to her, and that her phone wasn’t even on. “The problem of light. / The problem of it, / flaming down / against the punched out panes of the abandoned mill” go the lines in “The Problem of Light” and all I can feel is the bar tilting like the inside of a wooden ship in a bad sea adventure movie. My drink practically slides off the table. The bartender fades in and out like a picture on an old TV set. The woman with pink hair puts her face in he hands and seems to weep. Then I see she is laughing. The laughter of absurdity, as if an idea has just occurred to her that will change her life forever. I wonder about my friend, and why he has left me here, and months later, when I discover that it was tragedy that prevented him from meeting me, I will think back to the Dana Levin book and the afternoon which seemed to stretch beyond reason from one era into another. By the time I left the bar it was already dark, and outside, from the shadows of the alley came voices that quieted as I approached, as if some terrible secret (the fate of the world?) was being decided right then.        

Photograph courtesy of the Author.   

About the Author:

Nicholas Rombes, author of Cinema in the Digital Age and A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1972-1984, is an English professor in Detroit and a columnist at The Rumpus. Some of his work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Oxford American, The Believer, Exquisite Corpse, and other places.