Banana Palace


by Nicholas Rombes

Banana Palace,
by Dana Levin,
Copper Canyon Press, 96 pp.

It had been a long, brutal journey. I was to meet Patti in Detroit, Patti who had been the one to introduce me to the poets who changed my life, the course of my life. One of them was Dana Levin, and when I wrote about her 1999 collection In the Surgical Theatre, I thought that was it, the end. Brutal, in the sense that it was January, and I had driven downland from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (the U P) during a windstorm that made it so that the driver of each vehicle traversing the Straits of Mackinac via the Mackinac Bridge was asked to sign a waiver, a waiver which indemnified the bridge’s owners against suit in the case of being blown off the bridge, from which at least two cars had in fact been blown off of, completely.

The lines that had drawn me south were from a collection I had not yet heard of, yet alone read: Banana Palace. Tucked into a letter–a snail-mail letter, from downstate to the Upper Peninsula—were lines from a poem, “Watching the Sea Go”:

They were the most boring movies ever made.

I wanted

to mount them together and press Play.

Those words—”to mount them together and press play”—I understood them, and yet they confounded me. I put them away. I ignored them. The elk were calling, and I fed them. Lake Superior presented itself, at night, as both water and glass. The deep churning of a distant freighter super-charged my thoughts, Levin-wise, and I asked for more.

There was the line—in another mailing—from a poem whose name (“Melancholia”) I only remember in a dream. The line goes: “You stockpile / Leicas and stereo equipment; you bring home a big telescope we only use / twice.” And there was a third mailing from which included a scissored out page from Banana Palace, the first portion of “Moo and Thrall,” transformed–inexplicably–into some sort of collage.

A surgeon’s knife. A gun. A pole

that holds up a banner . . .

The letters, containing these collaged Dana Levin snippets, were from Patti, and in fact Patti was in a band called Psycho Femmes for a while, and they even played with The Haxan Cloak a few times down at The Old Miami in Detroit. Patti was like some alien creature, so radiant and beautiful but in a strange, angled way that suggested ugliness. It was Patti who had banished me to the U P and who was now calling me back with her Dana Levin letters.

She was the first one who ever talked openly to me about politics, not local politics but national, which of course meant talking about the regime, something I’d never done before. I don’t know how it was with you but none of my friends talked about such things. We didn’t need to be told not talk politics, I think we’d internalized the fear. I guess that’s the way very subtle social engineering and propaganda work: if it’s done well enough it doesn’t need to be enforced. People censor themselves without even knowing it. Patti, for instance, knew how to find that poem that vibrated that secret chord inside your heart, as Levin’s “Moo and Thrall” was doing now.

In her third letter, Patti wrote: “I guess it wasn’t a dream about you, Nick, but about something that reminded me of you. I was sitting on a high cliff overlooking a vast desert and a sandstorm was moving, churning slowly from east to west down below. It was completely silent and terrifying because there was a line of camels or men on camels very small, like brown ants, and the storm was approaching but I couldn’t tell if they saw it or not, and I couldn’t warn them. Beneath the storm was a black cloud, so the sand must have been in the air, travelling above the desert. I turned around to tell you but you weren’t there. I don’t why you would have been or why I should have expected you there, up North as you are. It was just me on the cliff and it was the loneliest, saddest feeling. It was so real when I woke up I thought I’d find sand in my bed but of course I didn’t. Things like that never happen.”

Patti also said that “Dana Levin was for real” and quoted from another poem, “The Point of the Needle”:

Since you got to behead


 hollyhock crown

with your round


of a mouth–

I hope you get to spin inside your

paper house.

One of the things Patti did with Psycho Femmes was put out a fanzine, Xeroxed and stapled. She claimed that Levin had tried out some early drafts of poems there, although I didn’t believe her. Apart from the poems–the fragments of poems, the stray lines that would show up in later, fully-formed poems–the most interesting thing about the fanzine were these recipes Patti’d collected from fans, really elaborate recipes and then she’d a write a little story or anecdote about them. There was one, I remember, that involved wild boar fried in an iron skillet with spices and seasonings I’d never heard of and a story she wrote about how it was served in a park on a picnic table with the sun coming through the trees and a cool breeze off the river. There was another one involving some sort of custard pie, an even longer recipe and a convoluted story that probably took up half the fanzine. The dish was served at a restaurant that had just reopened after a fire, and everything tasted of smoke or customers thought so because the idea of the fire was still fresh in their minds. In the story, the custard pie was the only item on the menu that didn’t taste or smell of smoke and after a few months the only thing the restaurant served was custard pies. We shared an apartment for a while back then in Hamtramck and Patti would labor at night on the zine, in between writing new songs, at the small kitchen table where she had her typewriter, glue, razors, and a black ink marker. She’d design the pages in light pencil, marking out boxes where the text would go and then she’d type the recipes and stories and gossip and a horoscope right into those boxes. Sometimes she’d ask me for help, to proofread or come up with horoscopes or to staple them together after she’d made copies at the library.

“In the dream, the royal family has died. Like all subjects, I’m being ushered into a room where I am to pick liquors from a cabinet: thus we submit to the annihilation of the king and his line.” That’s from a stanza in Levin’s prose poem “Melancholia,” also from Banana Palace. Patti has cut it out and pasted it onto the back of that third letter, with the note, “check out the enjambment” which of course is a sick joke. She also wrote, in a separate note paper-clipped to the letter, this: “Levin mentions the Lars von Trier film Melancholia in one of her notes at back of BP. That film came out in 2011, you you remember? That was the year I banished you to the U P and that was the year, Nick, that the regime decided to ration electricity. What a disaster that was, do you remember? It was during the summer, the summer that cricket trapped behind our wall drove us crazy, rationing happening nighttime into early morning, from 11:30 to 4:00 am or something and I remember how much we laughed at the seeming randomness of that. Why 11:30? Why not 11:00 or midnight? We found it so funny and clumsy. 11:30! Of course a black market in electricity sprung up almost overnight and plus it was so easy to get around the meters they installed by unscrewing the cap and disconnecting the black wire every night at 11:30 and then re-attaching it in the morning. But before people began to figure out how to do that there was a certain beauty, a certain stillness, to the city at night, absent of so much artificial light. I’d sometimes take to walking at night, humming Levin-lines to music, at first just short strolls to the park not far from our apartment but then longer ones out to the edges of Hamtramck, just soaking up the dark.”

Patti quit the band, which meant the band basically ceased to exist. Then she quit me. Before she banished me up North we were there at the Wayne State riots and were in the cafeteria when the helicopter came down. In the chaos we scrambled over over-turned tables and hid out in the undergrad library for a few days, in the poetry section of the stacks. We came close to being caught once when a patrol came through. It was by chance, really, that they didn’t see us. Patti always said that it’s poetry that saved us, that the aura of poetry protected us, but I don’t think either of us ever believed that, not really. From a narrow window on the fourth floor we saw those students gunned down. Patti had never seen someone killed, not in real life, not in person. She told me it made her remember how she used to feel when she was a girl, when every little thing meant so much to her. Even things like marbles and fireflies, she said, and hearing those students die made something well up inside and overflow and she felt like she was a girl again.

And then Patti and I escaped and she banished me to the U P. And then she began sending me these letters, these letters about the remarkable poet Dana Levin.

And then she asked me to come back.

And then I did.

About the Author:

Nicholas Rombes is author of the novel The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio), Ramones, from the 33 1/3 series (Bloomsbury) and Cinema in the Digital Age(Columbia UP). His film The Removals was released in 2016. Rombes is a columnist and contributing editor at Filmmaker Magazine, and teaches in Detroit, Michigan.