What Have I To Say To You
by Megan Levad
(Tavern Books, Oct. 2017, 112 pp., $17.00)
What Have I To Say To You opens with three statements about metaphor. The first is an epigraph from William Carlos Williams: “The stain of love / Is upon the world.” The second is a loose haiku: “I lie here thinking of you / Thinking of you is dreaming // I lie here dreaming”. The third, in a more official, ribbon-cutting nature, reads:
I have taken a vow
not to use a simile or metaphor
when I speak of our love
I want it to be itself and nothing else
So Lover Reader
you will have to get used to my close, brothy stink and the chill of the examination table
In order: love stains the world; poetry is all dreams and lies; get used to it.
Megan Levad uses no fewer metaphors or similes than other poets (indeed, on the second page, eighteen hundred parents stand in a gymnasium in a way that is “sexy like Dockers / or an agile fat man”), and few readers would take seriously a complete eschewal of metaphor anyway. When reading Levad’s work, I recalled that A. S. Byatt aimed to write Babel Tower (1997) without a single metaphor, and later described the task as impossible. Metaphors create themselves, she said, whether we will them to or not.
What is the role, then, of Levad’s opening statement? From a writer of lesser talent, such a statement could be an invitation to scorn. From a poet of stricter formalism, such a statement could be taken as a challenge to the critic to trace the varying hues of metaphor through etymology, sound, rhythm, grammar, or any of the other signifying aspects of the poet’s work. But Megan Levad fits neither of these descriptions. Her poetry is free-flowing, and plain-spoken without being self-deprecating. What Have I To Say To You is only her second book, and yet, consisting of untitled verse separated by page breaks, it contains enough refreshing streams of images and small moments of stoppage to allow an uninhibited and thoroughly pleasurable reading, something rare in a sophomore work.
For the most part, Levad alternates between two forms, anecdote and apostrophe. The former stands in for a kind of outside world, while the latter, addressing the Reader, describes “our love.” The sections with the Reader are those ostensibly inspired by the vow “not to use a simile / or metaphor,” and while some of the resulting verse threatens over-simplification—for example, “Reader, // What if I told you / there never was // a Reader?” or the last line of the book, “you’re never getting out of here,” which I take to be addressing itself, and not the reader, who typically does not respond to threats of a literary nature—other moments of apostrophe are quite moving, like the passage that begins “We don’t say things like / I will find you” and makes wonderful use of a rather archaic word in “I have trained / a mute of hounds to bay // when they find you.” With prompting from the W. C. W. epigraph, we might read these sections of What Have I To Say To You as a long love poem whose form of love subsists in direct address, rather than in images of its “stain.”
The best parts of What Have I To Say To You, however, are examples of the anecdotal form, scenes in which cultural nouns “turn” to say something to the poet:
High school football turns to me in the Dairy Queen parking lot, says
But what about Wagner?
Hollywood turns to me in the grocery line, says
He could hold two words in his mouth at once
This figuration gives us some funny lines, like “The collective unconscious turns / to me at the cineplex, says // Junior Mints or Swedish Fish?” But after a few repetitions, we recognize in this form something of the tragic role of the poet-in-the-world, who cannot help extending even the most insignificant utterances into larger metaphors. “The Rust Belt turns / to me at the strip mall sports bar, says // Am I going to die?” We all partake in these generalizations, of course, and Levad’s poetry is an elegant depiction of this exchange of ideas between writer and reader, each forming a vision of the world from the other. But Levad also emphasizes the confusion brought about by this exchange, a confusion clearly expressed in the question “Am I going to die?”
For the passages addressing the reader, we can understand the vow “not to use a simile / or metaphor // when I speak of our love” as an expression more of desperation than of fancy, a move to take refuge in a language that attempts to do less damage to its subject than standard figures do. This is difficult to bring about, however, and Levad’s most successful passages remain those addressing the larger world, describing that painful moment when metaphoric insight is immediately limited by that other poetry, however mundane, owned by other people. What Have I To Say To You works within a delicate form of heteroglossia that enables the exposure of these moments, when the gap between our private and public worlds is so swiftly revealed.
Marketable nostalgia turns to me in the private library, says
Suicides never consider Who am I doing this to?
My first thought is To whom am I doing this