Versed in the Worst
In the September 2014 issue of Poetry, writers predict the worst. Kay Ryan darkly alludes to “the unimaginable”; D. Nurkse foretells death and a voyage to Venus, that planet “whipped by circular wind, / choked in vitriol clouds.” In “The Living Teaching,” Dana Levin prophesies an end time prompted by her own impressive appetite: “I gap my craw / and the bakeries of the cities fall, I // stomp the docks — spew out a bullet stream / of oyster shells, I’ll // drain the seas.”
Her other poem in the issue, “Banana Palace,” focuses on the same unlikely pairing of themes: food and the end of days. Levin foresees a “complicated doom” when “death stampedes through the server-cities,” when even our virtual realities evaporate and, consequently, “we all end up living in caves.” She begins:
I want you to knowhow it felt to hold it,deep in the well of my eye.
The poem is off to an intriguing start: what exactly is “it,” and what does it mean to “hold” something deep in the well of an eye? It sounds as though the speaker is confusing holding with looking—with beholding. Later, when we discover that she’s seeing a digital image, this confusion starts to make sense: perhaps we can understand looking as a virtual act of holding. And just as she only virtually holds the image, so will the listening “you” only vicariously know how that holding felt.
As complex as this interaction sounds, we may well have similar exchanges all the time—for instance, when friends excitedly tell us about something they saw on Facebook or Youtube. Such experiences are common for those of us who spend our time, like the speaker, “in town squares made out of air.”
Those meeting places offer no shortage of banalities—“pictures of animals looking ridiculous,” “a photo of someone’s broken toe”—but one day, something extraordinary appears on the speaker’s screen: Banana Palace.
Like luminous pillows cocked on a hinge,like a housewith a heavy lid, a round house of platelets and honey —It was open,like a box that holds a ring.
As at the beginning of the poem, we’re left with a question: what is this Banana Palace? At first, Levin tells us merely what it’s like: pillows, a house, a box. Only later does she identify exactly what she’s looking at: “Cross-section of a banana under a microscope / the caption read.”
Why another moment of disorientation—and why the chain of similes? For one thing, a banana, at such close range, doesn’t look terribly banana-like. But perhaps the banana’s status as a virtual image also plays a role. We often see such images devoid of their proper contexts, and so our online feeds—those hodgepodges of international news, engagement announcements, personal plaints, refreshing witticisms, baby photos, cat videos, and granola ads—produce a constant state of low-level disorientation. Maybe, too, a banana on a screen is less insistently a banana than one in a bowl; maybe it’s easier to see a virtual banana as something else entirely, whether pillow or house or box.
How did you react to learning the photo’s caption? Were you, as a denizen of “town squares made of air,” instantly tempted to Google it? If not, allow us to do the honors—and note how engaging with this poem means entering an airy square ourselves. How do Levin’s similes affect your interpretation of this image? Is it easier to see the “platelets and honey,” the “harp made of glass,” than the banana itself? Have the figurative interpretations overtaken the literal?
Later in the poem, Levin leads us still further from the actual, comparing the banana to a “temple”:
a fetal curl on its temple floor,bagged and sleeping —a white cocoonunder lit strings that stretchfrom floor to ceiling —a harp made of glassincubatinga covered•pearl —
In opposition to the doom the poem foretells—which features, among other things, “the last / of the last of my kind”—the banana offers a scene of peace, safety, and above all propagation. (These are fitting associations for an object that’s at once a product of breeding and a means of sustenance.) And the “future person” Levin invents—herself virtual, existing in some projected future—represents continuity as well, for she’s evidence of both human fertility and Levin’s fertile imagination.
At the poem’s close, the speaker is hunching over her computer, “sharing a fruit no one could eat.” It’s a dark allusion to the starvation that will surely plague humanity once we’ve taken to the caves. Yet might it also hint at something hopeful? To share an image online is to thrill at and champion something that is not real—something that, if it cannot feed our friends literally, might feed them metaphorically (or virtually). Could we say the same of poetry, and isn’t poetry also a portal onto virtual worlds? For the speaker, this image was a fount of similes and associations: would a real banana have inspired such visions?