Confronting the surrounding, unbearable silence: A review of Lauren Levin’s The Braid


In “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Gayatri Spivak critiques Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus; she writes: “theories of ideology cannot afford to overlook the category of representation in two senses…[t]hey must note how the staging of the world in representation…dissimulates the choice of and need for “heroes,” paternal proxies, agents of power.” Spivak’s distinction between these simultaneously collusive forms of representation affords a reader of Lauren Levin’s The Braid, published by Krupskaya Books, a framework for understanding the collection’s animating tension: how to dislocate its subjects from totalizing concepts like power or desire, and — through this dislocation — reposition these concepts and their attendant “heroes” within the doubled experience of representing and being represented.

If, as Dolores Dorantes observes in Levin’s epigraph, “This is not poetry / It’s / what circumstances dictate,” Levin’s first and titular poem articulates these circumstances and their responsive form: what Chris Nealon calls the “loose but grounded meditative line that can build into long stanzas or drift into single strophes.” Levin writes:

At least once a day I saw the police stop cars and search them
My friend talks about Charades drunk and stoned:
out of your mind, you look at a friend and teammate

And say “I know you know what I mean!” And they don’t know,
but at that moment you feel them in your mind
and time approaches a love that can’t be read or written

Altered consciousness aside, or illustrative of how to stage a world-as-circumstance and its requisite agents, “The Braid” introduces Levin’s ability — within and across stanzas — to re-present reality (“I saw the police stop cars and search them”), represent the interiority of a moment (“time approaches a love that can’t be read or written”), and expose the possibility that these presentations can jointly articulate and produce new formal and social relations. Levin continues:

I think I feel her also, washing or retreating on the tides of her sleep
Love’s body, which is the body of peace anxiously sought
Or on something crackling, aloof, or a warm field—the life-like field of her moderating, crackling alertness

In this interrogation of representative categories, Levin does not erase her subjects with some generalizing discourse. Levin’s daughter Alejandra, partner Tony, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Ronald Reagan, are named, interactive subjects throughout The Braid. From “I Want Our Minds to Be the Same:”

Destruction is an overwhelming force the joy of it inside her causes action
I wonder if Pasolini had to know that Reagan existed I hope not
What was Reagan doing in 1975 when Pasolini was murdered, when he died in Ostia

Stanzas later: “There’s a photo of Tony reading to Alejandra as a bookmark in my copy of / Pasolini’s Roman Poems.” It would be a disservice to the ingenuity and lyricism of this poem and collection to offer the cliché that “the personal is political,” but the associative movement in “I Want Our Minds to Be the Same” compels a reader to re-imagine the relationship between these two impossibly discrete categories. The immense problem of whose agency, where “safety is intolerable but so is being property,” is braided with a critique of financialized subject-constitution within state and even family formations—in which Levin-as-speaker doubly presents (dis)possession as the desire for modernity and experience of it:

Normal people must agree to have their worth vary
but I didn’t want to enter the space where my worth would be nothing—
I’m bonded by my creditors, who have the most interest in keeping me alive

Who touched the baby before she touched herself
Who touched me before I touched myself

The gestures I make over her contribute to her loss of inwardness
then we keep moving and cross paths with others
to give them our weakness and try heedlessly to protect them with our eyes

“The Diamond Skull,” Levin’s penultimate poem, moves quickly between its chosen and necessary concerns: from a baby’s rotted, discarded pastry to David Wojnarowicz to an altered Franz Fanon quote — “a woman who possesses a language / is possessed by the world expressed by this language.”

The thorny relationship between possession and limitation expressed here reveals the Burkean sublimity that undergirds Levin’s principle concerns — maternity, the aftermath of late 20th century American politics, the macro- and micrological anxieties those politics produce — in The Braid. Being alive is not about mapping meaning onto a meaningless world, but confronting the hard, immovable kernel of meaning that was dropped inside us, with or without consent, in our youth — during or by the Reagan presidency, or more recently, amidst “all the suffering, it’s not that it can’t be seen / The Eric Gardner verdict. The Rodney King verdict / All the facts are perfectly visible and yet don’t matter.”

Aestheticized distances scaffold the “Diamond Skull,” interstitial meditations that connect but do not flatten Levin’s representation of her own understanding of moments, quoted language and others’ experiences against her own anxieties. The Braid becomes an intentionally uneven stage. The monologist presents its topography, whose confrontation with meaning and memory is determined to be a prerequisite, not finale, to engaging and re-imagining the inherited model of “Reagan’s pastoral: a calm heart undisturbed / by fact, truth or justice.”

The Braid’s first and last words are “and” & “do” — as if the collection must conjoin its own meditations (“Is it okay to tell yourself something bearable to replace something unbearable / In order to be safe, do you have to keep moving or be pinned down”) with the agonies and furies between them in order to perform an action. From the final poem, “1-855-ASK-ECHO:”

At one point I would have wanted nothing more
than to keep all my emotions securely attached

To every object and place of my life—
but feelings seep out—over time—away from objects

The choice of and need for one form of mastery is replaced, in the final pages of this work, under the dual act of asking a question and, as Alejandra pronounces “echo,” going — into both the white space of the book’s end, as well as the territory of a new desire decoupled, or seeped over, from distant objects. In The Braid, Lauren Levin eschews the simple logic that moving on is a function of leaving behind. That, perhaps, if one wants a way out, one learns relentlessly, one learns to confront the surrounding, unbearable silence.