In this complex poetry collection (divided into three sections, "Body," "Home," and "World"), the author moves from the specifics of the individual diseased or dying body to the more universal realm of suffering and politics. Not so much a poet of narratives as a conjurer of images, Levin writes from changing points of view: first as a man, then as a woman; as a surgeon, then a patient.

Poet Louise Glück's introduction states that the book's power "derives from ambiguity: the raised scalpel-healing that looks like assault," and Levin's raw imagery is indeed both challenging and celebratory. In the opening poem, "Lenin's Bath," we watch with Dr. Sergei Debov as Lenin's corpse is tenderly submerged in a vat of embalming fluid. Debov imagines the germs that crawl along the cadaver "seeking a way in."

In the next poem, "Eyeless Baby," the reader becomes a caregiver searching a deformed infant's face that is nothing but a single nostril and a cleft palate. In "Bathhouse, 1980," we see (as the blind baby cannot) through a young homosexual man's eyes both the human longing for passion and the viral "scourge" that, again, seeks entrance. The angels that gather in the bathhouse's corner become nurses ("The Nurse") who swarm like moths over a hospitalized patient's body.

This interweaving of place and point of view continues throughout, creating a magical, disturbing world in which a reader can be both body ("The Baby on the Table") and healer ("In the Surgical Theatre"). Other powerful poems include "Personal History," "The Beautiful Names" (in which a young boy learns to name the sexual organs and so discovers their beauty), and "Witness."


This collection provides readers an alternative path into healing/illness experience. Rather than the narrative, story-telling approach students are accustomed to, these poems provide visceral imagery that forces readers to feel rather than to think about a situation.

Poems "The Baby on the Table" and "In the Surgical Theatre" might be of particular interest to surgeons or to medical and nursing students interested in surgery. The poem "The Nurse" provides a fascinating glimpse into how nurses who attend the dying become like angels; they wait and wait, and then they both enter the body and free it from its earthly bonds.


This collection was the winner of the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Award.


The American Poetry Review

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