Lauren Levin‘s poetry collection The Braid (Krupskaya Books, 2017) is described by its publisher as “a fever dream of pregnancy and early parenting in the era of the police state.” Here are 21 moments and meditations, strung together from from this whirlwind text.
1. The Braid opens wondering, “what it means / to say we want our work to be vulnerable when we’re the ones who make it.” (13)
Vulnerability is the ultimate braveness, admitting one’s own insecurity. Telling the truths we are not sure we can understand. Standing in our uncertainty and being willing to speak from there. It is guts. This book has guts.
2. “The obvious things are worth saying too / The obvious things are worth saying instead” (107)
That’s the vulnerability: I’ll stay awake, and see, and it will hurt and it won’t be resolved, but I will stay with it and be truthful about it. This vulnerability is generous, and inviting. Even as this work describes obvious and painful truths about injustice, there is a surprising feeling of possibility that makes me stay present, feel alive while I read it.
3. Levin and I both had our first children in 2013. It was such a disorienting, and, maybe, overly orienting, time… the opening and closing of time. The time-warping speed of change that comes with pregnancy, birth, and parenthood is whiplashing. But so is all time:
“One way to think about time: Port Arthur, which once had a refinery, now has a chemotherapy clinic” (47)
4. The idea that all our experiences live in our bodies—Levin takes her place as the connector of a dazzling range of truths because they are hers. She is part of the braid, and the braider, and the connection that holds the braid together.
“I’m writing in and out because I don’t know how else to weave.” (14)
Levin’s feat: to say what feels unsayable, to tell the facts and experiences that are impossible to understand. A teacher once told me: we love fiction because it is a chance to escape ourselves. We love poetry because it refuses to let us escape. There are many pleasures in The Braid, but no escapes.
I know the things I care about
because I can’t stand to even read about them; looking for ways to fight about
the things I can’t stand to read about. (29)
The discomfort of talking about what she feels she can’t talk about. Being willing to hold opposing truths, to be in more than one place at once, but also to be engaged and present to what we’d rather not see.
And I can never talk about the Danziger Bridge, not really, how the NOPD shot
6 unarmed people trying to leave the flooded city, shot one in the back, killed 2
The cops were convicted then their convictions overturned for them time became light and magical, transformed
But murdered 17-year-old James Brissette and murdered 40-year-old Ronald Madison
Will always be 17 and 40
I always learned that everything is complicated
but some things don’t seem complicated. (16)
One of the braveries of The Braid is an unraveling and re-weaving of the speaker’s childhood Reagan pastoral, dismantling its echoes. Dismantling its comforts and lies, and as she does so, illuminating those threads, their allure and their consequences, that live on.
7. Levin and I were both born in the same year, both had “Reagan childhoods.” This is a perfect summation of the national powers we were brought up under, being taught to fear, to want security. To be willing to pay for it.
Living in such doubled spaces
the multiple dimensions of surveillance
which include care and control (127)
8. And this is a book about raising up a baby. Even as a large part of toddler upbringing involves surveillance and trying to get them to “behave,” their outrages and rebellion are everything.
I want to ask the question, why is Reagan so dull
The answer I have arrived at is
because Reagan is a sleeping pill that offers those who swallow it
the unalloyed enjoyment of white innocence (115)
9. Lots of us meet pastoral poetry before any other kind of poetry. We’re taught pastoral, poetry as big feelings, inexplicable. The meadow. The mother. California. The outlet. Embodying silent nature as a coping mechanism:
“and pastoral is an idea of working with the earth attuned to its rhythms / But not having to feel it when feeling it would not be convenient” (48)
10. And Levin’s poems fight against that lulling, trying to break out of, indicting even while appreciating the strength of “… Reagan’s pastoral: a calm heart undisturbed / by fact, truth or justice” (116)
11. As in Levin’s example of countless critics applauding the technique and beauty of a sculpture and how that focus obscures the rape it depicts… “I’ve been talking about the pastoral image of safety/ as concealing the prison state” (90)
12. Yet another strand of bravery in The Braid is its beautiful, lonely, sharp, illumination of the caretaking trap; the motherhood pastoral. And how that trap is an echo of all the glass walls, glass ceilings built around femaleness:
And yet my body fundraising somewhere down there doesn’t make me feel
more than a nutrient-feeder, really, hummingbird feeder
with the tubing grieved and colorful and grief shame. (19)
13. And presses against a binary where the other option is a male pastoral, equally unfitting:
but like [Brecht] I cultivated life
as a beautiful, criminal male indolence – until I realized I would get nowhere with it and learned to wash dishes (50)
14. The Braid handles what has woven to form its speaker and what she weaves in turn: emerging as a new person, again and again in succession, but are still full with all her history, and so much shared history. And how her daughter’s babyhood illuminates this…
I am more
of a time-traveler. In that my emotions of parenting
are like the forgotten emotions of my childhood
piercing, loud, constant, stirring
dissolute and selfish, self- and world-dissolving (79)
15. A friend who is in recovery told me that part of growing up is having to keep re-parenting yourself. When The Braid unravels, and re-twines, the narrative of becoming a parent, that re-parenting is revealed.
Trying to escape the bonds of caregiving even as she sees the effects of a careless world. Sleeping sandwiched between her parents to treat pregnancy insomnia. Looking at her daughter’s helpless freedom.
the baby’s body was so dense that no information could get in or out
She was so young that her mind didn’t make any sounds
she was the only being left with any privacy (49)
16. And in the midst of unflinchingly telling how pregnancy broke her, how motherhood amazes and robs her, there is this powerful empathy with the speaker’s toddler daughter:
She loves narration – she says ‘I touch the string’ while she touches it
says ‘I want to touch the light’ although she’s touching it already
I think, does the feeling of still wanting to touch it
persist in her, outdo the feeling of touching it? Or is she surprised
That touching the light is just this modest buzz and not the sumptuous feeling
she imagined? (62)
17. “Braiding is a social art / to own a body’s time” (67)
What this book does is nowhere as simple as braiding. The Braid is less patterned than a braid, its grappling and telling less regular than braiding. The Braid speaks freely, slipperily, bringing its many strands up against one another a moment at a time. Small handfuls of experience, ideas twist together for a moment, clarifying one another.
That’s the thing about a braid, it’s not a network because it connects nothing to me
It’s just bringing things together
while I watch and watch (48)
While, of course, this work is doing much more than watching, much more than bearing witness. The poet is being the connector. To be braided, the strands need to be held, by band or hand on one side, and by a source on the other and either bound at the bottom or made of something so grippy the braid holds itself in. She is willing to hold all these pieces.
19. “what I’m looking for is a way to join with the world / and love won’t let me do that any more than hatred will” (56)
I begin seeing the braid as a DNA shape, endlessly varying ladders, morphing in their environments, telling our body what to be.
I realize I was rewarded for saying a certain ‘yes’ so I kept saying it –
or maybe a form of thought I never really thought but only lived
Had settled into my molecules, a medium not quite glass not quite poison
but with the same chemical composition as my other thoughts. The way diamond has the same chemical composition as coal
A familiar rhythm of mildly detached grinding worry
But that’s the thing. Anxiety helps me survive. I find pinpricks of place
It smoothes out collected states that are really a lot to handle at the end of the day. (47)
Living in time with a body, the choice of what to look at, what to tell. What to remember. How to hold on to all that we’ve seen, how to empty ourselves. How to empty one’s hands.
21. “That’s what I mean when I say ‘pastoral’: / a kind of remembering that contains its own forgetting” (72)
The Braid is the opposite kind of remembering.
Megan Breiseth is the author of the chapbook Zia (Mrs. Maybe Press), co-author of the chapbook the longer you stay here (Aggregate Space Gallery) and two manuscripts-in-progress. She works as an educator and lives in Alameda, CA with her wife, son, and cats.