Sometimes poetry is funny. It doesn’t always hold the gravitas and severity of “The Wasteland” or “The Divine Comedy.” Shakespeare wrote “King Lear,” but he made sex jokes, too. In fact, poetry is a remarkably flexible form, and the first collection of Megan Levad’s, assistant director of the Helen Zell Writer’s Program at the University, evinces the form’s flexibility.

Why We Live in the Dark Ages

Megan Levad
Tavern Books

“Why We Live in the Dark Ages” is a skilled exposition of wit. In the collection, Levad reflects on topics from Marcel Proust to transubstantiation to Tycho Brahe to evolution. At times, the poems can’t even decide on a topic. Where we start and where we end up never seem to add up, so that a poem that starts off addressing the French Revolution ends up talking about Bill Clinton and St. Augustine.

Taking the form of didactic prose poems, her verse constantly undermines the authoritative tone that most didactic poetry has. Take “Gravity,” for example: “Oh I don’t know anything about gravity.” That’s the whole poem. According to Hamlet, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and Levad has learned this lesson well. While concerned with science, her poetry isn’t concerned with discovering scientific knowledge. Her poems never arrive at an understanding of science, but the epistemological limits of science.

The poems in “Why We Live in the Dark Ages” are hyperactive, as if they were written by a professor on an Adderall binge. In some poems, Levad overloads the lines with information, too much for the reader to fully assimilate it all. Ostensibly, her poems reflect the problems of the digital age, where the excess of information and the speed of its delivery prevent its full understanding. We have information, but we are still bereft of knowledge.

For this reason, Levad purports, we live in the Dark Ages. The advancements in every scientific discipline are immense, but no one other than a specialized class of scientists understand how these work. Does anyone really understand all of the capabilities of an iPhone? We look upon our technology with a reverence usually afforded to magic and have an absolute faith in its ability to do what we want.

One of the most impressive accomplishments in Levad’s debut collection is her ability to imitate the human voice. She transposes sound waves into ink, creating a poetic voice that is successfully comic and believable. Reflecting on colonialism in her poem “Polio,” she writes: “Wow Belgium never gets shit for how badly they fucked up their colonies.” This idiom is refreshingly modern: you might hear it while walking down the street or sitting in Starbucks.

Levad’s voice remains coherent throughout, as well, so that it reads as a series of essays as well as a collection of poems. The reader gets to see the keen machinations of Levad’s mind work from topic to topic upon all the various concerns of contemporary life.

In her first collection, Levad has shown a sharp intelligence and a remarkable ability to imitate modern vocalities and invent forms that mirror the hyperactivity of contemporary life. Her poetic voice reveals a talent that is both classically satirical and invigoratingly original.

Megan Levad will be reading her poetry at Literati Bookstore on April 20 at 7 p.m. Admission is free.

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