The Ribbon Around the Bomb by Elizabeth Levine / Finishing Line Press / 2019
Elizabeth Levine is a trilingual writer who teaches creative writing at William Paterson University in New Jersey. As an author of many disciplines, her chapbook, The Ribbon Around the Bomb isn’t only a collection discussing death by suicide in an odal mode, but an observation focusing on the specific circumstances leading up to the decision rather than the decision itself. With the use of research and careful empathy, Levine focuses her poetic eye to reimagine the after effects of trauma, offering The Ribbon Around the Bomb as a case study into the tortured artist’s psyche.
In order to do so, Levine respectfully pays homage to several geniuses tortured by circumstance and mental instability while setting out to query the processes of insecurities, grief, othering, and defeat. With the research of an academic but the heart of an artist, she brings herself closer to her subjects through the meditative practice of personae. Despite many poetry collections exploring themes of mental illness, depression, and suicide, it’s rare that a chapbook (or a full-length for that matter) is put together with several subjects in focus. It should be noted that Levine does a good job at maintaining the responsibility of reportage while handling the voices of famous (and infamous) people like Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Frank O’Hara, Paul Celan, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Weldon Kees.
The title poem of the chapbook embodies the thoughts of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and advances through Kahlo’s monologue in five different movements. This particular work as the title poem acts as the model inquisitor, asking of the reader that they too imagine what brings the subject to death. These poets as people, wounded as we all are and have been, are making a definitive choice about what happens next. Instead of first-person elegies, the poem “The Ribbon Around the Bomb” shows us that every piece is an invitation to investigate each poem as a refusal of a life dictated, a last stand in reclaiming autonomy in a world where the artist is pulled from two opposing ends simultaneously.
Love me like the red blood
of a bull, Mi matador,
Kill me out of respect, not spite.
Smash my porcelain heart.
Make of me a Mexican mural!
Levine carries a heavy burden when she decided to study these artists shortly after the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. In her introduction, she writes, “I would argue that creativity and mental illness are closely aligned; that the membrane is thin and that this connection bears further investigation.” Later, she begs the question, “Is the reason why these artists committed suicide different for each individual, or is there a commonality in the final hours, regardless of circumstances? Is the decision to take one’s own life spurred by a particular accident? Or does cumulative exhaustion force them to make this choice? Is it surrender or is it relief or both?” In order for Levine to bring herself closer to being the poet in distress writing about a poet in distress.
All the poems in The Ribbon Around the Bomb are nothing short of a cri de coeur. This chapbook’s denouement leaves the reader with sensations of both mourning and unification as it reminds us how we’re all afflicted with inner and worldly conflict in varying degrees while showing us how though we’d wish people can simply press on when faced with adversity, that this is not always the case. Nevertheless, what is ever present in The Ribbon Around the Bomb is the universality of life, death, and deep thought. Levine realizes that we too, share similar struggles with these artists; maybe some struggles that are all too familiar.
I am the Great Depression
And the Rocky Mountain Review.
I am an acute triangle.
I am the Fall of Magicians:
My disappearance the ultimate
Slight of hand.