WE'RE NOT modern—we still live in the Dark Ages. This is the crux of Megan Levad's new poetry collection from Portland's Tavern Books. Why We Live in the Dark Ages is an odd, darkly funny, very smart collection of what aren't quite poems, but extended tangents you'd expect of a young professor fielding questions from her wide-eyed freshman comp students.
If you've ever been a first-time college instructor who has to tell your students they've just tapped the edge of your knowledge, but you'll do some research and get back to them next class, Why We Live in the Dark Ages will likely make you laugh at yourself with the shock of recognition. If you haven't, count yourself lucky, and there's still a lot to like about Levad's rambling narrator, who speaks with both authority and tentative uhs and likes on everything from cat parasites to the Peloponnesian War to Freud to popular conspiracy theories about the first lunar landing ("So that was pretty much Stanley Kubrick. I'm done. That's it!") and the poet Anne Sexton ("She was also a model. And she knew Sylvia Plath."). Underlying it all is ambivalence about the role of technology in modern life that's perhaps best embodied by Levad's silly pathos towards Britney Spears. In "Auto-Tune," she writes of the audio processor, "Humans can't hear the difference unless the song wants us to. Cher wanted us to. T-Pain wanted us to. Britney Spears wanted us to. Britney Spears is always trying to prove to us that she is not a robot."
Of course, there's a contradiction here: Britney Spears is evidently trying to prove her humanness by drawing attention to the very machine that, through its alteration of her voice, makes her less legibly human. "How is a cyborg different from a robot?" Levad seems to ask. And where do we draw this shaky line of decibels, shifting detectably?
This tension is the most interesting thing about Levad's book, and it shows up in Dark Ages' title poem, which suggests that the Dark Ages, if we do indeed still live in them, were maybe not so bad after all. "[T]he people of this time/period were, were smart people essentially," she writes. "They had art they had, uh, you know I don't know, interesting conversation... we view them as being sort of dumb... because they weren't literate in the Latin which was the language everything was being written in for like, the intellectuals and, uh, all this intellectual thought was going on and was controlled largely by the Church."
Like hearing a friend try to recount something they read online about, say, the benefits of melatonin or the dangers of soy products, Levad's narrator is delivering thirdhand, possibly misremembered information here, the suggestion being that everyday people generally lack access to their age's scientific and intellectual progress. If our fellows of the Dark Ages couldn't read Latin, we aren't scientists, and instead glean a vague understanding of science through alarmist Huffington Post articles and I Fucking Love Science! memes on Facebook.
And yet, perhaps this is not the worst fate. For all of Levad's meandering confusion, for all of her sharp-edged contradictions, Dark Ages is basically a meditation on human curiosity and capacity for wonder. In "Dance," Levad writes that humans are one of only a few species who can really, truly dance to an external beat, an action that requires speech or "[approximating] speech." "And when we watch the Backstreet Boys or Michael Jackson that's why we're so happy," she writes, "they're doing dancing and singing at the same time and that's something that is really really human."
Why We Live in the Dark Ages is the first in Tavern Books' Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series, which "exists to champion exceptional literary works from young women poets." Levad's is the first book to receive publication through this award, and it's a worthy place to start.