Dana Levin

The Poet on the Poem: "White Tara"

In July ‘02, six months after my father died, my mother literally dropped dead, half-dressed, in the midst of putting on make-up. Massive coronary, the EMT said, dead before she hit the ground. To say this was unexpected and shocking for myself and my sisters is functional, but inadequate; to say more, unbearable.

Back to the topic at hand.

1. I enjoy looking at images, inside or outside the eye.

I’d been drawn to Tibetan Buddhist art for some time before my parents died, but I did not acquire my first tanka until after my mother passed away. Usually portraits of Tibetan Buddhist deities, tankas present foci for meditation. The more elaborate ones can be mesmerizing to view. As Tibetan Buddhism is a hybrid of buddhistic thought (as it arrived from India) and Tibet’s indigenous shamanic religion Bon, Tibetan tankas incorporate Bon’s gods, demons, and their magic accoutrements (each, of course, having symbolic value): skull bowls, swells of blood, severed head garlands (for the terrifying deities), blue lotuses, conch shells, be-ribboned umbrellas (for the beneficent gods),1 lakes flaming and pacific, billowing stylized clouds, snow-tipped elongated mountains. In its illustrative capacities, tanka art seemed to me a Himalayan equivalent to the best kind of tattoo, comic book, poster and calendar art, of which I am also a shameless admirer.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I live, has a noticeable Tibetan refugee community, so it was easy to come into contact with a lot of tankas. Because I felt most drawn to it, I bought a tanka of White Tara, a goddess of compassion and long life. This was about all I knew of her, until my engagement with Tibetan Buddhism deepened beyond a simple yen for archetypal eye-candy.

The poem “White Tara” was sparked first by a deep desire to render the strange and vivid visual environment I encountered in tankas, including the one I bought. As I began to read up on my resident goddess I was startled to find two kinds of deity meditation practice. The first, familiar to us all, is to simply encounter the god: the deity is separate from you, independent, superior (as we imagine gods) in his/her/its provinces of power; you train your mind upon it to be gifted. The other kind of meditation, the one that startled me, is one in which you, yourself, become the god. A kind of Imitatio Christi, but very literal: you, with all your imaginative force and concentration, call up from within and inhabit Tara’s loving kindness, her compassion for suffering, her fathomless patience and wisdom (as well as her black-haired, smooth-skinned, immortal youthful hottie-dom). The poem begins with a prod to enter this kind of meditation, including sprouting an eye in each palm like a good Buddhist deity, but let’s face it: it’s hard to enter into “feeling goddess” in a serious way. Especially when you are hating and missing your dead mother.

2. This may perhaps seem antique, but my approach to poem-writing is largely psychoanalytical.

Usually I have to temper archetypal rapture in my poems with some real world quotidian. For “White Tara” this meant trying to work with the fact that, after my mother died, I bought the tanka in a store—that it was a consumer item as much as talismanic. I figured that the dead mother info could stay pretty tangential to my intended “all visuals” White Tara poem, but once my mother got onto the page she was hard to dislodge (as in life, so in art). Of course now I began to suspect that I was drawn to the Tara tanka precisely because of my grief and conflicted feelings about my life with my mom. Ruefully, I could see where this was heading: the poem was going to demand I engage her, this Tara/Esther (my mother’s name), and why, when it came to my mother, and myself, I found it so difficult to “be the god” of compassion.

It is particularly difficult these days to write poems about one’s own mother or father, or at least it seems poets of my generation and younger tend to shy from such material. The drama of family and the drama of raw feeling carry too much the odor of the Confessional poem (once a perfume, now a stink: such is the fate of predominant artistic forces).2 And yet mothers and fathers and raw feeling we all have; they come together in an unignorable way when parents die. I engaged my feelings about and memories of my mother on the page with greatest reluctance and irritation, not only because they were often painful, but because I too didn’t want to write a poem about mothers (or fathers) for all the contemporary reasons (some good, some dumb, which is a whole other essay).3 Thus I arrived where I usually end up when strong feeling and/or subject demands expression in a poetic milieu (internalized) that is ambivalent, even hostile, toward it: having to work with how I didn’t want to write about what I was writing about. A familiar place: usually this tension resolves into good fuel, sometimes invention. Hence “the poets” entered the poem, a chorus of severest critics, adamantly parentless (bodiless, if they could just pull it off): the chorus of my resistance.

You may perhaps at this point be asking: if you really didn’t want to write about this stuff then why the heck did you? My experience of initial poetic inspiration is much like my experience of dreams: they come with unbidden material and a message. Since most of my poems begin with image-fascination, I ask them the same kinds of questions I ask dreams: why am I fascinated by you? What do you have to tell me? Where do you want me to go? Then I try to follow the usually gnomic “answers,” if one can even call them such (dreams spawn other dreams, image spawns further image): I embark on a pilgrimage of signs, a most devoted follower of the unconscious.

3. One reason I write poems is to figure myself out. Apparently.

I am often not that immediately connected with how I feel about most things, especially when feelings, thoughts and situations are new. Time and art mediate this. I’d spent much of my adult life trying to escape the force of my mother, whom I experienced primarily as a smotherer of self (we were not a good personality match, and she had a powerful and controlling character). I was only 37 when she died so swiftly and unexpectedly; a devourer I had always had to keep, with much effort, at bay, had suddenly—poof!—vanished. Once I could put down my psychic arms I was astonished to feel how deeply I missed and loved her, and deepest remorse and shame that I could not tell her so (our last conversation had been filled with habitual bickering and my trying to get off the phone; before we hung up her last words to me were, quite out of the blue and uncharacteristically, “It’s okay, I know you love me,” which took me completely aback. I did not rise to this occasion.)

In beginning to come to grips with these new feelings, I felt profoundly something else: there was now no one, really, to blame for any of my psychological crap. Most of us, at some point, blame parents, or any kind of other, for how life and mind turn out (if they turn out unpleasant in part or in whole), but as an adult one’s life and mind are one’s province. It was immensely sobering to really know this. If I felt internally murdered, I was the murderer; if I wanted rescue, I had to rescue myself. And that this was always the truth of it, once anyone started the long blind climb out of the childhood psyche.

This ultimately is where writing the poem brought me (you, of course, may have an entirely different experience reading it): if I was having trouble inhabiting White Tara’s compassion it was because I had to face the fact that I practiced, a lot of the time, mental self-annihilation and blamed my mother for it. Like a ventriloquist, I put my hand up the back of my dummy-mother and kept up the barrage: conscious victim, unconscious perp. I say now with all compassion: nobody’s fault but mine.


1. One of many sensible aspects of Tibetan Buddhism is that every deity has a terrifying and a beneficent form, and every ‘god’ is engaged as a mental emanation—as much as, or even more than, a beyond-human being.
2. Later, sometimes, they become perfumes again: with luck, more ‘rich and strange’ than the originals.
3. Four years after the deaths of my parents, one of my two sisters died (well and then sick and then dead in three weeks), thus it has been difficult to escape death, family and feeling as primary prods for poems, tiresome as such prods may seem to some, including, at this point, me.

Dana Levin

 Dana  Levin

Dana Levin's books are In the Surgical Theatre, winner of the 1999 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, Wedding Day, and Sky Burial (Copper Canyon Press). 

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