In Review: Dogteeth by Levi Cain

Your body is a temple; so sayeth the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians. In Boston-poet Levi Cain’s first chapbook Dogteeth, now on its second printing via Ursus Americanus Press, the body is more prismatic: it’s “a house / with newly washed floors,” “a pool to drink from,” or “an apartment / condemned by god.” This central metaphor–the body as dwelling, as container–is threaded throughout the collection. It expands, contracts, and morphs from poem to poem, as the poet reckons Catholicism with corporeality in nimble, lyrical verse.

From the opening lines, the speaker and the body are as observer and observed: “my body carries guilt so naturally / it might as well be a woman’s,” the speaker remarks, “might as well be written into my very fiber.” Cain’s use of language renders for us the chasm of distance between the speaker and the body, as if the speaker can only sit by and watch while “an apology / become[s] fully formed in my mouth.” The collection often explores the role of agency between the body and the person inside it, speaker or spirit, how despite one’s best intentions “the body remembers / how to hurt itself above all things.” 

This central metaphor–the body as dwelling, as container–is threaded throughout the collection. It expands, contracts, and morphs from poem to poem, as the poet reckons Catholicism with corporeality in nimble, lyrical verse.

Elsewhere, Cain collapses this distance. This is especially apparent in moments of desire and genuine connection, like in the beautiful “Glory In Excelsis Deo,” where the beloved’s “hips fit to me as a church / does to ears of god.” Here, the speaker’s body becomes God’s “conduit,” dissolving the fraught questions of agency into a nonissue: body and self and God as one, desire coursing through the lines like blood through veins. The ode “Lovesong for My Trans Body” uses the self-body distance as a vantage point, singing ecstatic hymns of their body’s “quarterback shoulders” and “the acne peppering / the curve of your jaw.”

Catholicism pervades these poems as a kind of symbological backdrop, like a bright golden light peeking through the bedroom blinds. It’s important to note that this isn’t a collection of shame or guilt, nor is it a book of mockery or straightforward praise. Faith feels realistically mercurial, operating as a salve (“i dreamed of a god with cool hands / holding the clay pot of my womb / and breaking it gently”) or as conflicted observer (“may jesus watch, thin-faced / and anxious, as you reach steadily / into the denim of girls / with crooked mouths”) or as a storehouse of memories and sensations to draw from in order to describe complicated feelings and traumatic experiences.

For those raised steeped in it, the language of faith becomes like a reflex. Love and desire can easily tip into a kind of quasi-religious veneration, as the profane and the sacred short-circuit their crossed wires. Cain tugs at this interplay in poems like “Jesus Wears a Puerto Rican Flag on His Jacket and a Flower in His Hair,” where the subject of the poem, “so unlike the others in his stillness,” is nothing short of a miracle. Whether the man’s name is actually Jesus doesn’t matter. Here, he is The Jesus, “the outlier with eyelashes stark and gentle.” 

Cain’s ideas come through strongest in metaphor and moments of generous imagery. They focus on certain images that recur throughout: honey, flashing teeth, precise physical movements. The forms of the poems contour this voice, like in “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Twist Out was Not Enuff” where the uses of anaphora and self-interruption give the poem a distinctly spoken-word lilt. Though the collection is more than formally competent, some poems feel more alive and dynamic on the page than others. There’s an uneven quality to the various modes Cain works in, as though we’re witnessing two divergent poetic projects: sometimes the speaker is the voice of a person standing right in front of you looking into your eyes, sometimes the speaker emanates from deep inside your cavernous head. Bridging this distinction in future elaborations would only serve to heighten the poet’s image-to-image consistency.

For those raised steeped in it, the language of faith becomes like a reflex. Love and desire can easily tip into a kind of quasi-religious veneration, as the profane and the sacred short-circuit their crossed wires.

We all dwell in contradictions; to be a modern person is to be a tapestry of internal conflict, pulled in every direction until we’re nothing but loose ribbons. I love Dogteeth for its ability to hold itself together, with humor and with beauty, amidst these whelming forces. Cain knows where to focus their voice, and it’s that same certainty that we want echoing through our own bodies, be we temples, condemned apartments, or little sanctuaries for loved ones caught in the storm.

(Ursus Americanus Press, Poetry, Chapbook, Out Now)


August Smith is a poet, publisher, musician, and game dev living in Austin, TX. You can find links to his work, including more poetry book reviews, here: http://august.mostlymidwest.com/.

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, poetry, and creative nonfiction from marginalized creators.