Harriet Levin Millan’s latest book was inspired by Eva Hesse, a Holocaust survivor who fled Nazi Germany as a toddler, struggled to stand out in the male-dominated art world of the ’60s and died at 34 years old from brain cancer possibly caused by the materials she used in her art.
My Oceanography came out last month and is Levin Millan’s third book of poetry. (She wrote the book under her maiden name Harriet Levin.) The book goes beyond Hesse’s story, as Levin Millan weaves in facets of her own life to explore envy, competition and desire.
The book also touches on anti-Semitism and women’s issues, two subjects that have become more timely because of current events.
Levin Millan, an English associate teaching professor and director of the certificate program in writing and publishing at Drexel University, said this book comes out of the two poetry traditions of ekphrasis — writing about art — and persona poetry — “when you take the past of someone else and you can talk more freely about yourself.”
“I inhabit an imaginative persona that is Eva Hesse,” Levin Millan said. “It’s not really Eva Hesse. I blend fact with fiction. I blend the facts of her life with my own life. It’s more like an imaginative biography and an imaginative story.”
About 10 years ago, Levin Millan began to work on poems inspired by Hesse, though doubts about the project dogged her. She wasn’t sure who would be interested in a woman who had died decades before.
“Eva Hesse is known in the art world. There’s actually a documentary made about her this year that was on PBS, but she’s not a household name,” Levin Millan said. “She made her art during a time when the art world was dominated by men, so the men who made art during that time are a lot more famous than she is.”
She persisted with the project on the mantra that the subject chooses the writer, not the other way around.
“It’s very vital to hear [the subjects] and listen to them,” Levin Millan said.
Levin Millan said she relates to Hesse’s struggle of finding recognition in a male-dominated art world. Both women married artists when they were young, and both struggled to be seen outside of their husbands’ shadows, Levin Millan said. This connection comes up in the book.
Levin Millan recalled receiving a letter of recommendation that mentioned she was married to a brilliant artist.
For both women, these marriages ended in divorce.
“Like Eva Hesse, I felt I couldn’t achieve the kind of writing I wanted to achieve,” Levin Millan said. “I wasn’t a whole person until that marriage ended, and then I was able to come into my own. … It was the forces at the time. I was in graduate school in the ’80s, and women were just not taken seriously.”
The title, My Oceanography, comes from “Diving into the Wreck” by the late poet Adrienne Rich. Levin Millan said Rich used the metaphor of a shipwreck to encourage women to discover a new psychic terrain.
“I wanted to finish her call and nod to that and write an homage to that idea of this new psychic landscape,” Levin Millan said.
Much of her previous writing draws on issues of feminism, refugees and the silencing of voices.
She wrote her first book of poetry, The Christmas Show, in response to her sister’s rape. It was selected for the Barnard New Women Poets Prize.
When a critic said she looked at the world through the lens of rape too much, Levin Millan responded with a second book, Girl in Cap and Gown. This book looked at the world through the lens of rape even more, she said.
Her debut novel How Fast Can You Run was based on the life of South Sudanese refugee Michael Majok Kuch. With her family and students, she founded the Reunion Project to reunite South Sudanese immigrants with their mothers living abroad.
Levin Millan is already working on her next project. She spent a year researching her family background. She found relatives’ names listed at Yad Vashem and traveled to Ukraine to visit their villages. She is now working on a fictionalized account of that history, as well as more poetry.
“The themes choose us,” Levin Millan said. “They reflect my upbringing as a Jew.”