Larry Levis, who died unexpectedly in 1996 at age 49, wrote six books of poetry, including one published posthumously. His early work is lovely but his later work is what I’ve been obsessively re-reading. The poems’ sprawl, or maybe sweep is a better word — it is never scattered or unfocused. The tone/voice. The sensibility.
And then of course, there are the great images, for instance “he hears the geese racket above him / As if a stick were held flat against / A slat fence by a child running past a house for sale” and “Heaven was neither the light nor was it the air, & if it took a physical form / It was splintered lumber no one could build anything with.”
Robert Mezey called Levis’ poetry “the nourishing shock of fresh ideas that rise from the work of the true poet.” Indeed. David St. John, in the afterword to The Selected Levis, says,
To have a true sense of Larry Levis’s poems, especially his mature work, one must try to imagine Rilke’s great “Duino Elegies” spoken not from the parapets of high Romanticism but from a dusty, heat-baked grape field in Levis’s native Selma, California. Remarkably, Levis manages to wear his wisdom like a shrug, not like a prophet’s mantle […] He believes in the simple dignity of human beings, and what we constantly discover in these poems is Levis’s hope in a desperate tenderness that might rescue us from our notions of oblivion.
Stuart Friebert notes in his intro to “Linnets” (Levis’s long sequence which takes a childhood incident and meditates, levitates, imagines, and magics it up in every possible way) in the Longman Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry that Levis “turns things over and over to let their own meanings evolve, and the emphasis is on precision about things, rather than predisposed feelings.” (He also mentions Levis’s “appropriate gravity and a relieving sense of humor.”)
It is my own fault, by the way, that I hadn’t read Levis earlier. I’ve had that Longman anthology for more than a decade, and have heard his name before in other contexts. Charles Wright has a poem called, “Thinking About the Poet Larry Levis One Afternoon in Late May.” And Phillip Levine, when asked about current writers in an interview last year, mentioned Levis first. I thought at the time that perhaps that was a reflection on a lack of great writers in contemporary American poetry, since that was 2011 and Levis died in 1996. But Levis was a friend and student of Levine, and also Levis’s poems feel very current, very alive.
One of the things I revel in, in reading Levis’s later poems, is that though they can diverge so completely from the starting subject, and the next topic in the poem is so thoroughly described and felt that you are absorbed in it, not thinking about the beginning at all, that when he brings a hidden thread of the beginning back to the surface later on in the poem it is as if, despite your absorption, it was there in focus all along.
An early image of burning fields, for instance, in the first section of “Sleeping Lioness,” is forgotten until some 60 lines later in section three, when children at a zoo throw trash “sometimes on fire for a moment, into her cage.” A brief flare, a quick reminder of the earlier section and then it moves on again into zoos, and love lost, beauty, the ocean, the straighjtacketed mad, and only back to burning (this time of leaves in a yard) near the end. Other poets return to a single topic or image, but often in a way that can, even if they’re good, feel more gift-wrapped. These images and threads don’t feel “designed,” or even obsessive. Just intelligent. David Walker, in his introduction to Levis in the (excellent) anthology American Alphabets, says though the poems are “deeply grounded in the ordinary, they simultaneously reach beyond it; they frankly acknowledge an incomplete, uncertain grasp of experience even as they press urgently towards the truth of a larger world beyond the self.”
I’m finding it a little difficult to write about a Levis poem; the temptation is to list everything mentioned in the poem, all the subjects, the topics mentioned, but those lists just sit on the page (like the one in the previous paragraph) and make no sense together. Levis’ poems make deep sense. Writing about Levis’s longer work is tricky also because a single great line or quotation begs, because it’s so beautifully embedded, to have the context and the above and below lines quoted too, and then you wind up just wanting to tell everyone to just read the whole damn poem. “Sleeping Lioness,” to stick with that one, has this great scene in section two, a man remembering himself in his apartment twenty years ago,
If I look in the window I can see the book open on the counter;
I am reading it there; I am alone.
Everyone else in the world is in bed with someone else.
If they sleep, they sleep with a lock of the other’s hair
In their lips, but the world is one short,
An odd number, & so God has given me a book of poems.
I love that! But it begins, that section, with a rainy day and a glance at the cover of a book of James Wright’s poetry (this section is “For James Wright”), with an illustration on the overleaf that “someone had tried hard to make” look “like snow that had fallen in the shape / Of a horse; it looked instead like someone wrapped in bandages.” Then after the section I quoted above, he comes back to it, “the one / Wrapped in bandages wants only to look out once, / Even at a gust of rain blemishing the pool, / Even at a scuffed shoe passing.” Levis has said the speaker feels like the collection’s cover image without saying it, the speaker has simply become it.
“Sensationalism” is a meditation (all one long stanza, 70 or so lines) on a photograph by Joseph Koudelka which is “untitled & with no date / Given to help us with history.” In the photo a man is squatting, hand raised, “As if in explanation, & because he is talking, / Seriously now, to a horse.” The poem take its time to precisely describe the horse, that though it “would be white,” it isn’t, it is “technically, a gray, or a dapple gray, / With a streak of pure white like heavy cream on its rump.” The description of the photo continues, “There is a wall behind them both, which, like most walls, has / No ideas, & nothing to make us feel comfortable…”
The speaker decides, “because I know so little, & / Because the muted sunlight on that wall will not change” that this photograph was taken in Czechoslovakia and that the man’s wife and children were shot a week earlier by Nazis. Description of an artwork and then thoughts upon that artwork, that’s all pretty standard for an ekphrastic poem, but it doesn’t end there. Levis explores the ideas he has about this man, why this man is talking to a horse at all, why a horse instead of a person. The poem decides this is a picture of a man “trying to stay sane.”
But, then, doubt (“to let their own meanings evolve” said Friebert…). “Of course, / I have to admit I have made all of this up, & that / It could be wrong to make up anything.” The poem offers a few alternative scenarios for the photo. And then there’s this next turn, the address to the reader, which reads completely naturally in the poem and yet is unexpected,
& perhaps Joseph Koudelka was
Only two years old when the Nazis invaded Prague.
I do not wish to interfere, Reader, with your solitude —
So different from my own.
Levis in these later poems doesn’t just leave it at an initial realization. He plumbs it, and takes it somewhere else. I like the direct address too. “Sensationalism” continues,
[…] In fact, I would take back everything
I’ve said here, if that would make you feel any better,
Unless even that retraction would amount to a milder way
Of interfering; & a way by which you might suspect me
Of some subtlety. Or mistake me for someone else, someone
Not disinterested enough in what you might think
Of this. Of the photograph. Of me.
Once, I was in love with a woman, & when I looked at her
My face altered & took on the shape of her face
Phew! Not just an introduction of doubt and an address to the reader, but a fuller meditation on what it means for the poem to dictate meaning, then a turn again, this time to a woman from the speaker’s past. The next chunk, oh, about a third or so of the poem, is about his relationship with her, and his reactions to her, and the day she went mad, “waking in tears she mistook for blood,” and he drove her to the hospital, and what he learned from that experience — “And so began my long convalescence, & simple adulthood.”
The photograph has been completely left behind. To quote Friebert again, his rhythms “behave like arias in which elaborate melodies for a single voice work their way around a single repeated theme.” But the thing with Levis is, those elaborate melodies on single themes (though I’m not sure they’re quite so simple or singular a theme always) are not in the slightest way obvious in their relations. They are related, and that’s why the poems work, but they also move like — well, like what, exactly? Not move like thinking, this is much more refined than stream of consciousness, but move like realizing maybe, and remembering. Move like light moves on water, perhaps.
“Sensationalism” shifts at the end back to “That man,” deciding this time that he was a saboteur who might have gone mad beside that wall over the question of whether or not “they shot his wife & children before they threw them / Into the ditch, or after […].” And I’d like to go back a moment to “And so began my long convalescence, & simple adulthood” just to mention what a wonderful description of ‘growing’ after heartbreak it is.
(I initially read that poem without any idea of what the photograph really looked like, and liked that. But if you’re interested, this looks like it might be the one.)
Another late poem, “Elegy with a Petty Thief in the Rigging,” has a similar reader-address turn, this time putting the speaker explicitly into the scene. The poem starts with an entry from Columbus’s journal, and Columbus himself resting, perhaps, in the shade of a New World tree, “After sending his men off to accomplish some task? / To find a waterfall & a China behind it?” The second section defines ecstasy as originally meaning rapture, and slides through a beautiful description of the sea
[…] shattering the sea
Into air, into the shattered, reforming
Sea & sky again, & then into harbors, wharves,
The ancient walls of cities, moats & courtyards & asylums,
And the sun taking its place again in a stained-glass window
As if someone had decreed it so by law, drawn up
In Latin the exact angle of its light?
Then it moves up to the crow’s nest, to the boy, “the thief up there, // Paroled from prison by the queen & expecting / The world to end // In one unending fall of water.” The boy sees, as you might expect, as the new continent comes closer, twigs and bark, then “the first bird, & then / Another, & another.” In the following couplets is one of those Levis moments I love. He delays continuing with the approach of a continent, and says,
And me sitting up there with him, invisible,
Beside him in the rigging,
Thinking that if this is the story
The two of us
Are no more significant to it than whitecaps
Far out at sea,
That paradise would make either one of us
Long for a bar with a good pool table,
A beach town, & rain without end?
Always the question marks, after sure detail. Isn’t that a nice move? To place himself explicitly in this scene he’s imagined? Hang on, because next comes, “Let me move to one side so you can hear his thought / Without me in it anymore.” Wow! (or, more appropriately, given my generation, OMG!) That overt orchestration there is just a lovely move.
I could go on and on, but I think I’ll stop here for now after reiterating again the thought underlying this post, which is, Go read him!
Other favorite Levis poems:
“Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand” — “Death would come for both of them with its bridle of clear water in hand”
“To a Wren on Calvary” — “A wrong so wide no one can speak of it now in the town / That once had seemed, like its supporting factories / That manufactured poems & weaponry,/ Like such a good idea. And wasn’t it everyone’s?”
“Winter Stars” — “In a California no one will ever see again, / My father is beginning to die.”
“At the Grave of my Guardian Angel: St. Louis Cemetery, New Orleans” — “I should rush out to my office & eat a small, freckled apple leftover / From 1970”
“For Stones” — “Against laws / the tongue tries to go back down the throat”
“Boy in Video Arcade” — “The boy never bothering to look up as the sun comes out / In the late morning, because, Big Deal, the mist evaporating & rising.”
“In 1967” — “Show me a bad cedar waxwing, for example, & I mean / A really morally corrupted cedar waxwing, & you’ll commend / The cage they have reserved for you, resembling heaven.”
“Slow Child with a Book of Birds” — “only a swirling without / A name, a piece of untalkative sky intact / Above a row of houses, & blankness filling / The frames of every doorway, a white / That made the dark around it visible.”