THE POET: LARRY LEVIS'S ELEGY, THE
SELECTED LEVIS, AND
THE GAZER WITHIN
-by Edward Byrne
Few poets in recent decades
have written work as intelligent
and elegant as the poetry in this collection. In these poems
as if in song, has perfectly united the conversational
voice with the inspirational music of their lyrical lines.
powerful piece, containing vivid images and focused details
written within the expanse of its rich and sweeping
displays a personal depth of emotion on the part of the poet
that is matched magnificently by the deep
well of understanding
for our human condition — life and love to loss and death —
the very words so carefully chosen for these poems.
This has been, I believe one of the tasks of contemporary poetry — to recover
the poet and the idea of the poet for our time. Such has been the constant example provided by such poets as James
Wright, Anne Sexton, Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Sylvia Plath, Mark Strand, and Margaret Atwood — to
name only a very few who occur to me at the moment — poets who created the role and reality of the poet during the
1960s and 1970s. Yet, it would be false to assume that this poetry has been concentrated wholly upon the Self, or
exclusively upon the Self. In many ways it may have sought only to rescue poetry from some extremes, some abysses,
of modernist impersonality.
— Larry Levis, "Some Notes on the Gazer Within"
When Larry Levis died of a heart attack at the age of 49 in 1996, one of the most
accomplished and still promising voices in contemporary American poetry was silenced. As David St. John mentions in the afterword to The Selected Levis: "With Larry
Levis's death came the sense that an American original had been lost." In addition, Philip Levine writes in
the foreword to Elegy, a posthumous collection of Levis's poetry, that the United States
had lost "one of our essential poets at the very height of his powers. His early death is a staggering loss for
our poetry, but what he left is a major achievement that will enrich our lives for as long as poetry matters."
Indeed, throughout his history as a poet, now ended much too soon, Levis already had been perceived by many of his peers as one of the leading practitioners of his art.
of publications and awards was second to none among his generation. His first book of poems, Wrecking Crew, won the
United States Award from the International Poetry Forum in 1972. A second book, The Afterlife, was the Lamont Poetry
Selection of the Academy of American Poets in 1976. The Dollmaker's Ghost
won the Open Competition of the National Poetry Series in 1981. His fourth and fifth books, Winter Stars (1985)
and The Widening Spell of the Leaves, (1991) received even greater critical praise and placed Levis among the top ranks of American poets. In between publications,
Levis received numerous esteemed honors,
including a Discovery Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and three National Endowment for the Arts
Larry Levis's influence and reputation as a teacher of poetry also spread throughout
the years as he taught at various universities, including California State University (Los
Angeles), Missouri, Iowa, Utah, and Virginia Commonwealth. As Levis wrote in an article for the Contemporary Autobiography
Series published in the year of his death, and reprinted in The Gazer Within (2000), "I worked hard to write poetry.
But I've had, I think, an enormous amount of luck as well." Revealing the modesty Levis seemed to always present, these comments appear in a section of his
essay titled "Luck." Nevertheless, most poets and readers of poetry would discount the "luck" and
credit Levis's success to his growing
talent as a writer.
Some of the samples of poetry included in The Selected Levis and taken from
early work seen in Wrecking Crew may appear derivative and stilted at times, as in "The Poem You Asked For" with
its lines clearly reminiscent of Mark Strand's poetry of the late '60s and early '70s:
My poem would eat nothing.
I tried to give it water
but it said no,
I held it up to the light
but it only pressed its lips
more tightly together.
Nevertheless, even in this first collection published while Levis was in his twenties, other poems
already showed some of Levis's developing voice and central concerns, his increasingly conversational tone and his need
to keep alive the familiar places (California and the family farm) or important people (parents and farmworkers) from his
personal past. As David St. John
again comments in the afterword of The Selected Levis:
A native of California's central San Joaquin Valley, its
endless rows of vineyards, its groves of fig and almond orchards, Larry Levis brought to his poetry John Steinbeck's
dramatic sweep of the landscape. Although Levis came of age in the late sixties, it was his upbringing on his family farm that helped to provide the sense of social
conscience that resonates in all of his work. It was a time when César Chavez brought the plight of farmworkers
to the world stage; but for Levis those
questions always remained personal and intimate, the stories of particular young men whose voices spoke alongside him in
the fields of his childhood.
Indeed, despite the unmistakable early influence of other American poets, including his teachers
Philip Levine, whom Levis met as a freshman and described as the one who nurtured his interest in becoming a poet, and Donald
Justice, whom he credits with helping him develop his craft, or the characteristics borrowed from those European surrealist
poets whose works seemed to affect so much of the nation's poetry at that time (in fact, Levis acknowledges their
influence also came indirectly by way of "marvelous 'American' surrealists — if they can be called that:
by Bly, Simic, Tate, Lux, Knott . . .") and appears to dominate many of the poems in Wrecking Crew, the first evidence
that Levis was moving slowly but steadily toward a signature voice and subject matter can be seen in a poem like "The
The town I grew up in
has a drug store where men
gather, since their words
fall into the tiny graves
rain makes in their tracks.
So it goes.
In the twenty-five years between the release of Wrecking Crew and the posthumous publication of
Levis's final collection of poems, Elegy,
readers were able to witness a gradual maturation of the man and his increasingly masterful use of a distinctive poetic
style which now stands as a model for other poets to follow. Early in his writings, Larry Levis displayed an ability
to fill his poetry with interesting and inventive images, as fine as those in the poems of the French and Spanish poets
who clearly influenced him, and frequently even resembling the scenes one might see depicted on any surrealist canvas, complete
with the keen similes and metaphors suggested by such paintings.
When you look into the eyes of Gerard
Always the same thing: the giant sea crabs,
The claws in their vague red holsters . . . .
But looking into the eyes of Pierre Reverdy
Is like throwing the editorial page
Out into the rain
And the riding alone on the subway.
["Readings in French"]
he certainly had not become a confessional poet, by the time The Dollmaker's Ghost was published in 1981 Levis had honed
his craft, shifted his attention to a more intimate voice and nearly narrative style that more often than not focused on
past autobiographical experiences or personal memories as if to arrest those important moments in his life and memorialize
the people he at last realized had helped shape the man he was or was to become. In this transitional volume, many
of his poems suddenly were presented to readers for viewing more like fading photographs from a family album rather than
the surrealist paintings on a museum wall. Levis's poignant and painful poems acted as lasting reminders of illuminating moments in his personal history, though
those moments were surely depicted in many situations against a darker social backdrop. Like the scarred index finger
or the rustling of vines in "Picking Grapes in an Abandoned Vineyard," each incident in a Levis poem now triggered memories — either emphasizing the lingering
influence of others from his childhood and adolescence or discovering an emerging awareness of absence felt in his adulthood.
Each written recollection offered Levis
ample opportunities for a poetry of self-reflection in a more relaxed and conversational tone:
Picking grapes alone in the late autumn sun—
A short, curved knife
in my hand,
Its blade silver from so many sharpenings,
Its handle black.
I still have a scar where a friend
Sliced open my right index finger, once,
In a cutting shed—
The same kind of knife.
I would stand still, and chalk my cue stick
In Johnny Palores' East
Front Pool Hall, and watch
The room filling with tobacco smoke, as the sun
Through one window.
Now all I hear are the vines rustling as I go
From one to the next,
The long canes holding up dry leaves, reddening,
So late in the year.
Today, in honor of them,
I press my thumb against the flat part of this
And steady a bunch of red, Malaga grapes
With one hand,
The way they showed me, and cut—
And close my eyes to hear them laugh at me again,
And then, hearing nothing,
Carry the grapes up to the solemn house,
Where I was born.
Inklings of what readers would find in The Dollmaker's Ghost first surfaced in "Linnets,"
the long twelve-section poem that appeared in The Afterlife (1977). In "Some Notes on the Gazer Within,"
the central essay in The Gazer Within, Levis
states that when he began this poem he learned he seemingly "had nothing to say"; therefore, he "had
to find a way to say it with a finality, with a stare, with style. At least, this is what I thought, anyway.
So I chose the least likely incident possible for a poem: my brother shooting a small bird with a shotgun in his adolescence,
in my childhood. I thought that by choosing such a subject I would learn how to write about nothing at all, which
seemed to be my lot. . . . The more I thought about the absurd subject of my poem, the more possibilities it began
In an interview with David Wojahn, Levis remarked that "Linnets" is "more concerned with the natural world; it's a
parable poem. . . ." Indeed, Levis
begins to discover the natural world and stresses landscape more and more in the following years. He values landscape
in his poetry: "I don't know what could be more unfashionable just now than the whole 'idea' of landscape,
but at times, for me, the world is a landscape, and I think of my own poems as if they were landscapes, or I could think
of them by virtue of their places." Levis writes about his rural Southern California, its landscape and its farmworkers, with the same precision with which Levine writes of Detroit's urban landscape and its factory workers.
Where I grew up, the specific place meant everything. As a child in California,
I still thought of myself, almost, as living
in the Bear Flag Republic, not in the
United States. When I woke, the Sierras, I knew, were on my right; the Pacific
was a two-hour drive to my left, and everything between belonged to me, was
me. I was astonishingly sheltered. It was only gradually that I learned the ways
in which place meant everything, learned that it meant two hundred acres of
aging peach trees which we had to prop up, every summer, with sticks to keep
the limbs from cracking under the weight of slowly ripening fruit. It meant
a three-room schoolhouse with thirty students, and meant, also, the pig-headed,
oppressive Catholic Church which, as far as I could determine, wanted me to
feel guilty for having been born at all. And it meant the gradual self-effacement
and aging of my parents.
At the same time, Levis concludes that only after he came to a full realization about his sense of place could he truly write his own poetry:
"After I left for good, all I really needed to do was to describe the place exactly as it had been. That I could
not do, for that was impossible. And that is where poetry might begin." Consequently, these poems from the
middle volumes, written after time and distance had allowed Levis to view his California roots more
clearly, reveal to an even greater extent the self that was Larry Levis. As he observed: "The authentic experience
of any worthwhile landscape must be an experience of my own humanity."
Levis's work becomes more and more a poetry of place in his middle books,
The Dollmaker's Ghost and Winter Stars. Nevertheless, Levis recognizes that any landscape or place one calls home is not necessarily that identifiable location
on a road map. Instead, as he says in "Eden and My Generation," an essay that locates him and his work about
the San Joaquin Valley among "Levine's Detroit, James Wright's Ohio, Lowell's Boston," it is the internal
landscape, "the geography of the psyche that matters, not the place," since the place represented in any poet's
work is romanticized, fictionalized, filtered through the mind. It is not because so much "is subject to change
and decay," but it is because "the poet has sealed those places away into the privacies of his or her work forever.
. . . In a way, we can never get to those places because they don't exist — not really, anyway."
Levis reaches the following decision:
Place in poetry, then, or for that matter in much fiction, is often spiritual, and
yet it is important to note that this spiritual location clarifies itself and becomes
valuable only through one's absence from it. Eden becomes truly valuable only
after a fall, after an exile that changes
it, irrecoverably, from what it once was.
In "Linnets" the influence of other poets on Levis and the desire to establish his singular style seem to be competing
with one another. Clearly, his voice appears to be echoing others in some sections, as in the following where one can
hear once again hints of Mark Strand, especially "The Untelling":
a good page.
It is blank,
and getting blanker.
My mother and father
are falling asleep over it. . . .
They are all tired of reading,
they want to go home,
they won't be waving goodbye.
When they are gone,
the page will be crumpled,
thrown into the street.
exhibits a beginning understanding of how landscape and self can be joined together. Again, as he says it, "authentic
experience of any worthwhile landscape must be an experience of my own humanity." Also, Levis detected difficulty in sharing his experiences or personal observations
in the tightly constructed form of shorter lines which mark his early poetry. As a result, the emerging voice
of Levis — more conversational and comprehensive, more autobiographical and intimate — is also present in other
sections of "Linnets," such as this opening of the poem, which ironically Levis "fashioned . . . into prose"
to get away from "problems of form":
One morning with a 12 gauge my brother
what he said was a linnet. He did this at close range
where it sang on a flowering almond branch. Any-
one could have done
the same and shrugged it off,
but my brother joked about it for days, describing
how nothing remained of it, how he watched for
feathers and counted only two gold ones which he
slipped behind his ear.
As Levis confides that he consciously designed The Afterlife
to close with "Linnets," readers are justified in believing this poem indicates the close of one stage in
his poetry and the turning toward a new direction. Even when one examines the table of contents for The Selected Levis,
the differences between the titles of the poems in The Afterlife and the following collection, The Dollmaker's Ghost
— its longer titles containing more detailed information and readily identifiable places or people — are easily
apparent. Indeed, in many ways, the poetry of The Dollmaker's Ghost signals a number of changes in Levis's
poetry — in voice, lyricism, narrative, linear presentation, form, subject matter, thematic emphasis, and the identity
of the self — and a significant breakthrough in Levis's development as a poet. Levis acknowledges as much in the interview with David Wojahn included in
The Gazer Within, where Levis reveals: "I
saw, at one point, that if I kept trying to write these little jewel-like poems that were composed almost entirely of images,
of exquisite pleasure, that it reduced what my poetry was or could be." Levis comments on his approach to the writing in this volume:
I think in the case of The Dollmaker's Ghost, I had an idea that I wanted a
kind of linear energy — something that went across a line. But I also wanted
a kind of vertical energy to move down through the poem, thanks to the way
in which the stanzas were shaped. One of the things that helped me do this was
a particular kind of enjambment, a violent runover of the line. But they're not
enjambments so violent that the reader can't sense my pause at the end of the line.
I want the individual lines to always keep a certain integrity. To capitalize the
letter of each line also helps to draw attention to that fact, helps to say that it's
still a line and not something arbitrary.
With the introduction of long or irregular line lengths written in a conversational
tone, a vocabulary with changing levels of diction, and a comprehensive poetry of personal experience, Levis's poems
finally seemed more natural and fit more easily into the tradition of Walt Whitman, a poet whose work often seems a model
for Levis and to whom he pays homage in a later poem, "Whitman:" from Winter Stars, where Whitman is the persona.
Levis reveals, "at a certain point
in writing The Dollmaker's Ghost I was very aware of the shape of the poem, the way it looked on the page. . . ."
His conscious construction of the poem's shape on the page is especially evident in the new design of his lines.
As Levis describes the process to Wojahn,
"I feel the line establishes itself as a distinct unit — it becomes almost like a dance step." One
can see his new style at work in poems like "Lost Fan, Hotel Californian, Fresno, 1923" which begins:
In Fresno it is 1923, and your shy father
Has picked up a Chinese fan abandoned
Among the corsages crushed into the
On it, a man with scrolls is crossing a rope bridge
Over gradually whitening water.
If you look closely you can see brush strokes
To be trout.
can see the whole scene
Is centuries older
Than the hotel, or Fresno in the hard glare
As is frequently the case in the work of our best poets, many of the most interesting poems in
The Dollmaker's Ghost concern themselves with themes of the fast passage of time and an increasing awareness of one's
mortality. For example, in "The Ownership of the Night" Levis reminds his readers that time grinds along as persistently and insistently as the humming mechanism
in a household refrigerator, and no one can know for certain when the cycle of life will end and the moment of death will
After five years,
I'm in the kitchen of my parents' house
Again, hearing the aging refrigerator
Go on with its music,
And watching an insect die on the table
By turning in circles.
the poems in this collection, Levis chronicles
the stages of his life, beginning in this poem with his conception:
. . . I can think of the look of distance
That must have spread
my parents' faces as they
Conceived me here,
And each fell back, alone,
As the waves glinted, and fell back.
first section of "Blue Stones," a poem in two parts and dedicated to his son, Levis imagines the days on his own death bed ("They will slide me onto
a cold bed, / A bed that has been brought in, / Out of the night . . ."). The image he presents appears to be
one of passive helplessness and perhaps a stolid acceptance of an absence already felt:
All I will have to decide, then,
Is how to behave during
Those last weeks, when the drawers
Of the dresser remain closed,
And the mirror is calm, and reflects nothing.
Just before the end of this section, Levis relates his father's thoughts about death: "My father thought dying / Was like standing
trial for crimes / You could not remember." He follows this with a section directly addressed to his son, Nicholas,
in which the speaker shares his thoughts, requests he be remembered and that after his death, rather than an absence, his
presence should accompany the son at least for a while through his life, promising in the end not to follow, but allow the
son his independence, his own life:
Someday, when you are twenty-four and walking through
The streets of a foreign city, Stockholm,
Let me go with you a little way,
Let me be that stranger you won't notice,
And when you turn and enter
a bar full of young men
And women, and your laughter rises,
Like the stones of a path up a mountain,
To say that no one has died,
I promise I will not follow.
I will cross at the corner in my gray sweater.
I will not have touched you,
As I did, for so many years,
On the hair and the left shoulder.
I will silence my hand that wanted to.
the fact that the poetry in The Dollmaker's Ghost contains more autobiographical instances, intimate images, and
personal emotions than his previous book, Levis nevertheless witholds his full sense of self. Although indications
of the self are often offered to the reader through the views of a persona — including well-known individuals like
Harry Truman, Weldon Kees, Miguel Hernandez, and even the female figure in an Edward Hopper painting — or an indirect
self represented by the second-person "you," Levis still seems reluctant to become as totally vulnerable as a first-person
testimony might make him. In his interview with Wojahn, Levis refers to these personae and indirect narrators as the "ghosts." He claims,
"the ghosts are also ways to talk about parts of myself that I wouldn't feel decent talking about from the first-person
point of view. I don't feel brave enough to talk about them in the first person, or I felt too modest at a certain
point in my life to talk about them as if those parts were, in fact, me."
However, with the
1985 publication of the poems in Winter Stars Levis finally felt ready to make the next important step forward. As
he put it in his 1982 interview with Wojahn, at the time he was writing some of the poems for this collection, "Sometimes
you have to address things that are happening in your life that you really don't clearly understand and that's difficult.
All the new poems I write are me; no personae." He further explained the poems he had written for his new manuscript:
Well, for one thing, there are no personas being used: there's no ghost network. . . . I had this sudden idea of myself
being able to say something that was terribly frank and honest and uncompromising and which might, in fact, be poetry.
I was thinking that it was poetry and that it was what I really wanted to do, to say something terribly unequivical.
Not a literal or pedestrian honesty but an honesty of the imagination. . . . I'll never forget that moment: it
was an avenue into something, and it made me understand what I really wished to do in my poetry. In my
life. I understood the kind of power I've always wanted to have in poetry. It is a sort of energy, the way Yeats
has it in, say, "Easter 1916," when his energy isolates a moment in time and makes it stay there forever and live
in that present. It's what Eliot means when he talks about that Chinese vase, with its pattern always
moving, and yet always still. And I think I felt that I could have that quality by talking very directly in a poem.
That's what I'm doing now — just talking very directly from a first-person viewpoint. . . .
Levis speaks even more directly from a first-person
stance, like the poetry of the Romantics rather than the confessional poets, his poems in Winter Stars rarely rely solely
on the autobiographical incidents of a personal self, and they usually avoid the exploitation of private or clinical matters
often characteristic of confessional poetry. To the contrary, instead of alienating the audience or creating a distance
between reader and speaker by use of the personal details contained in these poems, like a wise storyteller who creates
greater interest on the part of his audience by linking himself, with knowledge of distinctive details, to the tale he is
narrating, Levis's willingness to take the reader into his confidence only proves more engaging. In this way,
in poem after poem Levis reveals the themes
in his work. His poetry now brings together the self and the subject matter in a manner that makes the two essential
to one another. As Levis describes
the process in "Some Notes on the Gazer Within": ". . . to find a subject is also, simultaneously and reflexively,
the act and art by which anyone finds himself, or herself. A poet finds what he or she is by touching what is out
there." In fact, Levis concludes
that the process of self-discovery is imperative in order to uncover one's relationship to the world around him and,
thus, detect those subjects of importance or discern those themes that are meaningful:
To really look inquiringly inward as Sidney advises or as the most well-
intentioned guru advises is to encounter,
at least on some very honest days, my own space; it is to discover how empty I am, how much
an onlooker and
a gazer I have to be in order to write poems. And, if I am lucky, it is to find
I can be filled enough by what is not me to use it, to have a subject,
and, consequently, to find myself as a poet.
The working manuscript for Winter Stars was titled Trouble. Levis explained the circumstances around his composition of the poems in Winter Stars as "a rocky
time in my own life." In his interview with Wojahn, he summed it up:
father died about a year ago; my wife and I separated in August; we have a son. . . . All these things coalesced at
one point. I used to think that one could only write about such things long after they had happened. But it
seemed to me that there was no other choice but to try to write about them as they happened.
Now maybe this is wrong. But there seemed to be nothing else to say, to talk about. . . . Anyway, that's
what the book seems to be about.
By adopting Winter Stars as the title over Trouble, Levis might just as well have been indicating, among other things, how his
poetry was meant to be viewed, how far-reaching and inclusive he intended the work to be. He also may just as well
have been suggesting the title poem as a model, a guide to this work.
Although the narratives that
make up many of the poems in Winter Stars are autobiographical, Levis seems almost always to extend the reach of the themes in each poem. Even when addressing
the most personal issues, he opens up the subject matter in the poems — through metaphor or meditative lyrics —
in ways that allow all readers to respond. In the title poem of Winter Stars, which serves as a perfect example of
the work in this book, Levis focuses on what may be the major subject in this collection, the "hard death" of his
father from Parkinson's disease and a series of strokes, the irrecoverable distance between the two, and along with
other circumstances, sources for the continuing sense of absence he was feeling in his life. The poem begins in the
direct, conversational tone Levis already
had been developing in The Dollmaker's Ghost:
My father once broke a man's hand
Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere
tractor. The man,
Rubén Vásquez, wanted to kill his own
With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held
The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first
Two fingers, so it could
Horizontally, & with surprising grace,
Across a throat. It was like a glinting beak in a hand. . . .
As is often the pattern in Levis's later poetry, the speaker shifts from past to present and back
again throughout the poem. There appears to be an ever-present nearly nostalgic longing for the past, or at least a
desire to revisit the past to achieve better understanding of the present, in many of Levis's later poems. When he remembers his father's actions ("My father simply
went in & ate lunch, & then, as always, / Lay alone in the dark, listening to music.") after the confrontation
with Rubén Vásquez, who "wanted to kill his own father," Levis comments: "I never understood how anyone could risk his life, / Then listen to Vivaldi."
However, the next stanza shifts the attention of the poem, as well as the reader:
I go out into this yard at night,
And stare through the wet branches of
In winter, & realize I am looking at the stars
Again. A thin haze of them, shining
manner, Levis begins to universalize, literally
and figuratively, the content in his poem. Surely, the main figures in the poem are Levis and his father:
My father is beginning to die.
Inside him is slowly taking back
Every word it ever gave him.
Now, if we try to talk, I watch my father
Search for a lost syllable as if it might
Solve everything, & though he can't remember, now,
The word for
it, he is ashamed. . . .
Nevertheless, despite a chronicling of their difficult relationship and the father's death
— something Levis returns to again and again in the form of images or thoughts of death, the father's and the
poet's — the subject matter broadens to include not only the relationship between Rubén Vásquez and
his father, but as any Romantic poet might, the nature of mortality in contrast with the immortality of nature, as well as
the ironic frustration with the inadequacy of language when words fail, especially for a father who is unable to communicate
and a poet-son who values the particularities of language:
I stand out on the street, & do
not go in.
That was our agreement, at my birth.
And for years I believed
That what went unsaid between us became empty,
And pure, like starlight, & that it persisted.
I got it alll wrong.
I wound up believing in words the way a scientist
Believes in carbon, after death.
Finally, the speaker arrives at
a resolution that combines all of the myriad of topics raised by this poem, as well as others in the collection: life vs.
death, love vs. loss, past vs. present, nostalgia vs. regret, memory vs. reality, mortality vs. immortality, human vs. nature,
young vs. old, mystery vs. understanding, innocence vs. experience, ignorance vs. wisdom, naiveté vs. maturity, literature
vs. living, theory vs. practicality, passion vs. apathy, absence vs. presence, son vs. father, etc.:
Tonight, I'm talking to you, father, although
It is quiet here in the
Midwest, where a small wind,
The size of a wrist, wakes the cold again—
Which may be all that's
left of you & me.
When I left home at seventeen, I left for good.
The pale haze of stars goes on & on,
Like laughter that has found a
final, silent shape
On a black sky. It means everything
It cannot say. Look, it's empty out there, & cold.
Even a father, even a son.
In an odd addition to Levis's
changing writing style, beginning with the wonderful poems in Winter Stars he places an ampersand inside all his lines where
he previously would have written the word and. Although minor and idiosyncratic, this small gesture seems to be a marker
that might signal as well a turning point, a shift in his thinking, and despite the awards garnered by his three previous
books, Winter Stars stands as a superior work. This volume represents a triumph, one of the best collections of poetry
produced by his generation, and the moment when Levis finally accomplished the goal he had been seeking since he was an adolescent:
. . . when I was sixteen, I decided one night, to try to write a poem. When
I was finished I turned out the light.
I told myself that if the poem had one good line in it I would try to be a poet. And then I thought, no, you can't
say "try." You will either be a poet, and become a better and better one, or you will not be a poet.
The next morning I woke and looked at what I'd written. It was awful. I knew it was awful.
But it had one good line. One. All the important decisions in my life were made in that moment.
["'Larry Levis': Autobiography"]
Having attained the level of excellence displayed in Winter
Stars, Levis seemed even more assured of
his abilities as a poet and even more sure of the direction for his poetry. Not surprisingly then, with his growth
in confidence Levis attempted even longer and more ambitious poems with an extensive reach in his next collection, The Widening
Spell of the Leaves.
In this book another theme rises to prominence as a rival to Levis's recurring considerations of memory, mortality,
and death. In The Widening Spell of the Leaves, Levis examines not only how the nature of time is ever-present in any examination of these themes or contributes to them,
as he'd already explored in previous volumes. Instead, now Levis contemplates the complexities of the idea of Time itself. It is as if he wishes to find
out how and why Time is our enemy— or as he quotes Pound from The Cantos, "Time is the evil" — so that
he can attempt the impossible, to stop its progression with his poetry. An indication of Levis's interest in this topic can be seen in his 1993 essay, "So
That: On Holub's 'Meeting Ezra Pound.'" Levis begins the essay with a statement that he once overheard in a lecture hall: "Time is a
violation." Levis explains:
It makes us finite, and therefore the violation is always personal: its final form is both banal and intimate, for it is
simply one's death, but finally all of us get the idea, an idea which is actually the absence of any idea and, therefore,
unimaginable. As close as one can get to a statement of it is: "The meaning of life is that it stops."
And there it is: the empty, white, blank, unblinking center of it all.
Indeed, in much of the poetry of Levis's
career — especially in the later collections and most obviously in his posthumous collection, Elegy — it appears
as if Levis continually writes in an elegiac manner, mourning not just the dead or his own mortality, but also times or
places that have passed, which exist only in our personal or collective memories, as well as analyzing the very passage of
Time. The elegiac form offers an opportunity for observation of a solemn situation and expression of one's
sorrow; however, it also allows a sense of giving life, a feeling of momentary pause, as though the poem resembles
a monument, perhaps more likely a planted tree, which when erected in commemoration of the dead or to mark the gradual passing
of a life and an era suddenly presents a seemingly enduring answer to the impermanence of life and the true transitions of
Time. In his commentary on Holub's poem, Levis decides "Holub's imagination, which does typify our time, seems to move at the speed of light. It
delivers us from history, so that in this way, Holub's elegy becomes a kind of birth."
In "The Spell of the Leaves" Levis
writes of the immediate aftermath of a marriage that has ended. A husband has left his wife and for a while she is
unable to adjust to "those first, crisp days of a new life." The wife rises each morning, looks in on her
seven-year-old son, dresses for work, then gets into the car on the passenger side and waits for her husband "to come
out and drive her":
. . . The first two times it happened
She was frightened, she said, because, waiting for him,
Something went wrong
with Time. Later, she couldn't
Say whether an hour or only a few
Had passed before she realized she didn't
Have a husband.
The poem's speaker tries to understand her situation, and what will become of her, but he
confides to the reader, "when I think of her, nothing has happened yet. / It is this moment before she
remembers / Her husband isn't there. . . ." The image of the woman sitting in the car, waiting and unaware
of the changes time has brought to her life, is frozen in the mind of the speaker, captured in this elegiac poem mourning
loss like a stilled frame from a movie:
When I think of her, she's still sitting there,
On the wrong side of the car, intent, staring,
As her thought collects in pools yet keeps
Widening until, now, it casts
its spell. . . .
The spell spreads to the boy "who sits / like stillness itself," and "the stillness
finds his father / With his shoulders stooped, unmoving, in another state." The individuals in these poems act
as if caught in a strange state, perhaps the "sudden, overcast quiet of the past tense," as Levis characterizes a moment in "Slow Child with a Book of Birds."
Indeed, the poems in this collection seem themselves to be spells, states of enchantment holding a magic power through compelling
words that attract and influence us while, as the speaker admits, nothing appears to actually occur:
I keep waiting for the next thing to happen,
And that is the problem: nothing
Happens at all. It is as if Time Itself
Sticks without knowing it in this wide place
I had mistaken for a moment.
. . .
Levis has at last come to the point he had hoped to reach
with "Linnets" in The Afterlife, in which he had wanted to "learn how to write about nothing at all,"
or at least to compose a poem which gave the appearance that nothing happens, but "to say that with finality, with a
stare, with style." Of course, in Levis's later poems where the action is stilled, so much more happens beyond the appearance. However, for Levis
the trick of writing the kind of meditative and introspective poetry one finds in his later collections comes from his halting
of time in the lyric, moving away from the linear chronological progression of the poem's surface and concentrating on
the depth of a captured instant. As Levis speaks of something similar in "Some Notes on the Gazer Within": "And so this is what happens at
the moment of writing: the wave takes the shape of the fire. What is 'out there' moves inside. The poet
becomes threshold." Out of moments in this world of sadness or misery, of death and loss, throughout the elegiac
poems of his last few books, Levis discovers
a satisfaction not by escaping from that world, but by using his art to stop it, at least long enough for inward contemplation
and reflection. His further definition continues:
The moment of writing is not an escape,
however; it is only an insistence,
through the imagination, upon human ecstasy, and a reminder that such ecstasy remains
as much a birthright in this world as misery remains a condition of it.
In "The Perfection of Solitude:
A Sequence," a 20-page poem that foreshadows the expanse, in length and in breadth, of the works in Elegy, Levis returns to the tactic of freezing Time. The
first section, "Oaxaca, 1983," presents a wonderful description of a hotel lobby and the café or closed
shops outside in the plaza where he is visiting "in this moment when the plaza sleeps & is abandoned."
After a lengthy and detailed description written in present tense, the speaker confesses:
. . . Actually, the moment I refer to happened
Years ago, & I remember
gazing at the plaza the whole time so that
Nothing would change, so that
nothing would ever change. . . .
However, his attempt to still time and appreciate the enchanting world around
him, represented within the spell of this poem, is abruptly interrupted as reality and the true times in which he lives
intrude — "Five seconds / Later a bomb went off in the telegraph office & a young janitor who was // Sweeping
up the place felt both his legs surprise him with their sudden / Absence." Levis later determines: "You
could feel a century beginning to come to an end. . . ." And even further into this section of the poem, he is
reminded of twenty years earlier: "You are thinking of Berkeley & Telegraph Avenue in 1970 / Because you cling
to a belief in the Self, which memorizes, which is nothing."
Throughout the sections in this
astonishing long poem, Levis examines examples in which art or poetry halt or compress Time, and as in "Oaxaca, 1983,"
he relies on memory to bring different moments in time together for comparison and contrast, to better understand the world
as well as to better understand himself.
In section two, "Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex,"
Levis discusses a 17th-century painting in which the artist places "his own face in the decapitated, swollen, leaden-eyed
head of Goliath." Levis, perhaps thinking back to his father's comment about dying being "like standing
trial for crimes / You could not remember," is amazed at the artist's accomplishment:
Wasn't it like this, after all? And this self-portrait, David holding him by a lock
Of hair? Couldn't it destroy time if he offered himself up like this, empurpled,
Bloated, the crime paid for in advance? To die before one dies, & keep painting?
Later in the same section,
in another compression of time, Levis nostalgically recollects listening to "Johnny B. Goode" — "the
song that closed the Fillmore" — played by Garcia and the Grateful Dead, or recalls idealistic college days when
he once marched against the Vietnam War, and even remembers a high-school friend who resembled the Caravaggio face on the
Goliath in the painting. He uses his memory to capture the pleasant adolescent years when he and his friend would "skinny
dip & drink" some summer nights in the pools of the model homes at a nearby suburban development. However,
just as the frozen moment of the plaza scene in the previous section was broken by a bomb blast, Levis's fond recollection
of his friend is cut short: "Two years later, thinking he heard someone call his name, he strolled three yards // Off
a path & stepped on a land mine." Levis judges that "Time's sovereign. It rides the backs of names cut into marble."
third section of this sequence, "Turban," Levis admires the way Breughel preserved the people in his paintings,
especially the children whose youth and exuberance are forever kept intact, their enthusiasm undiminished by time; although,
he acknowledges the silence is what is most noticed about the boy and that the tiny lines in the cracking paint tend to
undo the illusion, reminding a viewer this is offered with the artifice of art and not the reality of life:
Sometimes, in the Breughel paintings, the children who are skating hold perfectly
Still for a moment; I could have counted them there if I wanted to. Or a boy
Has just fallen out of the sky, & no matter how hard the water is the splash
the canvas is always silent, & can only grow more so. And the water rising
For centuries around the boy is famous only for the little silence it displays.
The way the paint has cracked slightly on the canvas is meant to remind you
is, after all, only a painting. In which Breughel has destroyed time.
In fact, the title of this section
derives from another painting in which the artist assumes a persona, a work in which Rembrandt, trying to make money, paints
the image of his own face into a depiction of St. Paul. Levis points out:
He can paint another self-portrait. This time
he is St. Paul with a wry turban
On his head! There is a kind of forgiveness in it all. He looks as if he is
About to smile, but he does not, & then after a few moments it looks as if
He will never smile again.
Few poets in recent decades have written work as intelligent and elegant as the poetry in this
collection. In these poems Larry Levis, as if in song, has perfectly united the conversational voice with the inspirational
music of their lyrical lines. Each powerful piece, containing vivid images and focused details written within the expanse
of its rich and sweeping language, displays a personal depth of emotion on the part of the poet that is matched magnificently
by the deep well of understanding for our human condition — life and love to loss and death — demonstrated by
the very words so carefully chosen for these poems.
Just days before his death, Larry Levis had
confided in his former teacher, longtime mentor, and friend for twenty-five years, Philip Levine, that he had a new nearly-complete
manuscript of poetry. Although Levine had previously seen only about one-fourth of the poems from this new collection,
at the request of Larry Levis's sister Levine accepted the responsibility of compiling a posthumous publication of the
poems left behind by Levis. Levine
reports in a foreword to Elegy his method for deciding what to include in the book:
I have rewritten nothing. I have revised nothing. I have done my best to
determine which poems Larry felt
were completed or had gone as far as he could take them. I've tried to include the final or the last versions
of these poems. By no means have I included all the poems I believed Larry considered finished. I had no choice
but to trust my own taste. . . .
With the assistance of two other poet-friends to Larry Levis, Peter Everwine
and David St. John, an organization of the individual works was determined. Given the ever-developing presence of elegiac
verse in Levis's later poetry, it is most appropriate that this volume, published as a tribute to Levis, is titled Elegy
and it closes with nine extended poems, adding up to more than fifty pages, each with a title beginning with the word "Elegy."
As early as 1982, when interviewed by David Wojahn, Levis responded to a question about whether
he considered himself "principally an elegiac poet" with the following: "I often feel that that's what
I am as a human . . . Also, it seems to me, or has seemed to me for a long time, that the elegiac poem, the poem that
is meditative and narrative, simply touched me more deeply." Further into the same interview, when asked about
"the purpose of elegiac writing," Levis offered a very revealing reply: "Merwin, for example, has a wonderful circumspection of mind and charity in
a little poem called 'Elegy.' He says, 'who would I show it to?' which is, of course, the whole truth.
Many times elegies are self-reflexive, and they often point not to the figure gone but to the person writing them, and they
are meant to reveal that mind, that nature."
Like the poetry of Walt Whitman, that poet to
whom Levis has paid homage, directly and indirectly, throughout his career, the poems assembled in Elegy present a lyric
voice at its most cogent and passionate pitch, yet one willing to be ambitious and challenging, stretching its poetic technique
to include extremely long lines and expansive or discursive text that approaches the straightforward tone and comprehensiveness
of prose. In this manner, Levis boldly
confronts the reader with the subjects in his poems. In "Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967," Levis puts forth the following compelling opening lines:
going to put Johnny Dominguez right here
In front of you on this page so
You won't mistake him for something else,
An idea, for example, of how oppressed
He was, rising with his pan of Thompson
Grapes from a row of vines.
Later in the book during
the "elegy" series of poems, as he often does in the poetry of this collection, Levis repeats a phrase or image — creating "motifs or 'riffs'
to unify the collection," Levine suggests in his foreword — echoing those previous opening lines with similar
lines in a work titled "Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern in It":
to put the one largely forgotten, swaying figure of Ediesto Huerta
in front of you so you can watch him swamp fruit
Out of an orchard in the heat of an
August afternoon, I'm going to let you
Keep your eyes on him as he lifts & swings fifty-pound
boxes of late
Elberta peaches up to me where I'm standing on a flatbed
trailer & breathing in
Tractor exhaust so thick it bends the air, bends
things seen through it
So that they seem to swim through the air.
As his poems increasingly
resemble the work of Whitman, so do the messages they contain. In "Elegy with an Angel at Its Gate," Levis offers the following invitation:
With the light coming back to one star
In the late summer dusk after another
Until at last the sky above it resembles
The vast rigging of some lighted ship
Drifting slowly out of reach.
Come with me,
Stray a little from your task . . .
Walk with me a little, just for company. . . .
An ongoing interest in the elegy and elegiac poetry is evident
in an essay titled "Mock Mockers after That," originally delivered as a lecture by Levis at the Warren Wilson MFA Seminar for Writers in 1994 and included
in The Gazer Within. This lecture was written at the same time Levis was composing poems in his "elegy" series. Clearly, Levis had decided to follow through on the conclusion he'd stated a
decade earlier that elegiac is what he felt "as a human." Likewise, he had felt "for a long time, that
the elegiac poem, the poem that is meditative and narrative," was what mattered most to him. In this essay, Levis presents the following:
Although they are not tricks, elegies are tricky things. In the study of the
form in English, the poet and critic
Peter Sacks suggests that not all poets escape from elegies they write without attendant feelings of guilt, anxiety, and
the sense of some further obligation that comes upon them surprisingly, either within the wake of what they have written
or within the elegy itself. For such feelings of guilt, anxiety, and obligation are what they have created
as well, are the sometimes unforeseen by-products of the elegiac act, while the elegy itself becomes, of course, public,
social, part of a culture which defines not only the conventions of the elegy, but also what the work of mourning and consolation
Levis acknowledges feeling a sense of "injustice,"
that his work may be praised or he might garner attention for each elegy or elegiac poem he has written about the deaths
and losses of so many others, especially since those written about cannot control how they are portrayed by the poet.
Levis believes the ethical discomfort caused by "the violation that occurs in the elegiac act" is even more serious
than that which might be felt by "the so-called confessional poet" who "feels dismay, embarrassment, sometimes
shame in showing off his scars in print" because "the elegy always involves another," and in writing the
elegy a poet often "has little alternative but to falsify the life and death it preys upon."
However, as the poems in this posthumous collection display, even when writing elegies for others, Levis is truly writing
works that are best defined by his 1982 observation about the elegiac voice, that "elegies are self-reflexive, and they
often point not to the figure gone but to the person writing them, and they are meant to reveal that mind, that nature."
The irony of Elegy is that these poems, apparently written to memorialize the lives and times of others, are so self-reflexive
that they actually serve perfectly to portray Levis's own mind and nature; indeed, although Levis often wrote of death
and his own mortality in earlier poetry, he could not have known how these poems, most seemingly about others, would provide
his finest elegy (the form about which he commented, it "simply touched me more deeply"), preserving a wonderful
portrait of himself for all.
In Elegy, Larry Levis produces the sort of poetry that he had steadily
been working toward for more than a quarter century, an elegiac poetry that mourns the passing of people, including the
younger Larry Levis, as well as places or eras that can now only be seen in one's imagination — and even that occurs
with a struggle. The marvelous closing poem of the book, "Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope,"
widens to become an elegy for the devastated Yugoslavia he had once known:
All I have left of that country is this torn scrap
Of engraved lunacy, worth less now
Then it was then, for then it was worth nothing. .
he discovers that in his memory and his imagination he has much more left of that country, its land, its people, his observations,
and his experiences, all of which combine to create the elegiac poetry in this long poem. Nevertheless, Levis continually
alludes to his reluctance ("I don't feel like explaining it, / And now I have to") and the difficulty or futility
of his task: "I can't imagine it back"; "I can't imagine it enough"; "I can't imagine
how to get back to it"; "I can't imagine her enough"; "I can't imagine it enough, & even
if I could, one day / That, too, would be the wave's sprawl on the empty rocks"; "I can't imagine them
enough to bring them back."
Yet, Levis's elegiac poetry celebrates life even as it reckons with the inevitability of death.
It gives us the lives of those people or places that would otherwise be lost to Time. If not for the immortality offered
by art, including the elegy, all would be lost. "We go without a trace, I am thinking. We go, & there's
no one there, / No one to meet us on the long drive lined with orange trees, / Cypresses, the bleaching fronds of palm trees,"
he writes in "Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern in It." Levis then poses the question, "What are we but what we offer up?" In many ways, upon
reading these elegies, one might easily respond that Larry Levis is what he offers up — his poetry. In his interview
with Wojahn, Levis was asked about what
he would like to achieve by the end of his career as a poet, and he replied: "I don't know. I can't really
say. I would like to write my poems and leave it at that." However, Levis enlarged upon his response to include the following:
want to write my own poems. I would like to be one of those people
who was, in poetry, a rule breaker; someone
who mattered. Poetry sometimes
seems so totally an enclosed or secluded world, a very tiny one . . . so much
that other worlds are closed off to us. I think poetry ought to challenge these
other worlds in the
ways that fiction can challenge science or that art can challenge technology.
By the time Levis had written the poems included in Elegy, he had
fulfilled these goals. Levis, who revealed in "Mock Mockers after That" that he had once dreamed he'd
been visited by William Butler Yeats, had now become one who demonstrated what had been offered as advice by that poet-ghost
in his dream: "Passion is the only thing that matters in poetry. As a matter of fact, it is the only thing that
matters in life." And so, Larry Levis presents in his poetry not only the passion that matters in poetry and life,
but a poetry that reveals a life of passion that matters to all who will read his works. Indeed, although in his autobiographical
essay Levis had attributed much of his success
as a poet to "an enormous amount of luck," clearly the real reason for his literary accomplishments was Levis's passion and joy in writing poetry: "It
never seems like work to me. It feels like pleasure." In the end, the elegy for Larry Levis might state
that the passion and joy he experienced in the process of writing has produced a legacy of splendid poetry that always feels
like an enormous pleasure to read.
Levis, Larry. The Gazer Within. Ann
Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2001. ISBN: 0-472-06718-4 $14.05
Levis, Larry. The Selected
Levis. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000. ISBN: 0-8229-4141-4 $22.50
Levis, Larry. Elegy.
Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-8229-5648-9 $12.05