blackbirdonline journalSpring 2011  Vol. 10  No. 1

Reading Loop Introduction and Table of Contents


Larry Levis
   Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze Inside It
   Ghost Confederacy
   God Is Always Seventeen
   La Strada
   The Necessary Angel
   A Singing in the Rocks

Cabell Library Levis Collection
   Larry Levis with Nick Levis
   Larry Levis, 1980

David St. John
   The Darkening Trapeze: The Uncollected
     Poems of Larry Levis

Anna Journey
   Ghost Confederacy: Meditation on the Haunted
     Lyric; Richmond, Virginia; and Three Debut
     Poetry Collections

Michael McGriff
   new poems
   Figures in the Landscape 
   Reasons for Staying 
   The Watch 

   poems from Home Burial
   The Cow 
   In February 
   New Civilian 
   Note Left for My Former Self 

16th Annual Levis Reading Prize
   A Reading by Michael McGriff 
        introduced by Katherine Bassard,

        Gregory Donovan, & David Wojahn
A Conversation with Michael McGriff 

Lena Moses-Schmitt
   Review | Home Burial, by Michael McGriff


Welcome to Blackbird’s twelfth Levis Remembered, a visit with the poetry of Larry Levis and an introduction to the sixteenth annual Levis Reading Prize winner, Michael McGriff. The prize is given by the Department of English at Virginia Commonwealth University to the author of a first or second book of poems chosen by VCU’s panel of judges. Join us in discovering Michael McGriff’s very fine poems and in remembering Larry’s matchless witness to the last decades of the twentieth century.

Each fall Blackbird calls attention to some aspect of Larry’s work, and this year we enjoy the distinct privilege of presenting six previously unpublished poems from The Darkening Trapeze: The Uncollected Poems of Larry Levis, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2015 and edited by David St. John.

The poems we publish here were by and large included in the box of materials that Greg Donovan, Amy Tudor, and I sent to David and Philip Levine in the summer of 1996, following Larry’s death in May of that year. As David notes in the explanation of his editing process, also available in this Levis Remembered Reading Loop, once the poems that were selected for Elegy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997) were removed, a considerable body of work remained, most of which had been written after the poems of The Widening Spell of the Leaves.

When Greg and I collected, as best we could, Larry’s working papers, Greg particularly tried to find all computer files and material on hard or floppy disks and print them out. He then left to teach in the VCU summer program in Glasgow, Scotland, and Amy and I continued with the task of trying to sort the material into individual poems and drafts of poems. Our goal was, as soon as possible, to send the material on to Phil, who, as David also notes, had agreed to sift the poems into a posthumous book.

At the time, seemingly our most daunting task was to determine finished poems, as particular phrases, lines, and even stanzas made echoing appearances in similar drafts and (perhaps) even separate poems. Thinking back to that summer’s work, and reading the poems that David has selected for the new book, what strikes me most clearly is that these many echoes—repeating cameo turns by lines and images, and shifted phrases—are performing intentionally.

Recurring patterns of language—the color-blind grasses, the uncountable stars, the pattern of leaves, the pattern of snakes in leaves, the singing in the rocks, the gulls’ cries, the wood grain of a desk, the sprawl of a wave—to note only a few, link preoccupations across poems, and even across books, as many made their debuts in The Widening Spell of the Leaves or even earlier. Certain images shift in perspective. For instance, in “Elegy for Poe with the Music of a Carnival Inside It,” (from Elegy) the carnival is down the street. In “La Strada,” published here, the carnival/circus is a throwaway line as a wisp of the clown Zampanò’s memory. In “The Necessary Angel,” (also published here) the reader is back on the ride, and a different poet, Wallace Stevens, (who also plays a major role in Elegy) seems to access an essential cosmology from the midway and the somewhat cheesy glamor of lights and barkers. Points of view transfer, and a motif that might play a major role in one poem supports in another.

The way these themes and images shift their emphasis reminds me of the refracted brilliance of a prism. A shared and deceptive transparency in the poems seems to hold the wavelength of their radiance at a fixed center while the unforgiving edges of the glass reflect and break the light emanating from the several sides. The resulting effect is to allow the poems to present the illusion of being simultaneously fixed and mutable, individual and connected—Whitman in a new guise and a different century. While we can’t know what Larry’s ultimate intentions were in these poems or how he would have grouped them for publication, I remain stunned by their ambition and resonance.

Also included in Levis Remembered are two photographs of Larry found in the papers collected at VCU’s Cabell Library, an essay by Anna Journey that invokes “The Ghost Confederacy” as a lens through which to examine the work of three Richmond-connected poets, new work by and a conversation with Michael McGriff, and audio and a transcript of the Levis Prize celebration that features McGriff’s reading and a remembrance of Larry by Greg Donovan.

We invite you to enter Larry’s work, both in Blackbird and in his books, and we thank his sister, Sheila Brady, and his son, Nick Levis, for the opportunity to recognize him here.

—Mary Flinn, Senior Editor   end

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