blackbirdonline journalFall 2014  Vol. 13 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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back GREGORY DONOVAN  |  Levis Remembered

The Anecdote as Antidote: Skipping Rope with Larry Levis
Love’s an immigrant, it shows itself in its work. It works for almost nothing.
—by Larry Levis, “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope”

This year, as I prepared for this evening, reading the poetry of Larry Levis and focusing on the final poem that ends his final book Elegy—a long, multi-sectioned poem titled, “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope”—I recalled a recent conversation I had witnessed, in which someone had made a slip and used the word antidote when the word anecdote was the one intended. I realized that, with regard to poetry, especially that of Levis, that momentary mix-up might actually provide an insight. It could even provide a new definition. In the intensified language adventure we might be willing to call poetry, anecdote can indeed become antidote. As I drive home in the evenings after teaching my poetry workshops, I often listen to the news, and naturally, it’s mostly bad news. Or worse. The planet is dying—a biologist last week explaining that all birds on earth are now disappearing because of habitat destruction, and so we can add them to the frogs, the bees, the elephants, all the disappearing creatures—and of course we all know about the new surge of beheadings and twisted religious terrorism internationally, and meanwhile nationally, we have the takeover of our politics by evil ultra-wealthy conservatives who, when they can’t get national elections to go their way, buy out state legislatures and even tilt the elections of local school boards. Did you know Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye has been banned by a school board in North Carolina as pornography? So as I drive, the news undoes all the good work done in my head and in my spirit by my enjoyable and at times even inspiring work with young, talented writers. But maybe that situation can be turned around—maybe it can go the other way, too? Can the work of young talented poets undo the disheartening effects of the glut of doomsday news? Or do they simply cancel each other out? Perhaps it’s no wonder that so many contemporary writers are taking up the subject of a post-apocalyptic world, the world of the walking dead, the shadowy world of annihilations and disappearances that now seems to be waiting out there for all of us, nearly inevitable, just over the horizon.

The Levis poem on which I am focused here—the skipping rope one—includes a harmonic chord of subjects he has purposefully and intensely woven together, and it acts as a kind of coda or reprise for many of the motifs that have appeared throughout the poems in his book Elegy, which no doubt is part of the reason that Phillip Levine wisely chose it to end the book when he edited it after Larry’s death. The poem takes as its primary setting the Yugoslavia of 1989, when Larry Levis had a Fulbright there, and he witnessed the dangerous and disastrous beginnings of the final ripping apart of that country which now no longer exists as it headed further into ethnic cleansing, warfare, mayhem and murder. There are other settings brought into the poem as well through the associations of memory—such as the California seacoast of Big Sur that Levis knew as a teenager (if he had been a crow he could have flown directly east from his childhood home in the orchards of the central valley and landed at Big Sur) along with other places, landscapes of “Failure and Limitation,” Levis calls them, such as one that appears to be set right here in Richmond, where a group of young children too young for school

 . . . peer through the chain link
Of a storm fence above the boulevard & the traffic

To watch for cops,

Where their older brothers with their girlfriends
Sprawl on a car seat ripped out

Of a van & placed here to overlook the city, the river,
Its history an insult in which

They were property.

All of the places presented in the poem are not only actual landscapes that Levis knew well, but as Levis himself observed in several essays collected in The Gazer Within, they are also states of mind or spirit: “And so a place in poetry, if it is good poetry, may be a spiritual state and not a geographic one.” Still, all of these places are well-realized in vivid description, and they are not empty abstract landscapes of the mind—they are not only populated by recalled individuals, they are each characterized by a dominant atmosphere, a characterizing feeling, one which has directly to do with the elegiac. “Place in poetry, then,” Levis writes, “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.” The experience of the loss of a place can be necessary to the process of making a certain kind of poetry out of such a place. Losing a place is perhaps the only certain way to discover its value. And because of time’s arrow, all places are in some real sense necessarily going to be lost, if only changed by time, if not obliterated altogether.

In his poem “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope,” Levis uses a scrap of money, a bit of torn currency, as a doorway to enter a lost place, an erased country which has now become for him a spiritual landscape to which he must return to memorialize it and preserve it, an activity which, as he says in the poem, is a sacred duty. The now worthless Yugoslavian money has printed on it a pair of lovers who are staring off at something we cannot yet see, and which they—perhaps blessedly—cannot yet see:

I don’t feel like explaining it,
And now I have to.

To illustrate its money, the State put lovers on the money,

Peasants or factory workers staring off at something
You couldn’t see, something beyond them . . .

Then someone told me what the money meant,
What they kept looking at:

They were watching the State wither away.

In a Communist country, it must have seemed an idealizing notion to put on the currency these lovers, common folk who would watch such a triumph with growing delight, perhaps, but little did they know how thoroughly and destructively that dubiously constructed State would in the end actually wither away and vanish. Of course, Levis is also predicting for all of us, by association, that every nation state we know, including our own, will one day wither away and disappear, stepping out of history to become simply “the slur of water receding / on the rocks” and “the empty sprawl of the wave // Showing its hand at last before it folds.”

In order to preserve the place of his memory and meditation, to get back into it fully, Levis cannot solely rely on his scrap of money or even on more expansive and vivid physical descriptions—though he has those to be sure—he must find a way to make it all come alive again even as it threatens to vanish into a pointless private memory of use to no one. In addition, in a poem such as this one, which combines the political and the personal in an intimate way that we see few poets these days having the courage to undertake, Levis has to engage with a longer poem so that there is the space and scope for the movement back and forth between inner and outer landscapes, between historical and personal detailing, between the global and the particular embodiments that will make such connections not only possible but significant and intense, for himself and for his readers. And so anecdote is the antidote. The narration of events both realistic and fantastic are what is required in order to keep the lights on in this painful and reluctant remembering which threatens to disappear like the State at any moment. The overall irony here, as well, is that even as the poet-narrator is protesting in the poem that he doesn’t want to bring all this back, that it is “pointless,” that he “can’t imagine it back” and that he “can’t imagine it enough,” in the great long tradition of poems that tell us what they cannot possibly do and then go right on and do it, we witness not only the disappearance of the State, but its reappearance as well—several times, in fact.

So what does Levis cause to occur in this poem, what anecdotes, both real and unreal, does he offer as antidotes against vanishing? First, he allows us to see the engraved lovers from the currency not only escape their thin paper bill into some transcendent beyond, but far more specifically we see them enter the city of Belgrade and, outside its oldest hotel, they get into a heated argument while their friends gather around them to watch. Still later in the poem, when the poet-narrator cannot sleep, he sees the lovers again in the empty street outside his room, having sex there “in the rain falling // In sheets as if there were no tomorrow left / In it.” More anecdotes both vividly real and spectacularly surreal are brought in to make the remembered place come alive again. The Palace of Justice in Belgrade is allowed to turn into “the mist it had always resembled” and vanish just at the moment when a courtroom witness has accidentally inhaled a fly in the midst of his testimony (one may assume it is likely rather false testimony) and “then apologized to the court” just before “everything disappeared,” and when it does, the crowd strolls out of history and into “something else,” a “moment / Scripted in the involuntary,” a Dionysian orgy of uninhibited sexuality with a sarcastically attached explanatory notation: “Because, as Marx said, // Sex should be no more important than a glass of water.” As the poet-narrator recalls a fruit stand on Lomina Street in Belgrade, he’s taken back to another location and time, “Big Sur in 1967” and “the beach at Lucia,” where he witnessed two naked homeless people entwined in each other’s arms in an abandoned hot dog stand. But despite his disclaimer that he “can’t imagine how to get back to it,” he carries on imagining it back, not only bringing back the navy vet who serves the Cokes and hot dogs at the stand, but then actually becoming the vet himself, finding himself inside that tattooed skin, an act of identification with the downtrodden and ignored worker that is a familiar characteristic of Levis’ habit of mind and which outperforms the sort of empty promise made to the working class lovers on the now worthless currency of the now vanished Yugoslavia.

Ultimately, the poet gives us a number of anecdotes of “Failure and Limitation”: the perverted uncle who walks naked through the apartment of his young female relative, exposing himself to her as if it were some sort of inside joke between them; the howling “idiot” in the park who holds onto his penis as if it is the end of a broken leash and now he will never find his true master; the magnificent liar Ratko, who lies so well he convinces the State to give him grants each year to write the short stories that he only sketches onto the air in endlessly voluble commentaries.

The poet-narrator also depicts himself in one of the poem’s central anecdotes, having lost his life’s mate and turning away towards a deeper solitude, engaged in a ritual of sweeping the floors of his house each day until it becomes “the finite, thoughtless beauty / Of habit” and forgetting, an act that nevertheless “kept the pattern of the stars / From rattling out of their frames,” a ritual that not only might preserve some sort of necessary order, but which “let the worlds blur / Into one another.” That blurring or combining is one of the essential achievements of the poem, allowing the worlds of the present and the past, of Yugoslavia and California, of Richmond and even Wichita and Denver as well, to blur into one another and inform one another in a fabric of sustaining memory. These worlds also blur yet sustain each other as the poet-narrator offers us the five-year-old American black girl who stands as sacred witness staring through the loops of a chain link fence, hoping without hope to preserve what she sees because she knows it is a sacred duty even as she suspects her own brother will one day soon enough turn into mist behind her back, and later the poet also offers as a counterpoint the young European girl skipping rope in Belgrade at the poem’s end, chanting a skipping song (Jedan. Cesto?, Nema, Zar ne?), a chant that may be translated as “One. Often? Nonexistent, isn’t it?” The poem shows us that once, this place, this vanished land of the southern Slavs, had a beautiful language, and now that language has become the scripture of an “indecipherable defeat,” though “once its shapes had been // Perfect for showing things, clear as a girl’s face,” clear as the face of the girl skipping rope in her communion dress and chanting, “Dry & white as a petal” and as “Chaste.” But then the girl herself loses interest in her own chant, and finally the poet-narrator is left alone to “hear only the endless, / Annoying, unvarying flick of the rope each time // It touched the street.” Along with the poet, we are left there at the poem’s ending with that return to the emptied mundane, the meaningless sound of empty ritual, the last click, the sonic emblem of our final vanishing, and of the poem and of the poet as well. And yet it is a triumph against silence to invoke that final sound, the skip of the rope, the sound of being here now, rooted in the moment, the sound that says, I was here, I saw and I heard, and even if it is all absurd and pointless, even if it is all one day erased, it mattered once, and it matters now, and you can feel it. That flick of the rope each time it touches the street. That antidote.  end  

Gregory Donovan, a senior editor of Blackbird, is the author of the poetry collection Torn from the Sun (forthcoming from Red Hen Press in spring, 2015) and Calling His Children Home (University of Missouri Press, 1993), a collection that won the Devins Award for Poetry. With the writer/director Michele Poulos, he is a producer of A Late Style of Fire, a feature-length documentary on the life and work of Larry Levis. Donovan is a faculty member in Virginia Commonwealth University’s graduate creative writing program.

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