blackbirdonline journalFall 2014  Vol. 13 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

From Elegy to Trapeze

  Blackbird previously published seven poems from The Darkening Trapeze Levis manuscript, and an essay by David St. John about the manuscript prior to its acceptance for publication by Graywolf.

The seven Levis poems and the St. John essay can be found in the table of contents for
   Levis Remembered
   Blackbird v12n2
   Fall 2012

The link above will open the archival content in another tab.

Blackbird has asked me to say a few words about the final poem of Larry Levis’s posthumously published collection Elegy, “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope,” and its connection to the new, forthcoming volume of Levis’s previously uncollected poems, The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems. The collection, which I’ve edited, will be published by Graywolf in 2016—the 20th anniversary year of Larry’s death.

An editor’s “Afterword” that concludes The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems speaks to much of what I’ll say here in far greater detail, but I would like to urge readers to look back to Blackbird v12n2, from fall 2013 (see note right) for some essential background—and context—to the selection of poems for both Elegy and The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems.

It’s important to recall that when Philip Levine edited Elegy there was little indication as to a chronology for many of the poems. This issue problematized the sequencing of the nine “elegy poems” (those poems all beginning “Elegy . . .”) chosen for the book. Phil had asked me to suggest an order, which I did (it is the order that is in Elegy, passing from the end of section II through all of section III), using the few chronological indicators we had; but I also looked to see how Larry had used—in those elegies—pieces of other, earlier poems (some of which were dated) that he’d cannibalized for use in this sequence.

An example of this technique is the way Larry used thirty lines that initially had served as the opening movement to his poem “Ocean Park #17, 1968: Homage to Diebenkorn” for one of the sections in “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope.” In fact, there exists an early full-blown rehearsal of this particular elegy, in a far different form, entitled, “And The State Shall Wither Away.” Once Larry had established the stylistic form of his elegies (which he clearly regarded as a sequence in the making), a few appropriate pieces of previously written poems were placed in these new individual elegies as Larry’s vision of the sequence matured.

Yet what seemed clear from the first was that “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope” was the logical poem to end the existing sequence of nine elegies and also to end the book Elegy itself. Later, I began to have second thoughts about which poem should have ended Larry’s sequence as the tenth elegy (it was a poem unavailable for use at that time), a sequence that I believe was meant to be Larry’s own Duino Elegies, his own The Book of Nightmares. That story is also included in the “Afterword” to The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems.

Any reader familiar with Larry Levis’s work will hear in this new collection recurring echoes of poems in Elegy as, with only a very few exceptions, the poems of The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems were also written during the same six year period following the completion of The Widening Spell of the Leaves and leading up to Larry’s death. Many of the same echoes of Larry’s time in Yugoslavia appear, as well as his fascination with and horror at the seemingly nonchalant brutality of the history of Eastern Europe, coupled with his reflections about the nature of freedom (issues we see both comically and dramatically considered in Elegy in both “Anastasia & Sandman” and “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope”); these very same motifs are threaded throughout The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems.

However, there is no “bridge” leading from the end of the book Elegy to the poems included in The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems because, in fact, all of these poems are parallel, congruent, and were written as part of the same artistic/poetic weather system in which Larry was working. Instead, these two books will now stand as mirrors to each other, showing us with tremendous clarity the profoundly inventive genius—let me say it again, genius—of Larry Levis’s alchemical, complexly braided, and often devastating, late poetry.  end

David St. John is the author of ten collections of poetry, most recently The Auroras (HarperCollins, 2012). His collection Study for the World’s Body: New and Selected Poems (HarperPerennial, 1994) was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry. He is the editor of Larry Levis’s The Selected Levis (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000) and the coeditor of American Hybrid: A Norton Anthology of New Poetry (W.W. Norton, 2009). He teaches at The University of Southern California.

return to top