blackbirdonline journalFall 2015  Vol. 14 No. 2

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Reading Loop Introduction and Table of Contents


Larry Levis
   Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze Inside It
   Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire
   Manuscript: Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire
Michele Poulos
   Trailer | A Late Style of Fire
AWP Panel
   The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems of Larry Levis
Matt Donovan
   What Someone Was Supposed to Swing:
      Secularizing the Spiritual in Larry Levis’s
      The Darkening Trapeze

Rickey Laurentiis
   poems from Boy with Thorn
   Lord and Chariot
   Writing an Elegy  
   Mood for Love
   Epitaph on a Stone
A Conversation with Rickey Laurentiis

19th Annual Levis Reading Prize 
   with a reading by prize winner Rickey Laurentiis;    commentary by John Ulmschneider and Gregory    Donovan.

Keith S. Wilson
   Review | Boy with Thorn, by Rickey Laurentiis


Welcome to Blackbird’s fifteenth Levis Remembered, a visit with the poetry of Larry Levis and an introduction to the nineteenth annual Levis Reading Prize winner, Rickey Laurentiis. 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 Rickey Laurentiis’s very fine poems and in remembering Larry Levis’s matchless witness to the last decades of the twentieth century.

Each fall, Blackbird calls attention to some aspect of Levis’s work, and this year we particularly invite you to revisit “Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze Inside It” and “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire,” both of which were previously published in Blackbird and both of which feature strongly in the collection, The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems (edited and with an Afterword by David St. John), which appeared from Graywolf Press earlier this year.

The section especially features the essay “What Someone Was Supposed to Swing: Secularizing the Spiritual in Larry Levis’s The Darkening Trapeze,” by Matt Donovan. Using the poem “The Thief in the Rigging” (published in Elegy, Levis’s other posthumous collection of new poems) as his lens through which to begin his interrogation of the new book, Donovan notes that:

Among the true pleasures afforded by The Darkening Trapeze . . . are the ways in which those newly collected poems cast a transfiguring light on some of the poet’s individual pieces, as well as specific motifs and themes in his work.

Donovan chooses to concentrate his discussion on the title poem, as well as on “If He Came & Diminished Me & Mapped My Way” and “God Is Always Seventeen,” as these may be read in the light of the complex relationship with the divine that marks much of Levis’s work:

It’s as if, through this new publication of posthumous work, the Levis cannon has provided a final unanticipated juxtaposition, the kind of haunting correspondence between two beautifully disparate things that one finds in so much of his writing, something that seems both unlikely and inevitable even as it transpires.

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.

Reading “Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze Inside It” is also the subject of Gregory Donovan’s annual recollection on some aspect of Levis’s life and work, part of the Levis Prize presentation event.

In revisiting “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire,” we invite you to view the poem through the lens of the textual issues that arise when editing a posthumous collection of work. Accordingly, we have included an image of one of Levis’s manuscript documents—complete with marginalia—taken from VCU Libraries’ Levis collection. Scrawled new lines, crossed-out text, penciled-in changes, and ink scrawls all appear on this manuscript (one of several similarly treated versions of this poem). David St. John describes the dilemma posed by the poem in his Afterword to The Darkening Trapeze:

Included in this collection is a poem with a fascinating history, “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire,” which I have always believed was meant to be the tenth of Levis’s “elegy” poems. Some of the “elegy” poems had been titled, in their early incarnation, “Poem with  . . .” instead of “Elegy with . . .” I believe that “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire” was meant to complete the cycle of ten elegies Levis had been working toward in order to create his own Duino Elegies, his own The Book of Nightmares. Sadly, the final page of “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire” had been dramatically X-ed out by Levis, with an indecipherable revision scrawled down the margin alongside the X-ed out typescript. None of us—all of whom had read Levis’s cursive for twenty years or more—could read the revised version. [Philip] Levine [who was the editor of Elegy], with regret, decided we couldn’t publish the poem, as we had no way of knowing what Levis had intended for the final draft. Remarkably, only a month or two after the publication of the book Elegy, a videotape [sic audiotape] of Levis reading “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire” just two weeks before his death was made available to Mary Flinn. This reading is posted for viewing at Blackbird [v14n2] which also holds a wealth of essays and commentaries about Levis’s poetry. The version of the poem that Levis read on the video was the final, revised version we had been looking for. If this final draft had been available at the time, I might have argued to publish two separate books of Levis poems—one volume of the ten elegies, and a second volume containing the shorter poems in Elegy, along with a dozen or so of the longer poems now collected in The Darkening Trapeze.

The winner of the nineteenth annual Levis Reading Prize, Rickey Laurentiis, is represented here by a selection of poems from his winning book, Boy with Thorn, the audio capture of his VCU reading (including introductory remarks by Gregory Donovan), and a review of the book, written by the poet Keith S. Wilson.

This year’s Levis Remembered also features the trailer for A Late Style of Fire, Michele Poulos’s documentary film about Levis’s life in poetry. Also available is the audio of a 2016 AWP Conference & Bookfair panel discussion focused on The Darkening Trapeze, moderated by its editor, David St. John, and featuring commentary by poets Carolyn Forché, Linda Gregerson, and Mark Doty.

We invite you to explore Levis’s work, both in Blackbird and in his books. We thank his sister, Sheila Brady, and his son, Nick Levis, for the opportunity to recognize him here. The Levis Prize is sponsored by the VCU Department of English, VCU Libraries, Barnes & Noble @ VCU, VCU Honors College, the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, and the family of Larry Levis.  end

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