blackbirdonline journalFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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What Someone Was Supposed to Swing: Secularizing the Spiritual in Larry Levis’s The Darkening Trapeze

Near the center of Larry Levis’s posthumous Elegy, a collection published a year after the poet’s tragic death in 1996, the reader encounters a persona poem from the point of view of one of the thieves crucified next to Jesus. Perhaps because “The Thief in the Painting” is much shorter than many of the long, magisterial elegies that comprise the bulk of that book, the poem is often overlooked. Yet the piece is a fascinating example of how Levis interrogates our secular, ravaged, human world through an appropriation of Christian tropes.

Although the poem centers on the Crucifixion, it depicts solely the human element of the story, stripping it of any relationship to heaven and redemption. Jesus is not even named in the piece, and Levis stresses the secular through both the privileging of the thief’s voice, and the poem’s shrewd ekphrastic lens. Avoiding any mention of scripture, the speaker self-consciously perceives himself within the context of a painting of the Crucifixion, compounding the level of remove from the Biblical source. “I was meant to be part of the picture,” he declares in the poem’s second line, later announcing that his presence is merely “necessary for the balance of the composition.” And yet, neither the aesthetic requirements of form nor the speaker’s canonical place in the story seems to lend the speaker any sense of either value or permanence. He feels himself to be under siege, as if his identity, body, and words all might dissolve, and goes so far as to self-identify as “an exiled white gleam of flesh in the background / Before the bare hill blurs into pines, // And the pines into…?” Not even the surrounding landscape seems stable here, and just as the ellipsis demarcates a failure of language, that literal trailing off by the speaker undermines any possibility that this scene of torture could afford the redemption predicated in the Christian telling of it. Rather than a moment of apotheosis, the bodies in this version of the Crucifixion are simply left to decay, and the story’s speaker is unable to articulate questions that might help him make sense of his experience:

After the crowds went off to their amusements
And the three of us were left to wither away,

I kept meaning to ask, then forgetting to—
Staring off, and gliding out of my flesh on my stare—
Forgetting what and who it was I had wanted to ask.

Levis casts the thief’s death as suffering upon which the possibility of meaning collapses, leaving us, in lieu of any transformation, with only “a gust of wind on the dry hill / In that moment, and the sore screech of a wheel, / An endless screeching, off in the distance somewhere.”

By the poem’s conclusion, the speaker understands that history will not retain his name and asserts that his death will be without consolation:

For who among you now could say with certainty
Which thief I was, could tell which mark blurred
By rain in a ledger once meant me, which meant

That linen on a stick who was once my friend,
And which meant the possessed boy who went on speaking
To shapes he saw before him in the air, shapes

Which I knew, even as I turned my face away from him
Then, out of a serene contempt, were nothing more,
Could never be anything more, than what was really there—

The hard, pure, furiously indifferent faces of thieves.

In these lines, Jesus is reduced to a mere “possessed boy,” the promise of heavenly redemption is consigned to mere hallucinated shapes, and instead of being afforded solace from those violent deaths, we’re left with merely the furious and indifferent faces of unrepentant thieves.

It’s a disconsolate vision, and I’ve always been disturbed by the bleak finality of those last lines. It would be a hollow farce, the speaker implicitly claims, to understand those compassionless faces of the crucified as anything but disdainful, or to imbue the world with any meaning beyond the literal. The thief’s steadfast refusal to believe that suffering could ever become a source of redemption is not, of course, Elegy’s final word on the subject. By virtue of the collection’s sequencing, still to come is that haunting Sibyl, forever withering away in her birdcage in “Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage,” as well as the flayed flesh of the idiot howling on a park bench in the last poem “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope.” And now, unexpectedly, the dialogue continues. One of the true pleasures afforded by The Darkening Trapeze—Levis’s second posthumous collection of poetry, recently published by Graywolf Press nearly twenty years after the poet’s death—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.

Take, for instance, the scene of crucifixion that provides this new collection with its title. In “Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze inside It,” Jesus’s impending death is envisioned as a wholly different event.

First, it’s important to clarify the backdrop against which that resonate moment unfolds. Whereas the earlier poem relegates the concept of God to mere shapes inside a possessed boy’s head, in this piece’s opening lines the precepts of Communism are depicted as barren ideals that can no longer be entertained: “The idea turned out to be no more than a cart wheel / Stuck in mud, & unturned fields spreading to the horizon.” A few lines later, Christianity and Communism are paired through a perception of their shared futility:

The only surviving son of Jesus Christ was Karl Marx.
You can tell by the last letter of his name,
Which has the shape & frail balance of an overturned cross

On a windswept hillside. It marked the end of things.
Of lumber that rots & falls  . . .

At this moment in the piece, the conceit of linking Jesus and Marx through both lineage and a shared impotence of beliefs insists upon a collapse of meaning commensurate with
“The Thief in the Painting.” The cross is denied as a symbol of redemption, signifying only death and rotten wood. But whereas the earlier work becomes arguably more predictable in its desolation, this recently published poem first veers into a lighthearted reference to a line sometimes misattributed to Marx (“‘Sex should be no more important . . . / Than a glass of water’”), just before that abrupt and radical reimagining of Jesus’s outstretched arms on the cross:

The empty bar that someone was supposed to swing to him
Did not arrive, & so his outstretched flesh itself became

A darkening trapeze. The other two acrobats were thieves.

On its face, the notion of Jesus as a trapeze artist might seem even more reductive than anything contained in the earlier persona poem. Akin to Plath’s vision in “Lady Lazarus,” the miraculous is depicted as tawdry, circus-like entertainment for the peanut-munching crowd. And yet, such an interpretation belies the profound transfiguration enacted by the image of that trapeze.

Here, both the body and the material of the cross are transfigured in resonate ways. More specifically, and to offer a brief paraphrase of the passage, the very flesh of the man who has been left stranded transforms into the trapeze that he’s waiting for, suggesting that his body afforded the resolution he desired. Or, if literalizing the metamorphosis of the flesh seems perhaps too romanticized for this elegiac poem, it’s the poet’s expansive imagination that enacts new change, proffering something beyond belief systems perceived as dead. If the stance of the speaker in “The Thief in the Painting” denies the transformative properties of metaphor—punished flesh will always be merely punished flesh—poetry’s intercession here fundamentally transforms those outstretched arms from the context of violence and the sterility of the doctrinal.

I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that the work contained in The Darkening Trapeze should be read as long-delayed answers to the Levis poems published before now. For one thing, a few of the poems predate the work collected in Elegy, with at least one piece—“Gossip in the Village,” which opens the collection—dating back to 1982 and originally intended for inclusion in the manuscript that became Winter Stars. As the Afterword by the book’s editor David St. John details, there’s no tidy chronological arc to follow here. Some of the poems contained in The Darkening Trapeze, for instance, were known to Philip Levine while he was editing and assembling the work for Elegy and yet, with an eye toward cohesion, were ultimately excluded from the previous book’s final form. Moreover, just as Levine explained in his foreword to Elegy that the editorial work with the collection began with receiving “a great many poems in various drafts and stages of completion,” so St. John also outlines the complex task of trying to ensure that The Darkening Trapeze was comprised of the most complete and final versions of Levis’s work. “In some cases,” St. John makes clear in the notes section of the book, “subsequent handwritten revisions on a hard-copy draft of a poem were also incorporated into a piece in an attempt to establish as near a ‘final’ draft as possible.” Even if some of the results of this posthumous publication can be perplexing at times (how should readers respond, for instance, to the fact that the conclusion of the newly published “La Strada” ends with a near verbatim line shared with Elegy’s “Boy in Video Arcade”?), it’s both gratifying and deeply illuminating to experience these previously uncollected Levis poems.

“If He Came & Diminished Me & Mapped My Way” is one of the most cohesive and moving poems in The Darkening Trapeze, and, similarly, a piece that interrogates secular experience through the lens of appropriated Christian tropes. Like the title-bearing poem, it falls into a section of the book subtitled “The Condition of Pity in Our Time.”

The title alludes to John Berryman’s “Dream Song 13,” and it’s well worth contextualizing the plea to God from which Levis’s poem takes its titular cue. In that “Dream Song,” a brief blessing bestowed upon Berryman’s Henry is followed by an enumeration of his flaws:

God bless Henry. He lived like a rat.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Henry was not a coward. Much.
He never deserted anything; instead
he stuck, when things like pity were thinning.

This characterization of Henry as someone who inhabits a pitiless world and has a tendency toward cowardice is extrapolated into the defining traits of humanity: “So may be Henry was a human being,” Berryman writes. “Let’s investigate that. / . . . We did; okay. / He is a human American man.” Despite the faux logic of these interrogations, we’re left with the premise that to be rat-like is to be human which in turn initiates the speaker’s plea for both guidance and the self’s dissolution: “Come & diminish me, & map my way.”

Significantly, Levis changes Berryman’s prayer-like direct address to the conditional sense in his title: If he came. That shift to the provisional necessarily complicates the poem’s relationship to the divine throughout the piece, and beginning with its opening lines that wield an echo of the book of Job:

Who was there in the uncountable stars, in the distance,
And in the cold glittering?
Who leaned with the wind against the trees all day,

And who slept in the swing’s empty stillness under them?

Who was present in the pattern of the snake fading
Into the pattern of the leaves again?

Like God’s enraged response to Job’s questions about his suffering in life (“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook?”), these questions are not meant to be answered so much as serve as a means of underscoring life’s unfathomable mysteries. But whereas those accruing questions in the Old Testament are motivated by an implicit and reactive “How dare you?” that underscores the hierarchy between divine omnipotence and mere mortals, the gesture in Levis’s poem is different not only in its tone of hushed wonder, but also in its gradual blurring of the distinction between human experience and God:

And who presided over the empty clarity of water falling,
Water spreading into a thin, white veil
Glimpsed just once in a moment clear & empty as a heaven—

Once heaven has been swept clean of any meaning?

Whose childhood is no more than a blackened rafter,
Something left after fire has swept through it?

Although this passage retains the linguistic trappings of religion—presiding, heaven—it also effectively strips the realm of God of any meaning. Once the poem’s accruing anaphora is relinquished for that waterfall’s widening imagistic eddy, the rendered picaresque scene is used as a means to insist upon a moment that’s both fleeting and devoid of significance. Moreover, that gesture toward capacious beauty immediately gives way to an image of desolation through that metaphor of the blackened rafter. By inscribing the evoked childhood with ruin and loss, this opening section refutes any possibility of human innocence, which in turn becomes an initiating precept for the poem’s two primary narratives that follow.

The transition into the piece’s second section is characteristically abrupt, and as with many later-Levis poems, it forces the reader to intuit the connective thematic thread. Yet just as I’ve always read God’s response to Job as wholly inadequate (instead of trying to provide consolation or answers about human suffering, God evades the vicissitudes of solace by bellowing, in essence, “Who are you to question me?”), it’s as if the poem has conjured a vision of loss that can only be reiterated instead of redeemed. “It is years later when I come back to that place where I’d hiked once,” the second section opens, enacting a newly conversational tone grounded in anecdote, as if, over the course of the poem’s section break, the speaker apprehended some tacit need to strategically shift his approach.

Yet the new narrative grounding belies the complexity of this section in the poem. To paraphrase what ensues, the speaker returns to a place where he once hiked and, in an allegory-like gesture, remembers encountering someone on the trail who was so emaciated he seemed to be starving. Although the story’s surface seems easy enough to understand, the poem’s use of memory, the fluctuating orchestration of emotive stance, and the varied employment of literary allusion all serve as a beguiling foil to the musings by Levis’s speaker.

To continue exploring the poem’s varied literary references, the piece borrows from John Donne’s “Meditation XVII,” as indicated by the notes in the back of the collection. Yet rather than riff on some of the well-worn passages from Donne’s prose—the low-hanging fruit of “No man is an island,” for instance, or “it tolls for thee”—Levis’s use of the Meditations is rather sly. It’s worth remembering that Donne composed his twenty-three-part text while afflicted by the sudden onset of an intense illness (now suspected to be typhus), which, according to biographer John Stubbs, induced “a frightening schism between mind and body.” Just as the title of Levis’s piece suggests a similar dwindling of the self through the appropriation of the Berryman phrase—“diminish me”—the poem is also fueled by a corresponding state of confusion and despair:

It is years later when I come back to that place where I’d hiked once,
And somehow lost the trail, & then,
For a while, walked in the Company of Hallucination & Terror,

And noted afterward, like something closing within me,

That slight disappointment when I found

The trail again . . .

But whereas Donne’s prose seeks guidance and salvation from the afflicting disease, the speaker in Levis’s poem feels disappointment upon finding his way and thus losing the apparitions and fears that torment him. Perhaps an even more revealing difference between the two texts is that while the central stance behind Donne’s meditation embraces the unity of the human race (“If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less”), Levis’s poem suggests that the loss of individuality leads to banalities rather than revelatory harmony. In remembering that landscape, for instance, the speaker “recall[s] the way each rock looked, how / Expressionless it was, how each / Was the same as another, without a face.” Subsequently, even the encounter with someone whose “ribs depicted famine” evokes not a sense of empathetic brotherhood, but instead “diminishment, embarrassment.” In fact, the speaker is equally unsettled by the man’s unfaltering pace as his perceived suffering and hunger: “his steps beside me / Were effortless, were like air gliding through air / Again & again without haste or hesitation.” It’s as if the stranger’s stride conveys a sense of certainty and conviction that the speaker reads as unworldly traits foreign to the human condition.

The differences between Donne’s meditations on Christian kinship and “If He Came & Diminished Me & Mapped My Way” are compounded in the poem’s concluding narrative, which centers on a drug deal in an abandoned lot. The story of the emaciated figure is left willfully unresolved, as if the speaker’s curiosity about the man’s misery was merely fleeting, and any surge of sympathy deemed inconsequential: “forgetting or remembering him are the same, now.” The emphasis on that concluding “now” denotes both a passage of time and the way the speaker’s interest becomes derailed and newly honed to the impending drug deal. Whereas that specter in the forest was momentarily unnerving, the drugs afford their own resolution and instant balm:

And if, by getting high, one can live
Effortlessly anywhere for a little while, if

Me & my dealer, a Jamaican named John Donne,

Gaze out at the rain & listen to the hushed clatter
Of an empty metal shopping cart someone pushes through the

If we gaze out at the living, & at the dead, & they are the same,
If the sound of a bus going past & the sound of the wind
Are the same, are what is left to listen to in the world,

Though the world sleeps, & the trees above us sleep, their limbs
Mending themselves in the cold wind,

Then both of Us would avert our Faces from His Face.

In a manner similar to the subversion of Jesus’s death on the cross, Donne’s canonical elegiac bells are here downgraded to the hollow clatter of a shopping cart. If that ironic and blindsiding naming of the drug dealer make the literary allusion explicit, the gesture also makes the conditional tense of the poem’s conclusion all the more poignant. While Donne’s conceit presumes a faith and grace that unite all people on earth, this poem not only subverts Christian convictions through those final repeated “If”s, but also compounds the moment’s sorrow by supplanting affirmation with shame.

Similarly, it’s important to highlight those capitalizations in the poem’s final line. Although there’s a suggested deference to the divine enacted by the letters capitalized in “His Face,” the human figures left stranded in that lot receive equal reverence through Levis’s formalizing of “Us” and “Faces.” If the reader is momentarily tempted to read that gesture as some kind of apotheosis, the poem’s setting and concluding tone decidedly thwarts that romanticized notion. Even more, because the poem’s title makes the diminishment of the self contingent on the existence of God, those last capitalizations are implicitly atheistic, and, by extension, the speaker is bereft of comfort or guidance. Never has the Blakean idea of the human form made divine seemed so hopeless.

This complex relationship with the divine continues in the collection’s concluding poem, “God Is Always Seventeen.” The piece serves as a coda to the collection, just as The Darkening Trapeze serves as its own arresting and beautiful post-Elegy second coda to the work of Larry Levis. “In my view,” editor David St. John asserts, “it is without question the final piece Levis finished, the poem he’d clearly intended to use as the last poem of his next collection.” The piece’s opening line, which conveys the speaker’s ennui and aimlessness from the outset, certainly backs St. John’s claim:

This is the last poem in the book. In a way, I don’t even want
to finish it. I’d rather go to bed & jack off under the covers

But I’d probably lose interest in it & begin wondering about God.

If the gesture risks distracting the reader with its wry self-consciousness, that familiar postmodern trap is avoided through both the emotional vulnerability of that mitigating clause (“In a way”), and that heartbreaking first enjambment which simultaneously asserts a deflation of human desire while underscoring the posthumous nature of the collection. If the speaker in “If He Came & Diminished Me & Mapped My Way” desires a communion with a deity who is either nonexistent or willfully removed, the opening conceit of this final poem hinges on a direct relationship between the speaker and God that nonetheless fails to rise above the frivolous. Instead, the speaker wonders about whether or not God has “tried the methamphetamine I sent Him yet, & if He still / Listens to the Clash.” It’s a fraught, fallible, and deeply human relationship, with the speaker seemingly incapable of sustaining his idle curiosities about God for long. “Besides,” the poem continues, abandoning its irreverent conceits about the Almighty in order to proffer another reason why he’ll abandon his procrastinative masturbation, “I can’t imagine a body in the first faint stirrings of arousal / Without feeling sorry for it now.”

Readers of Levis’s work are familiar with his penchant for unexpected juxtapositions of subject matter, but although this speaker leaps from topic to topic, his veers don’t accrue thematic motifs so much as seem to enact a listlessness and willful avoidance:

anyway, I’ve built a fire in the fireplace

And I don’t have a fire screen yet, & have to watch it until it goes out,
Even the last lukewarm ember. It isn’t my house.

It belongs to a bank in St. Louis somewhere & they have four thousand
Different ways to punish me if the place goes up in flames, including the guys

From Medellín who work for them now & specialize in pain.
Besides, it’s still winter everywhere & maybe you want to hear a story

With a fire burning quietly beside it. The story on this night when it
Got really cold, & the darkness of the night spreading

Over the sky seemed larger than it should have been, though
Nobody mentioned it. It was something

You didn’t feel like bringing up if you were sitting in a bar
Among your friends. But all that happened was the night kept getting larger

Then larger still, & then there was a squeal of brakes
Outside the bar, & then what they call in prose the “sickening” crunch

Of metal as two cars collided & in a little while the guy went back to telling
This story in which the warm snow was falling on the yard

Where he & the other prisoners were exercising . . .

To briefly recap, twenty-five lines into the poem, we know that the speaker doesn’t much care about finishing his book, has a lethargic response to sex, and plans to eventually relay a tale to the reader that’s inspired by less of a desire to speak than the default of a fire hazard and fear of retaliation from Columbian thugs should his home be incinerated. Meanwhile, the story that the speaker eventually decides to tell—one “with a fire burning quietly beside it”—remains elusive, apparently deferred after that car crash which takes place outside the bar where he sits in silence, unable to share what’s actually on his mind. The speaker’s evasiveness is further accented by that self-conscious and deliberately clichéd “‘sickening’ crunch,” a glib phrase that suggests a lack of faith that language can authentically engage with tragedy. Even once an actual story at last finds some traction in this poem, the tone remains consistently detached even as the focus momentarily shifts to a murder case:

in a little while the guy went back to telling
This story in which the warm snow was falling on the yard

Where he & the other prisoners were exercising. I guess the guy
Had evidently done some time, though everyone listening was too polite

To bring it up. And what happened in it was a clerk bleeding to death
In a 7-11, & the guy telling it called 911 for an ambulance, & the police found both

Cash from the till & the gun on him when they arrived. He didn’t think he’d shot
Anyone that night or anyone ever & was surprised & puzzled

When they made a match on the gun, the clerk lived to testify, & they convicted
Him. No one along the bar said anything when he’d finished

Telling it, & the night went on enlarging in the story, & I think our silence
Cut him loose & let him go falling. And one by one, we paid & got up & left

And went out under the stars . . .

Following this rather harrowing tale, there are no offered morals or even attempts to understanding the loss of consciousness and self that transpired at the 7-Eleven. At this moment in the poem, all we’re given is solitude, a dreary silence, and a growing darkness, and it seems to be precisely this lack of meaning that launches the speaker’s next leap of subject matter with which the piece concludes:

I have a child who isn’t doing well in school.
It’s not his grades. It’s that he can’t wake up.

He misses his morning classes & doesn’t answer when I call & doesn’t
Return my calls. The last time I saw him we took the train down from Connecticut

To New York & wandered around Times Square. We went into this record store
And pretended to browse through some albums there

Because we didn’t know what to say to each other. It was night. It was just
Before the Christmas season, & the clerks in the store

Would call out loudly Can I Help Anybody & Can I Help Someone & there was
Some music playing & something inconsolable

And no longer even bitter in the melody & I will never forget
Being there with him & hearing it & wondering what was going to become of us.

Although this section only comprises about a third of the poem, the reader has a sense of this personal narrative being the real occasion for the piece. It’s as if this story about the speaker’s son—which conveys merely a moment in time, and is not really a story at all—has been somehow simmering beneath the veneer of the poem’s meandering start. If the transition seems abrupt, the link between the poem’s opening and ending gradually reveals itself. Beyond the correspondence between the absent god and the removed father figure, both sections of the poem convey a burgeoning sense of language as a frail tool and focus on the trivial and monetary in lieu of addressing emotional needs. Even if the final lines eschew the piece’s circuitous syntax for a sudden distillation of sentiment (“It was night”) neither the speaker’s sustained focus nor new emotional investment equip him with the ability to adequately communicate. Without knowing what to say, the speaker merely wanders New York with his son, idly flipping through records. The offers of assistance from those record store clerks serve as the foil to both the speaker’s silence as well as the absent god, an effect underscored again through capitalizations: “Can I Help Someone.”

And how to interpret the final lines of this final poem by Larry Levis? Appropriately, the piece concludes on a resolutely ambivalent note. While the speaker claims that the moment will remain forever indelible, he’s also resigned to the fact that, as with the music playing at the store, the retention of this memory won’t afford any consolation. Like the god that’s absent in all of these poems, the music streaming down fails to offer any guidance. The last gesture is one of simply wondering, amid all of this silence and lack of certainty, what will become of us all.

By the time I first encountered Levis’s poetry, he had already died at the far-too-young age of forty-nine. The poet Greg Glazner had urged me to track down his work, and I remember standing in an enormous Borders bookstore, a sprawling space (perhaps not too unlike the record store of his last poem) crammed as much with books as with baubles and stuffed toys, when I first cracked the spine of his Selected Poems. I began reading at random, and I don't think I’ve ever been as instantly compelled by the work of a contemporary poet. While I can’t recall what poem I might have first read, I’d like to think it was something from Winter Stars, a poetry collection that’s influenced my own writing perhaps more than any other, and which opens, as avid Levis readers undoubtedly know, with a piece entitled “The Poet at Seventeen.”

Upon finishing “God Is Always Seventeen” in The Darkening Trapeze, I went scurrying back to “The Poet at Seventeen,” and was admittedly unsure of what to make of this new echo within the canon of Levis’s work. On the one hand, there’s a compelling correspondence. After all, the last lines of that poem from Winter Stars now yield a prescient answer to the final question from the posthumous work:

And then the first dark entering the trees—
And inside, the adults with their cocktails before dinner,
The way that they always seemed afraid of something,
And sat so rigidly, although the land was theirs.

Perhaps, at least within the context of this connection between the two collections, this is the bleak answer to what we might potentially become. Despite whatever may seem boundless and eternal during our teenage years, what awaits is an encroaching darkness, unnamable fears, and an adulthood where we’re both alienated from the world around us and ill-equipped to navigate our lives.

And yet, I’d also argue that, no matter the immediately apparent connections, it’s reductive to consider too literally the links between these two poems separated by more than three decades. It’s as if, through this new publication of posthumous work, the Levis canon 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. Perhaps—to try out the new metaphor that we’ve been given against all odds—it’s as if something unexpected but forever transfiguring has just swung out to us from the darkness.  

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