blackbirdonline journalFall 2020  Vol. 19 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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My Parents and One Good Line I Wrote at Sixteen
from “Larry Levis: Autobiography”

Their morals were Victorian and their politics were conservative. They were children of the Depression and wary of most social change. They were also children of the Cold War and its successful propaganda, which made them fear communism and the labor union Chavez organized. They belonged to the Skeleton Club and would go dancing there in a large hall with other farm families, but they remained suspicious of the Grange, which they thought leaned toward socialism.

Once, while I was working with Tea in a vineyard of muscats, I made some complaint about my father. Tea felt I was wrong and hastened to correct me. “No,” he said, “su padre tiene dignidad.” I asked him what things made up dignidad. “Corazón,” he replied, and then smiled, “Corazón y cojónes.” Heart and balls. Courage, in other words. My father certainly had that. Once, as I was riding with him in his pickup along a two-lane country road surrounded by vineyards, we came upon a small group of men in the middle of the road, a circle with two men inside it. They were young men, farm laborers, Mexicans, and one held a grape-cutting knife with a sharpened blade in his hand, his fore and index finger on either side of the curved point so that it could slash like a razor. The other man may have had a knife as well, but all I saw was a coat rolled around one arm to ward off the other’s blade. My father abruptly stopped the truck, told me to stay in it, got out and walked without any hesitation right into the middle of the circle, between the two men, shoving each one roughly back and away from the other, and then demanded that the one holding it give him the knife. The man did so, an expression of surprise or consternation on his face. My father got back in the truck but didn’t say anything about it. We drove on and had coffee in a little lunch counter in Parlier where other farmers usually gathered in the late morning to kid each other and complain about poor prices, poor crops. My father didn’t mention the fight even then, when someone asked him what he’d done that morning. I didn’t either. They were ranchers, farmers, and they looked like it in their rumpled work clothes and hats with soiled brims and stained hat bands. I didn’t say anything there unless one of them asked me a question.

When we got back to the house, my father did what he always did. He ate a light lunch, went into the living room to rest for a half hour or so before going back to work, and listened to classical music or opera while he lay on the couch. He was neither articulate nor talkative. Like Robert Lowell’s portrait of Colonel Shaw, my father seemed “to wince at pleasure / and suffocate for privacy.” I asked him once if he believed in God. He said he did. I asked him if that guaranteed everyone some kind of eternal life. He said he didn’t see how it could and that such a thing seemed impossible whenever he had thought about it.

He was reserved, but not dour. He could always make my mother laugh with some joke or other, and did so almost daily. By the time I was in high school, my sisters and my brother were off in college, and I was the only child still living with my parents. It was clear to me, especially as they grew older, that the two of them really loved each other, even delighted each other. They were an example of something, especially to me. I’ve been married three times and divorced three times. But I did at least once witness a marriage that was happy, one that lasted. In my case, I could say, with Yeats, that one must make a choice between one’s art and one’s life. Once or twice, I have done that, I suppose. But it seems to me I had to choose between one kind of life or another kind of life. Yeats makes the choice sound rather grand and heroic and heartbreaking enough, for everyone involved. But to actually split up with someone because you believe it is a sacrifice for Art is, it seems to me, a kind of semiprecious delusion, as Yeats suggests as he concludes his poem.

In his whole life, my father wrote only two letters to me. Both began “How’s tricks?” My father felt about as comfortable with writing as someone might who holds a poisonous snake on the end of a stick, or, on these occasions, at the end of a pencil. But my father was full of contradictions, as most people are. If he wasn’t terribly talkative, the things he did say mattered. And I might as well continue with the aforementioned snake. My family had a cabin in the Sierras at Shaver Lake, and, one afternoon, hiking with my brother and my sisters, all of them far older than I, I saw, or at least I thought I saw, a rattlesnake resting under a manzanita bush, and I shouted and screamed. We all raced back to the shore of the lake where our boat was tied and where my father and mother were preparing a picnic. My brother and my sisters, by the time we got there, had ceased to believe that I had seen a snake at all, and, I confess, I was beginning to disbelieve it myself. It might have been the way the sun was shining on the manzanita limbs and the ground beneath them. But they kept teasing me, until I felt humiliated and began crying. I was maybe seven or so at the time and kept insisting to my father that there really was a snake at the top of the path above us. I was simply afraid of rattlesnakes, and I was a child, and at that moment I suspected that I had imagined seeing one when nothing was there. My father turned and went up the path, and then, a few minutes later, came back. They were still teasing me and I was still crying and still angry at them and at myself, and, by then, I was certain I had only imagined the snake. My brother looked at my father and said, sarcastically, “Well, what about it? Was there a snake up there?” I waited for my father to confirm everyone’s suspicion that I was lying about the whole thing. A summer of endless teasing and humiliation stretched before me. And then my father said the most marvelous thing, which I was sure, even then, was a lie. He said, “Yeah, there was a snake up there. I saw it.” My father lied for me! He could see I was miserable and he lied for me. I knew it and he knew it. If the snake had existed, how would he have known where to look for it? Why would it still be there if he had known?

Years later, I would still remember the incident. I do not know whether my father had an imagination or not. He did not allow it to show, if he did. But he certainly defended the imagination, or my imagination, by lying for me that day. And he saved me from ridicule.

As a child, I drew all the time, and by the age of twelve I was drawing nudes in school when I was bored. One day my mother found a kind of obscene anatomical sketch of a naked woman in my pants pocket and showed it to my father later in the day. My father was outraged. “Did you draw this?” he asked me. I couldn’t answer, but my face told him all he needed to know. “I’m disgusted with you,” he said.

Love and shame. Imagination had its consequences. His remark had expelled me from the paradise of his affection. I no longer thought of myself or was capable of thinking of myself as categorically good. As in “a good boy.” Of course my father forgave me and meant nothing final by what he had said. But it had changed things. It had changed my relationship to him and changed the way I saw myself. My sketch mocked the woman in it, who was fat, naked, with huge breasts and thighs, and flourishing pubic hair. And my father had only contempt for the kind of disrespect in it. The drawing meant nothing much to me. I was twelve. I was interested in sex. And afraid of sex. I had to imagine a naked body I could not have in the flesh. But the sketch changed things. I wasn’t a good boy after that. I did not have to try to be a good boy, especially, because I wasn’t one. My father had as much as said so.

My father couldn’t have prepared me better for my life as a poet if he had tried, if he had read Homer to me every night, for in two years I would take up smoking, out of a sort of rebellion, and at the age of fifteen I was the only kid for miles around who owned an album by Bob Dylan, and I was certainly the only kid in my high school who read poetry, who loved T.S. Eliot mostly, who read Frost and then Stevens. Four years later, when I was sixteen, I decided, one night, to try to write a poem. When I was finished I turned out the light. I told myself that if the poem had one good line in it I would try to be a poet. And then I thought, no, you can’t say “try.” You will either be a poet, and become a better and better one, or you will not be a poet. The next morning I woke and looked at what I’d written. It was awful. I knew it was awful. But it had one good line. One. All the important decisions in my life were made in that moment.

My father died at seventy-eight of a combination of Parkinson’s, a series of small strokes, and old age. After the largely unconvincing Catholic service, my family went back to the ranch, and I held the box with his “ashes” in it. It was heavier than the term “ashes” implies. His remains were bits of whitened bone mostly, and, with my family around me, I strewed them into a furrow in an orchard of Elberta peaches he was proud of. No one mentioned God or Heaven or anything like that. It would have been tasteless somehow. No one said anything except my mother, who said “He’s home.” We all walked back to the house.

My mother’s hair is snow white. It has been for years. She never moved from the ranch after my father died, and she is still strong and plucky. She needs a knee operation which she has no interest in getting. She will sometimes tell me that certain things in my poems didn’t happen the way I said they did, that I had made up things and made them sound like facts. I remembered them, or remembered them told to me, as I wrote them. But perhaps she’s right. Anecdotes don’t reveal her. She has always been more a presence in my life, someone forgiving, sympathetic beyond what I sometimes deserved, loving, irreplaceable. When I go to the ranch now to see her, she holds my arm as we go up the steps. This step. Then the next.

Blame and accusation fill the best-selling memoirs of our time. The parents are usually indicted for just about every kind of neglect, abuse, and failure. I couldn’t blame mine for anything, not even my father’s remark, which was mild enough as such things go with parents and children. If I took it seriously enough for it to liberate me in some way, I guess I can only blame my shrewd, calculating unconscious for that. For my father and mother, I feel only gratitude. They always helped me. They didn’t see how I’d ever make a living as a poet, and they worried, and they always helped me.  

Larry Levis, in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, ed. Shelly Andrews, vol. 23 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1996), 181–193. Republished in The Gazer Within (University of Michigan Press, 2001).

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