blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Larry Levis: Johnny Dominguez, A Letter

Sometime in the late nineteen-seventies, when I was teaching at the University of Utah, a rumpled letter arrived, handwritten, on lined yellow school paper, looking as if it had been done on impulse, shoved into an envelope upon which my departmental address had been scrawled with gray pencil. The letter's handwriting nevertheless leaned and flowed casually as if it mirrored the thought of a man not to be hurried by an act of circumstance. That letter, it seems to me now, might have been composed on an afternoon in a faculty office where the student conferee has failed to appear and there is an unexpected hour to be filled before the next obligation. No letter could more fully give the character, even the appearance, of the Larry Levis I came to know.

Larry Levis seemed always distracted, a little, and only partly engaged with any task or person, unless it be writing a poem, a man whose movements in time and space were somehow less swift, less deliberate than those of other men. He was big enough to have been a high school forward on a basketball team—had he ever played anything?—but as he entered middle age his frame began to look a little bent, as if by a past labor his prodigious memory might be troubled to recall. Anyone might think him sleepy, perhaps hung over, when first he loomed into view, for the gaze he offered always came from a face that was cocked slightly, a questioning though not really puzzled aspect in his features. It was a welcoming face, one that came alive with humor like that of Ernie Kovacs. He could also seem wickedly handsome, like Omar Sharif. Comedian Flip Wilson used to say "What you see is what you get," and he'd be wearing a drag costume that made his words deliciously transparent. But with Larry, the face was not even a mirror; it was what he was.

He favored a style of clothing that enhanced this character of the worn creature and he wore his clothes with such an easy indifference that you could assume the baggy, unpressed look was less choice than a need to dress in a hurry. He looked at times, however, like a silent movie star, one to whom clothes were an irrelevant necessity. When he spoke, it was through a penumbra of cigarette smoke, his movements heavy and slow to create that toiled-over, used-hard weariness that gave everything he said a weight no listener could ignore. In my mind's eye, he is a man in his forties. I knew him first in 1973 but I can't recall what he looked like then. It is easy to doubt he was ever really young, so intense and burdened and eccentric and even mature he had become. His letter, if it could be produced, would display exactly his poise and charm and experienced, even avuncular, manliness so rare in most men. Most especially in men who are poets, and Larry was above all things a poet.

It would be a gross mistake to presume that Larry Levis was only what he appeared, for he was neither a casual nor an unserious man. He certainly was not old and never inattentive. At his death in 1996 he was not yet fifty. He is always remembered by those who knew him well as devoted to much good laughter, carrier of a buoyant sense of life's abundant oddness, possessed of an optimism that buffered like courage and made each day a welcome opportunity. But because he was complex, his appearance could deceive. I once misjudged him quite badly, in part because he was not what I thought he was and in part because I was not what I thought I was. Such discoveries forced me to see over the years of an intermittent friendship that he was a master-builder of intricate poems, a man keenly conscious of what he was about, a diligent and studious caretaker of what interested him. What he didn't like, after a bit just didn't exist.

His letter, fuzzed now in memory two decades old, said he had read the poems I published in the late seventies and he saw them as unlike what was then "typical." He made specific comments about virtues and vices in the poems, but those opinions are long lost. His interest lay in the kind of form he saw my poems seeking, a story told lyrically, orchestrated by recurrent images and motifs that, in fact, made the story that mattered. He thought that poets on this road meant to wed narratives of remembered incidents to an idiosyncratic speech, thereby making a poetry from colloquialized expression. He described plainly what I had failed to articulate over many hundreds of journal pages. He read my poems as if he had written them himself.

Who was he? Levis had grown up among the desert farmers and Hispanic migrant workers who harvested his father's grape crops outside of Fresno, California. This was not the hip wine and cheese land but the artificially watered desert bottoms that melt pretension and ambition, one of the places where dustbowl migrants wound up, and hung on, Merle Haggard's place. You could grow up the boss's son and still be sane. Levis wanted to write the stories of people he knew were hard up against matters there; he had a deep feel for his place and its characters. Maybe he always knew the danger of making them over into sentimental heroes or tin villains, but distortion was something he had to remind himself about:

Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967

I'm going to put Johnny Dominguez right here
In front of you on this page so that
You won't mistake him for something else,
An idea, for example, of how oppressed
He was, rising with his pan of Thompson Seedless
Grapes, from a row of vines. The band
On his white straw hat darkened by sweat, is,
He would remind you, just a hatband.
His hatband. He would remind you of that.
As for the other use, this unforeseen
Labor you have subjected him to, the little
Snacks & white wine of the openings he must
Bear witness to, he would remind you
That he was not put on this earth
To be an example of something else,
Johnny Dominguez, he would hasten to
Remind you, in his chaste way of saying things,
Is not to be used as an example of anything
At all, not even, he would add after
A second or so, that greatest of all
Impossibilities, that unfinishable agenda
Of the stars, that fact, Johnny Dominguez.

James Wright said the greatest danger to the contemporary poet is glibness. What is the opposite of glibness? Johnny Dominguez. There is little glibness left in the poet who wrote this poem, one whose books show how he learned to see the primal danger would be failing to tell the truth of his own life and his father's. In such matters, Levis was incapable from the start of lying, but that is not the same thing as knowing how to tell the truth, a thing good poets have to learn.

Levis would come to feel his life, and Johnny Dominguez, hadn't got into American poems, except in the rougher moments in the poems of Robinson Jeffers. And in John Steinbeck's stories, of course. Having no local models, Levis would have to claim what he wanted. He was fortunate in teachers. His first one was Philip Levine, whose poetry had its roots in sympathy for the work men and women do, and the lives that work carves upon them. No one could have been better equipped to teach Levis to trust the value of his personal experience, to follow his own nose, than the anarchist poet who'd been chanting the unrealized life of the Detroit dream. Levine gave Levis an appetite for a poetry of ultimate, unreachable purity, but it would not be odes to hothouse flowers. Levis learned from Levine the greatest poem was historical, a life story. Levine has said he had learned something about narrative construction from Robert Penn Warren; it undergirds everything Levine has written. It was also Warren who, in "Pure and Impure Poetry" (1943), said that the will toward a pure poetry does not easily tolerate the world we live in, a world of messy, impure prose. That world, Warren held, is nevertheless the abundant reason for poetry, and the source for it, too. Levis loved the world as much as Levine did. He wanted a pure and democratic poetry to memorialize the world's bruised community in his head, but he didn't have the skills to do it early on. Few do. Moreover, the world in there was not the one he thought the poems should give us. He had to labor toward an awareness of what was his to do in words and what way of poetry would work for him.

Wrecking Crew, Levis' first collection was published in 1972, the winner of the University of Pittsburgh Press's International Poetry Forum Award. The poet, then twenty-six, became overnight a serious contender for eminence. If his origins did not propose, as Emerson says of Whitman's first Leaves of Grass in 1855 "a long foreground . . . ," Levis had prepared well with Donald Justice, Mark Strand, W.D. Snodgrass, Philip Booth, Marvin Bell, and Stanley Plumly, in addition to Levine, five of them Pulitzer Prize winners. Great race horses have had less fastidious breeding and grooming. And in 1972, the last year of Richard Nixon and Vietnam, the poet began work on a doctorate in literature at the University of Iowa. He brought with him from Syracuse a fondness for the European poet maudit that the poems of Wrecking Crew were about, in so far as they were cohesively about anything. His was an inner life troubled by everyone's problems and social concerns; his narrating character would be sensitive, tender, cool; words would be his axe for breaking through the iced-over Kafka-esque interior. Others assumed the same role, usually playing better than they wrote.

Today the poems of Wrecking Crew seem tedious, mawkish, and callow. Levis was at first a poet of rhetoric whose poems have little life and much learned gesture. They reach for a voiced intensity the poets in that glibly political time accepted in place of life fronted, as Thoreau said. Life was more complex than many poets were ready, or able, to say. That substitution is the weakness of academic poetry. It was often the result of little talent and modest labor. The sixties had been ripe for radical change; what came was quickly passed on via the acolyte system of graduate schools, institutionalized in journals where one published and worked up the ranks of status, a process repeated in books put out by new university presses competing with the Ivies. Prizes were competition medals. The end was a tone, merely. Levis could have been the poster boy. In the poem circa 1970, all conclusions are geared to a final surprise, itself a knot of attitudes. Here is the young Levis writing in Mark Strand's voice about the ennui and corruption he will feel when he has turned forty:


I get a gun and go
shoot an airplane full of holes,
and stare at the thing on the runway
until it's covered with rust.
          This takes years.
I turn forty somewhere, waiting
for the jet underneath me to
clear its throat of burned

To be in your twenties in that year meant a fearful awareness of guns and jets because Vietnam and a good chance of death waited for you, or someone near you. Wrecking Crew has poems about bombings and Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, all wholly predictable, few not forgettable. "Airplanes" loves the scorched starlings—but who didn't? Levis was not writing as himself about the desert birds he knew where he had grown up hunting quail, but as stylish Mark Strand. And moreover, as Robert Bly's The Sixties and The Seventies magazine said poets should speak. Bly, guru of the good consciousness whom Philip Dacey once called "the Reverend Robert Bly, Lutheran Minister," criss-crossed the Rand-McNally teaching young Americans that imagery like scorched starlings was the true blood-poetry in a nation of old academic whiners. Levis feared becoming a fortyish ghost worse than he feared combat, the poem's real threat. He had at least had a taste of the military, unlike most of those on campus, having, as one of his very funny essays reveals, screwed up so badly in basic training his unit permitted him a graceful early departure. He would be lucky enough to avoid combat, not so lucky with age.

Levis, finally, learned to feel life deeply, to accept it, and to dramatize it differently than Bly. Writing a form of criticism which drove the docile practitioners of the fifties off the stage, Bly had harangued America like a kind of Emerson, his own poems reduced to image prints. Others wrote themselves into poetry. Levis wrote an expanding poetry. But he had first to learn to face and engage what couldn't be changed, to love what was complicated, dark, and bitter, and worth praising. He had first to blow Bly's pipe for that parabolic, awe-filled image that was supposed to leave you sucking a breath:

Driving East

For miles,
the snow is on all sides of me,

I feel like
a lot of empty cattle yards,
my hinges swing open to the winds.

That he has caused an intelligent young man to imagine he actually feels like empty cattle yards ought to dog Mr. Bly into whatever eternity may be granted him.

But Larry Levis wasn't faithful entirely to the Minnesota hymn. Other talents, then prominent, resound in his chorus. Galway Kinnell appears in "Hunger;" Charles Wright speaks from "Untitled;" W.S.Merwin is inside "Unfinished Poem" and James Wright stands behind "Poem." Wright was the permanent mentoring voice after Levine, but it would be the Wright of the late, more narrative poems. The imitations Levis mounted nearly drown out his own mature sound, but the poetry that is characteristic of him, that voice in Winter Stars and The Widening Spell of the Leaves, is also present. It's grittier, less mystical, less boy pretending. One hears it in "For the Country," the voice exact in its hurt and its control:

One of them undid your blouse, then
used a pocketknife to
cut away your shirt
like he'd take
fur off some limp thing.
Or slice up the belly of a fish.

Here is a restrained anger that is the empowering fuel for Levis' elegiac art, an anger different from the one he could not wholly lift from Philip Levine. Levine is angered by what you do to him as much as what you do to others, Levis almost entirely by what you do to someone else. But he needs the provocation of something he has actually experienced, unlike, say, Cambodian bombing. In "Fish" he wrote:

The cop holds me up like a fish;
he feels the huge bones
surrounding my eyes,
and he runs a thumb under them. . . .

It's an imitation realism engendered by James Wright, a manner many younger poets adopted, and as with any manner's derivative, it lacked tension, credibility, and finally interest.

If he couldn't take Levine's anger, Bly's religious pastoralism, Wright's toughness and comic surrealism, or Justice's meter (the least likely effect for the Fresno Kid), Levis had to find a way to get the ragged, and to him, American character of his place into poems. He found that way in the confidence of his own idiom which he released through the storyteller's arrangement of carefully orchestrated details and the circularity of verse working through and against event, always working the phrase in plain diction toward unexpected eloquence. His is a vocabulary of elemental movements and clean language that resists precious assertion and cliche gesture. If he was, and he certainly was, a product of his university training, he would become one of its successful rebels by insisting that the engagement of his narrating self with a community of realistic others must constitute the matter of his poetry. To make their stories live was his mission.

It is odd and a little unnerving to think you are doing a thing more or less entirely your own way only to discover others have taken the same road. America is, of course, a big country, with lots of space to be lost in. A poet can imagine he is out of sight of any orthodoxy, but its outposts and sentries loom everywhere. Few American poets are long unknown to other poets if they compete in the serious publishing markets. In the middle seventies, in Utah, I imagined myself out of range of poetry's campaigns and, conversely, I believed Levis was one of those leading the style. He was the system product. It was the age of the deep image, the terse and surreal lyric. I, if poet at all, hoped to write something more emphatically narrative. In 1972, that sea-change year, awaiting discharge from the U.S.Air Force, I was denied admission to the Iowa writing program by Norman Dubie, who has told me he, then, made the selections. Dubie's poems, often in The New Yorker and The American Poetry Review, seemed synonymous with achievement. These narratives, whose control and manipulation of language deranged usual expectations and minimized plot, seemed to me to have roots in the same sources as Levis, to be as "in" as Levis, a testimony to the blinding power of conspiracy fears.

Norman Dubie also wrote to me in the seventies, admiring a poem of mine he had read. That initiated a long friendship. But his letter did not have the weight for me that Larry Levis' had. Levis and I had a personal history. When I was discharged from military service, I enrolled in doctoral study but left during the first year to take a short-term teaching position, which I then left for an assistant professorship at Cottey College, in Nevada, Missouri. An enormous chip on my shoulder testified to my resentment at having been drafted into giving away four years of my life while others were permitted to safely and happily write against the world's evils from poetry's bower. I envied them their fortune, their community of poets, not seeing how a person may be eaten up by ambition trained on the wrong end of things.

To teach at a small school for women, I thought, must offer pastoral meadows and the tangy breaths of muse-like creatures who could engender subjects, energy, an appetite for poetry. I could teach there! It turned out the young women cared but marginally more for poetry than the four faculty in English, all of who were required to be composition experts. Maybe I wasn't a very good teacher. Maybe I thought poets had to be Poe—like and weird even in the rural Nevada, Missouri, home of Firp & Bob's restaurant, which could not have been surpassed for gentle quiet. I knew it was trouble for me the first day we drove down Main Street for the first time and I told myself I'd be leaving very soon. Still, I was raised to do the job given to me. I meant to bring poetry to campus. It didn't take long to become desperate for a writing pal, somebody to chew the words with. It was said that Larry Levis was teaching at the University of Missouri in Columbia, a short drive north. What did it matter that Wrecking Crew wasn't my kind of book? It was, he was, a prize-winner. My students, increasingly excited by poems, deserved to see a poet. The college offered fifty dollars, the letter of invitation went forth, and the poet was soon in town, girl friend in tow.

Levis seems, in my mind, to have been blond, tall, sort of rakish, Californian. He was in fact dark and slumped. Before the reading, we drank bourbon; we talked. He seemed to know everyone; I knew no one. After the reading, at my house, he'd step outside to smoke every so often. I remember that we joked, japed, and laughed at much in the poetry world. What that much was I couldn't have told anyone the next day. I have no doubt that I was scalding as I released my pent-up complaints and resentments. Little would have been said in favor of the marching students and righteous faculty poets saved from the draft that snagged me when I was twenty-six. At dawn the phone rang and Larry announced he would not be coming over for the breakfast we had arranged. In fact, he said, he hadn't slept well in the motel and so had got up and driven in the dark toward Kansas City. He wanted no more communication with me because offensive things had been said about people he admired, my friend and teacher Stan Plumly among them. The check for his reading, he said, was already in the mail to me.

As it happened, I admired those marchers and poets more than he could have imagined and was more than a little convinced it was braver to refuse military service than not. Perhaps I said as much in apologies for offense unintentionally given. At any rate, I wrote immediately to Stan, describing this bizarre event, asking his forgiveness for whatever I might have said, which prompted a funny, warm letter in return and a bear-hug of friendship when we next met. Whatever warts Mr. Plumly may have, a lack of loyalty and a dearth of understanding are not among them.

Nothing could change the shame Levis conferred upon me—because, as I have said, he had been confirmed as the real thing, whereas I was, well, something less, and worse. My shame fueled a deep anger, and I had spoken bitterly to him before that phone call had ended. Why didn't I see how difficult the matter was for him? It is no easy thing to call your host on his behavior; no easy thing to reject a check for work done, however small it may be; and no easy thing to demand satisfaction because you have been morally offended. For the next four or five years, that shame quietly stung.

Larry's letter made no mention whatsoever of this incident. That meant, apparently, he had forgiven me. It was as if poetry had forgiven me. When I finished reading his words, I felt a lightness in my body, a happiness still memorable. His tone was that of an old friend who has put off writing so long it has become, in his mind, a grief, and one for whom he asks understanding. He allowed me the grace to forgive myself. After that our paths crossed enough to say we grew to be friends, though perhaps not intimates. He was, it is clear, a good man, maybe one born to the purpose of carrying innocence from that California farm, a true bearer of democratic promise whose voice, like Whitman's, would become poetry. He also stood as the recipient of his parents' compact: the agreement to give and to suffer the exact and real pains that a farm life requires. Larry Levis had to learn a way to express the idealism of his innocence and the rottenness of his mortality all in a single poetic structure. Few have done work so well.

Levis imprints his life and those lives he has been part of into poems the way a fine silversmith works a rich bracelet. His mature poems make clear that writing poetry was his way of hating and loving—hating the immoral viciousness we are capable of bringing to each other and loving the beauty in each life as it is. He owned, as I have said, an unusually large capacity for forgiveness, for charity of spirit, and he possessed a rare goodness of soul. No one claims he was saintly or pure or that he exceeded anyone in decent behavior. Mostly, I don't know very much about how he behaved or who he was in his daily acts. He had personal demons but he was thoughtful enough that he grew to understand his limitations and gifts better than most of us do. He understood how to use himself tactfully and effectively in his poetry, and perhaps in his life. And because he had that, he could accept us as we were. This is wisdom of a high order and he could be seen to practice it in the presence of, and on the books of, many kinds of poets. He must have always had something of this, to judge from the love people have felt for him, but it was a skill he developed until it meant a method by which he could lodge himself against tides of elimination and negation that threaten everywhere. There is joy in him that glows through the sad doom he cannot and will not evade. In "Winter Joys" he described the delight of driving his brother's car to his own wedding, a delight made sharper by the world's impending weight:

He was selling soap in Lodi, California.
Later, in his car, & dressed
To die, or live again, forever,
I drove to my own first wedding.
I smelled the stale boutonniere in my lapel,
A deceased young flower
I wondered how my brother's Buick
Could go so fast, &
Still questioning, or catching, a last time,
An old chill from childhood,
I thought: why me, why her, & knew it wouldn't last.

I used to wonder why Larry Levis wrote to me. There had been nothing to recall between us; he had nothing to ask of me; he did not complain of any slight, the usual motivations for correspondence between poets. That he was simply generous and curious makes a poor but actual answer. He had read my poems and he sincerely did like them. He knew how hard it is to write a poem, even a bad one, and if he found something he liked, he had to say that. It was a part of his courage that his students have known because he gave it freely. But perhaps he needed to affirm, as we all do, something that he was alone in, that making what you think is a new thing and all yours; he needed to register the leap he had been making in poems that were no longer imitations. His leap, because it was rooted in so much powerful instruction, was farther and more frightening than mine. He created a breathy, incremental, immediate experience that is tonally astonished and also sad, also a recognition of how plain it all is—how remarkably dazzling and beautiful life is because it is doomed, and he is still alive, the story goes on. Just as James Wright said in Two Citizens, a book that scared Wright so much he said he would never reprint it. Levis' journey led him away from what was authorized and to what was individual for him. He says it in "Decrescendo:"

It is all like the doomed singers, Cooke & Redding,
Who raised their voices against the horns'
Implacable decrescendoes, & knew exactly what they

Were doing, & what they were doing was dangerous.

The poetry of Larry Levis is the autobiography of a man's mind, what he has come through, what he has understood, what he has sloughed off, what he hopes for, what he loves. But it is also the structured carriage for a true innocence, a gentle spirit. When James Wright's poem speaks of how his body "would break / into blossom" it is possible to hear Levis, for that is his base note. In "Sleeping Lioness," his closest poem to a self-portrait, he says "Anything is enough if you know how poor you are. / You could step out now in wonder." This is, of course, love of the world. Levis had seen suffering among California migrants. If he ever allowed himself to be blinded by rancor and envy, he had worked past that. His early poems had appeared to be little more than socially agreeable tone, but his late collections engaged the large, obdurate, unresolvable dilemmas of conscience.

There is a danger in suggesting the value of poems lies in the subject chosen, in its wattage or importance. And yet good subjects make good poems, to paraphrase Mr. Frost. While Levis would not deny the value of what the tale has to say, he would have insisted that poetry consists in the language as window, and as valuable in the extent to which it admits life stories. One can see in the early poems his magnetic drift to the subject of poetry and language as human definers; he was a poet through and through. Because he identified poetry as incarnation of the divine spirit, albeit a divine spirit reduced to something like Ransom's "Captain Carpenter," Levis follows the same drift in his later poems. Whatever he talks about, he talks about poetry, alludes to it, threads it as image or metaphor, and it is always the central mystery, the inexplicable good that exists, finally, only in the words a poem enacts. For Levis the essential poem is the narrative of awareness, its quality measurable, like a tree, by the rings of its layered resonance. "The Perfection of Solitude: A Sequence," is a quiet drama about—among other things—how to listen, how to see. A meditation on Caravaggio's self-portrait, which is to say art and self, leaps nimbly from the grotesque saint of light to the "patina of sunset glinting in the high, dark windows" of the center of hippie life, San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium, where Jerry Garcia plays Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," a banging joyful anthem that evokes the buoyant and infectious feeling of righteousness people had in those days, days that would end as abruptly as the joy that soared until, perhaps offhandedly, you heard a high school buddy had "strolled/ three yards/ Off a path & stepped on a land mine." If art offered us the glorious and endless Italian dream-light, it also told us the only thing that doesn't end is Time. Against that, the poet serves to take the necessary view, to adjust the perspective, the details, the composition, to calibrate changes, to fit the parts of the story into a place that the memorial stones tell so that:

          You see, you must descend; it is one of the styles
Of Hell. And it takes a while to find the name you might be
           looking for; it is
Meant to take a while. You can touch the names, if you want to.
          You can kiss them.

You can try to tease out some final meaning with your lips.

Levis has become in The Widening Spell of the Leaves not merely an elegiac poet but an American regionalist, although a regionalist whose turf will widen to something more temporal and global. His lines grow longer, they surge widely, embracingly; they retreat and collect their thought with the somber pacing of clerical poise; they have the weight of wisdom. His effect is achieved less through direct narrative of this and then that, than through the circular patterning whose under-image shows subtly. It is the same art for the jazz musician suspending notes in patterns that risk dispersal, the note nearly lost as it hangs out there apparently alone, and yet in the right collocation the poet reclaims it, re-cites one after another, and thereby extends the pattern, renews the old image, retells the important story of life. Perhaps it is the ceremony of the Mass, that rhythm, action floating in and sustained by the continuity of something we can dip into and rise from but cannot render except as local, palpable thing just as holy as it is itself, Johnny Dominguez.

By the pages of Elegy (1997), his posthumous collection, Levis' voice has become a priestly singing and speaking, immediate, urgent, its way an interrogating, catechizing, guiding tone of the mind that believes it can sort through the wash-over of dimmed perception. It can, this mind presumes, win through to shapely order, a civil world with enough submission to the pain of experience. This voice coils out to touch all things with the spell of a final recognition, a looking and naming, deific and brave, which he describes in "The Widening Spell of the Leaves" as the experience of poetic art. He says "That was the trouble; it couldn't be/ Compared to anything else" and it has no need to forgive or resent anything, or understand anything because it accepts. Declarative, spiral-climbing forward through clausal suspensions, each subtly modified by the next one, Levis' late poems build rhythm to a sacred tenor which turns, ultimately, to the catholic breathsong that praises what is. He had recognized it in "At the Grave of my Guardian Angel: St.Louis Cemetery, New Orleans," from The Widening Spell of the Leaves.

But it's all or nothing in this life; it's smallpox, quicklime, & fire.
It's the extinct whistling of an infantry; it is all the faded rosettes
           of blood
Turning into this amnesia of billboards & the ceaseless hunh? of
It goes on & I go on with it; it spreads into the sun & air & throws
           out a fast shade
That will never sleep, and I go with it; it breaks Lincoln & Poe
           into small drops of oil spreading
Into endless swirls on the water, & I recognize the pattern. . . .

There it is, one wants to say, that "and I go with it" which is what Conrad meant in The Heart of Darkness when he says the way is to immerse oneself. Levis's Elegy begins lyrically with a contemplative poem about his name in Latin and abruptly turns to "In 1967" which begins "Some called it the Summer of Love . . ." and it ends "When riot police waited beyond the doors of perception, / And the best thing one could do was get arrested." Everything one reads in Levis marks him as a good man devoted to perceiving and telling his truth. Early on that goodness seemed about as assumed as the rainbow costumes of the sixties—there in photographs of us all, kept in the deep drawer—but in retrospect one sees an appetite for the sacred has pushed Levis to poetry. Indeed, his poetry is exceptionally religious, his faith the energy that binds together his intricate assemblages, mosaics, braidings, all the crowd a Caravaggio might have painted, among which is Levis himself, ruefully grinning out at us. But if Elegy is that crowd all at once, the memorable moments are Levis alone thinking, ruminating, trying to see the pattern of things he has remembered. "Elegy With A Bridle In Its Hand" is a poem about horses and has much in common with James Wright's memorial "A Blessing." Levis remembers two old horses, "one of which would stumble & wheeze when it broke / Into a trot" and the other "creaked / Underneath me like a rocking chair of dry, frail wood . . .," and these are the last of a marvelous catalog of horses from that boyhood ground:

The palomino was called Misfit & the bay was named Querido Flacco,
And the name of some of the other shapes had been Rockabye
And Ojo Pendejo & Cue Ball & Back Door Peter & Frenchfry & Sandman

And Rolling Ghost & Anastasia.

Where had they gone? "I began to think that the world // Rested on a limitless ossuary of horses where their bones & skulls stretched," Levis writes, Caravaggio-like, his poem painterly in leading our attention not through chronological tale but through a layered listing of what denominated the horses, who they were, and what they arrive at in time, the last spiral of inward perception leading to denials of Heaven, the Christian scene of forgiveness and redemption:

Heaven was neither the light nor was it the air, & if it took a physical form
It was splintered lumber no one could build anything with.

Heaven was a weight behind the eyes & one would have to
   stare right through it

and, moreover, "the idea of heaven & of life everlasting / Was so much blown straw or momentary confetti / At the unhappy wedding of a sister." And yet in Levis the more steely the denial, the stronger the yearning for redemption and joy and, for such occasions, his narrative touch reaches its most delicate ironies. His horses could have been the sleek ones before the crowds at Santa Anita or Del Mar where, at the last instant he might be called:

And if the voice of a broken king were to come in the dusk & whisper
To the world, that grandstand with its thousands of empty seats,

Who among the numberless you have become desires this moment

Which comprehends nothing more than loss & fragility & the fleeing of flesh?
He would have to look up at quickening dark & say: Me. I do. It's mine.

That, as the Beatles said, was a ticket to ride. And it is what Larry Levis' poems offer with the only bet that ever matters, that the world may be good, whatever else it is.

I suppose I think of Larry still in this world, at some point appearing for another friendly talk about a poet we've been reading as if no one else has heard about him or her. There will be the arrival, somewhere, of that tacky, battered car he drove—Volvo?—its make abused into anonymity, and he will step from it with that impious, welcoming grin which barely precedes some delicious gossip, some silly joke, some eccentric oddment of the world's tale that he has been carrying about, it seems, precisely for me. I know he has already forgiven himself the telling for any small offense it might echo. Even now I feel his presence so strongly that I take out my notebook and re-start the letter I have been wanting to write in which I tell him what gratitude I have for his letter of more than twenty years back. I would add what admiration I have for poems he has written, the paths taken in the way many of us have tried to go. I will tell him this last thing I remember of him, too. Seated in the dining hall during lunch at the Warren Wilson writers gathering, I watched him shuffle with his tray across the room, stopping to chat briefly with this famous writer and that one, having a laugh at each station. Then he stops where I sit alone and asks, with the humility of a monk, if I would mind if he ate his lunch with me. Larry, little ever would delight me more.  

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