blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2010  Vol. 9  No. 2
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Coming Through: The Intensity and Intimacy of Levis and Caravaggio
a talk given September 24, 2010 at Levis: A Celebration, a conference marking the acquisition of the Levis papers by the VCU Libraries & presented here as part of Levis Remembered

You start looking at your work. You feel queasy. You hear the poems and can’t stand hearing them. You are sick of the sound of your own voice. You see your work as derivative, false. You want it to burn, hoping that you can do something with the ashes. But your old habits stick like skin. You want to burn your skin off, and that’s when, hopefully, you draw the line. It’s maddening—your desire to break out of your past and come into your own. It’s a frustration and tiredness of self that goes along with the notion that invention means abandoning, so you try to outrun your own capabilities.

But when one examines the pivotal moment when an artist comes into her or his own, there is not often the sense of an artist abandoning his or her early work and graduating to a new level of accomplishment. Instead of self-immolation, an artist often gleans what’s beneath the nails, loitering in the brush jar, the marginalia. It’s not all gold, but it may be the material that moves and allows one to come through.

Take Caravaggio. In 1599, in order to solve a half-century-long fiasco surrounding the Contarelli Chapel in the church San Luigi dei Francesi, chapel officials turned to upstart Michaelangelo di Caravaggio to fulfill the side altar work and help cap the restoration of the chapel, just in time for the counter-reformation jubilee. He offered two narrative paintings with multiple figures: a hasty, over-populated action painting The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (also referred to as The Killing of St. Matthew) and a subtle, well-handled The Calling of St Matthew. Matthew Called was a stunning success for him and the chapel, making him the most sought-after artist in Rome and, in hindsight, one of the most important painters in the history of art. But, most importantly for Caravaggio, his Matthew Called was a culmination of a number of techniques and ambitions that he had been pursuing since his early work. After years of strong and inventive work, and after some weaker early attempts, Caravaggio finally demonstrated mastery of a “history” which was then considered the truest test of a painter’s skills. It was painted in a fury, worked and reworked and resolved. But his accomplishment and the uniqueness of style by which he’d soon be known were not achieved by a sudden exertion of novelty, nor by reaching toward the masters. Instead, he restlessly pulled from specific techniques he had used in other paintings and found a form, the half-canvas, to address the demands of the content in relation to his established strengths. The historian Peter Robb writes:

In Matthew Called he built his first great public painting around the meaning of light, of seeing and not seeing, and it was a statement of intent . . . It changed everything for him.

As brilliant and inventive as Caravaggio’s Matthew Called is, it is a work of shrewd self-cannibalism. Pulling from his past would allow him the dramatic flair that he had obtained in his multi-figure secular scenes (The Cheats), the evocative stillness from his flat background figures (Boy with Fruit Basket), placing historical figures in contemporary detail and scene (Catherine), and the play of light and deep shadow, chiaroscuro, that he was increasingly expressing.

Most telling is Caravaggio’s sibling painting, The Martyrdom of St Matthew, that sits opposite Matthew Called—telling because Matthew Killed suffers from a kind of Baroque too-muchness where he was flailing away at the canvas. In the middle of painting Matthew Killed, Caravaggio took a break and executed his flawless Matthew Called and, perhaps realizing he had solved a few problems, rushed back at Matthew Killed with a new energy, painting and repainting feverishly and nearly pulling it off.

Beside Matthew Called, Matthew Killed was a mistake. But it was a beautiful mistake, in that its failures of fakery would never be repeated. Beautiful, too, because Caravaggio, three years later, would use what he learned in Matthew Killed to aid in the rendering of other action paintings. Specifically he would employ a horizontal, three-quarter canvas technique that allowed him to move “into” the scene and paint closer to the action. If Matthew Called was a culmination of successful techniques which would help him paint the next three years, Matthew Killed was a reservoir to which he would return over and over again, especially in arguably his greatest work, The Taking of Christ. In essence, the failure became the teacher.

In the arc of Caravaggio’s brief career, one can see that his early work ended up being useful in later work, that his first still life paintings—it could be argued that he invented still life and realism—as we think of them would serve him again and again in the historical work. Caravaggio’s “coming through” was a melding of his past techniques with a dose of some newer formal strategies he would replicate and master over the course of his career. Although they are both paintings that aided Caravaggio in different ways, The Calling of St Matthew is not his best and The Killing of St Matthew is not his worst. However, in them was everything he needed to make his greatest histories. If it was intensity in stillness in a narrative painting he was after (Taking of Christ, Abraham and Isaac), Matthew Killed provided Caravaggio the techniques that were needed. If it was intimacy in stillness in a narrative painting (The Burial of Christ, David), Matthew Called offered him the necessary strategies. Though painted in the same few months, they were pivotal for different reasons at different times. Good thing, too; in less than ten years, he’d be exiled for murder, hunted down, and killed.

Likewise, examining the pivotal moments in the poet Larry Levis’s work, one sees a similar sense of the artist pulling from his past as a way of culminating a sense of his own. And likewise, it was the attempt to reconcile intensity (dramatic stilling points) and intimacy (proximity and exchange) that was his pursuit, a career-long one that involved the use of image, artifact and ekphrasis in lyric, narrative and meditative modes. For Levis, the pivotal poem was “Sensationalism,” the final poem in Winter Stars. It’s an ekphrastic, a poem responding to another work of art. In this case, he was responding to a photograph by Josef Koudelka, an image imagined by Levis into a history. In “Sensationalism,” Levis achieves the lyric intensity that he exhibited in his Deep Image inflected Wrecking Crew (“The Train,” “Fish”) and the narrative breadth that he demonstrated in The Afterlife and The Dollmaker’s Ghost (“Picking Grapes in an Abandoned Vineyard”). It was these two impulses that he constantly worked and reworked throughout his career, but often at the expense of each other. Here’s a bit of “Fish” from Wrecking Crew:

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

lifting my eyelids
as if they were
envelopes filled with the night.

Here the image is used, as Tony Hoagland puts it, as a form of inquiry, and it achieves intensity through a sustained gaze, a stillness. But the contrivance and intensity feels mythic, meaning less real. Hence intensity came at the cost of intimacy, which may be why Levis turned away from some of this tendency by his third collection, The Dollmaker’s Ghost, adopting instead a longer line, a more direct narrative mode, and a preoccupation with objects as cultural artifacts, houses of memory. This is particularly evident in “Picking Grapes in an Abandoned Vineyard”:

Picking grapes alone in the late autumn sun—
A short, curved knife in my hand,
Its blade silver from so many sharpenings,
Its handle black.
I still have a scar where a friend
Sliced open my right index finger, once,
In a cutting shed—
The same kind of knife.

And later…

I press my thumb against the flat part of this blade,
And steady a bunch of red, Málaga grapes
With one hand,
The way they showed me, and cut—
And close my eyes to hear them laugh . . . 

The knife is the stilling point. Despite the wide-ranging aspects, the breadth, of the narrative, we have a sense that the lyric quality, its stillness, is held together by Levis’s fixation on the knife, a personal and cultural object, an artifact. Although the poem is ultimately about place, the artifice of the poem is achieved through the knife’s grounding simplicity. Hence, paradoxically, the reader can roam from it, and the speaker can adopt varying tones and voices (modes, if you will) as he moves away from the knife. It’s a framing device, but it’s also a stilling point. Through length of line and poem, its duration, “Picking Grapes” demonstrates an intimacy with the subject that he had yet to achieve, except in his startling sequence, “Linnets.”

The intimacy in Afterlife and The Doll Maker’s Ghost was impressive, but it came at the expense of the intensity he exhibited in Wrecking Crew. At the time of Winter Stars, some of the brevity returns and much of the intensity. But Levis needed a new method to encompass his breadth and depth. The pivot came in “Sensationalism.” The poem captured the intensity of image through ekphrasis and yet embraced a narrative breadth suggested by the historical subject matter in the photograph. By drawing on a fixed image, but one that was historical, Levis was able to work narrative breadth and not sacrifice the intensity of a stilled image. That is, the photograph did a lot of the work. It was a different perspective for him to engage the same problems. It seemed to unburden him from the constraint and obligation of having to render much of the exposition. In Levis’s imagining of the image, exposition, that is the fact of the image, was taken care of by Koudelka. But something else shifted as well. Levis, not for the first time but certainly in his finest way yet, adopted a meditative mode. Levis’s near-geometric penchant for breadth and depth found a mode in which both intimacy and intensity could thrive.    

The result was powerful, not so much for the lyric intensity that the piece includes, but for the intimacy that the meditative mode achieves. “Sensationalism” showed all of the poet’s accomplishments and gifts. In that poem, he achieved a mastery of concerns he had been exploring over the course of three books and roughly ten years of publication. In its inclusivity of gestures and tones, it was unlike what he was doing before and unlike what other poets had done. Or perhaps others were working on it: Levis’s early image-driven poems were very much influenced by Mark Strand; his early narratives resembled Phil Levine; and his meditations as vehicles to intimacy were somewhat akin to Robert Hass. But, as David St. John noted after Levis’s death, he was “an American original,” the best, or at least the first, to get there. Levis himself said as much: “I want to be a rule-breaker.” And yet, there was still more to do.

The poems in The Widening Spell of the Leaves and Elegy owe everything to the work put into “Sensationalism,” and yet again came another pivot. Levis began to manage his lyric and narrative modes through a formal structure of paneling narrative scenes over long sequences. For this turn, he had to go back to “Linnets,” a mysterious and fantastic poem from his second book, The Afterlife. In “Linnets,” conspicuously placed at the end of the book, he attempted to meld his lyric and narrative impulses through the formal challenge of sectioning his longer poems. The paneling strategy he employed would later appear in his masterful “The Perfection of Solitude: A Sequence” in The Widening Spell of the Leaves. And yet, “Linnets” had not reconciled or shucked off some of the “contrivance” that hung over from his Deep Image days. It would take “Sensationalism” specifically, and ekphrasis generally, to move Levis beyond setting his lyric and narrative impulses against one another. Instead, he mediated the tension by employing a more meditative mode. Levis had indeed “come through” and set himself apart from his contemporaries. Through the ekphrastic, Levis established a way of engaging time and history. He would play out these complex formal strategies, this style, through the rest of his career. Although the poems in the later collections have formal structures akin to “Linnets” and may be finer, more ambitious collections, they share and advance the meditative sensibility that Levis had developed in “Sensationalism.”

It’s not hard to imagine Levis and Caravaggio together. Levis’s magnificent “Caravaggio: Swirl and Vortex” from “The Perfection of Solitude” sequence in Widening Spell allows the reader to envision the speaker wanting to raise his hand and close the half-lidded eyes of the decapitated David (for whom the model was Caravaggio himself).

      My friend, Zamora, used to chug warm vodka from the bottle, then execute a
      Reverse one-&-a-half gainer from the high board into the water. Sometimes,
      When I think of him, I get confused. Someone is calling to him, & then

      I'm actually thinking of Caravaggio . . . in his painting. I want to go up to it

      And close both the eyelids. They are still half open & it seems a little obscene

      To leave them like that.

As easily as one can see Caravaggio in David’s face, one can see Levis standing in the smallish room in the Borghese where the painting sits and, after a long gaze at the painting, having to keep himself from stretching out his hand and shutting those lids. In that moment, intensity and intimacy amazingly and wonderfully confluent, it’s hard not to compare the lives of Caravaggio and Levis. The two had too, too much in common: talent, exceptional devotion, and a brief, passionate, dangerous life. They were rare figures, and their work—and their lives with their work—are models for any artist trying to find a way into a distinct and strong place in the world of poetry.  end

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