blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2010  Vol. 9  No. 2
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Seducing the Nymph from the Tree: Larry Levis, Metamorphosis, and Elegy
a talk given September 23, 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

I’d like to return, for a moment, to my days as an MFA student in poetry at Virginia Commonwealth University, the school at which the poet Larry Levis taught creative writing for six years, although he died nearly a decade before I began the program. I was a regular at the notoriously punk rock diner in Richmond—821 Café—on the corner of Cherry and Cary. 821 stands right across the street from a VCU parking garage and half-a-block from my old brick duplex in Oregon Hill, the gritty neighborhood filled with vegan Critical Mass bikers, Pabst Blue Ribbon-swigging VCU students, families with funky windmill garden statuary, and a few English and art professors who glue broken-plate mosaics to their fences. I loved the intimacy of 821—the nebulous lighting, the art school paintings studded with antique doll heads, the mismatched red and yellow chrome tables, the tattooed zeal of Crystal and Heather, waitresses extraordinaire. It felt like my territory. It felt even more like my territory after someone spray-painted a portrait of Levis across the door of the abandoned bakery next to 821. The life-sized bust flashed its black Edgar Allan Poe-mustache and tough-guy hunch à la Marlon Brando. Beneath the work, the artist spray-painted, in red letters, the epitaph, “Larry Levis, Poet.”

By the end of my first semester of graduate school, Levis had become a mythic figure in my classes, my landscape, and my imagination. I couldn’t walk past the beauty parlors, the palm readers’ signs, or the mulberry trees on Broad Street without recognizing the landscape of Levis’s “Boy in Video Arcade.” I couldn’t stroll past 821 Café on my way to campus without returning his spray-painted, sideways stare. One day, I noticed a change in the portrait: someone had given Levis a pair of devil’s horns and a pointy goatee. A few weeks later, the entire image vanished beneath a coat of whitewash.


My early exposure to the work of Larry Levis shaped my growth as a poet and nurtured my interest in the genre of elegy. The word elegy comes from the Greek elegaia, for “lament.” Levis’s elegiac verses lament vanished people and places, usually through marvelous Ovidian metamorphoses that may be as comfortable in a García Márquez story as in the ancient shape-shifting tales of classical myth. In Levis’s posthumous collection, Elegy, poems morph into wrens, dead soldiers turn into rigor mortised angels, a murdered cook becomes air ascending with a goddess, and oblivion takes the shape of a child’s face resting against a rubber ball. In addition to mourning the lost migrant workers in the California vineyards of his childhood, the family horses Anastasia and Sandman, and friends lost to accidents or war, Levis’s metamorphic imagery resurrects whole landscapes—whole eras—even as they slip back into the cinematic swirl of time.


In Metamorphoses, Ovid retells a dizzying array of myths, including that of Daphne and Apollo, one of our most ancient elegiac narratives. Apollo—a most diverse deity—governs light and sun, poetry and music, truth and prophecy. After Apollo insults Eros’s command of the bow and arrow, the god of love curses Apollo with a desperate desire for the beautiful mountain nymph, Daphne. The moment Apollo seizes Daphne, her father, the river god, attempts to protect her by turning her skin into bark, her feet into roots, her arms into branches, and her hair into laurel leaves. Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s baroque sculpture captures, in shocking naturalistic detail, the moment Daphne transforms into a laurel tree, her back arcing as the bark runs up her knee, her arms raised, her fingertips flayed into a canopy.

After Apollo finds his arms wrapped around a tree trunk instead of a woman, he takes no comfort in the embrace. Ovid writes, “But even the wood shrank from his kisses.” Apollo then mournfully breaks one of Daphne’s branches and forms from it a laurel wreath, a consoling sign of his loss, and later an emblem of victory: “Since thou canst not be my bride,” he says, “thou shalt at least be my tree. My hair, my lyre, my quiver shall always be entwined with thee, O laurel. With thee shall Roman generals wreathe their heads…”


In his study of the genre, The English Elegy, Peter Sacks discusses the relationship between Apollo’s laurels and the lost nymph, observing “If there is a necessary distance between the wreath and what it signifies, that distance is the measure of Apollo’s loss. Daphne’s ‘turning’ into a tree matches Apollo’s ‘turning’ from the object of his love to a sign of her” (5). “It is this substitutive turn or act of troping,” Sacks continues, “that any mourner must perform” (5). Levis’s substitutive tropes, however, aren’t usually as simple as the consoling signs in many famous elegies, such as Milton’s plucked berries in Lycidas, or Shelley’s “beacon[ing]” star in “Adonais.” In his essay “Mock Mockers after That,” Levis faults Seamus Heaney for the tidy way he wraps up “The Strand at Lough Beg,” a poem about the slaying of Heaney’s cousin. “The figuration that concludes this elegy,” Levis claims, “its abundant pastoral imagery, the elegiac action of cleansing the dead with vegetation of some kind, is as ancient, or as old, as the elegy itself. But that blood and roadside muck in the young cousin’s hair and eyes is wiped away, I think, too easily. It is wiped away, not by any convincing human action, but by the conventions of the elegy…itself” (127). It’s through the way Levis’s substitutive tropes-in-flux destabilize conventional consolatory gestures that makes him one of our most daring contemporary elegists. Just as Levis presents us with a sign of loss, he tugs that sign away, continually transforming the image into something other.


The first poem in Elegy, “The Two Trees,” is an ars poetica that revises the ancient myth of Daphne and Apollo. Levis begins “The Two Trees” with the assertion, “My name in Latin is light to carry & victorious.” I’ve learned that the Latin word levis has many definitions. The most common meanings of the word are “light,” “swift,” or “agile,” although levis may also mean “smooth,” “gentle,” or “tender.” The English name Larry—short for Laurence—evolved from the common Roman given name, Laurentius, meaning “someone from Laurentum.” The ancient Roman city was named for its dearth of certain trees, as laurus means “laurel.” Thus, Levis’s translation of his last name as “light to carry” seems literal, while his interpretation of his first name as “victorious” is more of an imaginative stretch that subtly calls up the image of Apollo, victoriously wreathed in his laurels. Levis’s definition also has the ring of an epitaph—not the bitter, self-deprecatory flare of Keats’s “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” but a deadpan Homeric epithet. The poem begins:

My name in Latin is light to carry & victorious.
I’d read late in the library, then
Walk out past the stacks, rows, aisles

Of books, where the memoirs of battles slowly gave way
To case histories of molestation & abuse.

The black windows looked out onto the black lawn.

Levis undercuts his name’s laurel-strewn roots with his speaker’s stroll through a catalogued realm of horrors. He then overtly conjures up the beginning of the Divine Comedy in which the middle-aged Dante claims to be “halfway along our life’s path,” and tries to reach paradise by way of hell and purgatory. Levis echoes Dante, declaring:

Friends, in the middle of this life, I was embraced By failure. It clung to me & did not let go.
When I ran, brother limitation raced

Beside me like a shadow. Have you never
Felt like this, everyone you know,

Turning, the more they talked, into . . .

Acquaintances? So many strong opinions!

And when I tried to speak—
Someone always interrupting. My head ached.
And I would walk home in the blackness of winter.

It turns out Levis’s speaker is no victorious Apollo; he’s a dejected middle-aged man walking home from the library. The poem continues:

I still had two friends, but they were trees.
One was a box elder, the other a horse chestnut.

I used to stop on my way home & talk to each

Of them. The three of us lived in Utah then, though
We never learned why, me, acer negundo, & the other
One whose name I can never remember.

Levis may be slyly parodying Frost’s early poem, “Birches,” in which the trees offer Frost’s speaker a mode of transcendent escape—where “swinging” on the birch branches resembles an ethereal climb toward heaven, even though the trees must eventually bend back toward earth. Here, though, Levis’s two trees offer no such consolation. In fact his box elder friend, acer negundo, has a most inhospitable name. The Latin word acer means “sharp,” “piercing,” “pungent,” “fierce,” and even “enraged,” while negundo suggests negare: to “negate” or “refuse.” Levis writes:

“Everything I have done has come to nothing.
It is not even worth mocking,” I would tell them,
And then I would look up into their limbs & see

How they were covered in ice. “You do not even
Have a car anymore,” one of them would answer.

All their limbs glistening above me,
No light was as cold or clear.

Like Plath’s “light of the mind, cold and planetary,” in “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” Levis’s two trees refuse the conventionally consoling sympathies of the pastoral, reflecting instead his speaker’s own alienation. Unlike Apollo, who faces a mute, unkissable laurel, Levis’s speaker finds himself face to face with a tree ready to speak: a trash-talking alter ego, an insolent mirror. “I got over it,” Levis continues, “but I was never the same, // Hearing the snow change to rain & the wind swirl, / And the gull’s cry, that it could not fly out of.” Here Levis hungers after the shape-shifting mutability of nature, although the gull’s cry implies the impossibility of escaping one’s self. Thus, Levis’s speaker resigns himself to the sorry fact that a tree makes for a poor “friend to man.”

Just as he recovers from his self-absorption and decides to ignore the box elder and the horse chestnut, Levis’s speaker notices something decidedly Ovidian going on with one of the trees. Levis writes:

In time, in a few months, I could walk beneath
Both trees without bothering to look up
Anymore, neither at the one
Whose leaves & trunk were being slowly colonized by
Birds again, nor at the other, sleepier, more slender

One, that seemed frail, but was really

Oblivious to everything. Simply oblivious to it,
With the pale leaves climbing one side of it,
An obscure sheen in them,

And the other side, for some reason, black, bare,
The same, almost irresistible, carved indifference

In the shape of its limbs

As if someone’s cries for help
Had been muffled by them once, concealed there,

Her white flesh just underneath the slowly peeling bark

—while the joggers swerved around me & I stared—

Still tempting me to step in, find her,

                                    And possess her completely.

Here, at the poem’s end, the speaker is called upon to rescue Daphne. The pathos of this moment, however, lies in the poet’s recognition that he’s a flawed would-be god—that his desires are futile. Still, his fantasy of possessing the muse resonates with Romantic aspiration, like Shelley’s “desire of the moth for the star.” Whereas Ovid’s Daphne winces through her bark and shrinks from Apollo’s kisses, Levis’s Daphne slowly peels from her hidden form as an awful temptress, a muse figure who suggests that the lost may be partially recoverable, that poetry has the power to seduce the nymph from the tree.

In Levis’s “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope,” the last poem in the book, the poet imagines that two lovers printed on a piece of paper money have come to life. The two lovers mirror the two trees of the first poem in Elegy. Whereas the trees are static, enigmatic statues, the lovers are frenetic, passionate exhibitionists. Unlike the lovers frozen in time in the “cold pastoral” of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Levis’s lovers free themselves from their artifice the way the speaker in “The Two Trees” imagines loosing the muse from her “slowly peeling bark.” Levis writes:

                I’d glance at the two of them

On their worthless currency, as if I might catch them
Doing something else, & once,

I turned from their portrait to the empty street
Beneath the window, the thick trees like a stillness

Itself in the night,
And…I saw them there. This time they were

Fucking in the rain, their clothes strewn beneath them

On the street like flags

After a war, after some final defeat—fucking each other
While standing up, standing still in the rain & the rain falling

In sheets as if there were no tomorrow left
In it, as if their mouths, each wide open & pressed against

The other’s mouth, stilling the other’s, & reminding me
Of leaves plastered to the back of a horse

Trotting past after a storm, leaves plastered to the side
Of a house by the wind, to what is left of some face . . .

Although Levis’s lovers transform, his speaker remains fixed—an insomniac voyeur in a city asleep. Here, metamorphosis means being stuck; it means watching the muse run off with someone else; it means feeling wildly haunted if not helped. In “Elegy Ending with the Sound of a Skipping Rope” the people on the paper money step from their portrait the way I like to imagine Levis slipped from his spray-painted door—devil-horned—into the wavering heat and hum of traffic on Cary Street.  end

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