ON REREADING THE SELECTED LEVIS
Larry Levis, The Selected Levis (Revised Edition), ed. David St. John), University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003 & Michele Poulos (dir.), A Late Style of Fire: Larry Levis, American Poet, 2016
Reviewed by John Bonanni
Philip Levine, in a reading from August 28, 1984, said, "I think Larry has led a more interesting life than I have. And it will be certainly reflected in his early death. But he won't care. We'll care. We'll say, 'Geez, if only he had taken care of himself.'" I often feel that poets have the ability to prophesize, a kind of internal ESP. I have nothing with which to prove this statement, except those moments, such as where I'm writing about a hawk or a breakup and within days, they both land right in front of me. Levine's prophecy foretold Levis's demise. He died twelve years after that reading, in 1996, at the age of 49.
The Selected Levis, the poet's collected works pieced together by his close friend, David St. John, allows readers a primer into the history of the poet's trajectory through his verse, arranged chronologically. The book, ironically, ends with some of Levis's last poems, from a collection aptly titled, Elegy.
Levis, from his earlier poems, seems to have a romantic affinity toward not just the intricate beauties we see every day, but also the death that makes such life possible. I can liken it only to a boy who plays with matches, and I liken it to that because I was one of those boys. Once I almost burned my mattress by testing the rubber cement's flammability. We see Levis's affinity for this wisdom that stretches from death, even in his earliest poems. "For the Country," a poem in five parts, begins with a rape: "One of them undid your blouse, then / used a pocketknife to cut away your skirt" and then, with a meditation on such a violent act, continues: "You are the sweet, pregnant, / teen-age blonde thrown from a speeding car." After presenting this graphicly disturbing incident, he writes, "You are America / You are nobody / I made you up." Here, Levis is commenting on the misogyny that dictated, and continues to dictate, our country. In doing so, however, he draws attention to his own complicity within it: "I am the nicest guy in the world, / closing his switchblade and whistling." While here, the speaker, in a move of irony, holds the same weapon that perpetrated the victim earlier in the poem, in part 5 of this poem, the speaker, both literally and figuratively, closes his eyes.
In this way, Levis's ability to self-implicate, appears, quite frankly, ahead of his time. In "Unfinished Poem," his speaker points to more violence: "Here are the separated legs of an ant, pulled off one by one out of boredom." He continues, describing a woman "turned to a doorstep. Over which / you carried all the dead at the moment of your birth." Here, Levis is acknowledging what James Baldwin has called "the bribe," an acceptance of privilege as absolute and unchanging which effectively makes the white person morally flawed. In Levis's lived experience, he has both knowingly and unknowingly participated in a system that has served to elevate him while it violates and oppresses others. I don't know that men were self-implicating in support of feminist movements in the seventies, but I was born in the eighties, and I know plenty of white people who can't do it today in 2021.
In The Afterlife, Levis appears to turn toward surrealism in poems such as "Inventing the Toucan," which somehow conjoins imageries of a white dress, a rented house trailer, a jungle, and a toucan. In "Linnets," one of Levis's best poems, Levis follows the death of a bird through its repeated imagery in varying states of age and consciousness. After describing his brother's shooting of a linnet, Levis, here, contemplates the inherited violence he has assumed from his own brother's shotgun: "if I fail, be condemned / to be pulled in a cart by my brother forever." While in part 4 of the poem, Levis moves into a list poem of dead animals and in part 5 engages the snake mythos: "He looks the Lord in the face." Here, one can note a brutal honesty between human and God, between son and father.
I first read this poem six years ago, and immediately recognized it. Both this and the poem "Picking Grapes in an Abandoned Vineyard" provide what Ben Marcus, in his introduction to The Anchor Book of New American Short Fiction, calls the true test of literary arts, which is "memorability." Interestingly enough, after reading "Vineyard," one of the interviewees in a documentary, a Mexican American farmworker, stated that Larry "wasn't much of a worker." From Levis, however, we get:
The grapes drop to the pan,
And the gnats swarm over them, as always.
Fifteen years ago,
I worked this row of vines beside a dozen
Families up from Mexico
No one spoke English, or wanted to.
Memory, of course, is personal, as one reconstruction often doesn't align with another's account, narrative threads become entangled, and eyewitness testimony prove unreliable. Here, in this poem, we see a praise of labor, a thumb toward his chest, a statement of a rising, and a memory completely misaligned with Levis's coworker.
This is my second attempt at reading The Selected Levis. The first time I didn't make it to the final two books, which means I must have returned it to the library after reading up to page 123 or so. This time, I actually finished. And while I certainly appreciate what Levis does later in his life with elongating his lines, with experimenting with the stanza, and certainly with the lyric, I honestly don't think the poems got much better. "Linnets" stands the test of time for me. I wonder if "The Perfection of Solitude: A Sequence," an 8-page lyric poem, will have that same staying power. His later work winds and turns with some golden lines, but some feel pieced together, simply stretching to find relevancies like the volta he had perfected years earlier in his more narrative work. He does return to this craft, interestingly, in his collection's title poem, "The Widening Spell of the Leaves," where the narrative arc starts with sickness in a foreign country, then moves into his childhood, a neighbor, a photographer who became imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp. Seemingly unrelated, his neighbor dies of pneumonia in Manzanar just as Levis' speaker enters a near-death experience with his own sickness. And while the narrative spell is Levis's gift, I do see his lyric at work in some contemporary poets today: specifically, in Robert Hass, Joshua Beckman's early work, and in Forrest Gander.
It's interesting, too, to see the poems curated from Elegy, where it appears that Levis returns to his original style, moving away from his experimentation with the Whitman-esque lyric while maintaining attention to stanzaic structures. In "Anastasia and Sandman," the narrative arc looms between horses, Stalin, Romania, and various bureaucracies only to arrive at what appears to be an elegy for his two horses. His associative leaps, then, he allows to be tied in the conceptual framework of the horse. In "Shiloh" the speaker is a body of a soldier whose arms have been confused with wings. In "Boy in Video Arcade," Levis returns to his meditation on the violence and apathy to violence that we inherit in our youth:
The boy never bothering to look up as the sun comes out
In the late morning, because, Big Deal, the mist evaporating & rising
So death blows his little fucking trumpet, Big Deal, says the boy.
This couplet, and its proceeding monostich, centering the poem, signify Levis's attention to the crafted stanzaic structure, the highlighting of a broken relationship, of death in the midst of our human stories. The collection culminates with a poem that itself appears as an elegy to memory, or as Levis suggests "The great truth // About us, that a broken string or snipped-off thread / Is all we remember." Meanwhile, the resurfacing of repeated imagery from the collection's earlier poems, such as "The horse passing easily // Under the exhausted-looking mulberry trees," reinforces this.
The aforementioned documentary, Late in the Style of Fire (available for free on Kanopy with a library card), catalogs Levis's biography, his numerous affairs, his magnetism for alcohol, for cocaine. It seems an easy way to die quick, as Philip Levine noted in 1984. For awhile, too, I wanted to be a rock star poet. I wonder if the Beats do this to young male writers. We write and we drink too much in some sort of Ernest Hemingway fantasy of a scotch, misogyny, and a typewriter in a cabin. In 2013, I crashed my car into a guardrail driving 65 on my way home after AWP in Boston. It was 3 AM, and the Honda Fit spun out like a fidget spinner or one of those paper rectangles we used to flick in middle school. It was totaled and I smelled like burning plastic from the airbag, which was later recalled. Anyway, I'm "kind of" sober now. I drink white wine; I stay away from liquor, and I don't frequent bars anymore because I end up in fights with Trump supporters or classist—and therefore, racist—Cape Codders. Today, I'd rather abuse my body at home or with one or two close friends than around people I don't know. I'd rather contain the fire. If only he had taken care of himself.