Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Lost In Discovery: Exploration and Dislocation in the Poetry of Larry Levis

I regret that I am unable to attend the upcoming Levis Symposium at Virginia Commonwealth University, where Philip Levine will deliver the keynote address, and Peter Campion, winner of this year's Levis Prize, will give the keynote poetry reading. In lieu of attending, I offer the following essay in three parts on Levis' body of work. This first section, "The Exploratory Line," traces the evolution of a longer line concomitant with an increasing narrative thrust, beginning in The Afterlife and coming to maturity in Winter Stars, laying a foundation for prosodic strategies found in Levis' later work.

Levis' Exploratory Line

The poetry of Larry Levis, like the poetry of many influential nineteen sixties and early nineteen seventies poets, began grounded in image. The following is a passage from Wrecking Crew, Levis’ first book, published when he was only twenty-four (The Selected Levis 20).

Here are all the shadows that have fallen on
no one in particular
Here is the water coming in under the pier
Here is the untouchable woman who sticks out her tongue
Here is the ax handle driven into the pig’s snout
Here are the separated legs of an ant, pulled off one
by one out of boredom
and the stack of dried fish left as an offering
to the bulldozer ticking in the sunlight

And, we could add, here are some boulders—along with hundreds of others, dug up from Levis’ childhood and adolescence spent among desert farmers and Hispanic migrant workers who harvested his father’s grape crops outside of Fresno, California—that form the bedrock of Levis’ poetry. This heaped-up pile of images is compelling, but it lacks narrative thrust and does not generate emotional attachment. In these opening lines of a poem, uncannily entitled “Unfinished Poem,” the shadows lie still over “no one in particular,” the water comes in under a nondescript pier, the woman is “untouchable,” the ant’s legs are dispassionately amputated “out of boredom,” and the stack of fish waiting in the sun is a gift from an absent donor, left for someone who has already departed or who has not yet arrived.

It will take a more mature Levis to connect his images with one another, with a world larger than the central valley of California and with his readers—a process that begins with a strong narrative thrust in Winter Stars, arcs through the broader world of literature, art and history in The Widening Spell of the Leaves and finally arrives at a point of sustained meditative reverie in Elegy. But even this final manuscript of highly evolved shamanistic poems—poems that bridge multiple worlds, calling to one another with antiphonal voices that stand on the thresholds between these worlds, seeking resolution and reveling in the impossibility of the task—is, still, in the words of Tony Hoagland, “richly ornamented by image,” and “governed by homage to the actual” (510). And many times the image and the actual are from Levis’ past. Witness the opening lines from “Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand” (Elegy 53):

One was a bay cowhorse from Piedra & the other was a washed-out palomino
And both stood at the rail of the corral & both went on aging
In each effortless tail swish, the flies rising, then congregating again

Around their eyes & muzzles & withers.

Their front teeth were by now yellow as antique piano keys & slanted to the angle
Of shingles on the maze of sheds & barn around them; their puckered

Chins were round & black as frostbitten oranges hanging unpicked from the limbs
Of trees all through winter like a comment of winter itself on everything
That led to it & found gradually the way out again.

Like “a comment of winter itself on everything/That led to it,” Levis’ poetry grows from the snow drift of imagist lines found in Wrecking Crew to a ubiquitous blanket covering a wider landscape in this and other poems in Elegy. But like Levis’ trees, the lines hold onto the fruit of another season, frozen in time, transported into the winter of Levis’ work—a meditative state that imparts a wider meaning to the facts of rural life.

This wider meaning is possible, in part, because of the accumulating effect of longer lines, spacious enough to deploy internal chiming, repetition, simile, enjambment, narrative thrust and lyricism—often within the same line—achieving a thicker consistency of sound and meaning than would be possible in the compressed lines of Wrecking Crew. The result is an enactment in form and tone of the subject matter—looking more carefully and fully at its animal subjects—a literal congregating of overtones buzzing around the eyes and head with just one effortless sweep of words.

An expanded interpretation is made possible in Elegy also because of the poet’s increasing abandonment of self, something about which Levis speaks in his essay, Not Life so Proud to be Life: Snodgrass, Rothenberg, Bell, and the Counter-Revolution (A Condition of the Spirit 178), as related to an attempted cessation of the flow of time:

And, with it, a consequent repression of the anxiety of chronological
change in which one is “fastened to a dying animal/It knows not
what it is.” Yet this immuring of the Self in a past is willed: “Once
out of nature I shall never take” suggests some of the vestigial anxiety still
present in such a project, for the use of “shall” is an invocation of the Will.
And to Will is, quite simply, not to Know. And “shall,” that article of faith,
would hardly be necessary in the orthodoxy of belief: “Thy Will Be Done”
is the abandonment of Self and its surrender, not a petition for its
transmutation into hammered gold.

If Levis does not stop time in Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand, he slows it down, moving in the few lines above from “both went on aging/In each effortless tail swish,” to “their puckered/Chins were round & black as frostbitten oranges hanging unpicked from the limbs/Of trees all through winter.” It is not only the oranges, but time itself that freezes, so we can be slowly led around the poem (as with a bridle) to more carefully observe its geography, with “winter,” in the next line, “like a comment of winter itself on everything.”

Levis had no intention of dismantling the self in the Christian sense of surrendering his soul to either God or to the Devil. He was, seemingly, more interested in aesthetic permanence, a losing of himself to gain his poems: “it is to discover how empty I am, how much of an onlooker or gazer I have to be in order to write poems,” (A Condition of the Spirit 516). Furthermore, Levis exchanges the authority to pronounce a final verdict upon his vision (and even upon himself), for the ongoing attainment of it, becoming an explorer into the unknown, every time he freezes one frame of it with his pen. These explorations, much like the investigations of microbiologists or those of astronomers, yield otherworldly visions that expand the known poetic universe, but concomitantly give rise to more mystery surrounding the nature of its worlds, so that any map drawn will not result in locating oneself more accurately, but in losing oneself to the process of further exploration. The result is a poetry of witness, not merely to a vision, but to that very process that calls out to other poets to take up pens and follow into their own poetic wildernesses.

Levis’ first movement toward a poetics of enlargement began with a narrative probing, long before he wrote the poems that became the manuscript from which Elegy was harvested. A poem of departure for Levis was “Linnets,” published in The Afterlife. Observe the difference of architecture in these opening lines (The Selected Levis 34), from the building technique found above in “Unfinished Poem:"

One morning with a 12-gauge my brother shot
what he said was a linnet. He did this at close range
where it sang on a flowering almond branch. Any-
one could have done the same and shrugged it off,
but my brother joked about it for days, describing
how nothing remained of it, how he watched for
feathers and counted only two gold ones which he
slipped behind his ear.

While not every line of “Linnets” is longer than every line of “Unfinished Poem, there is an unrelenting insistence of the line, not present in any prior poem, driving the narrative forward. This paragraph style is maintained for forty more lines, decasyllabic or greater, except for the fragments that conclude a thought, as in line eight above. A tension is created in the remaining two hundred lines with the addition of shorter ones—a tension between the narrative thrust and a more reflective, meditative state (41), where the longer lines usually bear the burden of carrying forward the narrative.

For you
it’s not so easy.

You begin the long witnessing:
Table. Glass of water. Lone crow

You witness the rain for weeks
and there are only two of you.
You divide yourself in two and witness yourself,
and it makes no difference.

Most poems in The Dollmaker’s Ghost are narratives with similar lyric moments, but contain more dodecasyllabic lines than were present in The Afterlife. In some poems (for example, “Truman, Da Vinci, Nebraska,” “Edward Hopper, Hotel Room, 1931” and “For Zbigniew Herbert, Summer, 1971, Los Angeles”), longer lines have been utilized exclusively. In others, longer lines have overpowered the fewer short ones, and even those short lines can be seen as enjambed extensions of longer lines, as illustrated in the following passage from “Lost Fan, Hotel Californian, Fresno, 1923” (The Selected Levis 64):

If you look closely you can see brush strokes intended
To be trout.
You can see that the whole scene
Is centuries older
Than the hotel or Fresno in the hard glare of morning.

Even so, it is not until Winter Stars that the narrative exploration that began in earlier work sweeps up the jabbing images, and carries them along on lines long enough and syntactically complex enough to bear the additional load of the lyric, without losing forward momentum. Compare with the above, these lines from “My Story in a Late Style of Fire” (Winter Stars 37):

I watch a warm, dry wind bothering a whole line of elms,
And maples along a street in this neighborhood until
They’re all moving at once, until I feel just like them,
Trembling & in unison. None of this matters now,
But I never felt alone all that year, & if I had sorrows,
I also had laughter, the affliction of angels & children.
Which can set a whole house on fire if you’d let it. And even then
You might still laugh to see all of your belongings set you free
In one long choiring of flames that sang only to you—

There is something else that Levis does in these lines; he moves in and out of the present, as well as toward and away from the physical, emotional and mental loci, into other places, objects, states of mind and voices, with the ease of a magician or a shaman. Thus, the narrative crosses temporal, physical, mental, emotional, and geographical boundaries before the reader is quite aware of it. In the short span of nine lines, Levis moves from the point of view of present observer of trees (lines 1-2), to observer of self (line 3), to commentator on the past, while remaining in the present (4), to being present in the past (5-6), to one envisioning possible futures from the past (7-8), back to the present, meditating on the past (9).

Even as Levis’ narrative thrust is coming to maturity, it is beginning to change. In The Widening Spell of the Leaves, Levis’ prosody will become more versatile as his subject matter broadens. Like light beams carrying their messages from the distant stars that are forced to bend around dust clouds, Levis’ narratives will arc through uncharted space with all of its intoxicating pull, teaching us new equations in the midst of the old magic between story and image, narrative and lyric, reality and reverie.

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