Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Lost In Discovery Part II: The Looping Narrative Arc

In the first fifteen and one half lines of "The Spell of the Leaves," (Selected Levis, 127), Levis establishes and begins developing his, by now, typical lengthy lyrical narrative.

The Spell of the Leaves

Her husband left her suddenly. Then it was autumn.
And in those first, crisp days of a new life,
Each morning she would watch her son, a boy of seven,
Yawn before mounting the steps, glinting like a sea,
When the doors of the school bus opened.
And then she would dress, leaving the back way,
And hearing or overhearing the screen door close
Behind her, always the same, indifferent swish.
At that hour the frost on the lawn still held
Whorled fingerprints of cold, as if the cold had slept
There. Then she would climb in, she told me,
On the wrong side of the small, open car,
And sit quite still, an unlit cigarette in her hand,
And wait for him to come out and drive her
To work, as always.

From the fixed point in time of “her husband [leaving] her suddenly,” punctuated with the ticking and chiming of discreet, chronological markers (the immediate shift into autumn, “the first, crisp days of a new life,” the daily opening and closing of the school bus doors, the screen door and the car door), a linear flow of events is relayed that is faithful to the way ordinary time is experienced.

But in line seventeen, in the course of five words, something happens that not only changes the direction of the poem’s narrative arc, but begins modifying the very nature of that arc, by bending it into a shape that will forever transform this poem and many future Levis poems: “Something went wrong with time.”

At first it seems that Levis is using metaphor or hyperbole to signify the absence of a significant chronological marker (an habitual action with her husband), thereby making it impossible for the woman to trust her perception of time: “Later, she couldn’t/say whether an hour or only a few minutes/Had passed” (lines 17b-19a). But Levis pushes beyond this understanding to a place where time itself seems to be speeding up and then dissolving: “The weeks pass, & then/The months, then the years are blending into/tables set for two, & even anger dies,” (lines 30b-32).

As the chronology of time disintegrates, the narrative arc is radically curled so that other events, years past and continents away, are experientially available. Even as the woman and her young son are looking up picked wildflowers in a field guide, for example, the boy quotes aloud from a poem composed by a “poet in madness,” a poet sitting “as still/As any flower in his cell, hearing beyond it/The cries of the asylum, & beyond that, nothing./Nothing, though the carriages of London keep/Whispering through its hushed streets forever/Past the silently clinging chimney sweep/In the mild drizzle of 1756" (lines 39-45).

The narrative that began with a woman sitting in a parked car has leaped the Atlantic Ocean and two centuries to the horse-drawn carriage days of London. But Levis has only begun his journey. He is going to continue to reshape the trajectory of his arc,
creating an even more radical warp in time and space, ultimately forging a singularity where all events in all times will be present and available. And like a shaman who, aided by psychoactive plants, leaves the body to venture into the spirit world, seeking sources of healing, Levis will increasingly draw upon this proleptic nexus of imagery and narrative throughout the remainder of this poem, as well as throughout the entire work itself.

But first, as if through magic (“She adds half a bay leaf to the simmering stew,” line 51), Levis loops back, in line fifty-two, to his point of origin, prior to this narrative, before anything has happened (128).

But when I think of her, nothing has happened yet.
It is this moment before she remembers
Her husband isn’t there, the moment before
The Indian summers of her bare legs appear,
Then disappear, the week before the maples’
Yellowing leaves lining her street all turn
To the colors of horses: roans, sorrels, duns,
Chestnuts, bays, blacks, then a final
Liver-white quilt of Appaloosa
Unraveling over the first, brief snow.

In this manner, Levis’ narrative arc is bent, full circle, into a completed loop. But it immediately makes its point of arrival a point of departure, as it begins another outward journey, leaping almost instantaneously across years into the boy’s future (128).

As her thought collects in pools yet keeps
Widening until it casts its spell—
And then the scene is one of great stillness ripening,
Enlarging, spreading to include the boy who sits
Like stillness itself, above the graffiti carved
Into his desk by students who are older now,
And wilder. It is five minutes into his morning recess.

It is this second departure from the same point that launches into motion Levis’ evolved narrative strategy: multiple loops or “leavings” (a pun on leaves), in ever widening circles that accumulate significance, and give added layers of meaning to the poetry and to the title of The Widening Spell of the Leaves with the accretion of more imagery, characters, places, and events. As if Levis were the woman in line fifty-one, he is adding leaves to the pot, and will continue to stir it until all the ingredients blend and change one another, before it all boils away into nothing, foreshadowing the ending of the entire book, as well as providing the logical conclusion to the creation of the poems’ warp in time and space that eventually turns into a black hole, eating up everything—including itself (129):

The father simply stands there now, a teapot whistling
In the cramped kitchen of his studio; he gazes
Straight ahead into what seems to him a valley
Filling with snow until the end of time.
He’s seeing things. In front of him there’s only
A white cupboard, some dishes, an ashtray displaying
The name of a casino.

Perhaps the father is a visionary, or simply under the influence of drugs, or some pathology, which would explain the first few lines of the following passage, as well as why the father left originally, even though the narrative is couched in lyrical language that seems to be an expansion, rather than a remediation, of his original state.

And all of this three years before the father
Hears a secret club of voices, steps onto an ark
Of stories, floating, three times a week,
Past him, through him, admitting its powerlessness,
And God. Forgive me, I keep watching them now,
In this moment two days after the father has slumped out,
I keep waiting for the next thing to happen,
And that is the problem: nothing happens, nothing
Happens at all. It is as if Time Itself
Sticks without knowing it in this wide place
I had mistaken for a moment, sticks
Like the tip of the father’s left forefinger
To the unwiped, greasy, kitchen countertop.

As the husband’s desertion of his wife is to the poem, “The Spell of the Leaves”—the single point from which Levis launches his ever widening narrative loops—the entire poem is to the book, “The Widening Spell of the Leaves,” as Levis comes back to its imagery and pulls it forward into other lyrical narrative poems, enacting the title again and again. The horse, for example, that bears the “final liver-white quilt of Appaloosa,” returns in “Our Sister of Perfect Solitude” (150), not in the context of a woman deserted by her husband, but inside the Cathedral of Oaxaca, as “a horse, all its ribs showing as it hauled firewood on a towpath of lingering snowmelt,” (152). “Great stillness ripening” returns as “a complete stillness of yellow leaves filling/A wild field (166), and the father returns “finally free of all fatherhood” (151).

Also in the larger work, Levis carries both the denotations and connotations of leaves through “The Perfection of Solitude: A Sequence” in part 1, “Oaxaca, 1983” (143), with “The recently whitewashed trunks of the high laurel trees there….In/This moment” where “not one leaf is moving,” and in part 5, “Coney Island Baby” (153), with “dark leaf” and “light leaf,” through “To a Wren on Calvary” (162), with “Death whispered as always in the language of curling/Leaves,” into “The Widening Spell of the Leaves” (166), with “spiraling leaves...more & more leaves blown over the road, sometimes/Covering it completely for a second,” culminating in the leaves that were “becoming only what they had to be—/Calm, yellow, things in themselves & nothing/More,” but in the poet’s words “always coming back—steadfast, orderly,/Taciturn, oblivious.” In this last passage, we can hear not only Whitman's leaves returning, but generations of leaves all the way back to Homer: “As the generation of leaves, so is that of men.”

Other new ingredients are periodically added to this vision of collective mortality, including art history, popular culture, American imperialism, ornithology, pornography, terrorism, jazz, and the crucifixion, and their currents are skillfully stirred into the mix, so that line after line and poem after poem depart from places increasingly familiar, sweep through a wider context, and return having absorbed the flavors of the whole, not only without compromising the integrity of the original image or narrative, but with having more fully defined it. These images and references include, for example, the “two worlds” of “Sleeping Lioness” (131), “turning on her heels always/Away from you as if there were two worlds, as if you were lost/in this one,” that return in “To a Wren on Calvary” (162), as the world of a dead bird, “of oily feathers stretched, blent, & lacquered shut/Against the world—was a world I couldn’t touch.” In the first passage, Levis only describes the second world, much as Simon Weil defines God, by what it is not: “this one.” In “To a Wren on Calvary” we are given the nature of this world and an image from it, a bird’s lacquered feathers, serving as a sealed partition between the two worlds. This image is strengthened by the image of the lion that precedes it, as it must be a strong partition indeed, if it takes a lion to pass through it and a poet cannot. But the image of the lion is informed by the image of the feathers that follow it, as well—we can now see the lion’s mane, feathered and matted, and as vulnerable as any creature alive.

This oblique mirroring of imagery tends to accumulate meaning over time, so that by the last poems in the book, powerful overtones are at work that connect us, both cognitively and emotionally, to lines that otherwise might be passed over. In the final lines of “The Widening Spell of the Leaves,” for example, both the insouciance of the lion and the well-defined lines of the feathers, demarcating the worlds of life and death, are carried by the image of the leaves:

Immaculate, windless, sunlit. I could see
The outline of every leaf on the nearest tree,
See it more clearly than ever, more clearly than
I had seen anything before in my whole life:
Against the modest, dark gray, solemn trunk,
The leaves were becoming only what they had to be—
Calm, yellow, things in themselves & nothing

Never is this process of accumulating meaning more at work than in the final poem, “At the Grave of My Guardian Angel: St. Louis Cemetery, New Orleans” (171). The leaves—these pure things that are only what they are, without pretense—form the ground upon which the young poet is walking, where the smallest amount of shade could send him into unthinkable possibilities of “a neck snapped like a stem instead/Of whoever I turned out to be.” This falling into chaos or “pure chance” could take him
through himself “like a girl’s comb.” This image has been enriched throughout the work, and we take note of it, remembering all that has come before it, including lines 14-17 of part 2 from “Sleeping Lioness”: “Everyone else in the world is in bed with someone else./If they sleep, they sleep with a lock of the other’s hair/In their lips, but the world is one short,/An odd number, & so God has given me a book of poems.”

There is a center to “The Widening Spell of the Leaves” that is a kind of spiritual ground, from which, like the ever present leaves, a force emanates and to which it returns. This force is harnessed and directed towards the production of unique narratives of plenitude and loss—circular furrows in the ground—that sing to one another as they bring forth a yield that can be nothing but what it is. And that nothing is everything: “As if it could never be otherwise, as if it were all a pure proclamation of leaves & a final quiet--” (173). Arising as mysteriously as crop circles, and created with as much precise craftsmanship, these rings produce a harmonic between their concentric narrative arcs that is akin to the poet’s history, and by extension, ours: a history that has been, at once, sacred and profane, glorious and horrific, meaningful and empty. Perhaps it is this prosody of expanding rings itself that Levis is describing in the text’s penultimate lines:

It goes on & I go with it; it spreads into the sun & air & throws out a fast
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:

Whether or not Levis was giving definition to the form of his work (or his life) when he wrote these lines, they do accurately describe its cyclical patterns—patterns which, like those in nature, ultimately end where they began: in nothing. But even this nothing is dynamic and has substance in Levis’ world—enough substance for us, like the voice in “The Widening Spell of the Leaves,” not to be completely alone (174):

We’d better be getting on our way soon, sweet Nothing…
…At least we’ll have each other’s company…
…Riding beside me, your seat belt around your invisible waist. Sweet Nothing.
Sweet, sweet Nothing.

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