Phillip Levine, Larry Levis’ teacher and friend who was responsible for the assemblage of Elegy, the twenty poems that Larry Levis spoke of as an “all-but-completed manuscript” a few days before his untimely death in 1996, said of Levis: “I don’t think he ever felt at home his whole life—but he could clearly adapt to any place” (Interview with author, 26 July 2007). Prior to Elegy, Levis had been creating and exploring a poetic landscape with a narrative line that carried him (and us along with him) to places further and further from the physical and emotional locus of the central valley of California, or from any other single nexus. Referring to this latter point, David Baker (“Levis Here and There” 1) points to Levis’ poem “In the City of Light” (Winter Stars 35) as emblematic of “the poet’s restless need to move and move on and move again,” as the poem’s locus shifts from the east coast to the west, meandering through loves, landscapes, memories, and by his admission, mostly ‘wrong’ decisions.” Baker further asserts that it is in the irony of resting in two places at once that the stepping off place exists for meditation and “language’s deepest inquisitions.”
In previous works (primarily in The Widening Spell of the Leaves), Levis’ explorations led him to several places where two worlds existed, but in Elegy he makes regular excursions into them, without ever totally committing to or abandoning either. He courts both immortality and oblivion in “The Cook Grew Lost in His Village in the Endless Shuffling of Their Cards” with lines like “the cook isn’t listening/He knows all feasts are delusions, that the scent of immortality/And the savor of oblivion are one,” (Selected Levis 20). Levis sees universes containing everything and nothing as capable of being admired simultaneously as “the missing and innumerable stars” under a summer sky in “Anastasia & Sandman” (11). Finally, he is most lost with “a blueprint” in “Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern in It,” (38), and more precisely located whenever nothing has been sketched in, when all the light is “gauzy light,” and “It’s hard to pick out anything” in “Boy in Video Arcade” (39). But while it may be hard for the poet to visualize the landscape’s features in one world of Elegy, Levis provides multiple landscapes that allows us to experience these polar opposites within the same poem, both as discrete states of being, and as one entire meditative state of reverie, in which we experience them at the same time.
One such milieu is “The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World.” In it, Levis brings forward imagery from “To a Wren on Calvary,” a poem located squarely in the middle of The Widening Spell of the Leaves, transforming it into a different, although highly related poem in Elegy, thereby creating a trans-textual form that enacts these two worlds. Do we view the combined text as one poem connecting two books, one poem conforming to the laws of the universe located between the paper leaves (pun intended) it happens to be visiting? Or are there two poems placed in one complete work in two (or more) volumes, created over many years (a lifetime?). Both? Neither? The poem’s title alone engages the reader with these questions, the exploration of which can lead to becoming further lost, as one discovers more features of the terrain within the poem.
Instead of the “lacquered wings” closing us off from the world of death inside its hollow body, the wren actually becomes a “A wren you could look through like a window,/And see all the bitterness of the world.” But Levis is not merely in the business of image shifting, performing ontological tricks in some cosmic magic show. He is inexorably tying his two poems together, and both of them to the canon of literature that includes a plethora of references to Calvary, the place of the skull, the hill where Christ was crucified, and to the birds that have flown in the heavens and walked on the earth, at the same time he is creating a new form, one capable of bearing the load of this capacious canon, paralleling the magic that happens when a wren dies and is reborn in other creatures, including another wren, that carries with it the actual elements that existed from the beginning of the universe:
Once, there was a poem. No one read it & the poem
Grew wise. It grew wise & then it grew thin,
No one could see it perched on the woman’s
Small shoulders as she went on working beside
The gray conveyer belt with the others.
No one saw the poem take the shape of a wren,
A wren you could look through like a window,
And see all the bitterness of the world
In the long line of shoulders & faces bending
Over the gleaming, machined parts that passed
Before them, the faces transformed by the grace
And ferocity of a wren, a wren you could look
Through like a lens, to see them working there.
And then a few lines later:
When the wren flew off & left here there,
With the knowledge of a singing in her blood.
It is hard to imagine two worlds more different than the world of the grace of the wren of Calvary, (with all overtones intended), who later flies away, and thereby leaves more knowledge with its departure, and the mundane world of a factory assembly line. But Levis has transformed this poem/wren sitting on the shoulder of a factory worker who, instead of going mad with the antinomies of such a fractured existence (“This is not about how she threw herself into the river,/For she didn’t”), learns how to “[Listen] to the river whispering to her.” Then in typical Levis directness, he tells us that “This is about the surviving curve of the bridge”—that is, the arc of flight between the wrens, between the poems, between the worlds of living and dying, immortality and oblivion, being found and being lost—lost in the search, lost in the discovery, for the search and the discovery are one. Furthermore, it is only in the poem, on the bridge, listening to the murmuring river that she is at home, both in the world of the mundane and the world of the ecstatic, because of the knowledge “singing in her blood.” But this knowledge is attacked by the wind, by the rain, and even by:
The limb of a dead tree leaning
Above the white, swirling mouth of an eddy
In the river that once ran beside the factory window
Where she once worked.
And she shall be remembered only:
When the dead come back, & take their places
Beside her on the line, & the gray conveyor belt
Starts up with its raspy hum again. Like a heaven’s.
And so the poem, rife with concrete detail, ends in mystery. When will the dead return? When will the conveyor belt be a heaven? The answer is in the poem; the answer is the poem—it is the poem perched on the shoulder of the worker that is the bridge between the machine world of the factory and the world of the river that whispers its knowledge in the ear.
Regardless of its entry point, Elegy is a more complete departure from the world of quantifiable, ordinary reality, into a mysterious world that lies within it and beyond it, combining elements of both in a way that is at once gorgeous and horrific. Like atomic particles whose location cannot be determined if we know their speed, and whose velocity cannot be determined if we know their position, in Levis’ vision, we can choose between discrete, significant events frozen in time and space, or an endless series of meaningless arrivals, as in "Boy in Video Arcade":
Some see a lake of fire at the end of it,
Or heaven’s guesswork, something always to be sketched in.
I see a sullen boy in a video arcade.
He’s the only one there at this hour, shoulders slightly bent above a machine.
I see the pimples on his chin, the scuffed linoleum on the floor.
I like the close-up, the detail. I like the pointlessness of it,
And the way it hasn’t imagined an ending to all this yet,
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.
I don’t see anything at the end of it except an endlessness,
The beauty parlors, the palm reader’s unlighted sign, the mulberry trees
Fading out before the billboard of the chiropractor.
The lake of fire’s just an oil speck.
I don’t see anything at the end if it, & I suppose that is what is wrong with me,
Among the other things. And it’s slow work, because of all the gauzy light,
It’s hard to pick out anything.
In this poem, as well as in all of Elegy, Levis has brought us to a place of reverie, where occupants, like the boy before the video machine, are mesmerized with the details that point to nothing beyond themselves, where representation and, therefore, the ability to locate oneself, has broken down. It could be said that this theme of becoming more dislocated in the ordinary world with its prevalent ideas of cause and effect, within a framework of a linear chronology and Cartesian space, of becoming more lost the closer one gets to one’s destination, finally arriving at the end of the journey to wander forever, permeates the entire collection of poems in tone, if not in direct apperception, as in the following passage from “Elegy for Whatever had a Pattern in it” (Elegy 38):
There is a blueprint of something never finished, something I’ll never
Find my way out of, some web where the light rocks, back & forth,
Holding me in a time that’s gone, bee at the windowsill & the cold
Coming back as it has to, tapping at the glass.
How ironic and yet, somehow, appropriate that Levis not only never completed the manuscript of Elegy himself, but that he never came back from wandering through its haunting lines, such as the ones at the conclusion of “Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage” (52):
I’m going to stare at the whorled grain of wood in this desk
I’m bent over until it’s infinite,
I’m going to make it talk, I’m going to make it
According to those closest to him, Levis never resolved the tensions in his life between the worlds that inhabited him, before leaving us. In Elegy the solution was to enter a meditative state between the worlds, thereby being fully in both and fully in neither—“Never bothering to look up as the sun comes out/in the late morning”—lost in the discovery that there is really nothing in any world except what we create in it, what we make it bring forth, and offer that back up.
By his own definition, Levis was, in this regard, successful. Although he didn’t make “the whorled wood in his desk” confess everything, he did make it sing. And Larry Levis stood as shamanic witness, one foot on the ringed wooden grain of his desk, the other in worlds beyond, allowing us to hear the choral arcs of music coming from everywhere, coming from nowhere.
Baker, David. “Levis Here and There.” Blackbird. Fall 2006 Vol. 5, No. 2.
Everwine, Peter. Interview with author. 25 July 2007.
Hoagland, Tony. “Flight and Arrival.” A Condition of the Spirit. Ed. Christopher Buckley. Spokane, WA: Eastern Washington University Press, 2004. 485-513.
Levine, Phillip. Interview with author. 26 July 2007.
Levine, Phillip. “Larry Levis.” A Condition of the Spirit. Ed. Christopher Buckley. Spokane, WA: Eastern Washington University Press, 2004. 3-8.
Levis, Larry. Elegy. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.
Levis, Larry. “Not Life so Proud to be Life: Snodgrass, Rothenberg, Bell, and the Counter-Revolution.” A Condition of the Spirit, Ed. Christopher Buckley. Spokane, WA: Eastern Washington University Press, 2004. 177-206.
Levis, Larry. The Dollmaker’s Ghost. Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1992.
Levis, Larry. The Selected Levis. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.
Levis, Larry. Winter Stars. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.
Smith, Dave. “Larry Levis: Johnny Dominguez, A Letter.” A Condition of the Spirit. Ed. Christopher Buckley. Spokane, WA: Eastern Washington University Press, 2004. 285-302.
Williams M.L. “On The End Of Romantic Authority In Larry Levis’s Elegy.” A Condition of the Spirit. Ed. Christopher Buckley. Spokane, WA: Eastern Washington University Press, 2004. 515-529.
Thursday, September 9, 2010
Lost In Discovery Part III: Nowhere and Everywhere: Dislocation and Reverie in Elegy
was born in the Midwest, grew up in New Mexico, and has lived in the San Francisco bay area for two decades. Terry has published in numerous literary journals, including Best New Poets 2012, Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Great River Review, New Millennium Writings, and The Comstock Review. His work has garnered six Pushcart Prize nominations. He is the winner of the 2014 Crab Orchard Review Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry. His chapbook, Altar Call, was a winner in the the 2013 San Gabriel Valley Literary Festival, and appears in the Anthology, Diesel. His chapbook, If They Have Ears to Hear, won the 2012 Copperdome Poetry Chapbook Contest, and is available from Southeast Missouri State University Press. His first full-length collection of poems, In This Room (CW Books, 2016), is now available, and his second, Dharma Rain, was released by Saint Julian Press in October of 2016. Terry is a 2008 poetry MFA graduate of New England College, and a free-lance poetry consultant. For more information about him and his work see www.terrylucas.com