Wednesday, December 12, 2012

My Top Ten Poetry Books To Put On Your Holiday Wish List: A Condition of the Spirit--with qualifications

If you read this blog, you must know that its title is taken from Larry Levis' The Widening Spell of the Leaves. Levis is my all-time, #1 requirement for my "desert island" backpack. Which book(s)? I'd want all of them, but the next best thing is The Selected Levis, poems selected by David St. John from all six of his virtuosic collections of poetry. But this is not the book I'd like to write about today (I've already posted at least twice about it), although I believe it is indispensable for anyone interested in reading/writing poetry.

If Levis' six books comprise the Torah, then the Talmud is A Condition of the Spirit, The Life and Work of Larry Levis--a 663-page collection of essays, interviews and responses to him and to his work. Christopher Buckley and Alexander Long have done a masterful job of putting together "Some of The Life" from those who experienced it, "Larry Levis on Poetry," a collection of Levis' own words about his work, and "Response to the Work," articles of scholarly criticism, along with an "Epilogue," including Levis prose piece, "Piazza Navona."

The usefulness of A Condition of the Spirit for students, poets, critics, scholars, or anyone interested in "the best poet of his generation," according to Phillip Levine, cannot be overstated. Space does not allow a proper introduction to this volume. The bulk of this post, therefore, will comprise but a sampling of its illuminative powers--an amplification of some of Levis' earlier work, notably the poems, "Rhododendrons" and "Waking," found in his second volume, The Afterlife.

On a recent trip to New Mexico, I stopped into "The Black Cat Coffee Shop & Bookstore" in Truth or Consequences. The experience could (and should) fill an entire blogpost. The result pertinent to this one, however, is that among the "finds," I walked away with a 1976 issue (#22) of the poetry journal, Open Places, with Larry Levis and his (then) wife, Marcia Southwick on the cover and featured inside with 3 poems each. (I paid .50 for the journal, which originally sold for $1.50, and is now selling for an average price of $30.00.) With no malice toward Southwick, I was struck by how her poems paled in the presence of Levis'--particularly his poem, "Rhododendrons," which I had read, but not for some time. In order for readers to appreciate both the poem and the commentary by Southwick herself in a chapter I happily found later by her in A Condition of the Spirit, "What's Wrong with this Picture," I reprint it below:

Larry Levis


Winter has moved off
somewhere, writing its journals
in ice.

But I am still afraid to move,
afraid to speak,
as if I lived in a house
wallpapered with the cries of birds
I cannot identify.

Beneath the trees
a young couple sits talking
about the afterlife,
where no one, I think, is
whittling toys for the stillborn.
I laugh,

but I don't know.
Maybe the whole world is absent minded
or floating. Maybe the new lovers undress
without wondering how
the snow grows over the Andes,
or how a horse cannot remember those
frozen in the sleigh behind it,
but keeps running until the lines tangle,
while the dead sit cooly beneath their pet stars.

As I write this,
some blown rhododendrons are nodding
in the first breezes. I want
to resemble them, and remember nothing,
the way a photograph of an excavation
cannot remember the sun.

The wind rises or stops
and it means nothing.

I want to be circular;
a pond or a column of smoke
revolving, slowly, its ashes.

I want to turn back and go up
to myself at age 20,
and press five dollars into his hand
so he can sleep.
While he stands trembling on a street in Fresno,
suddenly one among many in the crowd
that strolls down Fulton Street,
among the stores that are closing,
and is never heard of again.

I had read Rhododendrons before, but reading it from this flimsy journal was almost a mystical experience, knowing that Levis had only published one book four years prior, knowing that this was probably the poem's first printed iteration, and knowing all that would come afterwards for Levis--all of the yet unwritten masterpieces, the awards, his untimely death.

When I returned home, I immediately opened A Condition of the Spirit, looking for anything that might shed more light on this era of Levis' life. And did I ever find something. Marcia Southwick's essay, "What's Wrong With This Picture," tells of living on the ninth floor of the Tiger Motor Lodge in downtown Columbia, Missouri, when Larry was writing this poem, and others that appeared in the journal and "The Afterlife." Southwick writes that there wasn't much to do for entertainment, except for shooting pool at "The Spot," stealing traffic signs, or staying in their room, "downing twinkies and chocolate doughnuts along with [their] martinis." There was one other pastime--playing a game called "What's Wrong With This Picture?" Southwick explains:

Larry might draw a one-eyed man and ask me to determine what was wrong with the drawing. I'd say, "A man has two eyes, not one?" He'd reply, "No. He's a Cyclops. A Cyclops isn't bald." Then I might draw a cat noosed by its neck to a tree, and he'd say, "Cats don't commit suicide?" I'd reply, "No. See the tiny watch on its wrist? Cats, don't wear watches."

Southwick continues . . .

When I think back on it now, that game captured the spirit of what we loved about poetry--the mind's search for the obvious but hidden. We were both looking for new and strange answers to the old questions. We found that the imagination had a peculiar logic of its own--a logic as solid as, but different from common sense. We were both great fans of Neruda, Eluard, Desnos, Herbert, Marquez, Lorca, Ritsos, and the many other writers who venture into the territory of surreal dream-imagery.

And, finally, relative to "Rhododendrons" and The Afterlife:

At the time, Larry was writing The Afterlife, still one of the best books of poetry I've ever read. He would sit in the lobby of the Tiger, with his fountain pen, scotch, and legal pad--his head cocked as if listening to otherworldly music--and he'd write. The raw beginnings of poems came easily to him, and he'd fill page after yellow page with images that didn't seem to belong together. Then his genius would sew a thread between them that would bind them tightly in a totally unpredictable way.

Hearing Southwick tell of the carry-over from their game of "What's Wrong With This Picture" to the unexpected turns in Larry's poetry gave to me an added dimension to lines where "Winter" "writ[es] its journals/in ice." and "no toys for the stillborn" for example. In addition, Southwick goes into depth about Larry's "almost photographic memory," and the resulting difficult and complex relationship between memory and imagination in Larry's life and work. In "Rhododendrons," for example, Southwick writes, "he loses a version of himself as a young man," (see the final stanza, above).

Below is but a portion of one paragraph of Southwick's discussion of memory in the poem, "Waking," part one of which follows. (Be sure and also notice the surprising turns in it, as well--personally, I'm totally taken with " . . . closing the little jails".)

In "Waking," its almost as if the speaker would prefer to let the fire of the imagination take over, freeing him of memory, which is too rigidly exacting, too lifeless, like ". . . the blackboards/Where the equations died of perfection."

Larry Levis


YOU could hear someone arguing
About money, a man and his wife.
You could hear them closing the little jails

No one would enter or sweep.
The inmates were thinking of water.
They would sleep standing up,

If they had to. All that summer,
Outside, you could hear
The freight cars move slowly.

When they passed, you would listen
To anything: to the counsel
Of a moth dying on the sill,

To the wind that had nothing
To say, that went on.
You loved the wind,

You loved the blackboards,
Where the equations died of perfection,
And the parables were burned herons,

Extinct. Each night you could feel
The migrations of shadows.
And you knew you had killed

No one: not your father or mother
Who sat watching TV; not your wife
Who wept and would not eat;

Not your brother who kept smiling.
You were their stranger.
You were the widow of sleep.

If you love the work of Larry Levis, like I do, you will cherish "A Condition of the Spirit," like a twin brother or sister you didn't know you had. If you don't, encountering it will be almost like encountering him--but not quite. You'll have to read his poetry for that--and that's the one qualification about this book being on my top ten list of poetry books you should have on your holiday wish list: it's really not a book of poetry. It's just a book about, arguably, the best poet of my generation. It's kind of like a book about sex--it's not the real thing, but it might make you want to put down the book and experience it for yourself!


granddaddy said...

Oh my! Your writing about Levis (I shall not publicly confess to having never heard of this greatest poet of his generation, being so ashamed.) makes me want to jump in the car and drive really fast to a bookstore. I wish it made me want to rush to a library instead. And no matter what else I want to do, I will rush to google immediately after posting this comment. And the comment will be briefer because of it.

The "What's Wrong With This Picture?" game is a glorious bit of seeing the way poets see. I love it in so many ways and can't wait to play. I wonder if it can be translated (weakly and only of necessity) into something verbal. Seeing is so important. It will have to be so derivative and contrived. What's Wrong With This Sentence? Spring has moved off somewhere, writing its journals in ice. It's winter that writes in ice, not spring. Wrong. Seasons always write their journals in the present tense, before they move off or on.

I love the idea of connecting disconnected things, but this is the idea that makes me want to put down the laptop and experience the real thing:

When I think back on it now, that game captured the spirit of what we loved about poetry--the mind's search for the obvious but hidden. We were both looking for new and strange answers to the old questions. We found that the imagination had a peculiar logic of its own--a logic as solid as, but different from common sense.

The Poet's Way of Seeing. In oh so many rich and unexpected ways.

Terry Lucas said...

Hey, grandaddy (I know you in another iteration), glad you liked my ramblings about Levis. When you read him, make sure that you have no other obligations or appointments for some time, because you will surely fail to meet them. Also, strap yourself in for quite a ride, and do not stand up while the poem is in motion...



Floyce Alexander said...

I learn as much about Levis from your blog as I can imagine reading. My old friend Christopher Howell was editing Eastern Washington University Press when CONDITION OF THE SPIRIT appeared there. I've never asked him about his part in its publication, if any, but when last we saw one another, 1998, we were mourning Levis together. Just a note, though, to tell you how much I enjoy your work here.

Terry Lucas said...

Hi, Floyce--thank you so much for posting this. It means a lot to me. Terry