Monday, November 15, 2010

Backwater Poets: Greg Keith

Greg Keith is a poet whose work not too many people know, but he is one of the poets who contributed to the headwaters of my own poetry, one whose work I sometimes forget still abides (he lost his battle to cancer in 1998), faithfully flowing for decades, full of rich nutrients from the ground of the giant watershed, still feeding my work and helping to shape the standard against which I measure all poetry. In short, he is a part of my own personal canon, and you could do much worse to make him a part of yours.

Keith has no major awards to his credit and only one published book of poems for his decades-long love affairs with language and science, but his legacy is a body of work that joins the empirical (hard science) and the lyrical aspects of the human condition in a rare marriage that retains the romance inherent in the new and the unfamiliar, while moving beyond youthful infatuation into a mature union that holds up over time. Hear the title poem to his book, Life Near 310 Kelvin:

Life Near 310 Kelvin

Air so still stars barely twinkle, still busy inside.
Just step out into the dark yard and the air starts
eagerly stripping momentum from the skin.

Her cheek so chilled it made cool fingers hot--heat
needs these directions to go, some difference to erase.
Iron straight from the forge, fierce with tiny agitation,
donates freely the deep KE it has just received.

Hot's whatever gives you heat and cold is how heat goes.
Either way, something has happened and you know it.
She arrived. She departed. Sunlight has finally
reached the tables on the eastern side of the street.

Heat falls out of the intervals between breadcrumbs.
No trail home. Birds have devoured every morsel.

Heat, the ratchet keeping time from slipping back.

Although Keith was an expert in computer technology, his measure of artistic success was not quantity of output or publication credits. He considered '94 a good year: "one article, one story, three poems published." Keith's hesitation to "rush to publish" either in print or on line is now even more poignant than it was in his creative non-fiction story, "Literary Passions," (published in 1998), in which he pits his wit and humility against a Bukowski-type anti-hero who challenges him to a poetry write-off in a Santa Cruz bar.

The story reminds me of Bill Henderson's comments in his introduction to Pushcart Prize XXXIV about how in the literary world speed kills: "Another lust that consumes our culture today is speed, not the drug but the electronic version. This is especially deadly to writers. On-demand vanity publishers will zip out your efforts, no questions asked (and usually no readers found). It's a mistake for writers to be in a huge hurry to be takes years, maybe a lifetime, to figure out what you want to say and how to say it. Because you can burp out a poem or short story on line, you will not immediately join the ranks of the immortals. Indeed you will be embraced in the Pantheon of Twitter. Or maybe The Kingdom of Kindle will admit you. Fast books, no binding needed. Toss when done."

Even though slow and steady does not always win the race, in the case of Greg Keith, allowing the thirteen and one-half billion year-old universe to reveal itself in his work through a diction both aware of science and the human condition, connects its history with our story, and can render the quantum just as easily as the galactic to be the quintessence of existence. And consciousness: listen to the neuron's story in "What the neuron knows:"

"How to listen, to mull the rumors in its thousand ears
and what size grain of salt to take with each.
How to speak its one word or keep mum. Given time,
how to change its little mind about the weight it gives its sources.
What the net is is
gangs of such neurons and weighted connections.
What the net knows it salts away in blind trust at the nodes,
its wealth spread out in unnumbered accounts."

Greg marveled at the discovery that photons disintegrated on their long journeys from the stars to earth. How then, do we see them? On the way, these dying particles meet up with younger free-roaming photons that become excited from the transfer of energy and information, which is carried to its final destination by those who have never seen their parent-stars.

Such is our mission--to receive the recognized pulses of light flashed by others, to add our own visible energies, and to carry the resulting message as far as we can! Gregory Keith is one of those photons. You may never have seen his star, but you can be energized by him to create your own!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Alice Weiss' "Time & Image in 'The Spell of the Leaves'"

Below is a reprint of an essay by Alice Weiss on Levis' "The Spell of the Leaves." It makes an interesting juxtaposition against my previous essay. Alice holds, among other degrees, an MFA in poetry from New England College.

Time is a fiction. It’s one we live by, but it’s artificial, we create it. It’s the closest most intimate fiction we have. It’s the way we organize our lives. It’s the way we know what to do next. The turnings of the earth and moon, the seasons, make it an easy fiction, even an obvious one. In fact, so obvious we hardly notice it.

In “The Spell of the Leaves,” Larry Levis pulls Time into consciousness, making of it the very tension against which his characters live their lives, the very tension against which we all live our lives. It’s a narrative poem with three long stanzas, the first two 28 and 23 lines long, the last one 58 lines, double the length of the first two. Notice here, that even as I speak about the look of lines on a page, I am using a word, length, which also refers to time. So too, the title of the poem, “The Spell of the Leaves,” refers to an enchantment cast, inter alia, by the Autumn yellowing leaves, which

"…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." (S. 3, ll. 6-10)

As a reader, I want to stay with the sensual muscularity in the comparison of the colors of leaves to the colors of horses, a magic evocation, if there ever was one. But I am driven back by the insistent concern with time to the other meanings of “spell” layered into the poem. A spell is a period of time with a beginning and an end. A spell is also a period of being unwell or out of sorts. As a verb, “Spell me” indicates a worker replacing another in the same task, like the son for the father, or the mother for the father. All these meanings are layered into the poem.

Indeed, the poem reaches its ending in the speaker’s tightening confusion about the lives he describes:

…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. (S. 3, l. 44-58)

The tip of the father’s left forefinger is stuck in the grease of the kitchen counter top. This “wide place” is the interminable spell that the poet has “mistaken for a moment.” It is not a spell, it is for all his time (“The woman won’t relent, S.3, l.31). The poem ends in misery with the father alone, dirty, and unable to do what needs to be done next: to wash the countertop.

The question is “how does Levis get to this place of timelessness?” His relatively transparent third person narrator takes us through a number of scenes. The first and second stanzas are two different scenes, and time passes differently in each one. In the first stanza, the story describes a time after the husband and wife have separated when the wife gets into the car on the passenger side each morning and waits for him to drive her to work, before realizing she doesn’t “Have a husband” (s. 1, l. 20), whereupon she climbs across to the driver’s seat and begins crying. The poet structures this narrative through time—the verb tenses, the season, the order of events are first simple past: “Her husband left her suddenly. Then it was autumn.” (S.1, l.1) Suddenly is another time reference: immediate, short, and unexpected. “Then it was autumn.” We know from the way the poem finishes that order is important, so then becomes an important word. And the way in which then is placed implies a longer period of time between the sudden leaving of the husband and autumn. Indeed, there’s an almost novel-like gap here. But autumn is also important because that is when school begins. “In those first crisp days of a new life” (l. 2), is a reference to time in a way the wife and son define their time. Continuing the sentence into the third line, the speaker uses the subjunctive would to indicate repeated action—no particular day, but every day. The subjunctive mood redefines time as larger than a moment, wider. A scene of heart-breaking regularity follows: “the screen door [would] close/Behind her, always [with] the same, indifferent swish…Then she would climb in…And sit quite still, an unlit cigarette in her hand,/And wait for him to come out and drive her/To work, as always.” ( l. 12ff) The climax of this stanza comes in the lines that follow:

The first two times it happened
She was frightened, she said, because, waiting for him
Something went wrong with Time. Later she couldn’t
Say whether an hour or only a few minutes
Had passed before she realized she didn’t
Have a husband. (S. 1, 13-20)
The second stanza begins with more thens, pushing time out of its present moments:
Then she stops waiting. The car pulls out of the drive
And onto the street each day. The weeks pass, & then
The months; then the years are blending into
Tables set for two. (S. 2, ll. 1-4)

Here is another “spell,” wherein “two” spell for “three”: the mother and son for both parents and son, only it’s not provisional any longer: anger dies. The boy and the mother pick wild flowers she puts in a vase. The flowers in the vase becomes an image for stillness captured.

Stillness is another word that refers to time. It has a physical reference to something not moving: air, for example. But there is also the meaning “I was still there,” with its occasional implication that “I should have gone by now.” Here the scene widens out to include a reference to the poet Christopher Smart, in his cell in 1756, sitting 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 . . .forever.” (S. 2, ll. 11-15)

In the scene’s present, the boy repeats a line from Smart, getting it wrong, “’The right names of flowers are Hush’d in Heaven.” “Still in Heaven. . .’” the mother corrects. Hush’d spells briefly for Still. Together, the two become an image of interminable silence.

In the last stanza, the speaker, still pretending not to be the abandoning father, goes back to the moment before “she remembers/Her husband isn’t there,” before the seasons, before time has gone on, the moment “something went wrong with time” and sees her (not his own) thought, “widening, until now it casts its spell,” a moment of “great stillness ripening.” This last image is a subtle oxymoron; stillness does not move; ripening inevitably implies movement through time. One pulls against the other. The speaker wants to stay even as time is going. Nonetheless, insistently staying with that moment, he pictures the boy sitting alone, not playing at recess, refusing, so to speak, a time out, the stillness widening to find the father’s “shoulders stooped” . . .gazing into “what seems to him a valley/ Filling with snow until the end of time.”(S. 3, ll. 27-28)

Here is a shift back to the boy, whose life is imagined, whose life now can only be imagined. The boy, in the speaker’s mind, passes a vagrant “intent on sleeping this world away.” (S. 3, ll. 40) The image tumbles into time spent uselessly. The figure outside the story, the figure that by implication reflects the poet himself, degrades from Christopher Smart in the second stanza to the vagrant in the park in the third.

Times shifts, as if the story all took place and ended three years before the disintegrating father “hears a secret club of voices. . .three times each week.” (S.3. ll. 46-47) “Forgive me,” he says, for watching them three years prior:

waiting for the next thing to happen,
And that is the problem: nothing happens, nothing
happens at all. (S. 3, ll. 32-34)

The change in the speaker here is subtle, the “I” becomes strong and stronger, “I keep waiting for the next thing to happen”, “this wide place I had mistaken for a moment.” We feel as if we are hearing the speaker himself, telling his own story, time breaking into the artifice of the third person, as if it were unsustainable for that long. The movement of the poem itself becomes an image of time, revealing in its long lines and its unfolding of a story, a desire to stop the unfolding of the story. “The stories floating “past him, through him, admitting its powerlessness, and God.”

This disintegration into floating in time, three times each week, this confusion of reference encapsulates the speaker’s refusal to understand what is implied by the order of time. First he leaves, then he loses the attachment of his wife and his son. It was not what he expected to happen. He refuses some basic understanding that actions in time have consequences, and becomes some degraded version of himself stuck in time, along with Christopher Smart alone with his cat in his jail cell, the vagrant in the park—perhaps even the poet himself—powerless to control this “ark of stories” (S.3. ll. 43-44).

In “The Spell of the Leaves” Levis never allows Time to be merely an abstraction. For him Time is a powerful actor that something went awry, enacting the lives of a disintegrating family. Finally though, the quietly awful recognition in the poem is that Time is not the actor, we are the actors. The things we do, the things we do next, matter. And no matter how hard we try, we cannot go back. Time (and life) is about what you do--next.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lost In Discovery Part III: Nowhere and Everywhere: Dislocation and Reverie in Elegy

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
Confess everything.

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.

Works Cited

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.

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.

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.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

MiPOesias Magazine!

Didi Menendez has a multi-channel publishing network that not only presents some of the best poets and artists working today, but she adds value by aggressively marketing them through cutting edge technology, as well as in traditional print forms. For Didi, it's about publishing as an art form and giving herself totally to that art and her artists. And even though she's all about relationships, they never get in the way of her demanding excellence in the work. Check out this issue of MiPOesias Magazine to see what I mean, as well as the link to MiPOesias, to see her other publications!

Friday, July 16, 2010

What Goes On: Stephen Dunn

I'm a sucker for significance. Maybe it's my blue-collar upbringing with protestant work-ethic, or maybe my search for God, which led me into the professional ministry, and then later out of it. Perhaps I'm a narcissist, wanting the universe to be permanently changed in some huge, measurable way because I passed here. Whatever the reason, for a long time Stephen Dunn's poems, beginning with Angels, have brought comfort to my longing for meaning, without compromising my appetite for a subversion of expectations. His latest collection, What Goes On does not disappoint on either count.

After a healthy portion of poems from collections going back to Loosestrife (1996), including meaty morsels from Different Hours (which won the Pulitzer in 2000), and side orders from four additional volumes (Riffs & Reciprocities, Local Visitations, The Insistence Of Beauty and Everything Else In The World, the book serves up twenty New Poems, most of which use ontological issues as main ingredients--some classical in nature, and others decidedly postmodern in flavor--all with gorgeous language, memorable presentation, big-boned ideas, and a stick-to-your-ribs substance that is practically unheard of in this age of extra-light, quickly-prepared, smoke and mirror-flavored, when-it's-gone-it's-gone, fast-food, ingest-on-demand poetry.

Here is a taste-test to determine if you'd like to order the entree.

"When I say your hair/is the color of a moonless night/in which I've often been lost," writes Dunn in the first lines of "Language: A Love Poem," "I mean approximately that dark." Signification for Dunn is not an a priori one-to-one correspondence between language and objective reality; while it does have to do with representation of meaning, that meaning is only the beginning of a process of discovery of connection, as seen in these later lines:

The rose, to me, signifies the rose,
and the guitar signifies
a musical instrument
called the guitar. At other times
language is a slaughterhouse,
a hammering down, its subjects hanging
from hooks, on the verge
of being delicious. When I say
these things to you it's to watch
how certain words play
themselves out on your face,
as if no one with imagination
can ever escape being a witness.

Dunn is a master at calling his readers into his world, where objects and ideas are recognized as having an emotional history, but not at the cost of exhausting the relationship between them and with us. It is only by looking at their past meaning that a future with them exists:

The whale for example, no matter
its whiteness, is just a mammal
posing as a big fish, except
of course if someone is driven
to pursue it. That changes everything.

So does Dunn--his poems transform every commonplace word into a love-affair with life, if not with every incarnation of it.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Peter Campion Wins The Levis Reading Prize!

It was announced today that Peter Campion has won the VCU Department of English Levis Reading Prize for The Lions. Congratulations, Peter. Well deserved. The planet is fortunate to have you as a poet, and I am grateful to have you as a friend.

Below is a reprint of my review of The Lions, which appeared in this blog earlier this year:

"Peter Campion's poetry is emblematic of the finest work being written today. His poetic sensibility is virtuosic because it is rooted in a prosody intimate with the literary canon, simultaneously blooming into the ethereal mystery that connects all art and life. He enacts in his work the high standard against which he measures others' work, as defined in his lucid recent essay in Poetry entitled "Strangers." In it he defines metaphorical sense as "a type of inventiveness that can appear even when metaphor seems absent. It's not merely a knack for crafting comparisons without 'like' or 'as,' but the ability to establish far-reaching connections, as well as disjunctions, in consciousness."

This metaphorical sense is never better demonstrated than in his new book, The Lions. Long before Campion's lions make their inevitable appearance in the lines of "Simile," an ars poetica fully one-third the way into the book, we have felt their proleptic presence in practically every poem. From "the blacktail deer [that] descend/Trembling. All systems on alert," in the opening "In Early March" to "all that force/falling through air" of "So Here Is How We Live Now," Campion's carefully chosen images effortlessly do their work of "implying the vision of a larger shape of being," to again quote Campion's essay.

Who are these ubiquitous beings that not only "shake out a clump of vertebra and sinews in their teeth to extract the sweetest meat," but also "rip reality from all the surfaces that flow around us."? This beautifully crafted and wonderfully inventive collection grapples convincingly with the question. Campion's capacious vision of the art of language emerges as one force amidst a dense landscape of life forms struggling for individual survival, all connected beneath the surface, including a lion in Botswana eating a kill, Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War), a man and woman having sex on a towel spread on a bathroom floor at a party ("a violence/only the kind they don't deny but relish) again, teeth clenched," "then this, then this, then this: life happening, each instant, rivers history" (from the title poem, "The Lions," part v.).

In this collection Campion puts flesh to the violence that resides bone-deep in existence with a pantheon of images in ways we knew and in ways we didn't know before--all lions releasing their "coiled lunge[s]," their "claws...regulators, rulers of the flow [of] reality lay[ing] hot beneath [them]." Again and again Campion portrays with quintessential craft and ideational nexus, a reality-seizing force that resides in all things, incapable of being titrated out, not making every conscious creature as bad as it can possibly be, but affecting each part of reality nonetheless."

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Mihaela Moscaliuc: Dialogical Poet

If you haven't heard of Mihaela Moscaliuc, hang around the world of words and ideas for a little while and you will. If you've been reading the best literary journals, you have probably already encountered one of her reviews or poems or essays. And now her debut collection of poetry is available from Alice James Books: Father Dirt.

It is said that genius is not merely mastery of one field, but of two, making possible a dialogue between them that creates a third new territory. Such is the accomplishment of Moscaliuc in her poems with their capacity for the narrative as well as the lyrical, historical as well as imaginative reality, a previous life in Romania as well as a present one in New England. In all of it, Moscaliuc is more than a poet of witness, she is a voyeur who compels us to watch, along with her, the daily love-making between experience and language--not just in the bedroom, but in the schoolroom, the bathtub, the graveyard, the kitchen. Listen to this ars poetica that appears early on in section one:


I thicken coffee with chocolate,
language with accented mistranslations,
love with foreign words
oblong and trammeled and plum-brandied.

I like the smell of yesterday's clothes.
It insists we resume where we left off.

But Moscaliuc's poems are not merely the accumulation of a masterly executed prosody of diction in response to experience, or the fashioning of a compelling, yet heart-breaking imaginative reality that marries language and myth. These poems point to a common ground of being, grappling with the big questions and, if not discovering big answers, making new connections that enlarge our capacity to rephrase the questions. Observe the pragmatic underpinnings of the final stanza to "Phonecall From Romania":

"True that you have donuts the size of life preservers, and dogs run around with tails stacked with poppy bagels? Hunger is no good--whatever the priest tells you--doesn't get you closer to God and doesn't make you kinder. I bet God would love me better with a full belly, though I hope never to meet Him, but if I do, that's cool too 'cause I have nothing to tell Him. But I'll say this anyway: hey, Mr., trade you a bone comb (from the finest mare!) for a soft cloud--your homeless beard needs grooming and my hips need a quiet mattress."

Moscaliuc's opening movement satisfies our longing for a poetry that sings its stories of significance, while creating a desire for additional scores.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Writer's Block? One Poem May Be Hiding Another!

"One Train May Hide Another" is a brilliant poem by Kenneth Koch. It's one of those poems that is intuitively so right that upon reading it, one may have the thought, "I could have written that." In fact, given the title, without anything else, I dare say that many a poet would write some of the lines in it, or very nearly. But none of us did. Perhaps there were other poems in the way of it like:

In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line--
Then it is safe to go on reading.

Today I had the experience of one poem hiding another, and I offer it as yet another way to break through (or to allow the poem to break through) the proverbial writer's block.

I am in the second day of a three day writing vacation that I have been planning for over a month. (I haven't taken enough time lately to focus on generating new work, and I have been looking forward to holing up in my downstairs study, with nothing to distract me from generating some new work.) In preparation, I had started two separate poems (which I oftentimes find will merge into one), both using the technique of starting with another poet's line. Yesterday I spent about eight hours trying to add something cogent and exciting to each. I ended up with four lines on one and six to eight lines on the other that I wouldn't show to someone who had never heard of poetry, much less to anyone from my writing group.

This morning I pulled out yesterday's horrific beginnings with a fresh attitude. After a few minutes it became apparent that lightning was not going to strike either of these two damp strands of tinder. So I just stared a while at the one I had entitled "Poem Beginning With A Line From Malena Morling" which began (and I'm not embarrassed about this line because it is hers): "Tonight, because all matter crumbles." And the next lines read "I want to insert something personal, a prayer/rising like the flame of a candle, roughly shaped/like a tooth worn down for all the souls locked away in purgatory."

Meditating on these lines told me that I hoped to find some substance to add to Malena Morling's great first line, in order to create a poem that evolved from hers, but that was truly mine. This thought reminded me of St. Paul's definition of faith: "For faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." The substance of things hoped for--yes that was what I was looking for. Then I remembered the gospel song sung in all the churches of my youth: "His Eye Is On The Sparrow (and I know he watches me)." I wrote: "I grew up believing that God had his eye on the sparrows," and I was off and running with another poem. It took me less than five minutes to write the first draft of "The Substance Of Things Hoped For," and another fifteen minutes to generate six separate drafts of what sets before me as an eighteen line poem. The drafts are far from over, but I now have an entire piece to edit for the next month or so.

What about the lines I wrote yesterday? Maybe they will become poems and maybe they will not. Perhaps they will reveal other lines and entire other poems that they have been hiding. Maybe they will be abandoned forever, having served their purpose.

It is told that a pupil of Allen Ginsberg once came to him in frustration over not being able to come up with the right ending for a poem. "I can't seem to finish this poem," he told Allen. "Can you tell me what to do?" "Certainly," Allen replied, "just write another poem."

One poem may hide another. Or as Kenneth Koch concludes his poem on the subject:

When you come to something, stop to let it pass
So you can see what else is there. At home, no matter where,
Internal tracks pose dangers, too, one memory
Certainly hides another, that being what memory is all about,
The eternal reverse succession of contemplated entities. Reading A Sentimental Journey look around
When you have finished, for Tristam Shandy, to see
If it is standing there, it should be, stronger
And more profound and theretofore hidden as Santa Maria Maggiore
May be hidden by similar churches inside Rome. One sidewalk
May hide another, as when you're asleep there, and
One song hide another song: for example "Stardust"
Hide "What Have They Done to the Rain?" Or vice versa. A pounding upstairs
Hide the beating of drums. One friend may hid another, you sit at the foot of a tree
With one and when you get up to leave there is another
Whom you'd have preferred to talk to all along. One teacher,
One doctor, one ecstasy, one illness, one woman, one man
May hide another. Pause to let the first one pass.
You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one. It can be important
To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Writer's Ambition: The roots of "sin" and "sanctity" are intertwined.

The Pushcart Prize. Even typing it now, I get goose pimples. The two dozen poems and forty to fifty-something combined stories and essays (technically creative non-fiction pieces) in the annual anthology are selected from over six thousand candidates, representing the best writing from each of more than one thousand small presses and journals each year in the opinions of their editors. Just being nominated is an honor worthy of inclusion on one's curriculum vitae. And no matter what one's aesthetic sensibilities, there is no doubt that the winners are among the most substantive literary works published during the previous year.

The issue of recognition of the work of art as separate from recognition of the artist is dealt with in two of the winning essays in the 2010 Pushcart Prize Anthology: "How To Succeed In Po Biz" by Kim Addonizio, and "God's Truth Is Life" by Christian Wiman. Both should be required reading for anyone writing anything other than a shopping list or the occasional birthday message inside a blank card for Brownie points gained from your lover or your mother.

"I once believed in some notion of a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than for oneself," writes Wiman, "but I'm not sure I believe in that anymore." "If a poet's ambition were truly for the work and nothing else," Wiman continues, "he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making, but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world. No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self..."

If casting doubt on the possibility of pure altruism were the only rubric of faith that Wiman could muster, he would come off as simplistic, and his piece as another whining essay from the sidelines of fine art. But through vignettes of his and other poets' experiences, intertwined with personal reflection about the relationship between art and life, Wiman succeeds in creating parables that elucidate our journey into our own practice of writing as a spiritual (not religious) path:

"Still, there is something that any artist is in pursuit of, and is answerable to, some nexus of one's being, one's material, and Being itself. The work that emerges from this crisis of consciousness may be judged a failure or a success by the world, and that judgment will still sting or flatter your vanity. But it cannot speak to this crisis in which, for which, and of which the work was made. For any artist alert to his own soul, this crisis is the only call that matters. I know no name for it besides God, but people have other names, or no names."

While Wiman is busy dissecting the pickled corpse of ambition in the laboratory, splitting hairs with a precision linguistic scalpel, slicing his way through the flesh to reveal its heart, Kim Addonizio, oiled down with satire, has been dirty dancing with the body poetic, seducing the serpent in the garden, wrestling with the angel in order to receive the blessing of the paid poetry reading she deserves that will launch her career. Now, wearing a sheer Machiavellian nightgown, she joins us for an interview, offering step-by-step advice, in the midst of her mounting insecurities:

"Once a bona fide, i.e., paying invitation has been extended, try to obtain as high a fee as possible. Tell yourself you are worth every penny, but secretly feel the way you did when you were on food stamps--other people need and deserve this more than you. Feel anxious about the upcoming trip because you hate to travel. Feel anxious because you are basically a private person and can't live up to the persona that is floating out there in the world acting tougher and braver than you. You are a writer, after all, and prefer to be alone in your own house with your cat. You don't really like your fellow humans, except for your lover, whose stories and mannerisms can be usefully stolen and put into your writing. When he traveled with a carnival as a young man, he learned to eat fire and to put a nail up his nose. Sensibly, he left the carnival to work in sales, while you suspect that you have become a sideshow act, a fake mermaid shriveling in her tank, uselessly flipper her plastic scales."

After stressing out over the highly implausible (yet actual) events of the presenters not having obtained any of her books for sale, missing her ride from the airport and ending up lost, trying to climb into the window of a private citizen's apartment she has mistaken for the university residence, being cursed at by the father of two teenage girls who come to the window to ask for cigarettes thinking she is a prostitute, and scores more of similar stories, Addonizio tells us:

"Go ahead and have a little more vodka with lemonade, and get slightly drunk by dusk. Try to write a few good lines and then give up in despair. Tell yourself you are foolish, feeling terrible when you have actually been asked to share your work with other people. It is the work that you love, and sometimes you even get paid for it. Tell yourself you are lucky, that people envy you. Tell yourself this is what you toiled and sweated your whole life to be able to do, and now you are doing it, and above all, don't be such a god-damned little baby."

The message is not that we are forced to chose between Christian Wiman and Kim Addonizio--though disparate in style, they are consonant in message. Wiman himself explains the difference in his concluding remark: "It is not that imperfections in the life somehow taint or invalidate perfections of the work. It is, rather, that these things--art and life, or thought and life--are utterly, fatally, and sometimes savingly entwined, and we can know no [person's] work until we know how, whom, and to what end he [or she] did or did not love."

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Larry Levis: "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World"

According to Philip Levine, when he was given the task of editing the late Larry Levis' "all but completed manuscript" that became Elegy under Levine's guidance, he first thought that Levis was "cannibalizing certain passages from some poems in order to heighten and enlarge other more ambitious poems." But Peter Everwine, Levine's colleague at Fresno State, convinced him the Levis was using "motifs or riffs to unify the collection." It is my assertion that these connective themes and tropes also flow across the covers of previous collections, spilling forwards and backwards, informing and being informed by other poems from other works, much like separate poems that are variations on a theme. The strongest example of this process is found in the two poems, "To a Wren on Calvary" (from The Widening Spell of the Leaves) and "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World" (from Elegy).

Due to its length, I will not reprint here "To a Wren on Calvary," but rather will direct the reader to the following link for reference:

What follows is a reprint of the shorter poem:

The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World

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 conveyor 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.
This is not about how she thew herself into the river,
For she didn't, nor is it about the way her breasts
Looked in the moonlight, nor about the moonlight at all.

This is about the surviving curve of the bridge
Where she listened to the river whispering to her,
When the wren flew off & left her there,
With the knowledge of it singing in her blood.

By which the wind avenges. By which the rain avenges.
By which even 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, shall be remembered
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.

How to get into these poems? There are so many entry points! Had "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World" never been written, there still would be a plethora of worlds to explore within "To a Wren on Calvary." We could begin with the reversals, each of which seem to be a kind of ideational chiasmus: "the unremarkable," rather than the remarkable being that which lasts, the faces of the thieves being covered with wings and their bodies naked, "the quiet flowing into things," for example. Or we could contrast Levis' use of understatement alongside his pragmatographic descriptions, such as the "unremarkable wren" set against "small hawks (or are they other birds?)/...busily unraveling eyelashes & pupils.../I cannot tell whether their blood spurts, or just spills." Or, as in the virtuosic passage in lines 50 ff., which begins unassumingly with auditory meiosis, crescendos through ordinary description and, finally, ends in graphic sounds of violence:

Still . . . as they resumed their quarrel in the quiet air,
I could hear the species cheep in what they said . . .
Until their voices rose. Until the sound of a slap erased
A world, & the woman, in a music stripped of all prayer,

Began sobbing, & the man become bystander cried O Jesus.

A virtuosic effect is achieved, in part, because of the two worlds that Levis has created--the one on Calvary, and the one taking place on every hill in every city that is populated with people who are trying to love through their hate and hate through their love--and, in part, with the blurring of these two worlds by borrowing images from one and putting them into the other, fitting so perfectly, without explanation or the need to explain--the child camouflaged behind his toy left out on a lawn, while his parents tear at each other with claws and beaks sharper than those of any bird of prey, the boy who "saw at last the clean wings of indifferent/Hunger, & despair?," the father who cries out to Jesus when he sees what he has become as a bystander to (and thus a participant in) the violence around him.

Were this poem the last word from Levis about the world of the thieves dying on Calvary and the world of the neighbor couple and their boy being robbed of their lives "in the town/That once had seemed, like its supporting factories/That manufactured poems & weaponry, Like such a good idea," it might seem enough. But Levis will not let enough alone.

Somewhere between the time this poem was published in The Widening Spell of the Leaves in 1991 and a few weeks before his death in 1999, Larry Levis wrote "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World,"--both an answer to, and a continuation of, "To a Wren on Calvary."

What is immediately noticeable about this new poem, is that its jagged typographical edges have been smoothed down with time. Unlike its predecessor, the poem is written exclusively in quatrains, its lines flush against one another like feathers, without a single one out of place. This is an enactment of the more palpable presence of the wren, despite the indication in the title that it is invisible "to the world." But certainly it is quite visible to the world of the poem, being named no less than six times in twenty-eight lines, compared with only four times in sixty-seven lines previously. What world, then, is blind to "the poem take[n] the shape of a wren" that is "perched on the woman's/Small shoulders as she went on working beside/The gray conveyor belt with the others?"--the wren of ferocity and the wren you could look through (contrasted with the dead wren with its "oily feathers stretched, blent, & lacquered shut/Against the world . . . a world [the poet] couldn't touch" in "To a Wren on Calvary"), the wren that flew off and left the woman standing on the bridge, "With the knowledge of it singing in hr blood."

Is it the world that does not read the poem--meaning the world devoid of the poem, devoid of the "surviving curve of the bridge," the bridge that connects the extraordinary to the ordinary, the bridge that is the poem, that is our salvation as we take our places "beside her on the line, the gray conveyor belt/Start[ing] up with its raspy hum again?"

But the poem that returns is not simply a revised version of the original. It takes a closer look at the post-messianic world created in the first poem, the world as it exists for the woman in the second poem, not only after the deaths of the men on the crosses, but after the death of her marriage and (dare say I?) the death of the husband himself. And because the relationship of the second poem to the first is that of one facet, enlarged in the lens of the jeweler's loop, to the whole of the gemstone, the second cannot only be instructed from the first, but it can teach the first, re-examined in light of its uniquely focused and polished material.

Not only, for example, do we see in the "long line of shoulders & faces bending/Over the gleaming, machined parts" the small hawks plucking at the faces of the thieves on Calvary, but in the actions of the birds "unraveling eyelashes & pupils" the dehumanized indifference of factory workers brought on by the drudgery and meaninglessness of their work except to provide them with their next meal. Not only do we hear Calvary's death-whisper in the river that flows below the bridge where the woman stands, we can hear the river's flow and its connectedness to everything in Death's whisper. Not only does the cross of Calvary inform "the limb of a dead tree leaning" in "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World," the image of the dead tree points to a path away from the soteriological sufficiency of the cross.

These examples of dialogue between the two poems grow from Levis' nearly objective position, allowing for multiple voices within him to not only be heard, but to collaborate in the construction of a poem, or in this case, of a larger work that transcends the bounds of one volume of poems and breaks through into another.

"Poetry must be made by all, not by one," said Lautreamont. May we not only listen to all of its voices, but answer them as well as Larry Levis in his "Widening Spell."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Peter Campion: A Poet's Poet

Peter Campion's poetry is emblematic of the finest work being written today. His poetic sensibility is virtuosic because it is rooted in a prosody intimate with the literary canon, simultaneously blooming into the ethereal mystery that connects all art and life. He enacts in his work the high standard against which he measures others' work, as defined in his lucid recent essay in Poetry entitled "Strangers." In it he defines metaphorical sense as "a type of inventiveness that can appear even when metaphor seems absent. It's not merely a knack for crafting comparisons without 'like' or 'as,' but the ability to establish far-reaching connections, as well as disjunctions, in consciousness."

This metaphorical sense is never better demonstrated than in his new book, The Lions. Long before Campion's lions make their inevitable appearance in the lines of "Simile," an ars poetica fully one-third the way into the book, we have felt their proleptic presence in practically every poem. From "the blacktail deer [that] descend/Trembling. All systems on alert," in the opening "In Early March" to "all that force/falling through air" of "So Here Is How We Live Now," Campion's carefully chosen images effortlessly do their work of "implying the vision of a larger shape of being," to again quote Campion's essay.

Who are these ubiquitous beings that not only "shake out a clump of vertebra and sinews in their teeth to extract the sweetest meat," but also "rip reality from all the surfaces that flow around us."? This beautifully crafted and wonderfully inventive collection grapples convincingly with the question. Campion's capacious vision of the art of language emerges as one force amidst a dense landscape of life forms struggling for individual survival, all connected beneath the surface, including a lion in Botswana eating a kill, Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War), a man and woman having sex on a towel spread on a bathroom floor at a party ("a violence/only the kind they don't deny but relish) again, teeth clenched," "then this, then this, then this: life happening, each instant, rivers history" (from the title poem, "The Lions," part v.).

In this collection Campion puts flesh to the violence that resides bone-deep in existence with a pantheon of images in ways we knew and in ways we didn't know before--all lions releasing their "coiled lunge[s]," their "claws...regulators, rulers of the flow [of] reality lay[ing] hot beneath [them]." Again and again Campion portrays with quintessential craft and ideational nexus, a reality-seizing force that resides in all things, incapable of being titrated out, not making every conscious creature as bad as it can possibly be, but affecting each part of reality nonetheless.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Philip Levine: The Other Half of the Story

In my last blog entry, I wrote about Philip Levine--his tremendous influence on contemporary poetry in general, and on my poetry in particular--the direct influence of his poems on the poems of other poets. This is the other half of the story: his second-hand influence through one Larry Levis, a "widening spell" of poetry's leaves that caught me up in its power and beauty the first time I read one of Levis' poems.

As most of you, no doubt, know, Philip Levine was Larry Levis' teacher at Fresno State. And Levis was proclaimed by Levine as "the most gifted and determined young poet [he] ever had the good fortune to have in one of [my] classes." Since Levis' untimely death at age 49, Philip Levine (along with Peter Everwine), edited Elegy, the "all but completed manuscript of poems" Levis was working on when he died at his desk writing in 1996.

I was introduced to Larry Levis in 2006 by Michael Waters, my first mentor in the poetry MFA program at New England College through one book from a list of twenty to read during the semester: The Widening Spell of the Leaves. Little did I know the transformation Levis' work would bring about in my writing life--lengthening my line, pushing against my pedestrian imagery, introducing me to a unique, virtuosic blend of the narrative and the lyrical that I had craved without knowing what it was I was craving. And without Philip Levine, I'm not sure how many of his six award-winning books Larry Levis would have written, because it was in Levine's class that Levis found a space where he could learn to be, at age 18, something he had committed himself to be two years before: a poet. And the reason he could, in addition to his own talent and dedication, was that he had a poet for a teacher. In an essay on Philip Levine, published in A Condition of the Spirit, The Life and Work of Larry Levis, Levis wrote:

"It isn't enough to say that Levine was a brilliant young poet and teacher. Levine was amazing. His classes during those four years at Fresno State College were wonders, and they still suggest how much good someone might do in the world, even a world limited by the penitentiary-like architecture and stultifying sameness of a state college. For in any of these fifty-minute periods, there was more passion, sense, hilarity and feeling filling that classroom than one could have found anywhere in 1964."

Levis goes on to cite example after example of how Levine was "always totally there in the poems and right there in front of me before the green sea of the blackboard." Forty-four years later I found Philip Levine to be just as accessible to this student as he was to Levis and his classmates in 1964.

I had decided to write my MFA thesis on Larry Levis' work. After reading all six of his books, I had a working premise about the influences upon Levis' increasing line length over time, concomitant with his departure from imagistic poems to more lyrical/narrative pieces. One day writing about this, I had the thought: "Wouldn't it be great if I could just ask Philip Levine about this?" I had never met Levine--I had only heard him read one time in Santa Fe, New Mexico (the night that George Bush bombed Iraq), with over 500 attending. But I had met Peter Everwine, Levine's colleague at Fresno State, the previous summer. I picked up the phone and called directory assistance for Fresno, California, got Peter's number and dialed. Peter remembered me, and when I asked him how I could go about arranging a fifteen minute interview with Levine he gave me his home phone number and said it would probably be fine to just call--that I'd probably get his voice mail which Levine would return to let me know if he'd grant the interview and, if so, when.

I jotted down a few notes and dialed Levine's number. To my shock, Philip answered the phone. After explaining my purpose in calling, and asking if there was a time he could grant me fifteen minutes for an interview, Levine said" What's wrong with right now?" Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for him, Philip was suffering from neck pain and had recently taken a codeine tablet. He had nothing to do but rest and sit quietly, and since his wife was out, it was a good time. The fifteen minutes turned into thirty and I decided that as long as Levine was doing the talking, I should just listen and count my blessings. Finally after forty-five minutes of continuous conversation and stories about Larry Levis, Philip sounded tired. I thanked him for his time, to which he replied that I should send him my paper when I finished it.

What amazing generosity! What a priceless experience! That Philip Levine would be so accessible to a graduate student he didn't know, and that he would grant so much time at the drop of a hat, told me everything I needed to know about how deeply he cared about students. About poetry. About his work. Which is our work. Which is the widening spell of the leaves.

Hear Levis' final lines from "The Widening Spell of the Leaves":

That was the day I decided I would never work.
It felt like conversion. Play was sacred.
My father waited behind us on a sofa made
From car seats. One spring kept nosing through.
I remember the camera opening into the light. . . .
And I remember the dark after, the studio closed,
The cameras stolen, slivers of glass from the smashed
Bay window littering the unsanded floors,
And the square below it bathed in sunlight. . . . All this
Before Mr. Hirata died, months later,
From complications following pneumonia.
His death, a letter from a camp official said,
Was purely accidental. I didn't believe it.
Diseases were wise. Diseases, like the polio
My sister had endured, floating paralyzed
And strapped into her wheelchair all through
That war, seemed too precise. Like photographs . . .
Except disease left nothing. Disease was like
An equation that drank up light & never ended,
Not even in summer. Before my fever broke,
And the pains lessened, I could actually see
Myself, in the exact center of that square.
How still it had become in my absence, & how
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
More--& frankly they were nothing in themselves,
Nothing except their little reassurance
Of persisting for a few more days, or returning
The year after, & the year after that, & every
Year following--estranged from us by now--& clear,
So clear not one in a thousand trembled; hushed
And always coming back--steadfast, orderly,
Taciturn, oblivious--until the end of Time.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Unselected Mentors: Philip Levine

Of all of Philip Levine's twenty-some-odd volumes of poetry--many that I count among the most significant contributions to 20th century American literature (They Feed They Lion, the National Book Award-winning What Work Is, A Walk with Tom Jefferson, and his Pulitzer Prize winning The Simple Truth)--my personal favorite is Unselected Poems.

Levine describes these poems as "a small selection...that for one reason or another I chose not to include in those books and now wish I had. Until this book they too were unselected." The way Levine speaks, we would think them children kept indoors, away from the windows, poorly fed, seldom held, known only to their brothers and sisters with whom they interacted, but with whom they never went out in public: "I never meant to injure or insult any of my poems; it has always seemed to me that they've done far more for me than I've done for them. I am pleased with the opportunity to undo the harm I did to them. I can only hope those I've chosen enjoy their hour in the light and work like mad."

This latter phrase is a reference to a story Levine tells in his introduction to the book about a question his young son once asked him: Pop, how many poems do you think you have out there working for you? Levine goes on to explain: "My son, Mark's statement, made profound impression on me. Because of my working days in Detroit and the poetry that came out of it, I like to think of myself as a worker, but according to my son I was an employer, and when I thought about it seriously it was clear that while I worked at poetry, and it cound be impossibly difficult work at which I often failed, I was also unlike most workers completely in possession of the means of production. I controlled the fate of those little workers, the poems, I had created. I only hope those I've chosen enjoy their hour in the light and work like mad."

I hope that Philip Levine is enjoying his own season in the light. I know that he works like mad (still at 82), and that he's been working like mad all of his life. Even though I've been always been aware of him, it wasn't until recently that I realized that for me he was like his unselected poems: having a tremendous influence on my poems without, of course, his knowing it and, what is astonishing, without my knowing it. I didn't select him as a mentor, and he didn't select me as a menatee, it was his work that for years haloed around me like a cloud of invisible electrons. Every time I write about my work, portray a co-worker through dialogue or description, employ its unique vocabulary, comment upon its futile necessity, I pay homage, in some small way, to Philip Levine's virtuosic body of work.

So the time has come for me to acknowledge him as one of my mentors--unselected, but more than well-earned.

Hear now the final lines of the opening poem to Unselected Poems, a narrative that opens with a group of friends giving a "dull country laborer" a lift home in the wrong direction, after consuming many beers, and after breaking down on the side of a snow-frozen road:

"When the engine
failed, we stood in a circle
of our breathing listening for
the sounds of snow.

just before the dawn of the
second day of a new year
already old, we found her
under white heaps, another
city in another time,
and fell asleep, and wakened
alone and disappointed
in a glass house under a bare wood roof.

I called out for
you, my brothers and friends, and
someone's children came, someone's
wife--puzzled helpful faces--
saying "father" and "husband."
You never answered, never
heard, under the frozen stars
of that old year where the snow
creaked in great mounds and the air
bronzed from the slag heaps twenty
miles south of Encorse, for you were
happy, tired, and never going home."