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.