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

...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 . . .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.