JULY 24, 2016
TO HOLD a new collection of poems by Larry Levis is nearly miraculous. The Darkening Trapeze arrived as an immeasurable gift, not only as a final gift from the poet himself, but also, unquestionably, as a gift from his friends — David St. John, the book’s editor, as well as Greg Donovan, Mary Flinn, Amy Tudor, and the late Philip Levine — who collectively carefully preserved and assembled these poems from Levis’s disorderly papers, correspondence, and computer files.
By the time I first discovered Levis’s poems, he was already gone. Yet his body of work has become one of the central texts of my life. There are many poets and poems I cherish, lines to which I return often, but I can rarely recall where or when I first encountered them. I first read Winter Stars in New York City. I was standing in the aisle of an amazing bookstore that was going out of business, as so many independent bookstores seem to have done. That we met that way — outside of time and our bodies, in language only, in a place on the threshold of vanishing — seems almost right to me now. I opened the collection at random somewhere near the center and read: “Perhaps the ankle of a horse is holy.” This is the opening of the poem “There Are Two Worlds,” which seems at first to be about Mark Twain, but it is really a poem about love and status, marriage, faith and faithlessness, grief, regret, and the singular desire to simply be allowed to go home.
Winter Stars (1985) provided readers with a primer for the kinds of thrilling juxtapositions and loping sentences that would become the hallmarks of the poet’s later works. In the earlier posthumous collection Elegy (1997), edited by Philip Levine, this capacious style reached an exhilarating level of expansiveness in syntax and in subject. If readers come to The Darkening Trapeze expecting this sort of conceptual and compositional daring, they will not be disappointed, since the later poems included here fully enact the aesthetic inclinations and central preoccupations for which their maker is most known. Ultimately, what we confront in the poems of Larry Levis is nothing short of another way of knowing and being. To enter his poems we are required to give ourselves over wholly to a uniquely poetic mode of metaphysics and a radically associative epistemology.
Yet, it is always difficult to articulate exactly what marks a work as the inimitable achievement of the kind only one idiosyncratic artist might have accomplished. That it is especially hard to paraphrase or reduce a Levis poem ought not to be surprising. On the contrary, one might say that this almost seems to have been the point, for it is, in fact, the ineffable itself that this poet seems so often and so acrobatically to be chasing.
For Levis, this ever-unavailable noumenon seems to have become the elusive truth that one of the poets Levis admired most, Wallace Stevens, alludes to as “the the” in the concluding line of his poem “The Man on the Dump.” The term appears in both Levis’s poems and his private letters. In “The Necessary Angel,” one of the longest and most ambitious poems from The Darkening Trapeze, Levis juxtaposes Stevens’s imagined interior life (his erotic fascination with the woman who does his nails each week) against images from World War II and the radical return to what seems “a part of what was uneventful” in the immediate post-atomic age. Describing the scene in which Stevens might have sat, he writes:
The silence of the empty barber’s chair next to them,
The silence of jars on a shelf & magazines in a rack —
Was neither the clothing of things nor the nakedness
Of things. It wasn’t this. It wasn’t that. It was
The blank, the the that set the whole a-spin.
“The the” might best be understood as both the meaning that is missing from the known world and the meaning that might, if somehow even briefly witnessed, redeem it. It is the inexpressible, always silent yet essential truth toward which language points but ultimately fails to contain: the ghost of what is most important, a potentially salvation-granting revelation that perpetually escapes our grasp. For Levis, the nature and existence of the the is never a coolly intellectual or philosophical problem but rather an urgently spiritual one.
The previously uncollected poem “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire,” which anchors the center of the book, has long been considered by those who know Levis’s work most intimately to be one of his most remarkable. Like a number of the poems found here, it had been available elsewhere. (In this case, the poem could be found online in the Blackbird archive where it first appeared in 2004.) “His best poem,” my friend David Wojahn has said to me solemnly more than once. Though the the seems to have come finally to suggest a kind of holy poverty — an absence that, precisely because it is so acutely felt, testifies to the existence of a profound mystery that borders on the divine — the means by which the the is tracked are not only sometimes comic, ridiculous, and surreal, but also too often debased, exploitative, and even self-destructive. For all of these reasons, it seems all the more apt that this extraordinary poem should itself open with the word poor:
Poor means knowing the trees couldn’t care less
Whether you carve the initials of your enemies
All over the trunk’s white bark,
Or whether this sleep beneath them is your last.
In this poem, the the is circumnavigated using all of the means listed above, including both the very real poverty of the “blind / Drunk, high, or homeless — who would have no alternative except / To freeze to death,” as well as by what an unnamed you, presumably a now estranged lover, once referred to as “poverty // In the widest possible … sense.”
The central narrative involves a woman the speaker meets while waiting for the elevator after a hotel fire alarm has been sounded: “[S]he had been hired as / a private dancer” and appears with “twenties, hundreds, fifties, / Rolls of smaller bills,” pinned to what is the “most expensive dress” he had ever seen. The poem will go on to report the woman’s confession later in the hotel’s bar of her obsessive devotion to her cats and the fact that the fire had been set in the elevator by a child “who’d gotten high, after school, / By inhaling gasoline fumes in a vacant lot.” At one point, the speaker will imagine a family “in from the sticks” standing before the elevator doors “in that moment // When the doors opened onto flames,” and, near the poem’s close, he will imagine himself, his soul, curled up in a doorway letting the snow swirl around in a last moment of surrender, in which he would be able, finally, to discern what this wider poverty would be:
Its sound the chirring of crickets in a ravine.
I could almost hear … no, I could only imagine hearing it. And that
Is what it has become:
Having to imagine, having to imagine everything,
In detail, & without end.
Of course, one way to read this poem is as ars poetica. But it is also an indictment, as we are forced to confront the cost that is exacted when the imagined replaces the actual, when the imagined feels more real, truer perhaps, than the real. From the poem’s opening movement, the reader encounters the convoluted syntax and fastidious but quirky over-punctuation that is typical of the compositional strategy so often deployed in Levis’s later work:
In the contorted figures meant to represent their sleep,
The statistics never show the deep shade in the park,
The mother appearing in the dark of someone within whose
Sprawled arms clear gin & black tar mingle
To compose the blood’s unwritable psalm.
Here he has constructed a grammatical puzzle that self-consciously mirrors the contortion and sprawl it describes while simultaneously foreshadowing the orchestration of the poem as a whole, its impending virtuosic leaps and gestures.
The assertions made by the poems in The Darkening Trapeze, like the rhetorical strategies that reach toward them, are often slippery and contradictory. The poems’ insistent pursuit of a state of chronic wakefulness melds the spiritual devotion of the ascetic with the insatiability of the addict. No poem in this collection intrigues me more than “A Singing in the Rocks,” a meditation on the seemingly ever-retreating nature of the sacred. Its narrative recounts its speaker having heard — after pulling over, after having driven all night — “Dobro & steel guitar & the pinched, nasal twang of a country tenor / A singing in the rocks though no one was there.” The “he” in this poems suggests either God or His stand-in:
He rejoices in pleasures too pure for this world.
He is the sore screech of the wheel in the addict’s voice,
And disbelief itself under the summer stars.
And the tenor voice of the sax & the snow swirling on the city streets
To frame the unsayable, & mute the sayable.
As this passage also demonstrates, readers familiar with Levis’s earlier work will find at the core of this collection the system of images he spent his creative life exploring: fire, snow, trees, wind, darkness, stars. Such elemental power so often in collision with the bleakly urban, the natural world still insisting upon itself inside the diminished vistas of the made. The most vital presences in these poems are often ghostly and incorporeal (as the singing is), something felt or heard but untouchable, just as language, the “unsayable” and the muted “sayable,” is shadowed by the the that remains unavailable and beyond it. In “If He Came & Diminished Me & Mapped My Way,” the speaker, lost, alone, nevertheless feels himself accompanied by “someone so thin I could have passed my hand through him.” He concludes “Idle Companion” by asking:
The one friend left within
When all the others go,
And the only one I know
To be criminally sane,
Soul, what is your name?
Yet sometimes the shades in these poems are more historical than psychical or divine, for Levis is also a poet who often seeks to place personal suffering and circumstance within the broader contexts of our shared public past, as he also does in earlier poems, including his incomparable long sequence “The Perfection of Solitude,” which appeared in The Widening Spell of the Leaves (1991). In the title poem “Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze inside It,” for instance, he recalls once again the migrants who worked his father’s vineyards, “who were paid / In wages thin as water, cash that evaporated & rose like heat.” Elsewhere he sets contemporary desolation and past atrocity side by side. In “Ghost Confederacy” the two are actually overlaid, as the fallen soldiers of the Civil War are conjured “[w]ithin sight of the trailer park and the truck stop” so that we might peer through their rifle holes “to what? To slums and shopping malls? / To one suburb joining another?” “Carte de l’Assassin à M. André Breton,” another poem in this collection, wryly recounts Breton’s response — “America! Poor America!” — to a letter from a fan who volunteers to open fire with a pistol “at the busiest corner in Paris.” Today this poem is freighted in ways Levis himself could not have foreseen.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Levis’s work to fully convey is simply what it feels like to disappear inside it, to surrender to its incantatory magic, its rhythmic elegiac beauty. Terrance Hayes writes that Larry Levis “was our Whitman for the late twentieth century.” He is not only Whitmanesque in the democracy of his embrace but also in his cascading cadence. “A Singing in the Rocks,” as we have seen, thrusts its readers bracingly into an existential confrontation with meaning and its absence and drags them before a profound darkness visible only to a spirit that has come to the edge of what is bearable, but it also reveals just how hypnotic the unfurling of Levis’s sentences can be. Its very subject matter, moreover, testifies to this poet’s allegiance to the primacy of the auditory experience of transcendence.
And, therefore, it is fitting that the collection ends with “God Is Always Seventeen,” a poem with a title that echoes bittersweetly against that of “The Poet at Seventeen” from Winter Stars. We are left with the heartbreaking memory of the speaker visiting a record store in Times Square with his son, who in the present tense of the poem will no longer answer or return his calls:
Some music playing & something inconsolable
And no longer even bitter in the melody & I will never forget
Being there with him & hearing it & wondering what was going to become of us.
Of course, what will become of us is the final question we can never answer. Levis, like the man in the photograph by Josef Koudelka — which he describes so movingly in what I think is his greatest poem, “Sensationalism” from Winter Stars — has now not only “turned into paper” but also turned into sound. We are told in “The Space:”
The Self sounds like a guy raking leaves
Off his walk. It sounds like the scrape of the rake.
The soul is just a story the scraping tells.
Yet he has left us with a body of work that aspires to bring us nearer, if only momentarily, to a kind of sublime silence. For though Levis’s most achieved poems are challenging and heartbreaking, readers will always know that they have traveled to the brink in the company of a pilgrim who was seeking nothing less than the unknowable itself, the lacuna at the core of being, the the.
Kathleen Graber is the author of The Eternal City (2010), chosen for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets and a finalist for the National Book Award, and Correspondence (2006), winner of the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize and a finalist for the National Poetry Series.