blackbirdonline journalSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

Seeing Through the Wren as a Lens
Gregory Donovan presented this text at the 24th annual Levis Reading Prize celebration. 

It’s true that Larry Levis often did write about death and mortality, creating some of the most remarkable and surprising elegies ever, and even once writing a poem titled “The Morning After My Death”—which he published in his second poetry collection, titled The Afterlife, in 1977—a poem he wrote at the ripe old age of not-yet-thirty.

My body is a white thing in the sun, now.
It is not ashamed of itself,
Not anymore. Because today is
The morning after my death.
How little I have to say;
How little desire I have
To say it.

At the end of that opening stanza from the poem, you certainly feel a great melancholy, while simultaneously you have the urge to laugh. “Of course you have little to say,”—you want to reply—“You’re dead!” And that exquisite tension between polar opposites being woven together is a characteristic complexity in the work and in the man. Everyone who knew Larry Levis well would immediately want to assure anyone among his readers who might be tempted to think he had some sort of depressive death wish that, in fact, he was not only a seriously brilliant, incisive, and extremely well-read conversationalist, but he also was a warm, exceptionally generous, and very funny fellow. His disciplined commitment to his writing—which came before all else in his life—was balanced against his love of the absurd and the always tempting urge to be a wicked and witty outlaw. What is sometimes less clear to those who loved his writing, and even to those who loved his friendship, is that the frank and at times brutal honesty of his poetry was balanced against a sense of the profound mystery and wonder that infuses his work with a kind of awestruck admiration for the miraculous nature of the everyday, that familiar world of work and survival which was a given in his childhood background as a Catholic altar boy who worked alongside Mexican and Mexican-American field hands in his father’s orchards and vineyards in the Central Valley of California. That ability to bring opposing forces together into what was not only a danse macabre awareness of death lurking nearby but also a dazzling ballet of virtuosity in language, striking phrasing, and in storytelling would increasingly become a dominant characteristic of the poems of his later books, including, for example, the two interrelated poems “To a Wren on Calvary” from his collection The Widening Spell of the Leaves and “The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World” from the posthumous poetry collection Elegy that Levis was at the point of completing when he met his death here in Richmond. (Isn’t that an interesting phrase—met his death—as if he was walking along and suddenly it’s, Well hello there, Death, there you are—hadn’t thought to run into you quite so soon . . .)

In the latter poem, the one with the invisible wren, it’s revealed that, “Once, there was a poem. No one read it & the poem / Grew wise” and ultimately the poem took “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.” When I first read that poem I was struck by that “wren you could look / Through, like a lens,” and now when I look out the window of the cottage nestled among the trees where I live, and I see a wren hopping along the top of the split rail fence there, I’m always reminded of the two wren poems by Levis, and I wonder again why he chose to think of such a small bird, one the size of a small grey mouse, a bird that might be easily overlooked among other, showier birds as the one that could be used as a lens through which to see the world in a way that transforms it, because of the “grace” and “ferocity” of that little bird. Yet it somehow seems characteristic of Levis, who, like James Wright or Pablo Neruda before him, sought out the heroic in the everyday, in the image of a laborer bending over an assembly line.

And it’s the other wren poem, the one set on Calvary, or in the Aramaic, Golgotha—both signifying a skull, that is, the skull-shaped hill just outside the walls of Jerusalem—that poem is the main focus of my little talk tonight, since it combines not only those opposing forces of sadness and humor that I mentioned before, but also weaves into itself a set of iconic religious images that are familiar and essential. In that specific way Larry Levis’s poem has a kinship with the work of Leila Chatti, since her poetry often features a similarly intense combination of vital mysteries—death-haunted sadness, gallows humor, and the solace as well as the disturbance that religion provides.

In “To a Wren on Calvary” we find the remarkable in the unremarkable wren, in the “nothing that all wrens meant,” and yet the poem’s first line tells us in solemn tones that “It is the unremarkable that will last,” in a work that in part functions as an indictment of all sorts of human activity and attitudes. That indictment starts with its epigraph from the infamous brawler and prankster, priest-murderer and thief, who also is considered the greatest of the French poets of the late medieval age, Francois Villon, an outrageous and brilliant character, with whose rebellious and sardonic spirit Levis clearly identified, since he mentions Villon in several of his own most memorable poems. And so it begins, “Prince Jesus, crush those bastards . . .” in what must be a free translation from Villon’s most famous work the Grand Testament in which Villon bequeathed his worldly and otherworldly possessions, sometimes real but mostly imagined, to all the people he had known, sometimes leaving a few with touching poems about unrequited love, yet more often bequeathing them horrible punishments, satirical nonexistent objects, and terrible deaths.

It is in that complex spirit that the poem is written, sometimes including a joke or two, perhaps obscured, as when he mentions “cavalry” in a poem set on “Calvary,” or when he begins a poem whose central figure, according to the title, is the wren by describing a painting by the Dutch artist Brueghel, in which the wren does not appear, as it has been hidden in “camouflage” while other birds appear to pluck the eyes from the faces of executed thieves. Perhaps this refers to Brueghel’s painting, The Procession to Calvary, in which Christ is shown as an insignificant figure, hardly visible among the sprawl of the enormous surrounding crowds of gawping and ghoulishly enthusiastic spectators.

Later, when the wren does appear in the poem, it is already dead and infested with lice, which have created within the wren’s body an “altar” whose congregation is so lively the narrator, presumably Levis himself, is forced to drop it from his hand. And yet he and his hand have been transformed by the experience, “changed for a moment / By a thing so common,” once again a discovery of the miraculous in the unremarkable, and the effect is, as the first line promised, lasting—so that “No feeding” on the dead “in the wake of cavalry or kings changed it.” Nevertheless, “in the end it swerved away,” and then comes to seem “irrelevant,” and we see the “tucked claws” of the dead wren that “clutched emptiness like a stick.” The vicious argument of the couple who appear in the poem becomes interlinked with the crucifixion of the petty thieves, and of Christ, in the painting and in the biblical story, as well as in the historical and legendary accounts of the punishments and persecutions in ancient Rome of Christians and others considered to be dangerous rebels and criminals, such as the story that after the Spartacus slave revolt, slaves were nailed to crosses along a 100 mile stretch of the Appian Way, remaining there, the story goes, until their bones were picked clean by vultures. It is likely this image with which Levis ends his poem, the man in a cart seeking to escape, yet like the wren on Calvary, forced to become a witness to atrocity and the shocking “everydayness” of it, as its significance and meaning slowly becomes another vanishing “emptiness,” like the breath of the horse escaping into the cold air and vanishing. While that sight seems to amaze the horse, the man “slumped behind it,” only “stares at the swishing tail,” unable to feel anything anymore.

And with that introduction, I hope may prepare you to read this poem by Larry Levis, “To a Wren on Calvary,” a work that discovers the miraculous in the everyday atrocities that surround us. I offer that poem to you as a way of recalling his spirit in this celebration of remembrance and of honoring the art of poetry itself.  

return to top