blackbirdonline journalSpring 2022  Vol. 21  No. 1
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A Haunted Poem in a Haunted City: “Elegy for Poe with the Music
of a Carnival Inside It” by Larry Levis

Gregory Donovan presented this text at the 25th annual Levis Reading Prize celebration.

As a way of evoking the memory and spirit of Larry Levis, I ’d like to remember him through a poem where he remembers another poet, our homeboy, Edgar Allan Poe. In doing so, I recall another Levis Reading Prize celebration back in 2010, when I briefly discussed this same poem during the three-day Larry Levis Celebration we held that year, which included panels and readings featuring his mentor Philip Levine and his lifelong friend David St. John along with twenty other distinguished poets from around the country who were counted among his many friends and admirers—an occasion that marked the acquisition of his papers by the Cabell Library. His collected papers, books, and a few personal items, which also include a pair of his trademark black cowboy boots—he actually was a California cowboy—are safely and permanently stored in the archive.

I discussed the Levis poem about Poe that evening to introduce not only the poetry of Larry Levis, but also the city in which Larry was living at the end of his life, a city that he enjoyed, and which gave him rich subject matter for a number of his poems. “Elegy for Poe with the Music of a Carnival Inside It” is definitely a “very Richmond” poem, and its settings include the “park on a hill,” which clearly is Libby Hill Park, and although the Soldiers and Sailors Monument that stood at the top of that hill has now been removed—that imposing 100-foot-tall stone pillar with its seventeen-foot bronze soldier at its top and its thirteen enormous granite cylinders representing the thirteen Confederate states that made up its towering, phallic pillar that had been modeled after Pompey’s Pillar in Egypt—that intimidating monument is, or was, the stone that Levis writes “is a kind of rain” that also contains “soldiers trapped inside.”

The idea of Poe haunting this city does seem appropriate, especially since he not only lived in Richmond in his youth, but also, he was a writer who specialized in gothic tales—and his own mother is buried in the cemetery of the church that gives “Church Hill” its name. There still are unhoused people who inhabit Libby Hill Park, however, and those people mattered to Levis, and their situations bothered him and his strong sense of social justice. Levis lived nearby (at 407 1/2 North 27th Street, to be exact), and on his walks he observed those unhoused people and made note of them, and in his “real life,” he often actually did give them a handout, or he paid them for an odd job around his home on Church Hill to help them along, and even though his yard was small and his house in pretty good repair—he would find something for them to do.

In his poem, Levis imagines an invisible, ghostly city that exists right alongside or within the one that is the present-day city described in its lines. I don’t know if there ever was in recent times the sort of carnival that the poem describes as having been set up in those tents “on the edge of town,” but I have seen, in my childhood, as no doubt Larry saw in his, a tent at a state fair that did include the sort of awful sideshow exhibitions of a person with some kind of disfigurement, usually suggested as a birth defect brought on by some illicit act or background by “the carny’s spiel,” a tall tale designed to titillate and perhaps horrify the passersby in that macabre way to draw them into paying money to see “the boy / With sow’s hoofs instead of hands.” The poem suggests that Poe and the boy and the unhoused people and the one who was killed and dismembered in the park are somehow all mixed into one shared being, possibly by the spell of the carny’s spiel, as well as by the spell of the Levis poem, so that “everyone lost comes / Back again” and Poe finds himself back in Richmond, but this time around, Poe wants to experience an encounter with the sideshow boy as well as the moment when he, too, might closely observe and recognize that in some sense his own dark spirit may inhabit the boy as he identifies with him, and so “Poe comes back to see / Himself, disfigured, in another.” In the poem, Poe seems to have wanted simply to come back and hang out among the carnival crowd, invisibly haunting, and to see the strange and unsettling sights that they are drawn to experience—including “the woman / Who has fins instead of arms, & the man without / A mouth.” Perhaps I should note for you that these people on exhibit in such carnival tents were quite often “phony” and were equipped with their disfigurements in deceitful ways, so it may be that Poe also wants to enjoy the macabre deception of the crowd—a bit of artful trickery not entirely unlike the “deceptions” practiced by a teller of fictional tales of horror and mystery.

However, Poe discovers he’s trapped and cannot fully make his way across the street to the carnival—he can hear the music of the merry-go-round far away, but it “might as well be music from the moon” since the “traffic never lets him cross.” In true gothic style, that inability to cross simply may be because Poe is, well, dead. At the same time, the crowd that is filing “into the little tent, watches suspiciously,” and they are perhaps not entirely ready to be quite so willfully deceived. And then the poem states the situation in a way that seems perhaps to prophesy and predict our present moment: “For the crowd believes in nothing now but disbelief.” It also seems that their disbelief is another part of what traps Poe “at the intersection of radiance / And death, the intersection of the real city / And the one that vanishes.” Poe is unable to cross through the traffic, and he is caught in the middle of the street, and his ghostly “flesh is a white dust,” and so the cars “pass slowly through him” while at the carnival “the boy keeps / Tapping at the glass, unable to tell his story” to Poe, or to the crowd, or to us. Even though the boy might wish to tell the truth of his entrapment, and Poe might be the best possible writer who could tell that tale, now it is solely Larry Levis who can give us this strange gothic horror story about a city which we may recognize or even know well, and which has always been an unsettling mix of a terrible past and a possibly better future—and for far too long, trapped between the two.

And now please imagine that you are hearing this poem from Larry Levis who was haunted, as we are, by the ghostly presence of Poe, in a poem that seems entirely appropriate on an evening when we’re gathered to honor a young poet who writes so brilliantly and sympathetically about the ghostly presences that haunted the towns where she grew up.  

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