blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Marcel Cornis-Pope

Good evening. I'm Marcel Cornis-Pope, chair of the VCU English Department, and I would like to welcome you to the Sixth Annual Levis Award reading. This event honors the memory of the late Larry Levis, former director of our MFA program and winner of many national and international awards for his poetry. Each year the English Department and the MFA Program in Creative Writing award a reading prize in Larry's name to the author of the best first or second book of poetry published the previous calendar year. Six years in today's volatile world represents quite a tradition. The fact that this tradition has survived adversities of all sorts is a tribute to the man we honor and to the act of poetry. The fourth Levis Reading Prize was awarded shortly after the events of 9/11; the fifth just before the Washington sniper killings; and this year's award comes on the heel of the worst hurricane to visit Richmond in a generation. I suppose this says something not only about the resilience of our tradition but also about the role that poetry can play in situations where natural or man-made calamities make other forms of discourse fail.

It is perhaps no coincidence that, as I was thinking about tonight's event, I happened to discover an interview with Larry Levis in the most recent issue of the Writer's Chronicle. This previously unpublished interview was taped in Salt Lake City in the winter of 1989-1990, after Larry's return from a Fulbright year spent in Eastern Europe at a time of momentous changes. His poetry, and his thinking about it, were clearly influenced by what he had experienced during those eventful years, from the Vietnam decade to the late 1980s. At one point in the interview Larry talks about a poem entitled "Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex," written after his trip to Italy, but which—in his own words—was, I quote, "more about Vietnam and a friend who died there than it is about painting or about one of the [most] fascinating bad boys of Italian art, though that life is there too." And he goes on to say that poetry and its "metaphors [are] political" in the broadest sense of the word, through the choices they articulate and experiences they reflect. His poetry, he explains, is always addressed to a "community," even if only the community of "language itself," where ideas, desires, and tacit implications all take shape. All poetry, he concludes, "is political in at least one sense: it is vulnerable, no matter how scrupulously aesthetic it may be, to history, to time, to an ethical and therefore a political formulation or interpretation within a culture." But poetic formulation can also rise above its historical moment, above the rigid "Either/Or" of politics; poetry (and here I'm paraphrasing Larry) is an active act of remembering, accepting but also questioning the moment that produced it.

Larry's poetry is a perfect example of this type of active, imaginative remembering that his rediscovered interview talks about. All those who knew Larry or those who have come to know him through his poetry can testify to the fact that he had a special gift of pragmatic idealism that made him responsive to the most diverse historical solicitations, both at home and abroad, but also allowed him to distill historical and personal traumas in acts of poetic imagination that finally remind people, and I quote Larry again,"of beauty itself."

We are fortunate tonight to add our own acts of remembering in celebration of poetry, of Larry's legacy to us, and of our own capacity to "remember beauty itself." (These are his words.} We are grateful to those who have made this evening possible. I would like to extend my thanks, first of all, to Larry's family—mother Carol, brother Kent, and sister Sheila—without whose generous contribution this remarkable yearly event would not be possible. I also want to thank Mary Flinn, director of New Virginia Review, for her continued support of this program, to the MFA Committee for choosing such a deserving winner, and to Susan Aizenberg for coming to share her poetry with us.

I will now invite poet and professor of English Greg Donovan, editor of Blackbird, to introduce the winner of the sixth Levis Reading Prize, Susan Aizenberg.

Gregory Donovan

This evening, of course, is not only to introduce to you the work of Susan Aizenberg, but also it's my job every year to call up the spirit of Larry Levis in some way or another, and this is what I was thinking about today when I was thinking about Larry. Every year, I ask him to help me, and, you know, he never fails to come through.

There are a number of great poets who were great walkers, and perhaps that is no accident. William Wordsworth comes to mind immediately, with his lifelong habit of walking throughout the Lake District. Even when he left home as a young man to travel in revolutionary France, it was for a "walking tour." And one of his first volumes of poetry was titled An Evening Walk.

Wallace Stevens also comes to mind. Stevens walked every morning from home to his work at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company (now we call it the Hartford Insurance Company) and in the evening he walked back home again. On those walks, he composed poetry. It's impossible to ignore the likelihood that those walks introduced a certain kind of rhythm, as well as a certain set of favorite images, as a characteristic of his poetry. Walking and poetry seem wedded to each other for so many poets. Walking seems to be an activity that opens the mind to necessary invention and intervention, and it offers the necessary speed for observing the necessary landscape.

When I first met with Larry Levis to talk with him about the possibility of his taking up a position here at VCU, one that had opened up when Dave Smith left to join the faculty at LSU and take up editing The Southern Review, we got together at a bar in Salt Lake City, Utah. That's where Larry was teaching at the time, the University of Utah. I was there on my way to a whitewater rafting adventure with the writer Pam Houston. She had concocted this thing for me, and I took advantage of the chance to sit down with Larry and, to be honest, try to sell him on the idea of coming to Richmond and join the faculty here. Sadly, I am a person who is late for every appointment, despite my very best of intentions, as my friends and students well know. Yet Larry characteristically was always even later than me, a trait in him I naturally appreciated. So I was sitting there in the bar when I heard a roar and I had the chance to watch this tall, cool cat who looked like he would be at home anywhere stroll into the bar and stick out his hand. I had long ago given up riding motorcycles, and I didn't envy Larry that coolness factor, since I had lost several good friends to motorcycling accidents, yet I had to admit that his having a bike made an impression on me. What I didn't know was that at that time it was his only mode of transportation, as he reveals in his poem "Two Trees":

I still had two friends, but they were trees.
One was a box elder, the other a horse chestnut.

I used to stop on my way home & talk to each

Of them. The three of us lived in Utah then, though
We never learned why, me, acer negundo, & the other
One, whose name I can never remember.

"Everything I have done has come to nothing.
It is not even worth mocking," I would tell them,
And then I would look up into their limbs & see

How they were covered in ice. "You do not even
Have a car anymore," one of them would answer.

By the time Larry reached Richmond, he did not even have a motorcycle anymore. And so he walked. I did not know he didn't have a car for a long time, I assumed he had one. And when the weather was particularly bad, when I finally found that out I would offer him a ride, and he almost always refused. He liked the walk, he said. Larry walked from his home in Church Hill down through Shockoe Bottom and up towards his office here on the "academic campus" in Richmond's Fan District, and in the evening he would walk home again.

Now, if you visit the "Hartford Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens" web site, you will discover there is a movement under way to create something called the Wallace Stevens Walk, which "will consist of 13 stone markers installed along the two miles Stevens walked from home to office. Each marker will have one stanza from 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird'" carved on it. I'm not making this up. You will also discover there that already the Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens have laid out the "Wallace Stevens Walking Tour," complete with a map, and highlighted sites along the walk, and each of those sites have been presented online with a photograph accompanied with some text explaining the significance of that place. So here's the map and the site and everything. You can go visit this and find out about this thing yourself. And what you'll find is photographs there, and it says things like "Hartford Accident and Indemnity Building, Stevens worked in executive row on the first floor to the right of the entrance." So I guess you can go stand there and look at the door that he walked through, imagine him walking through the door. There's a photograph of his house. 118 Westerly Terrace. "In 1932 Stevens bought the only house he ever owned for cash, leaving himself house poor at the height of the depression." "Elizabeth Park, one of Stevens' favorite Hartford haunts."

So I thought that we, the friends of Larry Levis—I don't know if there are any enemies of Larry Levis here—if there are, keep quiet, or I hope you're really good enemies of Larry Levis. Maybe we want to create the "Larry Levis Walk." I was trying to figure out what poem we would use to carve into those stones along that walk, all the way down there. What would we put on the stones? And I suppose a good nominee might be "The Poem You Asked For," since the markers would not only have great lines carved into them, but they would be both inexplicable and hilarious, just as Larry would want them to be. So they would have things carved on them like, the first one would say, "My poem would eat nothing." And I'd love to see people just standing there looking at that trying to figure out, What the devil does that mean? The next one would say, "I tried giving it water, but it said no." Any number of things might be on those stones. It's perhaps frightening to think of . . . downtown there might be a stone that the business folk down there would be puzzling over. They'd be reading it, trying to figure out what it meant. "I offered it all my money, my clothes, my car with a full tank. But the poem stared at the floor." And there they would be puzzling over that, but we would have the last laugh, because we know that Larry didn't even have a car.

Most of the time he lived here in Richmond he didn't have a car and even when he had a car, he still didn't have a car. The car that he had, you could see the road through the floor boards, and it was extremely dangerous to ride around in it with him. One of the last things, the last experiences I had with Larry was going and helping him find a tire for that thing. It had no spare, and the first thing that happened I said to him, "Larry you have no spare. Do you have a jack?" "Yes, but I broke it." I said, "Larry how did you break a jack?" He said, "I, my friend Boots whose here with me, he broke it." So I went there in a car I just bought that had a jack in the back and I drove up and we put it under the car and Boots broke that jack, too. Had to go home and get another jack. He was dangerous around cars, just dangerous. So one can imagine also that there might be a stone way down there in Shockoe Bottom from the end of the poem that would say something dangerous like, "And the poem demanded the food, it drank up all the water, beat me and took my money, tore the faded clothes off my back, said, Shit . . ." Of course, we wouldn't want to see what was in front of that stone there down in the bottom. Somebody might take that as a command or something.

But we don't have to wait on the carving of the stones to set up the Larry Levis Walking Tour, just as the friends and enemies of Wallace Stevens have done. So first of all, we could set this up on a website. There's a pictures of the Hibbs Building, where he suffered through the bad air. What kind of a little explanation of the Hibbs Building could we possibly put there? The Hibbs Building, which won awards from architects as the first building in Richmond that should be torn down. And then the various sites along the way, including Bell's Tavern, where he wrote quite a few poems, the little plaque for Bell's Tavern, and I'll get to that again in just a minute. Perhaps one of the sites that would be memorialized would be the street that he lived on, and we'd put a plaque up there where he was mugged.

When Larry was mugged he had no cash on him—and we'd have to find a way to carve all this on the stone, maybe, if we put a stone up there—he had no cash on him, so he offered to write the mugger a check. And then maybe we would put another plaque up outside the Hill Café. That would be the real joke on the mugger, because Larry probably would never have ratted him out to the police. He probably would have written him a check, and he would have kept quiet about it. Unfortunately for the mugger, as everyone in the Hill Café who loved Larry, he was a wonderful customer there, but they all knew that he wrote nothing but bad checks. Perhaps we would then put a plaque outside of his house in Church Hill, the one that he loved so much. He loved it because it was so old. And he loved the place, the spirit in the place, and Larry Levis actually really did enjoy his time in Richmond and enjoyed living here. It was one of the things that I went and told his family after his death, about all the things that he enjoyed about living in Richmond, including his walks back and forth from way up here to way out there in Church Hill.

Last year I read to you, if any of you came last year, from the essay, "Bell's Tavern" that he had written about that place down in the Shockoe Bottom which you can find there underneath all the expressway overpasses and everything. Kind of a ridiculous place, really, something that you would think would be an inspiration for anything but poetry. And here is a poem that he wrote, previously unpublished poem, so . . . one of the things I always try to offer to people who come to these readings every year, this event every year, is something you might not get any other way than coming to this event. An unpublished poem by Larry Levis, called "The Space."

The truth is, the whispered shape of his death
       Is too loud to hear.
It's in the sound of traffic overhead,
       Like a saw mill's whir
The moment after the lumber passes through it,
       Changes into time, into
Charred houses where the linen was stripped
       From beds & lace from
Dresses to bandage time together & hold it still
       For one more moment.
It began as no more than a joke with one wing
       That flew in circles
Through the smoke & talk of infinity assembled
       In Bell's Tavern.
Look around. There's nothing left of it.
       The wind leans
Against the girders, flange after gray green flange
       That frames what's left,
A hush of space beneath a freeway overpass,
       Singed air & asphalt where
You can trace a pattern in the shattered glass
       Of a green bottle
Or read a destiny in spit before it dries,
       Or bear witness
To a drunk guy lurching to a stop
       As if to confer
With a god who swirls around him in a windblown
       Gust of trash,
Slow waltz of grit when the body isn't there,
       Flesh becoming pine
And a water that tastes like leather. Who
       Would ever have thought
The body could be poured? Like anything else?
       Who would have supposed
The body pouring out of the body in the stench
       Of resurrection?
One whiff of it & you wouldn't be able ever again
       To live with yourself.
You'd live with it as though it were someone else.
       A woman I once knew
Asked a gravedigger about exhuming remains, moving
       The dead from one place
To another. The gravedigger was neither old nor
       Young. He'd just been out
Of work too long. It was the only job he could get,
       He said. He had intended
To move on after a few months, but then. . . . He was
       Drinking a coke, & resting.
"What's in the coffins," she asked him, "when, you know . . .
       You open them up?"
He looked at her briefly, "Just hair," he answered,
       "Just miles & miles of hair."
If the soul is just the story that it tells, then
       Did his answer, his smile,
The way he took his comb out of his back pocket
       And slicked his hair back,
Spite the soul with something like the soul?
       And who really gives a shit?
Except those who, like children who hope the story
       Never ends, & gather
To watch a fermented body pouring from a chalice,
       Or the boy who wished
To stay awake forever, & who, with matches & a spoon,
       After a while found a way
To do just that. They found him, face white & thin,
       Almost, as a communion host,
Dead in a little swanboat in the park, one foot dangling
       In the water of the pond.
My account of him is not a cautionary tale. As far
       As I'm concerned, he made it.
I could feel Death in that space where Booth, who was,
       As far as anyone can tell,
A space himself, or avenging angel, or absence, planned
       The assassination with two friends.
And so what if I could? The drunk was talking soundlessly
       And the traffic went on
Overhead. I rubbed my hand across my eyes as if
       To free them from what
Fettered them like a hawk's in a king's hand
       And when I opened them
A second later, the drunk was gone. The king was dead.
       I could see the nothing in
The space it ruled. Beside it there a small plaque
       Almost illegible, commemorating
The wrong thing, the recruitment of soldiers, sailors,
       Shiftless drunks, debtors,
Guys out of work, who fought the War of 1812, & then
       The Mexican War, & then. . . .
But after that, the meadows turned to blood. What
       Happened after that was genocide.


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.
The Self has no story. It is a sound. It scrapes
Against all things. He lets the rake do all
The talking now, the raked walk keeps the stars
From blowing out in the night sky
Above his house. It isn't music that he hears:
The sore screech of the wheel in the addict's voice,
Who, having kicked it, becomes the quiet shape
The shadow of his body makes. A rhythm
Only, 2/4 time, without a melody, the flesh
A lighter gray around the scar the stitches left.
Sore screech of the wheel that never rests,
Thin girl at her loom. Thin girl at her loom.

It's my pleasure also now to introduce Susan Aizenberg, whose book Muse was a finalist in the Crab Orchard Award Series in poetry and therefore was published by Southern Illinois University Press. While that's Ms. Aizenberg's first full-length collection, she is also the author of a chapbook of poems called Peru, and she is also the co-editor with Erin Belieu of The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in [journals] all across the country, and without further delay, I would like to introduce you to someone I'm looking forward to hear read very much, Susan Aizenberg.

Susan Aizenberg

Thank you. Thank you very much. It's really nice to be here. I want to thank everyone for their hospitality. I want to thank the Levis family, the MFA committee, Mary, Greg, David, everybody associated with VCU for this. It's a wonderful thing to have your work published to begin with, and then to be recognized in this way is just thrilling. Its particularly thrilling for me because although I did not know Larry Levis, unfortunately never even had the opportunity to hear him read, I have known his work for over twenty years, and he has long been one of my favorite poets. And to have my work associated with his name in this way is truly an honor.

I wanted to start by reading a poem of his. It's actually one of my favorites of his. Some of you may remember, and I think this was shortly after his death, Robert Pinsky was then poet laureate, and he had this poetry project where he was having people all across America record poems, favorite poems—maybe some you did that here—and I read this poem for that. So I wanted to read it again tonight. Its called "The Quilt." And it has an epigraph from Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady which reads, "He had stopped believing in the goodness of the world."

["The Quilt," by Larry Levis, from Winter Stars, published 1985 by the University of Pittsburgh Press.]

It's a weird thing with a first collection. It represents, I think for most people, it certainly does for me, a long time period of work, and so there's a lot of poems in a first collection that you really just want to disown. You know, they're so old and you just look at them and say, "What were you thinking?" And just out of some sort of perverse thing tonight I thought I'd start with a couple of old poems. This is one of the first poems in terms of time in this book, and it's called, "The Uses of Metaphor." And it's a poem that I wrote after I read an Amnesty International report on torture, and I was very struck by a section of that that talked about the jargon that torturers use. There are actually professional torturers—that's their job—they get up in the morning and they go and they do these horrible things—and like most people in specialized fields, they have a jargon, and it's a real perversion of the purpose of metaphor in my view. The poem's called "The Uses of Metaphor."

["The Uses of Metaphor," by Susan Aizenberg, from Muse, published 2002 by Southern Illinois University Press.]

This one is called "Art," and it carries an epigraph from a wonderful poet, Adam Zagajewski which reads, "Ordinary isn't possible anymore."

["Art," by Susan Aizenberg, from Muse, published 2002 by Southern Illinois University Press.]

Okay, one more of these sort of older ones. A very good friend of mine was adopted as an infant, and when she was turning thirty she tried to find out about her birth mother and father. And I was sort of helping her research this, and we found out a few things. She was born out in west Nebraska. She had been named Helen, although that's not her name, the name she grew up with. And her mother was a high school girl, she didn't know much about her father. The adoption agency, interestingly enough, had her mother fill out this little questionnaire of her interests and things, and one of them was writing. And my friend is a poet, so that was pretty interesting. But she didn't find out much more than that. And in the course of helping her research this, I read a lot about adoption, and among the books that I read was a very good one by a woman named Jan L. Waldron called Giving Away Simone. And in her book Waldron talks about the fact that most of us have some kind of family story about the day we were born, you know, the crazy thing your father did or how the car almost didn't get there on time, you know it's kind of family mythology. But people who are adopted in infancy don't have those stories, and so for my friend's thirtieth birthday I decided that I would take the prerogative of those of us who live in our head and make up that story for her. So this poem is about that. It carries an epigraph from Waldron's book which reads, "Adoptees do not have the luxury of envisioning their celebrated births. They often know nothing of their debuts." And the poem is called "Debut: Late Lines for Thirtieth Birthday."

["Debut: Late Lines for Thirtieth Birthday," by Susan Aizenberg, from Muse, published 2002 by Southern Illinois University Press.]

Okay, some relatively newer things. This one's called "Kiss," and I wrote this after seeing the film First Knight several years ago. Some of you may have seen it, it was another retelling of the Camelot legend, which is a legend that I have always found fascinating. I always felt Guinevere got a bad rap. And the way the film is set up, if you haven't seen it, is early on Lancelot tries to kiss Guinevere and she says, "No, no, I'm promised to Arthur. I can't kiss you." Even though she clearly wants to. And he says to her, "Okay I'm not going to ask you again, I'm going to wait until you ask me." And a large part of the movie is we are all indeed waiting for her to ask him, which she does. So this is partly about that, and it's called "Kiss."

["Kiss," by Susan Aizenberg, from Muse, published 2002 by Southern Illinois University Press.]

The title of my book, Muse, is about the life of Vivian Eliot, who, probably as most of you know, was T.S. Eliot's first wife and it requires just a little bit of introduction. Vivian Eliot was historically known as sort of the crazy woman that made the poor genius crazy until he put her away. She was vilified. Even the great feminist Virginia Woolf called her "the bag of ferrets around Eliot's neck." And towards the end of her life, Eliot and her brother did, in fact, commit her, stripped her of everything, although she was not mentally ill. And she died in an institution. For years there was nothing about her except these sort of horrible stories in Eliot biographies and tales of the Bloomsbury group. There is a biography now, which came out, I think, last year, so I haven't read it yet. But something did finally come out. But I was interested in her because I just couldn't understand why this woman elicited such loathing from all these people. And finally her brother at the end of his life was overcome with guilt because he knew she should not have been committed, and he told her story to a playwright who then wrote a play, I believe the playwright's name was Michael Hastings. That play became the movie Tom and Viv, that some of you may have seen. For those of you who haven't seen it or don't know much about her life, what we can tell about what was wrong with her was that she had some sort of terrible physical problem from adolescence that had her in constant pain. And the treatment for the pain at that time was to dose her daily with morphine, ether, and alcohol. So she behaved badly often. This was also shrouded in shame at the time. At any rate, this poem is about her. It's in four short sections. This first section is actually just a grouping of quotes, things actually written about her, and it begins with two epigraphs. The first is from Vivian's brother Maurice Haigh-Wood, who says, "Tom's Bloomsbury bunch called her the river girl. They were afraid of her." And then Eliot said of her, "She has everything to give that I want and she gives it." The first section is called "River Girl: A Litany."

[From "Muse," by Susan Aizenberg, from Muse, published 2002 by Southern Illinois University Press.]

The second section is set in April, 1905, when Vivian would have been about sixteen or so and which is when they probably started her on these drugs. And it's called "Blue-Bell Woods."

[From "Muse," by Susan Aizenberg, from Muse, published 2002 by Southern Illinois University Press.]

"Three: Ward and Chancery: What They Took From Her."

[From "Muse," by Susan Aizenberg, from Muse, published 2002 by Southern Illinois University Press.]

This is the last section, in which Vivian herself speaks. It's set in January in 1947, which was when she died at Northumberland house, which is the asylum to which she was committed. It's called "The Rim."

[From "Muse," by Susan Aizenberg, from Muse, published 2002 by Southern Illinois University Press.]

Just a couple more. This is another one in short sections, it's called, "Three Poems for Judy," this is in memory of my sister-in-law who died several years ago, quite young from cancer. The first section is called "First Sign."

["First Sign," by Susan Aizenberg, from Muse, published 2002 by Southern Illinois University Press.]

The second section carries an epigraph from Susan Sontag's book Illness as Metaphor which reads, "In cancer non-intelligent cells are multiplying and you are being replaced by the non-you. Immunologists class the body's cancer cells as 'nonself.'" And this section is called "The Non-Self: Some Things She Said to Me."

["The Non-Self: Some Things She Said to Me," by Susan Aizenberg, from Muse, published 2002 by Southern Illinois University Press.]

The last section is called "Meeting the Angel" and refers to the angel of death. I discovered that virtually every religion, every culture, has a belief of some kind in an angel of death, and they're quite varied. I myself am usually not one who puts much stock in angels and spirits and that sort of thing. But going through this with my sister-in-law I did, in fact, think I met the angel. That's what this is about.

["Meeting the Angel," by Susan Aizenberg, from Muse, published 2002 by Southern Illinois University Press.]

Okay, I think I'll just read two more. This is actually a new one that came out after the book, and it's about Truman Capote. As most of you likely know, Truman Capote, among his other wonderful work, wrote a really breakthrough book, the first so-called nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood, about a murder that occurred in Holcomb, Kansas. And he spent a long time working on this book, it just consumed him. And he had it all done—he went to Europe, finished it—and he had it all done except for the ending, and he couldn't write the ending because the murderers were on death row appealing their execution. And so he had to wait for them to either be executed or for the execution to be, you know, whatever you call it, not executed, just kept in prison, before he could end the book. And of course he had gotten to know these men pretty well. And he had very conflicting feelings about this. He couldn't work on anything else and he couldn't finish his book and he knew what the book was going to be. I read this poem recently in Omaha, which is where I'm from, and when I got done the most amazing thing happened. A woman came up to me and said that she had grown up in Holcomb, Kansas, and known the Clutter family, who are the family that were killed, and I said, "Oh, you know, gee, I hope nothing in this poem offended you or anything." And she was fine, but it was very strange. At any rate he came back from Europe, he was living in Brooklyn and waiting, going crazy, not being able to finish this book and, this imagines him there. It's called "Capote in Brooklyn: Spring 1963."

["Capote in Brooklyn: Spring 1963," by Susan Aizenberg, published in Hotel Amerika, Vol. 1, No, 2, Spring 2003.]

I actually grew up in New York, although I've lived a lot of places and lived in the mid-west for a long time now, but I'm going to close with a New York City poem. It's called "L'Heure Bleue."

["L'Heure Bleue," by Susan Aizenberg, from Muse, published 2002 by Southern Illinois University Press.]

Thank you very much.  

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