Blackbird an online journal of literature and the arts Fall 2007  Vol. 6 No. 2


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Terry Oggel

Good evening.  I’m Terry Oggel, Chair of the English department here at VCU. Welcome to the Tenth Annual Levis Prize reading, given by this year’s winner, Joshua Weiner, for his collection From the Book of Giants, published by The University of Chicago Press. The judges come from our English department faculty and our MFA Program in Creative Writing. Recipients receive an honorarium and are brought to Richmond to present this public reading in celebration of the award.

The roll call of previous prize-winners is getting to be quite long: Ron Slate, for The Incentive of the Maggot; Spencer Reece for The Clerk's Tale, David Daniel for Seven-Star Bird, Susan Aizenberg for Muse, Steve Scafidi for Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer, Nick Flynn for Some Ether, Joel Brouwer for Exactly What Happened, Sandra Alcosser for Except by Nature, and Belle Waring for Dark Blonde.

This annual honor in Larry’s name goes to the author of the best first or second book of poetry published in the previous calendar year. It’s hard to believe that this is the tenth award.  Considering the volatility and instability of today’s world, ten years constitutes a tradition.  The volatility of the world was what Larry’s poetry confronted—and by that means, mediated fractured experience.

With this award, we remember a distinguished poet, essayist, teacher, scholar, and above all, mentor for many of us in the department. Larry was our colleague until his untimely death in 1996.

Along with Larry himself, we are pleased to recognize Larry’s family—mother Carol, brother Kent, and sister Sheila—whose continued generous support makes possible this yearly highlight in the life of our department.  In that vein, I commend the selection committee for choosing such a deserving winner and to thank Joshua Weiner for joining us to share his poetry with us.  An important tradition can thus continue . . . .

Greg Donovan
Each year at the Levis Prize reading, it’s my privilege to evoke the memory of Larry Levis and to invoke his spirit.  I’m happy to say that he was both my colleague and my friend—and I know for certain that he was my friend, because he was never afraid to borrow money from me.  And he almost always paid it back.  In the early years of this memorial evening, it was at times painful, though cathartic, to tell anecdotes and to call back memories of a remarkable person and a terrific writer who was missed by everyone who knew him. Now, though he is still missed, of course, there is perhaps more joy in this evening as we remember him, since we can take pleasure in seeing that his poetry continues to grow in popularity and influence, especially among young American writers, many of whom never had the opportunity to know him personally.    

Among the many that might be, there are two things that are guaranteed to be great equalizers, to bring us all into a state of humility and awe: death, and stars. Looking at the stars, especially in winter when our vision of them is sharpest, is necessarily an encounter with mortality and immortality, making eye contact with light pouring down from a star already dead for a million years, facing the vast mythic lives of the deathless gods mankind has projected onto the milky, shadowy shapes of the night sky. We are—all of us and each of us—unimportant as we look out at the stars, made aware that we are riding around on a rock traveling through a wearisome territory so vast that even if we had many hundreds of lifetimes to spend, we could not escape the vicinity of our own galaxy.  Inescapably, then, we long ago populated that sky with many godlike figures, and later, with the singular figure many among us think of as a father, and for many of us, looking up into the night is a gaze into the coils of the mind of the Almighty, the great father in the sky.

As it was for Larry Levis, when I was a small boy attempting to survive the mind-freezing 1950s, all fathers were gods, especially to sons. Like the mythic God in the sky, they were distant, powerful, all-knowing and mostly silent. They didn’t say much at all, those Gary Cooper heroes of the fifties Westerns and combat films. The sons of these fathers were expected to say very little back to them as well, their part of an unspoken agreement.  The sons were expected to know what the fathers were thinking without ever hearing them say so. The appalling dust and smoke of the Great Depression and the Second World War still hung in the air and choked off the words. Violence, when it occurred, was swift and targeted: violence still made sense. Or at least that’s what our parents believed, and they acted on those beliefs, which were deeply held.

In the middle of his life’s way, Larry Levis published a collection of poems that is an examination of the coils of his own mind’s journey.  The book had been composed, he explains in the “Notes” section, from a beginning in Iowa in 1980 to a completion in Bucharest in 1983.  The arrangement of the poems in the book is roughly chronological, according to the order of their composition, and thus it provides a particular kind of poetic autobiography. The title poem of the book is “Winter Stars,” and that title itself accomplishes a great deal in the achievement of meaning in the poem and in the book, suggesting, as I have already begun to suggest, that it is about taking the long view as well as about clear vision, the kind of thinking and looking one performs while gazing at stars in winter, which has something in common with looking at the blank reality of erasure and loss, such as a father’s increasing absence of memory, or his painful absence in memory, absences Levis seeks to fight against, as poet and as son.

The primary setting of “Winter Stars” is the “ranch” in the central valley of California where Larry Levis grew up—not a ranch with cattle, but a house with a barn and a few sheds for machinery, a house with a back porch where one afternoon after his death I sat with Larry’s mother, looking out at the orchards and vineyards that surrounded us.  The secondary setting for the poem is a back yard in Columbia, Missouri, from which the narrator looks up at the stars, and looks back at his childhood in the vineyards.     

In an essay titled “Mock Mockers After That” (the title is a phrase from a poem by William Butler Yeats), Larry Levis wrote,

The elegy always involved another, and the poet, working in his elegy toward what he expects to be catharsis and release, sometimes finds them only at the cost of being accused and reprimanded by the being whom he has turned into a figure, into a literary convention which, by its own definition, has little alternative but to falsify the life and death it preys upon.

One way to understand the several implications in that opening phrase of that passage (the “elegy always involved another”) is to remember that every elegy is also an elegy for the poet writing it.  That was especially the case for Levis, and perhaps in a sense all of his poems are elegies for himself, a realization that he emphasized rather pointedly and sometimes sardonically in his last book. The self-interrogation involved in questioning the betrayals to which words almost always lead, and in rooting out the sort of easy affirmations that are in fact lies, was a manner of interior investigation that Levis characteristically applied, and his poem “Winter Stars” is one of those ruthlessly honest yet awestruck quests and questionings that makes sense—coldly accurate yet loving sense—of an encounter with death and stars,  fathers and sons:                                       

Winter Stars

My father once broke a man’s hand
Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deer tractor. The man,
Ruben Vasquez, wanted to kill his own father
With a sharpened fruit knife, and he held
The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first
Two fingers, so it could slash
Horizontally, & with surprising grace,
Across a throat. It was like a glinting beak in a hand,
And, for a moment, the light held still
On those vines. When it was over,
My father simply went in & ate lunch, & then, as always,
Lay alone in the dark, listening to music.
He never mentioned it.

I never understood how anyone could risk his life,
Then listen to Vivaldi.

Sometimes, I go out into this yard at night,
And stare through the wet branches of an oak
In winter, & realize I am looking at the stars
Again. A thin haze of them, shining
And persisting.

It used to make me feel lighter, looking up at them.
In California, that light was closer.
In a California no one will ever see again,
My father is beginning to die. Something
Inside him is slowly taking back
Every word it ever gave him.
Now, if we try to talk, I watch my father
Search for a lost syllable as if it might
Solve everything, & though he can’t remember, now,
The word for it, he is ashamed…
If you can think of the mind as a place continually
Visited, a whole city placed behind
The eyes, & shining, I can imagine, now, its end—
As when the lights go off, one by one,
In a hotel at night, until at last
All of the travelers will be asleep, or until
Even the thin glow from the lobby is a kind
Of sleep; & while the woman behind the desk
Is applying more lacquer to her nails,
You can almost believe that elevator,
As it ascends, must open upon starlight.

I stand out on the street, & do not go in.
That was our agreement, at my birth.

And for years I believed
That what went unsaid between us became empty,
And pure, like starlight, & that it persisted.

I got it all wrong.
I wound up believing in words the way a scientist
Believes in carbon, after death.

Tonight, I’m talking to you, father, although
It is quiet here in the Midwest, where a small wind,
The size of a wrist, wakes the cold again—
Which may be all that’s left of you & me.

When I left home at seventeen, I left for good.

That pale haze of stars goes on & on,
Like laughter that has found a final, silent shape
On a black sky. It means everything
It cannot say. Look, it’s empty out there, & cold.
Cold enough to reconcile
Even a father, even a son.  

(reprinted by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press)

David Wojahn
It’s a great pleasure to welcome you tonight to our reading by Joshua Weiner. This is, as you’ve already heard from Terry and from Greg, the tenth anniversary of the Larry Levis Reading Prize, and I think it’s important to add that the Levis Prize isn’t simply designed to honor a distinguished first or second book of poetry published in the previous year; it’s also designed to recognize a book which in one way or another honors the aesthetic legacy of Larry Levis, whose importance as a poet continues to grow—there are very few other poets of the past decades who are able to match the range, nerviness and ambition of Larry Levis, and there are surprisingly (and sadly) few who share his desire to mix the terrible privacy that is so often a part of the writing process with the need to involve that privacy with the world, and the world’s injustice.

Joshua Weiner’s From the Book of Giants shows us that he is one of that rare breed. In contrast to so many books of poetry, where we see the writer hitting upon a form, a persona, a formula that then gets replicated throughout the book like so many sausages, From the Book of Giants is a collection that offers us a dizzying array of approaches, ranging from big prosy narratives to poems of the most rigorous formal precision. He offers this variety not because he wants to show us how easy it is for him to write the tour de force—it’s more because, as that car insurance commercial puts it, “life comes at you fast,” and the pressures and the mysteries and the paradoxes of contemporary existence seem to demand that a good poet must display every tool at his or her disposal if those challenges are to be met. You confront those challenges not by figuring out what the current period style happens to be, but by developing a style that is always protean but which is also—and this is the hardest part—always urgent.

From the Book of Giants shows us a writer who is in the process of arriving at such a style, and that style permits him to move effortlessly between the micro and the macro, between domestic life—which is complex enough in its own right —and public life. This is a book which has some of the most wise and tender poems about child rearing that I know of in recent poetry, but it also visits such events as the Madrid train bombings, the murder of a political activist by the Berkeley police, and a White House gathering to honor Little League players, one of whom happens to be the poet’s son. The scope of this book is staggering, and it brings with it the promise of an important career.

   Joshua Weiner holds a PhD from the University of California and is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland. He has already garnered a distinguished array of awards and honors—including a Whiting Fellowship, the Rome Fellowship from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress. His poems have appeared in journals such as Poetry, Triquarterly, The Yale Review, The Nation, and The New York Review of Books. I’m very pleased to introduce you tonight to Joshua Weiner.

Joshua Weiner
Thanks. It’s an incredible honor to be here to receive this award. Larry Levis is a poet who I came to—not until 2001—when another poet thrust the book Elegy, the book constructed by Phil Levine, into my hands. It was just such a staggering work. From there, I went backwards. It’s a book that I’ve absorbed in some fundamental and important way, and it’s a book I’ve taught. So, to be invited to come down here on this occasion is overwhelming. I’m going to read poems From the Book of Giants and then some new work.

I want to say, too, before I start, that learning how this prize is adjudicated—that it includes the participation of the graduate students in the MFA program here—adds a real distinction to the prize. I begin with thanks and with this poem that opens the book, “Bocca della Verita”—“The Mouth of Truth”—which in this case is an ancient Roman drain cover in the shape of a marble disk and representing a human face. It was believed the open mouth would close on the hand of any perjurer who placed it inside. The disk now hangs on the wall of a church in Rome and is a popular tourist stop. In photo opportunities, people put a hand in the mouth and take their picture. When I saw the Mouth of Truth on that wall in that church it said something to me, and this is what I heard it say:

[“Bocca della Verita,” by Joshua Weiner, from From the Book of Giants, published 2006 by The University of Chicago Press.]

This next one came about through the convergence of three kinds of details I happened upon. One is very personal: it was an object that a friend who had gone to India and returned with and presented to my son, Gus, when he was just, you know, a few weeks old. And it was an embroidered parrot, and it hung over his changing table—and I was spending a lot of time at that table. That parrot started to speak to me as well. The other thing is that people used to ask me whether my son Gus’s name was short for anything, and I would say that it was short for asparagus. The third thing is when I learned that the area in New York around where the Twin Towers fell was being referred to as “the frozen zone,” which to me sounded like a kind of ice-cream concession stand in a student union, or something like that. You know, let’s go down to the Frozen Zone and get a cone.

[“Hanging Mobile,” by Joshua Weiner, from From the Book of Giants, published 2006 by The University of Chicago Press.]

[“Trampoline,” by Joshua Weiner, from From the Book of Giants, published 2006 by The University of Chicago Press.]

[“Games for Someone,” by Joshua Weiner, from From the Book of Giants, published 2006 by The University of Chicago Press.]

[“The Bed,” by Joshua Weiner, from From the Book of Giants, published 2006 by The University of Chicago Press.]

This is called “Weegee: Coney Island Beach after Midnight.” It’s in the voice of the great photographer, photojournalist, Weegee. If you don’t know the name, you would recognize the images—some of the really great photojournalist images of twentieth  century America were taken by Weegee. The movie audience with the 3-D glasses on, when all you see is them: that’s Weegee. One of the things Weegee liked to do was take his camera and go out onto the beach, Coney Island at midnight, and take pictures of people doing stuff out there. This poem was inspired by a particular image that appears in Weegee’s great book, Naked City, which was published in the forties. It’s in his voice, but the poem steals a stanza from Hardy—and I’m not sure how Weegee’s voice gets into Hardy, but when I found the stanza by Hardy, I knew that it was the shape of this very American, hardboiled urban voice of Weegee’s. And it sounds like this:

Weegee: Coney Island Beach after Midnight

No moon is good. I take off my shoes
And go silently so as not to lose
The shot I know is lurking there—
            American made
            Is my stock-in-trade,
As whatever’s in the frame I choose,
I chose, though it’s like I wasn’t there.

What’s out there? Why, sweethearts in love
Making love out where it’s dark enough.
I wouldn’t disturb them for the world.
             Each kiss, what’s left
             Between each breath—
Hard work, but the kind that makes you laugh.
There goes a match. What’s that I heard?

There, in the lifeguard station lookout,
Lovers exhausting each other’s doubt.
I’ll catch them fast without a flash:
            To make it clear
            How they appear
Like drags inhaling their way to ash,
Or a mouth getting ready to shout . . .

Too dark to have used the range finder there,
It’s like scooping yourself, your feeling, where
Trying to find the way, you’re caught
            (The frame in which
            Your subjects twitch)
Alive, exposed, and as if too near:
The lens opens and you take the shot.

Why they were up there near the sky
I thought I’d see as the fluid primed
The image into a final shape;
            But all I found
            Was a kind of sound,
A woman up there like a lie,
Alone and bewildered after the rape.

You can read the “Lifeguard Only” sign
She leans against. There’s no clear line
Between her hair and where the night
             Begins to fan
             Out in a plan
Expanding further than stars can shine,
And outside my frame to make it right.

What did she choose, which choice was deferred
As she waited for the bus without a word
No matter where she sat to wait?
             All that is there:
             The apparent stare
Out to the wave that can’t be heard
That she readies herself to contemplate. 

(reprinted by permission of University of Chicago Press)

I was living in Rome for a year, and I had a chance to travel around, and one of the places I went to was the ancient site of Herculaneum, outside the environs of Naples. And one of the things I found there was a postcard that I liked very much. I purchased it with the intention of sending it to a friend, the poet Thom Gunn, but he died before I could mail it. This poem’s called “Postcard to Thom.”

[“Postcard to Thom,” by Joshua Weiner, from From the Book of Giants, published 2006 by The University of Chicago Press.]

This one is a kind of companion; it’s called “Found Letter.” In the first line I address someone else named Josh.

[“Found Letter,” by Joshua Weiner, from From the Book of Giants, published 2006 by The University of Chicago Press.]

“The hand holding tight the line” you can hear as a line about the poetic line, too. This next poem is one in which I was seeking to let out the poetic line further than I ever had before. And it’s the poem that has Larry Levis’s breath in it. Not just at the level of line, but in something of how I discovered its structure as well, thinking of those long, unspooling poems in Elegy, the way that he built a world out of surprising returns, calls  and responses. It’s called “Vita Nuova.” It’s the poem David mentioned that takes place in Berkeley, California.

Vita Nuova

They called him the Polka Dot Man
—so I also picked up the custom—
but what did he call himself?

This was Berkeley, the early nineties;
The Movement hadn’t completely died,
though threatened by tides of cappuccino foam and hair conditioner.
There were still protests, of course—communist, animal rights,
anti-apartheid, pro-Palestinian rallies, and rallies
against the Gulf War—
                                    as before, as now.

But the merchants wanted Telegraph Avenue
—“the interface of town and gown”—
cleaned up, however not too clean:
property should be safe; customers should not
feel threatened—though a certain amount
of general non-standard behavior
was good for business—historical, identifying, in its own way
consumable.  The Avenue felt the pressure,
social programs giving way to corporate crackdowns,
as UC executed its plan to retake People’s Park
by planting flowers and volleybally nets:
with their jockstrap arsenal,
frat boys would flush out the undesirables;
the police would intensify a routine
of breaking down the “free” bins
in which people left discarded clothes for the people in the park;
people would then rebuild the bins (though that wasn’t
part of the plan) and the police would tear them down
to find them later rebuilt.
                                         The situation, as they say, escalated.
And people—especially the people in the park—
eventually felt called to action
as if on a grid of legendary actions, where all the moves
were known, yet given life
in the new patterns unfolding.

A woman with a machete and a knife, an anarchist,
even broke into the chancellor’s mansion with a blowtorch
and a questionable cop shot her in the back and in the heart.
This was 1992; people gathered for that one,
even some poets, and rioted (but without
looting: it was a protest). And People’s Park
—where she shared food and shelter
and fought the University—was renamed
after her.  But it never stuck; it’s still
People’s Park, the people named it
                                                          and custom kept it.

Her name was Rosebud Abigail Denovo;
her parents named her Laura, but she broke
that custom, renamed herself, and fled
the institution. The cops thought she was
crazy.  They knew she had a history,
or they didn’t know, that’s why they shot her,
or why they didn’t
not shoot her. (“There was no opportunity
to utilize the dog.”) Her friends didn’t think so,
(“Why didn’t they flush her out with gas?”)
that she was on the edge, though one friend found her
eating pieces of glass for breakfast,
upset he no longer wished
to make bombs.
                          But the best poet—he said,
“If she had broken into my home with a machete
I’d have shot her too.” He knew
better than anyone
how to make a rhyme
sound wholly natural,
and he kept the hell away
from graduate students.

In the end, her “excessive force”
lost to the cop’s, the confusion
of what happened
now part of the public record:
Denovo, Rosebud. Of the new, soon to flower
—in her desperation and despair,
her anger, her desire to belong
somewhere, her sense of being with others,
of belonging to her commitment, her steady
Pepsi-and-candy-bar diet, sleep deprived
and constantly harassed by the law,
by the streets she fled to and that led her
to the Park she fought for,
where she lived at the center
of a web, the strands of a practical ideal (let people be
in the Park) dissolving in the heat
of her senseless martrydom
as though a rose should shut and be bud again—

But this isn’t
a political poem, nor a Romantic dream.
Because the Polka Dot Man
paid no attention, as before, as then, in 1992;
he was a life-artist, or something, and his name—
the name that custom gave him—
was not a mystery, nor an allegory,
though he wore his origins
like a coat of arms: sweat suits with perfect
polka dots painted on them, upper body
and lower, polka dots of every color, every size.
He was lean, roughly handsome, with a squint
like Clint Eastwood; and he wore a sun visor
like Clint Eastwood on the golfing green, and sometimes
even carried an umbrella open against the sun,
its indisputable midday authority.

If it rained, he kept the umbrella closed
and stayed home, wherever that was.
Under the sun, though,
he would sometimes sleep in the plaza between Wheeler Hall and Dwinelle,
his body laid out in the warmth, on the hot stones,
with his head cool enough under the umbrella
he opened on the ground.
                                         Awake, he’d pace

the square patterns of the inlaid plaza brickwork,
careful to keep on a course of straight lines
and ninety-degree angles, which he otherwise
improvised on the legendary grid—where to turn, when
to continue on the straight path
until it was time to turn.
So that his work, you could say,
was to wear a suit of circles
and trace a path of squares.

He carried himself erect, his dignified gait
crisp, militant even, expressing
delineated intention, but visibly open
to possibility as well. He had style
and something like a subject, a commitment,
his mode; yet one was never quite sure
how he would do it, what path he would choose,
as he chose it, for he did not
know himself. That was his pleasure
at the center of repose. He was never
seen anywhere other
than the plaza, at work
in the web of his tracings, or asleep.
He wouldn’t talk to anyone,
except girls; but from a distance
he appeared capable of great charm,
I could see he possessed what you’d call
a winning smile, of welcoming white teeth.
His program was working, no question,
but what was it?

This went on for years.

                                    In the meantime
I was studying, trying to learn
how to write a line and how to make
a turn, when to circle back, and all
the girls I talked to wore black
and understood the paradigm
of the political unconscious,
and I was getting nowhere.

I was reading Robert Duncan
to open the chain of rhyme
in search of new structures,
a new correspondence for ancient responsibilities;

but I was like an open sheet
in a closed book, a human
faculty without sufficient will . . .

At some point I noticed his polka dots
were changing, opening up
from the center, as if from a gradually
increasing centrifugal force
felt within each dot, as if some kind
of internal revolution were gaining speed.
Each week, a new suit, with a new set of dots
opening further, swirling, spiraling,
as he edged week by week from the center of Sproul Plaza
towards the busy sidewalk crowded with hungry
students forming lines in front of food stalls,
circling around themselves, negotiating the crowd
they were a part of: as if he too
were at the center of a world represented
by a dot, and by virtue of some force, pulled
to the perimeter and yearning
beyond it: till the circles undid
themselves entirely, becoming sets of lines,
some even parallel lines
like equal signs
between shapes, or stories, the present
in correspondence with a future
he was working out, from the center, where he remained
isolated and in control, to the margin,
where people lived more fully
engaged with each other
in the customary happiness of eating modestly and joking around,
the bright colors and patterns of their clothes
all mixing together in the loose weave of the sidewalk.

(This must be a political poem.)

one day, he appeared in a blank suit,
white, without dots or swirls or lines, completely
erased of its former signs; he seemed tenuous
at first, confronting the open
sheet of his own being; then his posture
took the shape of interest, enjoyment, as he spent
the afternoon mingling in the crowded street
bordering the campus; and the next day
he disappeared, as if the rose
should pluck herself
                                 and float away on the current.

No public record of such an act exists,
this private integration, a re-seeding
into the public campo we call the city, in which he calls himself
by the name he’s now known, though none of us
knew it, who saw him each week on his invented stage—

the new life, in flower, having
turned with the existential seasons . . .
Until a few months later
I ran into him working
downtown at the recycling
center: from the outside,
looking through the glass door,
I caught his eye, and he shot back
a look of aloof amusement: it was no big deal,
the new life here, returning redemptions
to a point of origin.
He seemed decked out in a suit
of modest defiance, I refúse
your réfuse, though he leisurely made for the door.
As if I stood in a crowd, waiting
to throw it all away
in the right colored bins, my courtesy and patience
rendered me absurd, out of line. It was my turn
to move, but time
moved instead; and I was still standing there
when, with a curt nod, he opened the door and said,
“Whose permission are you waiting for?”  

(reprinted by permission of University of Chicago Press)

I’m going to end with two new poems. Someone was asking me what it’s like to live in Washington, DC. It’s really weird. The occasion of this poem was a kind of exhibition that was hosted in DC at the Kennedy Center—an exhibition brought over from Beijing.

[“Kennedy Center,” unpublished.]

On with this one. A little bit lighter in its aperture. It’s called “Rock Creek.”

[“Rock Creek,” unpublished.]

Thank you.   end of text

   Contributor’s notes

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