TENTH ANNUAL LEVIS PRIZE READING
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 . . . .
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,
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:
My father once broke a man’s hand
I never understood how anyone could risk his life,
Sometimes, I go out into this yard at night,
It used to make me feel lighter, looking up at them.
I stand out on the street, & do not go in.
And for years I believed
I got it all wrong.
Tonight, I’m talking to you, father, although
When I left home at seventeen, I left for good.
That pale haze of stars goes on & on,
(reprinted by permission of University of Pittsburgh Press)
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.
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
What’s out there? Why, sweethearts in love
There, in the lifeguard station lookout,
Too dark to have used the range finder there,
Why they were up there near the sky
You can read the “Lifeguard Only” sign
What did she choose, which choice was deferred
(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.
They called him the Polka Dot Man
This was Berkeley, the early nineties;
But the merchants wanted Telegraph Avenue
A woman with a machete and a knife, an anarchist,
Her name was Rosebud Abigail Denovo;
In the end, her “excessive force”
But this isn’t
If it rained, he kept the umbrella closed
the square patterns of the inlaid plaza brickwork,
He carried himself erect, his dignified gait
This went on for years.
In the meantime
I was reading Robert Duncan
but I was like an open sheet
At some point I noticed his polka dots
(This must be a political poem.)
No public record of such an act exists,
the new life, in flower, having
(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.]