The Inhuman Witness: Animals in the Poetry of Larry Levis
a talk given September 24, 2010 at Levis: A Celebration, a conference marking the acquisition of the Levis papers by the VCU Libraries & presented here as part of Levis Remembered
As a poet who often writes about animals, I’m especially interested in writers who are also inexorably drawn to animals in their work, and yet are particularly aware of the risks of sentimentality and appropriation which are inherent in such a subject. Additionally, I am interested in those poets who exhibit a curiosity, a will to investigate what draws the poet again and again to the animal subject.
In a section called “Poetry and Animal Indifference” in his 1982 essay “Some Notes on the Gazer Within,” Levis remarks that “when animals occur in poems . . . they are often emblems for the muteness of the poet, for what he or she cannot express, for what is deepest and sometimes most antisocial in the poet’s nature.” He examines poems by Philip Levine, Ted Hughes, Galway Kinnell, and others to expand upon his ideas about the imaginative capabilities of the animal, investigating the apparent paradox in the refuge that the speaking poet takes in the silent animal, and why the poet is drawn to what he variously describes as the animal’s “disinterestedness,” purity, and “inhumanity.” Levis’s discussion here has always been something I’ve seen as a kind of touchstone to my own work, and I was interested in finding out whether the animals in his own poems revealed any additional dimensions or complexities to the ideas expressed in his critical prose. While the idea of the animal’s silence is indeed a relevant and resonant subject in the poems, I discovered that there is a discernible development in Levis’s treatment of the animal and its silence over the body of his work, expressed first by an attention to the animal gaze in the early books, then to the animal mind in the middle work, and then, in the later work, to the animal as a separate world.
In Levis’s second volume of poems, The Afterlife, we find early iterations of that attraction to the animal’s silence. In “Delwyn Creed,” the son “brings down a wolf thin with disease” only to have “its silence [enter] him.” And in “A Poem of Horses,” “the sores on the gelding’s withers / Are ordinary. They glisten in the rain / Outside the jail, and say nothing.” But in this same collection, we also find a recurring interest in animals’ eyes. After killing the wolf, Delwyn Creed’s son “brushes the snow from its eyes.” In “The Witness”: “In the first freeze / the carp will not blink. / His gills open and close, / thoughtless. / He’s an eye only, / a witness with a long stare, / a refusal.” We hear an echo of these lines in “Signs,” with “the ants who are all eyes.” In “In a Country,” a prose poem in which the speaker and his beloved fashion their own private realm, “Birds have flown into it, too. Each evening more trees fill with their eyes, and what they see we can never erase.” And on a darker note, in “Waking”: “You wake in a hotel / In the custody of rats’ eyes / Where the small wheels of clocks / Move intricately as ice or prayers / You will not say.” And, even in “Reading in French,” the speaker remarks that “looking into the eyes / of Gerard de Nerval / You notice the giant sea crabs rising.” I can’t help but read Levis’s recurring fascination with animal eyes as an early intimation of his own interest in the subject of the gaze in general, which would become such a central part of the body of his work. Furthermore, there is a strong connection between the gaze and silence. There is an implicit speechlessness in gazing; the words gaze, gawp, and gawk supposedly have shared etymological roots, with the latter two words referring explicitly to a kind of looking in which one is openmouthed, and therefore unspeaking, with astonishment. Gaze, however, suggests more of a state of enchantment or reverie in which one is not merely unspeaking, but beyond speech. The animal gaze which receives so much attention implies the animal’s silence and is an extension of the animal’s silence.
The complementary preoccupations with the animal gaze and animal silence reaches its apex in The Afterlife’s concluding sequence, “Linnets.” Alexander Long observes that “silence appears in nearly every section of the poem,” from the opening section in which the silence of the bird, killed by the speaker’s brother, is displaced into “a little hole / in the air” which pursues him, to the final section, which meditates upon the silence of the blank page consuming the speaker. The linnets, meanwhile, continue to sing. But also, in these sections, we pass through a gallery of refracted eyes, in which the speaker’s gaze “takes on the terrible gaze of song / birds,” and in which he remarks that “The viewpoint of ice / is birdless. I close my eyes, / I give up.” In another section, “Your family stands over your bed / like Auks of estrangement. / You ask them to look you in the eye, / in the flaming aviary.” The “tough skin around a snake’s eyes / is ignorant and eternal,”  and even animals themselves become fixated on the eyes of other animals, as when “Ants have already taken over / the eyes of a house finch / on the sill.” In this sequence, the nature of the linnet—and by extension, possibly all animals—contrasts markedly with the human condition: the linnets, even in death, are eternal, while the human being is conditional and mortal. The anonymity and ubiquity of the birds confers upon them a life-in-death, or eternal life after death, whereas the human individual lives a kind of death-in-life, conscious of both his singularity and his contingency.
We see Levis’s attention to animals taken up immediately in the first section of his next book, The Dollmaker’s Ghost, in which poems dominated by animals are bookended by poems that focus more directly on narrating human histories, as if Levis has become even more interested in contrasting these different species of being. While the motif of animals’ eyes continues—in the poem “Ice,” a woman’s eyes are “almost / closed, like a hen’s at nightfall,” and in “Truman, Da Vinci, Nebraska,” Nebraska is where “the cattle across from us look up quietly, / Chewing sideways with abrupt motions”—the problem of the animal gaze widens in scope, as if Levis is examining his own compulsive return to the animal figure and interrogating it. Now the poet begins to turn his attention to the animal mind itself.
In “Cocoon,” there’s a telling reversal of the image of the carp in The Afterlife who is “an eye only, / a witness with a long stare”—the cocoon, which “among hundreds just like it” according to the speaker, is “not the witness of anything.” And when the “burned, perfect face” and “serious torso” of the insect emerges, it sees “nothing special.” The anonymity of the one cocoon among hundreds suggests that the animal has been absolved of any witnessing precisely because of its lack of identity. On a related note, the speaker in “Wasps” admires “a lizard’s throat / As it swallows perfectly, closing its eyes / Just once as it does this, then opening them. / I love the way it can do one thing well, / One thing that won’t matter.” The lizard, like the insect, is absolved of having anything that it does “matter,” unlike humans who, as social, cultural beings, are in a permanent state of having to matter. In the essay section “Poetry and Animal Indifference,” Levis classifies the animal as a species of fact that predates meaning. The lizard in “Wasps” prefigures the two horses in the later poem “Elegy with a Bridle in its Hand,” which the speaker describes as “worthless.” This determination, I’d argue, is an amalgam of the poet’s praise and envy.
I want to revisit my earlier remark about how the condition of the animals in Levis’s poems is one of absolution from mattering and witnessing. To speak of witnessing, and to speak of any kind of action that matters, one naturally enters into the realms of moral and ethical responsibility. And here, I think, is where Levis’s attraction to the animal subject is especially meaningful. In Levis’s poetry, the condition of the poet is one of great moral responsibility—the poet must testify to what he has witnessed in reality, no matter how unfathomable it may be. To do any less is to abdicate one’s responsibility as both a writer and a human being. And yet, as we follow the aesthetic development of Levis’s poetry, as the line sprawls larger and larger across the page, as the narrative spools and spirals into what we’ve come to see as Levis’s characteristic late style, we increasingly feel the terrible pressure of this responsibility to bear witness. One might say that when Levis looks to the animal, he sees a living thing that is able to witness, without having to bear witness.
Moreover, not only is Levis a poet who consistently expresses the moral responsibility to bear witness in his work; he’s equally troubled by the problem of assuming the authority to do just this. For example, in his essay “Mock Mockers After That,” Levis describes the particular ethical problems inherent to poetic elegies: “if they commemorate . . . the dead, they also inter the dead, bury them.” And in his poem “Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967,” Levis manages to both interrogate the very convention of representation via the figure of Johnny Dominguez and illustrate, by the fact of the poem itself, that the mantle of authorial authority can never fully be cast off if one is to write at all.
In the final poem of Winter Stars, “Sensationalism,” the speaker describes a photograph by Josef Koudelka in which a man confides to a horse with “its blinders / on” and “darkness around its eyes,” with a “rough snaffle bit still in its mouth, wearing / Away the corners of its mouth.” The man, says the speaker, is telling the story of his family’s murder—a story possibly invented entirely by the speaker, we quickly learn—to the horse to stay “sane.” Why is the act of telling supposed to preserve the man’s sanity, rather than any outside acknowledgement of his suffering, or for that matter, any kind of justice for what he’s suffered? Because to bear witness is to acknowledge an objective reality; in his collection of lectures The Witness of Poetry, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz asserts that “the very act of naming things presupposes a faith in their existence and thus in a true world.” To bear witness is to profess a faith, no matter how desperate, that our experience of reality matters. The man’s supposed confession to the horse is the very illustration of a human being’s compulsion to bear witness—it’s not sympathy we want, but the opportunity to counteract silence. As the poem’s conclusion affirms, the circumstances of his suffering “mattered once, / If only to him. And before he turned to paper.”
But even though the man allegedly tries to preserve his sanity by bearing witness, he’s compelled to bear witness to an audience incapable of understanding, despite the fact that he, as the speaker concludes, likely “knows people he could talk to.” Despite demonstrating the human need to bear witness, “Sensationalism” also exemplifies Levis’s skepticism about it; the very act requires the assumption of a position of authority and power, and given that there is not an infinite supply of either in the world, it necessitates depriving someone else of that power, even if the speaking witness is unconscious of this. Consider how quickly the speaker shows his own hand as he considers the Koudelka photograph—by line thirteen, he admits that he’s fabricating the man’s story precisely because he knows so little of it. Even when the speaker shifts his attention from the photograph to his own memories, where we assume he might be on some firmer perceptional ground, he begins to second-guess the truth of them, undermining his authority to witness to even his own reality.
Kathy Fagan observes that one of the “truths” the speaker invents for the man, that he is a “saboteur,” “implies utter responsibility, hoists the guilty burden of his family’s death on the man’s shoulders.” Later, she notes that “the responsibility of the artist is to truth, the responsibility of the lover to the beloved: human constructs, Levis seems to say, that are necessary, foregone failures.” In an interview with Walter Bargen, Levis admits that “I feel certain moral duty to tell the truth, to say the fact. But those are elusive and difficult, depending on what one brings to them, what one sees as the truth.” Thus, the man’s choice to confess to the unspeaking, indifferent horse becomes clearer—when we bear witness, we always run the risk of unwittingly testifying against ourselves.
There is a third, and final, development in Levis’s consideration of animals in his poetry—just as we’ve already seen the transition from an initial attention to the animals’ eyes to their minds, the later poems begin to cohere in their depiction of animals not just as separate minds from those of humans, but separate worlds entirely. In “Elegy with a Bridle in its Hand,” a few lines after the horses are characterized as “worthless,” they are twice-described as “other worlds,” and a few lines later, they are referred to as “wordless.” Worthlessness and silence: two permanent, purely inhuman conditions that, for Levis, constitute genuine otherworldiness.
“Anastasia and Sandman,” one of many horse-centered poems from Elegy, begins with the speaker’s observation that “The brow of a horse in that moment when / The horse is drinking water so deeply from a trough / It seems to inhale the water, / Is holy.” He then immediately qualifies this by saying “I refuse to explain.” I agree with M.L. Williams that this gesture is a “refusal to be conventionally authoritative,” and certainly the poem bears a strong connection with the earlier “Sensationalism,” in terms of both its deep ambivalence about authority and its need to testify to an objective reality. However, I’d argue that the speaker’s refusal here illustrates a connection between silence and divinity itself. By withholding an explanation of the horse’s holiness, the speaker preserves a kind of wordlessness demarcating the holiness endemic to the animal state.  This connection between holiness, wordlessness, and otherworldiness is also alluded to in the earlier Winter Stars poem titled, aptly enough, “There Are Two Worlds,” which begins with the meditation that “Perhaps the ankle of a horse is holy” and then transitions to the idea of Mark Twain’s unwritten sequel to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, observing that “perhaps all that he left out is holy.” In The Widening Spell of the Leaves, Levis raises the stakes by repeatedly playing the idea of animal-engendered divinity off of a more ineffectual, human-engendered one.The first section of the poem “Sleeping Lioness,” describes the figure of a distant Virgin Mary in a “poor reproduction” on the wall of a “ridiculous, rural parish” with a “distracted look on her face.” The Virgin, here, is emblem of divinity shackled and wrung out by too much human meaning. By contrast, the titular lioness appearing in the poem’s second section is literally imprisoned by humans (and martyred by the sadistic children taunting her from the other side of the bars). However, she has a kind of freedom in her indifferent holiness that the Virgin lacks:
turning on her heel always
Away from you as if there were two worlds, as if you were lost
In this one. She could have killed a man with one swipe
Of her paw, but she did not. And that is why, in the next world,
She has come back as a poem already written for her, & hidden
In this one.  The one which fills us with longing. Which bores
The figure of the lioness gives way to the speaker’s meditation upon his own spiritual condition, in which the world of the past, of memory, is a vision of heaven, and the present is an imprisonment: “it is not a miracle to be here, sweeping up before dawn, & because these windowsills / Do not open onto a New World but only into the flat dark gleaming of rails.” We find echoes of that divine sleeping lioness later, albeit with more apocalyptic overtones, in the same book in the sequence “The Perfection of Solitude,” in the section “Our Sister of Perfect Solitude.” The speaker regards the “piebald eye” of a dead horse “as if that stare could catch a world & put an end / To it, or set it afire. Dust & ice & a confetti of ashes. As if a horse could care!” And again, in “To a Wren on Calvary,” we find that divine otherworldliness in a dead wren the speaker finds on the driveway, which is “a world [he] couldn’t touch.” The wren, too, becomes a quasi-religious figure, in which lice have set up an “altar, [their] congregation spreading from the tongue // To round, bare sills that had been its eyes.” In this poem, “Jesus” becomes little more than a word, a helpless exclamation against human violence, compared with the eternity the wren inhabits. And I can’t help but think back to those eternal, haunting birds from “Linnets”—for Levis, to truly inhabit heaven is to be utterly inhuman. The animal mind is the ultimate emblem of heaven in Levis’s poetry: it is a world of which the speaker is fully aware, but is utterly barred from entering or knowing in his human, living state. It is a portal to divinity always close at hand and yet hauntingly, beautifully inaccessible—except by the work of the imagination.