blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2010  Vol. 9  No. 2
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As if in the Sleep of the Other
a talk given September 23, 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

   Levis at Laurel & China, 2010
 photo by Joey Kingsley

Here in Richmond, at the corner of Laurel and China, a square of plywood, sprayed blue, stands bolted to a street sign. A stencil traced from a photo of Larry Levis floats at the center while lines of his poem “Boy in a Video Arcade” race in silver ink around that likeness of their author. I admire the image for its own merits as street art. But there’s also some uncanny fit here: Levis’s poems themselves read like fugitive infrastructure, sweeps of city and countryside poised at the edge of dissolution, yet colored by the imagination that trails through them. To read Levis means to explore how that infrastructure operates, especially as the poems alternate between lyric and narrative, between song and story. Maybe to read Levis even more deeply means to ask: what does that movement show us, what does it ask us, about the shapes we live inside and the shapes we make of our lives?

Levis’s early poems might not seem to contain his expansive ambitions, but they reveal many of the roots of the later poems. Returning to them after familiarity with the later work often feels like examining a chunk of strata from beneath a family home. In fact, the image of a foundation appears at the very end of Levis’s first book, Wrecking Crew (1972), in “Unfinished Poem.” Here’s how that poem concludes:

            I walk the cut road for miles
            where the ground is freezing in the name of the father,
            and the ghost of the cracked snout, and the dull sons
            wielding ax handles in the slaughterhouse Day of Our Lord
            ruled by bellies. Ruled by the longings of toys
            left under houses for years. Left as offerings. Dust.
            Puzzles for the woman turned to a doorstep. Over which
            you carried all the dead at the moment of your birth.

The image clusters compressed to the point of detonation, the fragmented syntax, the eerie distortion of liturgical idioms, the vague but insistent anger: these were formal strategies shared by many poets of the period, poets as righteously indignant at their government as they were totally immersed in Spanish and Latin American surrealism. “We were against reason,” Levis explained in an interview with Leslie Klein in 1990, “reason via Dulles and Malaysian oil rights and other things, against whatever made it possible for our friends to go off and get killed in Vietnam.” If Levis and many of his contemporaries soon found their antirational approach more constrictive than liberating, still, these procedures often allowed them to uncover fundamental images of mind and feeling. In “Unfinished Poem” for example, the poet unearths two seemingly opposed urges that will occupy him for the rest of his writing life. The first is the need to account for others. I have in mind the force that necessitates not only the shift to the second person “you” but also that image of the self carrying “all the dead” at the moment of its birth. Life in the world of Larry Levis’s poems always means life with other people, even if those others are invisible to us.

And yet the opposite holds true as well. The second urge here is to render the ultimate singularity of the self, of its desires, and of the objects on which those desires fasten. You could say that the whole framework of the passage works to portray such solitariness: as so often in Levis, the poet appears alone on the road. The eccentricity of his metaphors and the jumbling movement between them also lead us to wonder as much about the unique mind that creates these figures as the world those figures portray.

But the most particular and poignant embodiment of solitariness seems to me the image of the abandoned toys. This is a figure to which Levis returns again and again over the decades. What remains significant every time it appears is the strong feeling of solitude, even of isolation. Levis shares this image with Rilke, who himself wrote in 1914 a peculiar essay about children’s dolls. For Rilke, dolls are ciphers for our individual yearnings. Abandoned, they become eerie reminders of the failure of any earthbound object of desire. Rilke claims that “the doll was the first to inflict on us that tremendous silence (larger than life) which later kept breathing on us out of space, whenever we came to the limits of our existence.” To arrive at the limits of our existence in the poems of Levis, as in those of Rilke, means to realize our profound singularity. And yet in Levis (the author of The Dollmaker’s Ghost) the desire to establish some greater connection among others never falls away. Despite his obsession with what he called “the perfection of solitude,” Levis could never be labeled, as Rilke once was by Auden, “The Santa Claus of Loneliness.”

Out of the very tension between his urge to account for and imagine others and his desire to render the profound uniqueness of any one self, Levis wrote much of his best work. He wanted a poem that, while honoring the mysteries of dream, could traffic among the heat and particularity of the real world—so that, for example, the self at the mercy of oppressive political power, whom we perceive through a jumble of tropes in “Untitled Poem,” could become, in “Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex,” the much more moving figure of “my friend Zamora,” whose name the poet encounters on the black granite face of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Beginning in The Dollmaker’s Ghost (1981) Levis allowed himself more narrative incident in his poems, more abstract meditation, and longer, discursive sentences that unfold through eloquent series of subordinate and coordinate clauses. Here is the opening of one of the poems from that book, “To a Wall of Flame in a Steel Mill, Syracuse, New York, 1969”:

Except under the cool shadows of pines,
The snow is already thawing
Along this road . . .
Such sun, and wind.
I think my father longed to disappear
While driving through this place once,
In 1957.
Beside him, my mother slept in a gray dress
While his thoughts moved like the shadow
Of a cloud over houses,
And he was seized, suddenly, by his own shyness,
By his desire to be grass,
And simplified.
Was it brought on
By the road, or the snow, or the sky
With nothing in it?
He kept sweating and wiping his face
Until it passed.
And I never knew.

“To a Wall of Flame . . .” may seem at first to inhabit the familiar structure of Romantic meditative poems, the ABA arrangement of such old chestnuts as “Tintern Abbey” and “Frost at Midnight,” in which the present moment leads to recollection of some past which, in turn, reconfigures the present to which the poet returns at the end. Levis does inhabit this structure, but with crucial differences. For one thing, he constructs the past out of imagination as much as memory. He writes “I think my father longed . . .” and then he enters that conjectured scene entirely. And the moment of transport offers no solving knowledge, as it does in Wordsworth and Coleridge. Instead, it burns into the center of the narrative a kind of lyrical brush fire (“His desire to be grass . . .”) the meaning of which remains inscrutable even to the father. Levis also complicates the movement between past and present by laminating multiple layers onto each. The poem unfolds, in fact, as a series of time lapses. The 1969 of the title becomes the late seventies of the opening, which leads to the 1957 of the father’s reverie. Then the poet returns to the present, in which he attempts to extrapolate meaning from the imagined scene. And this attempt leads him away in time again, to 1969 and the steel mill of the title:

I remember, once,
In the steel mill where I worked,
Someone opened the door of the furnace
And I glanced in at the simple,
Quick and blank erasures the flames made of iron,
Of everything on earth.
It was reverence I felt then, and did not know why,
I do not know even now why my father
Lived out his one life
Farming two hundred acres of gray Málaga vines
And peach trees twisted
By winter. They lived, I think,
Because his hatred of them was entire,
And wordless.

The poem doesn’t suggest clear stages for knowledge of the self, the other, and the past. Rather, it depicts a series of overlays, elusive and sometimes illusory slices of time that the individual holds together with both doubt (“I do not know even now”) and a faith that ultimately boils down to sheer tenacity (“They lived, I think, / Because his hatred of them was entire”). Formed from glides and segues that both fragment the poem into its constituent moments and incorporate those moments into a sweeping whole, this structure not only reflects but enacts our deep human need to give shape to experience, while accounting for gaps and discontinuities.

Certainly, you could say that all poems give shape to experience. But in Levis’s work this endeavor often becomes the very subject of the poem, one that he dramatizes by balancing narrative and lyric approaches. These days—long after novels and movies have taken the place of the epic—the poem which combines narrative and lyric has become something of a default genre. But for Levis this fusion is never a default. He understands its challenges and opportunities, as well as the desires that necessitate it. Foremost, he understands how the lyric/narrative duality so often links with the split between the individual and the culture. That correlation is never as simple as it may seem. Song or lyricism can stand for transport, for the flight of the subjective self, as in the father’s reverie in the car or the son’s “reverence” when looking into the flames, while narrative can remain the more social form. But this scheme sometimes reverses itself, too. Narrative can figure as personal, as in “telling one’s story.” (In Ellen Bryant Voigt’s poem “Song and Story,” for example, we find this incisive line: “pain is not a song; it is a story.”) Lyric or song can also register as collective by nature: think of ballads or of lullabies. After all, what is musical form if not a contract among some community, real or imagined? Even in a free verse poem with varying line lengths, such as “To a Wall of Flame . . . ,” the rhythm and lineation themselves are mediating forces, implying that individual expression has been submitted to some outside arbitration. It’s like a dance: even your most outlandish moves must give to the beat.

Narrative and lyric. Self and society. I’m convinced it was the very instability of these categories that, as Levis developed, he learned to employ for intellectual and emotional power. So I want to look finally at “The Spell of the Leaves,” from the book The Widening Spell of the Leaves (1991). This poem thrives off a shakiness between the self and the other, and between lyric and narrative conventions. On its surface, “The Spell of the Leaves” might seem a typical narrative poem. It tells the story of a woman and her son after her husband has left them, then elaborates a series of almost ESP-like connections between the estranged father and son. Here’s the opening, in which Levis both sets the scene with all the skill of a superb fiction writer, and also cannily subverts his own narration:

            Her husband left her suddenly. Then it was autumn.
            And in those first, crisp days of a new life,
            Each morning she would watch her son, a boy of seven,
            Yawn before mounting the steps, glinting like a sea,
            When the doors of the school bus opened.
            And then she would dress, leaving the back way,
            And hearing or overhearing the screen door close
            Behind her, always, with the same indifferent swish.
            At that hour the frost on the lawn still held
            Whorled fingerprints of cold, as if the cold had slept
            There. Then she would climb in, she told me,
            On the wrong side of the small, open car,
            And sit quite still, an unlit cigarette in her hand,
            And wait for him to come out and drive her
            To work, as always.

The first thing that strikes me when reading this passage is the beautiful precision. Short, sturdy sentences bear great weight gracefully. Levis infuses the moment with pathos, but never overinflates his lines. For instance, the simile of the morning sun “glinting like a sea,” delayed perfectly by the syntax, before we watch the sparkle from the folding bus doors, makes for a little, cinematic marvel. But the real stunner here is the shift in the narration. Because of the pronoun “her” and the declarative sentences in the first lines, the passage has the sound of a story being told by a neutral, omniscient narrator. This narrator draws no attention to himself for the first ten and a half lines. So the first person pronoun in “she told me” arrives as a shock, introducing a narratorial investment far from neutral. Is the narrator a close friend? A lover? A voyeur? The absent father himself? Some combination of these? We can’t be sure. The selves in this poem exist in mysterious and shifting relation to one another. Sometimes these people are painfully distant and sometimes almost permeable. The poem leads us, then, to such questions as: How close can we ever get to one another? How much can we ever know another person? Can we lead our lives together? Or must we finally remain alone?

These thematic speculations swirl from and return to a central motif in the poem. I mean sleep. The introduction of the narrator as a character intimate with the woman immediately follows the image of a sleeping body (“as if the cold had slept there”).  Given that this poem addresses the break-up of a marriage, there’s more than a little insinuation rippling beneath that metaphor—who slept where last night, and with whom? But “sleeping together” is one species in a larger order of intersubjectivity—the exchange of what usually remains private, locked in dream life. The poem abounds with images of such exchange. The mother and the son recite a poem by the eighteenth-century visionary and madman, Christopher Smart. The father attends something that resembles an A.A. meeting, in which he “steps onto an ark / Of stories, floating.” Maybe the most powerful instance occurs near the end of the poem when the boy, older now, passes a sleeping vagrant on his way home from school:

            The boy listens & does not listen, both hears
            And does not hear the older students, those
            Already in junior high, lounging outside
            In the corridor, acknowledging each other—
            Their whispers are the high, light rustling of leaves
            Above the vagrant he passes on his way home,
            The one intent on sleeping this world away,
            A first chill entering the park as he shoves
            His chapped hands deeper between his knees—
            The boy watches this as if in the sleep of the other

The image of the boy “as if in the sleep of the other” as he crosses some border of selfhood, into the consciousness of the vagrant, who appears as kind of surrogate for the father, precedes the concluding lines of the poem:

                                                It is as if Time itself
            Sticks without knowing it in this wide place
            I had mistaken for a moment, sticks
            Like the tip of the father’s left forefinger
            To the unwiped, greasy, kitchen countertop.

The attempt to reconcile, or at least map, the space between people corresponds, and even becomes consubstantial, with the effort to connect isolate moments to some greater expanse of time. And indeed, time bends and folds, both in this poem and in the reading of this poem. There are the shifting tenses which have to do with the woman’s experience of time as it is shaped by her willful forgetting, her disbelief, her grief; there are those which have to do with the conventions of storytelling, moving backward and forward to reflect on narrative incident. And then there is the experience of our needing to reread what we’ve already read, but with a new perspective on the narrator and on the story being told.

You could say that Levis employs narrative means to reach lyric ends—to break beyond the barriers that channel us through our routine lives, our same old stories. But Levis is too much a realist merely to “employ” narrative. For one thing, the lyric transport in “The Spell of the Leaves” would not be nearly as poignant if we didn’t have the story of the family itself, if the poem simply zoomed off into lyric la-la land. Levis trusts the resistance of the real, the palpable life of people and objects that refuse to be aestheticized into vapor. The poem ends in fact with that almost arbitrary, mundane image of the father’s finger on a sticky countertop (a tableau that might seem a parody of Michelangelo’s finger of God reaching out to Adam). And for all of his love of curative irrationality and free-flowing subjectivity, Levis also tends to portray the dark side of such experience, too. If lyric transport, or “the spell,” provides a mysterious connection between the mother, the son, and the father, it feels indistinguishable at times from psychic damage, from the kind of madness that imprisons the self, like Christopher Smart in his cell in St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics.

I’m sure Larry Levis would sympathize with Whitman in “The Sleepers” when he chants:
I sleep close with the other sleepers, each in turn;
I dream in my dream all the dreams of the other dreamers,
And I become the other dreamers.

But for Levis, the act of becoming the other dreamers is always fraught. The father in “To Wall of Flame . . . ,” the son in “The Spell of the Leaves,” and even the nebulous “you” at the end of “Untitled Poem” remain discrete human beings. At the same time they do strive toward some larger, shared vitality, even when it escapes them. Levis writes from this generative place between, where formal tension creates aesthetic power. This tension may be where narrative selves seek to break out of the structures that bind them and to blossom into lyric rapture. It may be where lyric selves desire to merge their subjective privacies with some story line that would give shape and meaning to their lives. Levis crafts from his blend of narrative and lyric a gorgeous and surprising poetic infrastructure, one that rewards our readerly travels again and again. But more than that, he manages, with his fused style, to pierce our dreams.

Levis achieves this feat not with some kind of Californian woo woo, but through his profound feeling for our lives as citizens. That phrase, “lives as citizens,” may sound odd. I don’t mean to coronate Levis as the Laureate of our zoning laws, our divorce rates, our Eishenhower Interstate System. But he realizes something profound about the deep structures of his generation and his era. If this realization could be reduced to a word, it would be one seldom used in discussions of poetry: mobility. Levis is the supreme poet of mobility. In his work we see the American landscape itself as it moves toward postindustrialism, as it slides from a topography of locale into one of transit. Mobility appears literal, geographic: the poet’s life and his poems take place in California and upstate New York, in Italy and Utah, in Virginia and the Balkans. Mobility proves behavioral too: it includes pharmaceutical and erotic buccaneering, those trips or extracurricular excursions that often appear in the poems. And it includes the permutations of a family that, like so many of his generation, breaks apart and reconfigures—in contrast to the stolidity of the poet’s parents on their California ranch.

All of which brings us to a certain presence: the enigmatic father who hovers over all three poems discussed here, and perhaps over this paper itself. He emerges in Levis’s poems as the poet’s actual father, portraits of whom appear repeatedly in Levis’s work, including “To a Wall of Flame . . .” But beyond Levis’s own father (who comes across as a witholding but ultimately very admirable patriarch of the American West), the figure of the father shape-shifts beguilingly. He appears early on as the autocratic specter against whom a generation rebels, and here he seems to stand for “whatever made it possible for our friends to go off and get killed in Vietnam.” In “Unfinished Poem” he is the Grand Guignol who pops up first in the image of the President and then in the distorted, Holy Trinity of the slaughterhouse. But less than twenty years later, Levis begins to portray himself as a father in several of his poems—with gorgeous acceptance and generosity in the second half of “Blue Stones,” for example, and with unvarnished regret in “The Perfection of Solitude.” The figure of the poet as a son, and then the figure of the poet as a father—that transition never reads as smooth, never as complete. These roles, like all in Levis, exist in our landscape of mobility. Their movement may entail the permeability of selves, “as if in the sleep of the other,” and it may mean departure away from us, into some state of ultimate solitude. One of the deepest questions beneath all of these poems might be: how do we hold together a structure in motion, one that is not entirely in our power to hold together? I believe that his capacity to render and embody that challenge in the very shape of his poems—as their narrative and lyric pathways trail off then ramify, only to veer again into new directions—is what makes Larry Levis not only one of the strongest poets of his generation, but a genuine visionary.  end

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