Unreality & Real Distress: Ekphrasis and Emotion in the Poems of Larry Levis
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
En route to Paradise, having recently traded the vista of Lucifer’s hairy, ice-clumped thighs for the stars that form the Southern Cross, Dante’s pilgrim encounters a series of white marble friezes upon entering Purgatory Proper. This artwork, crafted by none other than God, is so real looking that its subjects appear animated: stone eagle wings flap, a chiseled chorus seems to actually sing, and the eye insists that static incense smoke wafts skyward. Such a level of veracity is achieved by this row of friezes that The Divine Comedy’s narrator claims that not only all artists but nature itself “would be put to shame there.”
Gradually, however, this praise of God’s craftsmanship undergoes a sly shift. As much as Dante’s pilgrim expresses exuberance for the awesome pyrotechnics of Purgatory’s bustling marble, language and speech are consistently brought to the forefront and implicitly championed as the superior medium. “Visible speech,” more than anything else, is what makes these divine carvings so remarkable, and it’s language, rather than qualities inherent in the crafted stone, that primarily affords the marble reliefs with lifelike qualities (X: 95).
For the critic James A. W. Heffernan, this vying for artistic supremacy constitutes one of the defining characteristics of poetry written about visual art. In Museum of Words, a book-length study of ekphrastic poetry, Heffernan distills the definition of ekphrasis to “the verbal representation of visual representation,” then posits a far more provocative claim: ekphrasis, he argues, is “a literary mode that turns on antagonism.” For Heffernan, ekphrasis “is anything but submissive. It is . . . the ornamental digression that refuses to be merely ornamental. Overall, his argument is surprisingly persuasive, and, once lodged in the mind, reveals in lyric poems about visual art all kinds of both implied and overt struggles for dominance between image and word.
3 Heffernan, 7.
And yet, Heffernan’s privileging of antagonism as a primary feature of this genre also strikes me as a limited lens for its multifaceted complexities. Take what transpires in Purgatorio once a group of tortured sinners enter the same scene (oddly, Heffernan’s discussion of ekphrasis in Dante doesn’t include this portion of the same canto, which, to my mind, serves as an inextricable coda to the descriptions of those friezes). While still in the throes of contemplating God’s handiwork, Dante and Virgil notice a few nearby rocks that seem to be creeping closer. Upon inspection, they realize that this particular terrace of Purgatory is inhabited by penitent believers who are forced to creep toward heaven while being crushed beneath enormous stones. Employing simile, the speaker reveals a deepening emotive response to this suffering he now witnesses:
As, for corbel to support ceiling or roof, a figure is sometimes seen joining the knees to the breast which begets him from its unreality real distress in him that sees it, in such a posture I saw these when I looked carefully.
That initial rapture, the furtive competition between crafts, and even the miraculous stone friezes themselves are all seemingly forgotten within this surge of human sympathy. Thus “unreality” (and, not incidentally, careful looking) provokes “real distress” in the viewer, a response distinct and privileged from that initial awe. And still, in a move that compounds the moment’s complexities, the pilgrim imagines a corbel, yet another example of chiseled stone, as a means of conveying his emotions. That “unreality” of art, then, is inseparable and indispensible as a means of making present the pilgrim’s compassion.
It’s on this cue that I wish to discuss the role of the ekphrastic in Larry Levis’s poems. Just as Dante’s pilgrim moves from the bewitching beauty of the sculpted friezes to a focus on human suffering, Levis often uses painting and photography in his poems not as an avenue toward self-consciously diagnosing the insular workings of art, but rather as a means of investigating emotional realities with vastly higher stakes. And even if, as with that moment with Dante’s corbel, those unrealities tend to beget more unreality in the form of imagined narratives, art serves as a fundamental means of engaging with “real distress.”
Take, for example, the poem “Edward Hopper, Hotel Room, 1931” from The Dollmaker’s Ghost. Even after the poem employs a title that calls preemptive attention to both artist and artwork, the speaker of this piece refuses to treat the young woman here as mere representation. “She is wearing, now, only an orange half-slip / That comes down as far as her waist,” the second stanza begins, with that resonant “now” insistently affording ongoing narration and the prospect of change. Even once the poem accepts this painting as painting just a few lines later, the speaker simultaneously insists on the woman’s interior emotional life:
And her face, in shadow,
Is more silent than this painting, or any
Painting: it feels like the sad, blank hull
Of a ship is passing, slowly, the stones of a wharf.
Her impenetrable but humanizing silence infuses her with a reality that transcends the function of art and mere pigment on canvas. Significantly, too, it’s the emotional response of the viewer that ruptures the woman’s stasis: only within that simile of the slow-passing ship is she afforded a means to move.
That tension between inaction and movement serves as the heart of this poem. After a series of different attempts at narrative and emotional engagement with this painting’s subject (during which the speaker alternates between using “she” and the more intimate second person), the poem’s conclusion is fraught with concern that the woman has never moved, as if it were a matter of choice or failure of free will. Addressing the painting’s subject directly, he claims that no one can understand why, “You’ve kept on sitting here for forty years – alone, / Almost left out of the picture.” While the word “picture” provides a punning nod toward Hopper’s medium, the entire phrase idiomatically suggests a marginalized life and solitude that result less from a painter’s compositional decisions than someone’s quiet desperation and a paralytic failure to act.
In its refusal to fully subscribe to the painting’s artificial nature, this Hopper poem is representative of Levis’s ekphrastic work where boundaries between reality and rendered reality are consistently blurred. Art that fails to generate an emotional and expansively imaginative response in the viewer, his poems about art seem to tacitly insist, is mere craftsmanship. And, to invert the claim, any viewer not emotionally engaged with the human stakes of the artwork he or she encounters is guilty of mere connoisseurship.
Take, for example, the description of Caravaggio’s painting of the severed head of Goliath in “The Perfection of Solitude.” There, haunted by the resemblance between the decapitated giant and a friend who had been killed in the Vietnam War, the speaker baldly declares “I want to go up it / And close both eyelids. They are still half open & it seems a little obscene / To leave them like that.” This impulsive but deep-seated need to close those painted eyes is as real as what is felt when confronted, earlier in the poem, by the Vietnam Memorial. “You can touch the names if you want to,” the speaker states. “You can kiss them, / You can try to tease out some final meaning with your lips.” If there is meaning to elucidate from those silent names, it’s never articulated. Instead, the speaker abdicates the need for answers in the next line’s raw emotive response: “The boy who was standing next to me said simply, ‘You can cry . . . It’s O.K., here.’”
To be clear, even if Levis’s ekphrastic work implicitly advocates for an emotional response to art, it’s never didactic in its workings. When, to explore another case in point, the speaker of “Sleeping Lioness” describes the paintings of the saints hanging in his childhood parish, he remembers being asked to look at the Christian iconography and being told that the paintings are meant to be “instructive.” Yet this saint-gazing doesn’t involve any explicit moralizing; instead, “It was instructive, they said, / If it made you sad.” This cue is not far from the workings of many of these ekphrastic poems: in lieu of any overt lesson, art should provoke some kind of emotive reaction that, in turn, can afford further imaginative immersion. In “Sleeping Lioness,” this painted Mary, at least according to this speaker, doesn’t have much to do with devotion or self-sacrifice; rather, he imagines her “remembering a girlhood, the faint odor, garlic and mint, of a man / Asleep beside a tree-lined road.” And while this imagined memory serves to humanize the painted icon, it’s also clear that the girlhood infatuations of this Mary stem from the imaginative projections of the speaker rather than anything inherent in the saint’s depiction.
The way in which Levis inscribes and even imposes narrative upon painting and photography is also one of the predominating patterns in his ekphrastic writing. And if the viewer, for whatever reason, is prevented from plunging into the work at hand, the art is determined to be, to quote again from “Sleeping Lioness,” “a complete waste of time.” This tendency to engage with artwork somewhat intuitively, or even impulsively, makes me think of Zeuxis’s grapes, which were painted, so the legend goes, with such luscious, lifelike qualities that crows swept down to feed; my guess is that Levis himself would have vastly preferred the beak-smudged, feather-clumped paintings left behind in the aftermath of those dive-bombing birds to any pristine razzle-dazzle trompe l’oeil. Or, to draw upon another example from ornithology, there are those pictures of the Snowy Egret in Levis’s “Slow Child with a Book of Birds.” In that piece, the speaker claims that the bird drawings in themselves are meaningless, and, in their careless reproductions of plumage, “the color on the pages always wrong.” Authority is instead afforded to the kid in a windbreaker who has dog-eared and stained the book’s pages with “crumbs, milk, / . . . wonder, & his sweating hand.” It is human touch, even in its fallibility and tendency to leave behind stains, which serves as a restorative gesture, a corrective to the stasis, silence, and sterility potentially inherent in visual art.
Despite Levis’s apparent eagerness to yank off the white curatorial gloves and assign imagined narratives to visual art, it would be disingenuous to depict this pattern as antagonistic. The poem “Sensationalism,” for example, engages with a photograph by Josef Koudelka through decidedly subjective means; yet exactly how this idosyncratic gaze manifests itself merits careful attention. In its opening lines, the speaker first approaches the work in a tentative and matter-of-fact way:
In Josef Koudelka's photograph, untitled & with no date
Given to help us with history, a man wearing . . .
It’s not long, however, before the poem’s speaker, beginning to falter, turns to the purely imagined and speculative:
There is a wall behind them both, which, like most walls, has
No ideas, & nothing to make us feel comfortable. . . .
After a while, because I know so little, &
Because the muted sunlight on the wall will not change,
I begin to believe that the man's wife and children
Were shot & thrown into a ditch a week before this picture
Was taken, that this is still Czechoslovakia, & that there is
The beginning of spring in the air.
Unlike Dante’s animated friezes that inspired awe and connoted redemption, the backdrop wall in this photograph stares back with a singular blankness—there is no meaning, comfort, or means of grounding. Just a few lines into “Sensationalism,” the poem appears to hit a wall both literal and figurative.
As a counterintuitive means of rekindling the engagement, the speaker temporarily abandons the photograph, abruptly transitioning into personal narrative. The details of this relationship, sensational in their own right, are also nonetheless declared impassively: “Once, I was in love with a woman,” the speaker tells us, “& when I looked at her / My face altered & took on the shape of her face.” It’s that loss of the self, that manifestation of empathy, which not only strategically resuscitates the poem, but links this piece with other moments of self-abnegation in Levis’s work (think, for instance, of the speaker’s claim in “The Perfection of Solitude” that, during a protest march, he “became the crowd”). Yet despite the Ovid-like transformation of the speaker’s face, a number of careful strategies salvage this gesture from what might be the piece’s own potential charge of emotional excess. First, the poem’s title clearly acknowledges that it will be exploring hyperbole and fabrications. Second, the speaker eschews any glib redemption, admitting that these fantastical bouts of transformation did the couple no good: the woman goes on to devolve into madness, and the relationship collapses after her subsequent hospitalization. Third, at the poem’s conclusion, Levis uses this personal narrative as a means of abruptly returning to the thwarted engagement with Koudelka’s photograph:
I never felt that way again, when I looked at anyone else;
I never felt my face change into any other face.
It is a difficult thing to do, & so maybe
It is just as well. That man, for instance. He was a saboteur.
He ended up talking to a horse, & hearing, on the street
Outside that alley, the Nazis celebrating, singing, even.
If he went mad beside that wall, I think his last question
Was whether they shot his wife & children before they threw him
Into the ditch, or after. For some reason, it mattered once,
If only to him. And before he turned into paper.
After earlier lines of apology, where a desire not to interfere with the reader’s own subjective interpretation of the photograph nearly stalled the poem, the speaker’s authority is reasserted here: “He was a saboteur” we’re told; “ He ended up.” And yet, because we return to Koudelka’s image via a personal narrative, doesn’t that saboteur line reflect upon the speaker himself? In what seems to be an act of self-indictment and profound confession, isn’t this speaker admitting that he’s risked sabotaging both the artwork and its subject by concocting an imagined narrative?
And then there’s that sheet of paper. On the one hand, that last line serves as a bookending gesture to the poem, returning us to precisely where we began: a silent, insular image on development paper, “untitled, & with no date.” And yet this denotation refers not only to the printed photograph, but also to the paper that houses Levis’s poem. It’s an ambiguous and disconsolate moment, one that concludes not only “Sensationalism,” but also his collection Winter Stars. Both poetry and photography, it’s admitted here, are a wide world away from the actual man captured by Koudelka. Here, the “I” navigating this poem, the guessed-at pronoun “he” the speaker uses for the man in the photograph, and the visual rendering of the man himself, are all admitted to be constructions, no more “real” than the corbel Dante’s pilgrim summons after his encounter with those sinners in Purgatory.
But as with the carved stone figure Dante employs in his simile, the distinction between artifice and reality is less important than the viewer’s response to what is witnessed. Far from enacting petty, antagonistic squabbles, and far from merely pointing to a chasm between signifier and the signified, what matters here on the one hand is the means through which these “unrealities” of both Koudelka and Levis afford authentic investigation of “real distress.” And still, one of the challenging and central aspects of “Sensationalism” is the question of just whose suffering presides over this poem. Since the speaker freely admits that he “made all of this up,” it’s his own personal unease that informs most of this piece. To return to the poem’s enjambed opening, the photograph has been “Given to help us with history”—in this case, the past under scrutiny is ultimately the speaker’s own. This subjective stance in Levis’s poem underscores a different but, to my mind, seemingly uniform and inevitable pattern within the ekphrastic tradition: more often than not, the work at hand serves as a kind of Rorschach test, a mirror that reveals less about the art than the viewer peering in.