DECEMBER 6, 2013
THE DEATH OF SEAMUS HEANEY this past August reminds us that the passing of any great poet, however old, always feels untimely. A refrain in the flood of reminiscences, tributes, and testimonies that followed the news of the Irish Nobel-prize-winner’s death was the sentiment that he seemed, with his generous stores of élan vital, and his prodigious talent, beyond the reach of the mortal coil. And surely, to paraphrase Shakespeare, so long as men and women have eyes, and eyes can see, or ears can hear, Heaney in his poems will likely endure for as long as poetry is valued and remembered in this world.
Posterity holds a special place for important poets whose deaths are truly untimely. And among those poets are some who, if we’re honest, would likely not be widely thought to be beyond the reach of an early death — poets who, in fact, might seem destined for it. One thinks of Keats, for example, who read the meaning of his coughed-up blood clots and whose poems are haunted by a preternatural fear of “ceas[ing] to be.” Or of John Berryman’s Henry in Dream Song 9 (“Fancy the brain from hell / Held out so long. Let go”) or of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s struggle with despair (“No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief, / More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring”) or of the pent, furious hive of Plath’s desperate and astonishing outpouring in the wintry months before her suicide.
Is Larry Levis such a poet? Surely his death by heart attack in 1996 at the age of 49 was premature. Yet from the start — even in his first, youthful books characterized by imitations of and homages to his “teachers” — his work is suffused with an elegiac, almost posthumous melancholy, a hibernal, spectral watchfulness in which the speaker is often a witness to his own absence. The titles of his poetry books themselves — Wrecking Crew (1973), The Afterlife (1977), The Dollmaker’s Ghost (1981), Winter Stars (1985), The Widening Spell of the Leaves (1991), and the posthumous Elegy (1997) — suggest a palpably ephemeral spell of aftermath. And yet the poems are often charged, as well, with a bemused gallows humor and a fascination with the allure of ruin. As David St. John writes, death in Levis is never the grim reaper, but rather “the cosmically bored magician, the oily sleight-of-hand man at some county fair. Death is just another indignity to endure, the supreme banality.” Tony Hoagland puts it another way in a characteristically perspicacious essay “Let’s Get Lost: The Image as Escape in the Poems of Larry Levis”: “the flight of [Levis’s poems] seems both toward and away from Mr. D.”
Levis is not, clearly, and thankfully, a forgotten poet. His work, especially the later Levis, continues to be appreciated not only by his long-devoted readers but by new, young ones as well, who have access not only to the volumes which remain in print, but also to The Selected Levis, deftly curated by the aforementioned St. John, who, in his eloquent “Afterword” to the edition, calls Levis an “American original” of wit, humor, and vision, whose late, meditative poems, in particular, “lift us into realms — some real, some imagined — that grow increasingly harrowing … [gathering] into fables and narratives of the century’s collapse.” Nearly all of my recent MFA poetry students are acquainted with Levis’s work and count him among their influences. Thanks in large part to Levis’s legacy at the Virginia Commonwealth University, where Levis was teaching at the time of his death — and in particular to an ongoing “reading loop,” a virtual conversation, about Levis’s work at VCU’s acclaimed online magazine Blackbird — anyone interested in learning about Levis’s work can do so from a continually refreshed host of critical perspectives, among them offerings by David Wojahn, Dave Smith, Mary Flinn, Claudia Emerson, Mark Jarman, and Phillip Levine.
Rather than attempt, then, to articulate what others have already written and continue to so eloquently and prodigiously express about the work of Larry Levis, I’d like to look briefly at his second book, The Afterlife, the 1976 Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets, published by the University of Iowa Press in 1977 — a book that is now out of print and not widely available to new readers.
As Levis matured as a poet, his line and train of thought lengthened, deepened, discursively and meditatively, into what are arguably his best and best known poems. He moved gradually, although never completely, away from the terse, flagrantly surreal, deep image poems of his early books into a musing style marrying personal family story and America’s regional history in delicate, tensile, often inimitable ways. As is often the case with early books, then, Wrecking Crew (the poems of which Dave Smith calls “tedious, mawkish, and callow”) and much of The Afterlife reveal an emerging poet trying on the modes and subjects of his teachers — among them Levine, the Wrights (James and Charles), Kinnell, Creeley, and the Spanish surrealists. In a recent informal experiment, I read aloud in my office to a student — a fan of Levis’s later work — several of the poems from The Afterlife, and asked her if she could identify the author. Her guesses included Justice, Lorca, Creeley, James Wright, Merwin, and Levertov, but not once Levis. Nonetheless, it is in The Afterlife, and particularly in the closing sequence, “Linnets,” that Phillip Levine says we “hear for the first time the voice that is distinctly Levis.”
That voice, as it emerges in The Afterlife, is self-aware, self-effacing, oneiric, and hibernal sometimes to the point of paralysis, as in these opening lines from “Rhododendrons”:
Winter has moved off
somewhere, writing its journals
But I am afraid to move,
afraid to speak,
as if I lived in a house
wallpapered with the cries of birds
I cannot identify.
Surely many of these poems echo the so-called “deep image” stones and bones surrealism, and the hard knocks, blue collar lyric being produced in the 1960s and 1970s, but in each of them there is often a detail, like the wallpaper in the “Rhododendron” passage above, that suggests we are reading a poet whose unique imaginative capabilities found embodiment in harbingers of the complex, meditative registers to come. Consider the emotional nuances of these image-based passages, for instance:
… he plays
as loud as he can,
so that when the dead come
and take his hands off the keys
they are invisible, the way air
and music are not.
— From “The Double”
At night I lie still, like Bolivia.
My furnaces turn blue.
My forests go dark.
You are a low range of hills, a Paraguay.
Now the clouds cover us both.
It is raining and the movie houses are open.
— From “The Map”
You wake in a hotel,
In the custody of rats’ eyes
Where the small wheels of clocks
Move intricately as ice or the prayers
You will not say.
— From “Waking”
As I write this,
some blown rhododendrons are nodding
in the first breezes. I want
to resemble them, and remember nothing,
the way a photograph of an excavation
cannot remember the sun.
— From “Rhododendrons”
It is true, I think, as Levine writes, that it is in the extended sequence “Linnets” (initially published as a pamphlet called The Rain’s Witness) that we see Levis pushing past the lustrous locus of the singular image and into the Midwestern and West Coast glinting sublime, the family-stalked, graceful conversational lope that would become signature in the later work. But I’d like to end my musings on Levis’s second book with a passage from a poem that is not often anthologized, “The Morning After My Death,” a piece notable not only for its intrinsic imaginings, but for its prescience about Levis and his abiding oeuvre:
My body is a white thing in the sun, now.
It is not ashamed of itself,
Not anymore. Because today is
The morning after my death.
How little I have to say;
How little desire I have
To say it.
And these flies sleeping on doorsills
And hugging screens; and the child
Who has just run out of the house
After touching my body, who knows,
Suddenly, how heavy a dead man is . . .
What can the sun do but keep shining?
Even though I don’t especially need it
Anymore, it shines on the palm fronds
And makes them look older,
The way someone who writes a letter
And then tears it up, looks suddenly older.
The passing of poets also reminds us to be attentive to, and grateful for, the new poetic voices emerging among us. Anna Journey was in her late 20s and still in graduate school when her first book, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, was chosen as a National Poetry Series award winner and published by the University of Georgia Press in 2009. A clamor of praise surrounded the collection’s debut, and with titles like “Lucifer’s Panties at Lowe’s Garden Center,” “Clockwork Erotica: Why He Takes His Glasses Off when Telekinesis Fails,” and “The Foot Wing of Carolina’s Artificial Limb Factory” — and evincing a fearless, sexy, evocative lyric gift to live up to those monikers — it is easy to see why critics called the text “audacious,” “magnetic,” and “lushly ashimmer with invitation and threat.” Even film director David Lynch has joined the chorus of Journey admirers, calling her poetry “magical” — and anyone who has watched Twin Peaks will have a sense of the kind of noir, grigri alchemy Lynch means.
Vulgar Remedies, just out from LSU Press, delivers the ardor, itch, heat, and sheer talent of If Birds. But in these irresistible new poems we sense Journey’s growing ownership of the vulnerable temerity with which she excavates the sexual dark and imaginative luminosity of the past and its hold on her psyche. Although her poems are far more narrative and pop-cultural than Levis’s early lyrics in The Afterlife, Journey shares with Levis his later willingness to plunder his own family and experiences for poetic material, as well as a susceptibility to ghosted terrain and a capacity for conjuring the eidolons — people, places, things — that haunt and shape us. The Francesca Woodman photograph on the book’s cover, in which a female figure partially disappears into the palimpsestic wallpaper of a room in an abandoned house, perfectly evokes the world of these poems, in which memory singes the tastebuds, leaving “a taste like a saint’s / / charred footprint” even as it eludes capture.
Leaving aside for a moment any notion of authorial surname as destiny, these poems create a kind of enchanted map — not unlike a painting by Giotto or Sassetta — in which past, present, and future, the living and the dead, the “real” and the imagined, co-exist in one plane. They turn into one another; they are erased and then they reappear everywhere. We journey into, out of, and back into an array of realms: the speaker’s dreams; her cigarette-burned adolescence and her affair with the romance of oblivion, where a troubled girl named Laura and a boy who likes to suck the speaker’s eyeballs leave their literal and psychological bruises; the “gulf’s grit” of her mother’s deep south; an uncle’s stilted house on troubled waters; the numinous sanctuary of the speaker’s recent marriage; Los Angeles’s Museum of Jurassic Technology (where ideas for a series of “Vulgar Remedies” poems originate); and a highway replete with a barbecue joint, a dairy farm, various lost houses and hotels, a double-wide, a broom closet, and a prison. Even insomnia is a watering hole in this landscape, offering its own brand of surreality, of worlds within worlds. Here is part three from “Sonnets to Ambien”:
In the country of No Sleep, Not a Doze,
everyone’s a distant cousin: the coat hook’s
Swedish nose, the lamp’s cloisonné orchids
lit between its neck and mine. Even the electric
lynx looks ancestral. Angel, let me tell you
a story: a woman goes out, hypnotized,
into the Denver night. She wears nothing
but a white nightshirt, though it’s twenty degrees.
After the car wreck, the cops find her
in the middle of the intersection pissing
the shape of the Land of Insomnia,
which steams as it spreads, which freezes, fixed
to the crosswalk’s bars. This country’s the largest
island, with one inhabitant, with one light always left on.
I’ve heard the poet Paul Guest say that humor — any brand of it — is perhaps the hardest thing to get right in poetry. A poet might be able to fudge a bit in the earnest or vatic departments, but when a poem tries to be funny, or attempts to be hip, and isn’t, it fails. Just one thing I admire about Journey’s work, then, is her ability to work in humorous and lyric keys, often at the same time, as in “The Spirit of the Hour Visits Big Pappa’s Barbecue Joint”:
No one notices my wings — folded, hollow-
boned. Across the room a girl slurps
red sauce from her fingers, and I fill
with the scent. Its thick molasses
marrows up my carpus, my
metacarpus. This is
why I come here. To remind myself
I was once alive. To weight myself down,
down to the wishbone that almost
breaks when I remember
how the world tasted — summer rain
on my neck that rolled off,
off like the hour. Or the old house
with its broom closet door — the oak grain
pencil-marked with girl-heights. Once
my sister and I were small enough
to slow down time. We climbed
the cedars on each side of the yard. Scent
peeled from them in strips. Once we
crawled up the swing set’s ladders and lay
across its top rungs at dusk. We watched
for long-eared bats, hoped to get bitten
by vampires and changed, until
the flank steak flamed and smoke
moved through the kitchen window,
until the voice
of our mother called us back. The rack
of ribs arrives at my table. I raise
its flesh to my mouth. I’m allowed this
bite before my wing-bones empty,
before I rise, red-lipped, a vinegar
sting in each corner of my mouth.
The spirit of the hour, indeed. Reading these second books by Levis and Journey, especially together, I am struck by what timeless, humanely populated inscapes their respective collections traverse. To slightly misread and paraphrase the end of Levis’s “The Morning After My Death,” these second books make me feel older, in the best sense — as though I’ve sojourned with their authors in the vale of afterlife and vulgar remedies. And am enlarged for the wayfaring there.
Lisa Russ Spaar is the author of many collections of poetry, including Glass Town (1999, Red Hen Press), Blue Venus (Persea, 2004), Satin Cash (Persea, 2008) and the forthcoming Vanitas, Rough (Persea, 2012).