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Larry Levis: Grappling with the Real World

Updated: Jul 25, 2022


The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems, by Larry Levis (Graywolf press 2016); Afterword by David St. John


1.

Strange, isn’t it, how you can listen to the blues and laugh and cry at the same time, and pick up your life and go on joyfully refreshed afterward with a self wholly remade by a painful cathartic voyeurism, not yours but someone’s, with and through an art that you can only admire and a voice that sinks into your soul and lets you rise again.

This is a thought that came while reading Larry Levis’ The Darkening Trapeze, a posthumous book of his poetry wonderfully edited by his friend and colleague, the poet David St. John. There are many excellent poems in the book, but the last is truly extraordinary, a leap beyond the rest. It’s called “God Is Always Seventeen,” and it may be the last poem that Levis wrote.

If that sounds a little too death-bed romantic, let me add that it is not what you think: It is not a nice poem, or a consoling one, and it does not say nice things about our situation in this world, or present a pretty picture of the poet, or by extension of any of us, though it does not demand that we also be the speaker. Our identification and judgment (and repulsion) happen in the course of the poem. It’s an option, not insisted upon.

This kind of poem is the blues of poetry, by which I mean, the deep blues. I like its honesty, admire its intense effort to confront its situations and the speaker himself, and I am frankly awed by its final uncertainty, its refusal to adopt the easy resolution of all the desperate issues the poem has raised to that point. It feels then less like poetry than like real life.

I also think that this poem, like so many of the poems in Levis’ previous book, Elegy, offers something new in American Poetry, that stylistically and structurally we confront a different kind of voice and different manner of composition. I will say more about this aspect of the poem below, but it is quite amazing. Here is the poem:


God Is Always Seventeen


This is the last poem in the book. In a way, I don’t even want to finish it. I’d rather go to bed & jack off under the covers

But I’d probably lose interest in it & begin wondering about God, And whether He’s tried the methamphetamine I sent Him yet, & if He still

Listens to the Clash & whether the new job He got for Mozart As a janitorial assistant in Tulsa is working out.

Besides, I can’t imagine a body in the first faint stirrings of arousal Without feeling sorry for it now, & anyway, I’ve built a fire in the fireplace

And I don’t have a fire screen yet, & have to watch it until it goes out, Even the last lukewarm ember. It isn’t my house.

It belongs to a bank in St. Louis somewhere & they have four thousand Different ways to punish me if the place goes up in flames, including the guys

From Medellin who work for them now & specialize in pain. Besides, it’s still winter everywhere & maybe you want to hear a story

With a fire burning quietly beside it. The story on this night when it Got really cold, & the darkness of the night spreading

Over the sky seemed larger than it should have been, though Nobody mentioned it. It was something

You didn’t feel like bringing up if you were sitting in a bar Among your friends. But all that happened was the night kept getting larger

Then larger still, & then there was a squeal of brakes Outside the bar, & then what they call in prose the “sickening” crunch

Of metal as two cars collided & in a little while the guy went back to telling This story in which the warm snow was falling on the yard

Where he & the other prisoners were exercising. I guess the guy Had evidently done some time, though everyone listening was too polite

To bring it up. And what happened in it was a clerk bleeding to death In a 7-Eleven, & the guy telling it called 911 for an ambulance, & the police found both

Cash from the till & the gun on him when they arrived. He didn’t think he’d shot Anyone that night or anyone ever & was surprised & puzzled

When they made a match on the gun, the clerk lived to testify, & they convicted Him. No one along the bar said anything when he’d finished

Telling it, & the night went on enlarging in the story, & I think our silence Cut him loose & let him go falling. And one by one, we paid & got up & left

And went out under the stars. I have a child who isn’t doing well in school. It’s not his grades. It’s that he can’t wake up.

He misses his morning classes & doesn’t answer when I call & doesn’t Return my calls. The last time I saw him we took the train down from Connecticut

To New York & wandered around Times Square. We went into this record store And pretended to browse through some albums there

Because we didn’t know what to say to each other. It was night. It was just Before the Christmas season, & the clerks in the store

Would call out loudly Can I Help Anybody & Can I Help Someone & there was Some music playing & something inconsolable

And no longer even bitter in the melody & I will never forget

Being there with him & hearing it & wondering what was going to become of us.


The last episode in the poem, with the poet and his son at the record store, is apparently about Levis’ son, and may be a real episode. I gather this from information included in David St. John’s “Afterward,” which was forwarded to him from the poet Amy Tudor, Levis’ former student and friend. Ms. Tudor helped find many of the poems for The Darkening Trapeze from manuscripts left behind by Levis. About this one she wrote:


I read a poem he wrote about Nick—I think it was called “God Is Always Seventeen”—sitting by itself in a single draft. It was clearly recent because it had in it the darkness I’d seen in him all winter, something that was sort of gray-coated and not at all like the vaguely amused and wry face he presented most of the time. He wrote heavy poems but he did not despair. This poem had an edge of that to it, and it was lonely and full of grief, and honestly, it made me too sad to go on with the work for that day. I ended up sitting and talking to Mary on the couch for awhile instead and then going home.


She subsequently located the version of the poem that appears in the book. The incident with his son has the feeling of something true and real, something that actually happened. Other episodes in the poem seem invented, paradigmatic circumstances necessary for the points made. Not this one. This one is merely—merely!—devastating and a conclusion to all that has gone before.


2.

The speaker begins self-consciously, aware of us, reminding us that this thing before us is a made thing, a communication with a place in the world and that it has a specific self-conscious intent to its composition, saying that “This is the last poem in the book. In a way, I don’t even want to finish it. / I’d rather go to bed & jack off under the covers…”

It’s not an opening designed to endear him to us, or make him likable. It’s a crude insult, saying that the person speaking considers talking to his readers one step below self-diddling, so you want to ask, what’s he up to. The answer is, I think, that he’s setting the bar: After this, is there anything he can’t say or claim to have done? He doesn’t want to be with us, but he will submit to it, even if he has to view our interaction as a form of such extreme self-indulgence.

But then look at what strange thing happens next: For having raised a kind of sex as an opening (and open-ended) topic, he goes on to say that he’d probably lose interest in continuing, and begin instead “wondering about God, / And whether He’s tried the methamphetamine I sent Him yet, & if He still / Listens to the Clash & whether the new job He got for Mozart / As a janitorial assistant in Tulsa is working out.”

To state the obvious: This is not a God we know, He (note that honorific of the capital letter used here) apparently uses or may be interested in speed, or the speaker thinks that He is the kind of God who may be, and He is a God who does listen to rock’n’roll, at least a kind of it, in the form of the 1976 English punk band the Clash, whose memorial FM radio hit continues to be, “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” a mock-up of extreme diffidence complete with what sounds like fake Spanish lyrics (they are actually in badly pronounced Ecuadorian Spanish). We also learn that this God has a taste for pranks on the famous, such as assigning Mozart to a clean up job in Tulsa.

So if I read this right, the speaker has jettisoned the traditional God of comfort and mercy and justice for the God of bad tricks (Mozart’s new job), drugs, and punk rock’n’roll, i.e., become a fiction and a bad joke, but not entirely a non-presence. Sex in this version of the aimless self is reduced to the activity of one, an arousal said to invoke pity, with the sense behind it (seen in due course in the rest of the poem, and as one of the conclusions to it) that the cycle of generation is inconclusive and even dangerous when viewed as a virtue or when wished for as a future. As he says, “I can’t imagine a body in the first faint stirrings of arousal / Without feeling sorry for it now.”

This is a fully alienated speaker, alienated from Life, from the cycle of generation, and from God, a speaker who lives in a house not his own, where he is unable even to build a fire for heat or comfort without watching that it not become dangerous to this temporary shelter, and to himself, from “guys / From Medellin who work for” the banker-owners and who “specialize in pain.” The exact relationship of these enforcers from the cartel to the bank and to the speaker is not specified, but the drug market reference suggests another not-so-casual vice for the speaker. All in all, this is not the most trustworthy or—to say it again—the most likable of speakers.

But he is also at this point self-conscious enough to want to give us a better or at least a more interesting story, one “With a fire burning quietly beside it” against the spreading darkness and coldness of the night, and so he begins a story about sitting in a bar with friends, with the night getting larger and darker, though no one with him mentions it. Suddenly outside there’s an accident, a collision loud enough to hear even inside the bar, in the middle of someone’s story, and it seems that it is part of the expansion of the night and of the darkness, but no one leaves the bar to go outside and see what happened, or see if they can help.

We then hear the story of the man in the bar that had been interrupted by the accident. He has been jailed for a shooting and a robbery at a 7-Eleven. He doesn’t remember the crime, though “the police found both / Cash from the till & the gun on him when they arrived.” His story, which seems to have taken some time, elicits no response from the others at the bar except silence, and when it is done everyone leaves, and we move on to the next story, about the speaker’s boy, “who isn’t doing well in school. / It’s not his grades. It’s that he can’t wake up. // He misses his morning classes & doesn’t answer when I call & doesn’t / Return my calls.”

So to summarize this part of the poem, life is dialogue inside a bar where accidents happen without cause or explanation from the world outside, and evoke no interest in any case, and where inside we hear about this man who is a witness to a Kafka-type judgment of guilt and punishment, the perpetrator of a proven crime of which he has no memory, only the guilt and only the punishment, the story of which is then received in silence by his listeners, a silence which does not amount to a judgment or even truly to a response.  And then we immediately slide into a new and final story, a heartbreaker about the speaker’s son, whom he last saw when


…we took the train down from Connecticut

To New York & wandered around Times Square. We went into this record store

And pretended to browse through some albums there.

Because we didn’t know what to say to each other. It was night. It was just

Before the Christmas season, & the clerks in the store

Would call out loudly Can I Help Anybody & Can I Help Someone & there was

Some music playing & something inconsolable

And no longer even bitter in the melody & I will never forget

Being there with him & hearing it & wondering what was going to become of us.


But there is something unsettlingly ad-hoc in this narrative, an addendum to the cycle of generation, of a kid who can’t stay awake in school, for reasons not explained—because he’s bored? because he’s narcoleptic? on drugs?—but who in any case has little desired interaction with his father, not answering the phone when the father calls, not returning calls from him. Whatever is going on with him doesn’t affect his grades, so we can assume that he’s smart enough and that he works his way through school well. Perhaps we are to understand that his father is the problem. And then we get the final anecdote, the two of them in a record store (records? Not cd’s?) with the clerks willing and wanting to help them and everyone if they would just acknowledge the offer, and the two of them wandering around in the music that is inconsolable without being bitter, and the father now wondering what will become of the two of them.

In a world fraught with the “sickening” crunch of accident and the amnesia of criminal acts and consequent sense of guilt and judgment and punishment, in which the God of care and comfort is reduced to a druggie punk rocker joke—a world in which, in short, all the life-supports and assumptions of a better non-arbitrary future are challenged and removed—the wondering at the end seems almost a small and even an ignorant response, because the future of everyone in this dystopian world is set in cement, and set so badly that no one will survive or connect or be happy, even though they may sometimes say they want to, and there is no way for the speaker not to know it except by avoiding the obvious conclusion, which is what he does. His is a life without affect, among the disconnected.

Again: He is a man who is in but not of this life, that is, he is here because he is here, and for no other reason. Desire is dead in him, and is at best an object of his pity, and the sense of any possible structure in life has been washed away. In his world, one thing follows another with no particular reason, a new story might hinge on a word perhaps, as in the movement from the fire in the house to the metaphor of fire warming in a bar. But the world is full of accidents whose outcome we do not know, and guilt for reasons explained and proved but not remembered, a guilt which in that sense is threaded into the life as lived. It is no wonder that this speaker, given his philosophical view, can’t find a way to make his progeny comfortable with him. One of them is a judgment on the other, and neither judgment is a good one.


3.

It is, as I say, a very dark poem. I’m impressed that Ms. Tudor found something not despairing in it; I cannot. And yet—I find myself lifted by the created honesty of this poem, the way its maker, not its protagonist, lifts us above the abject emotional poverty of the things presented. I say it is like the blues, and it is, when the blues are honest: John Lee Hooker or Howling’ Wolf, that level of blues, blues as lived and as earned. And note how at the end when it would be possible to offer a transformation, an epiphany, a transcendental change in the speaker, that’s precisely what doesn’t happen. Instead we get the speaker “wondering what was going to become of us.” This speaker cannot know more than he does, and his life as it is lived cannot offer more. Impressive. More — I know of no other poems with this kind of ambition that remain this true to themselves.

As always, I’m impressed by the skill of Levis’ writing, and I have the same sense reading this and other poems in the book that I’ve had about his work starting with Elegy, his previous book: a sense that Levis is a good and skillful poet, but that there is something more going on here than skill and good technical construction. He has brought a new note and a new kind of writing into American poetry. It’s a combination of effects that all come together: the way he uses narrative to give the sense of a sort of uncompressed almost drawling telling, as one event or image follows the next, and the way he exercises an almost invisible laconic control over his lines, many of them extended but all of them flowing into one another, so that you have the sense of great fluidity, even though the poems, as you look at them on the page, seem almost casually composed. The style and the narrative reinforce each other to create this new thing. It is all quite stunning. It is obvious in this poem, but it is present in all the major poems of Elegy and of Trapeze. It is sad that Levis will not longer be with us. Losing him we lost a terrific poet, creating a new kind of poetry, or maybe, better stated, a poetry returning to its roots, of honesty about this world and the craft to tell that story well. I have no idea where his work would have gone from here, but I am confident that it would have lit a new way of doing poetry’s oldest job.

A final, personal note: I knew Larry Levis at the Writers Workshop at Iowa. We weren’t friends but we were acquaintances, and we had many mutual friends. His book The Wrecking Crew came out from Pittsburgh Press in 1972, while we were both students. It was a first book, and there were some fine poems in it, though nothing with the power or ambition that would be so present and overwhelming a few decades later, with Elegy and now with Trapeze. But we were all excited for Larry as we would be for any of us who began a career so auspiciously. A few years later his The Afterlife would win the Lamont Prize, and we would begin to see the shape of a terrific poetry. He was a careful and conscientious craftsman, as I knew him, and aware of his strengths. I liked him a lot.

Someone asked me what I thought of that first book, and I said it was good, but would have profited from a little more time in the oven. The workshop at Iowa was a wonderful place, but it had its fight-pickers and rumor mongers, and one of them ran off right away to take the comment to Levis, perhaps hoping to start a controversy. But Levis said, Well, he’s right, it would have. I respected him enormously for that comment, for his honesty and for his transparency. People say that we lost a great poet whose strengths were increasing with every poem—the kind of easy thing that people say, perhaps, because it costs them nothing to say it; but it is true in this case. “God Is Always Seventeen” is a terrifying, wonderful, honest, unflinching poem from an extraordinary poet who was developing a new kind of poetry. In the “Afterward,” David St. John talks about Levis’ Elegies as his version of the Duino Elegies. If this poems and the ones that followed in Trapeze are not quite that, they are close, and I would say that taken as a whole they are damn close, and that they constitute a broadening and powerful embrace of so very much of life and death and beauty in an American idiom in an extraordinary voice. They did not need more time in gestation. They were and are real, and wonderful.


***


One more thought about the poetry of Larry Levis: There is something oddly inviting about a truly dark vision that brings us in.  I’m not sure how that happens, but Jon Anderson’s wonderful poem “In Sepia” suggests a possibility.  The poem ends with him looking at photographs of himself as a child, and walking at night, thinking of the past, and of Death.  He says,


                   …..Often you Would explore these photographs,

These memories, in sepia, of another life.           Their use was tragic, Evoking a circumstance, the particular fragments           Of an always shattered past. Death was process then, a release of nostalgia           Leaving you free to change. Perhaps you were wrong; but walking at night           Each house got personal. Each Had a father. He was reading a story so hopeless,           So starless, we all belonged. 


Death is the bond we all share, it is the end of our story, the end of of our human change and of our possibilities of change, in the way that photographs in capturing a moment suggest an end to change.

Is that what brings us together in the bleak visions?  Sometimes I wonder.

I listened to a podcast recently in which someone suggested that it is our self-consciousness about our lives and therefore about our deaths, and the development of our burial rituals that memorialize that knowledge, that differentiate us from animals, and—a wonderful speculative leap here—that may in some way be entangled with the rise of language among humans.

Death and language.  Perhaps that is the hopeless, starless story where we all belong.

I think about all that because I continue to be haunted by Larry Levis’ wonderful The Darkening Trapeze, and more specifically by the ending poem, “God Is Always Seventeen.”  Levis’ vision in this book is very dark, oddly dynamic given its bleakness, and we might even say sprawling, seeking its level in these extended poems.

What catches me in the poem are two moments that perhaps help to define that vision.  Remember the “plot” of the poem:  the speaker addresses us, saying that this is the last poem in the book, and that he doesn’t feel like finishing it and probably wouldn’t if he had a choice and could do something else even more onanistic than this poem.  It’s an insult meant to free him from any other bonds of notation, from the standard structures of plotting: As I said in a  previous post on this poem, after this, he can do and say anything.

One of the “anything” things that happens after this takes place in a bar.  He says,


                  maybe you want to hear a story


With a fire burning quietly beside it. The story on this night when it Got really cold, & the darkness of the night spreading


Over the sky seemed larger than it should have been, though Nobody mentioned it. It was something


You didn’t feel like bringing up if you were sitting in a bar Among your friends. But all that happened was the night kept getting larger


Then larger still, & then there was a squeal of brakes Outside the bar, & then what they call in prose the “sickening” crunch


Of metal as two cars collided & in a little while the guy went back to telling This story in which the warm snow was falling on the yard


Where he & the other prisoners were exercising. I guess the guy Had evidently done some time, though everyone listening was too polite


To bring it up. And what happened in it was a clerk bleeding to death In a 7-Eleven, & the guy telling it called 911 for an ambulance, & the police found both


Cash from the till & the gun on him when they arrived. He didn’t think he’d shot Anyone that night or anyone ever & was surprised & puzzled


When they made a match on the gun, the clerk lived to testify, & they convicted Him. No one along the bar said anything when he’d finished


Telling it, & the night went on enlarging in the story, & I think our silence Cut him loose & let him go falling. And one by one, we paid & got up & left


And went out under the stars. 


So, the two incidents here that engage me as defining Levis’ vision in this book are the accident outside the bar, and the story of the man inside, and how the listeners (us included) respond to each.

The world outside the bar is one fraught with accidents so expected or so uninteresting that even with the “‘sickening’ crunch of mental” to alert everyone to what just happened no one bothers to even goes outside to look, to see what took place, or to ask if they can help.  By any standard this failure strikes me as a showing of a world utterly disengaged, uncaring, humanity disjointed from itself.

That’s terrifying of course; no one wants to believe that we live in such a world.  Perhaps, we assume, the story of the man inside the bar is so consuming that there is a reason no one went out to see what happened.

But no:  there inside the bar, we hear the story of a man who discovers his guilt only because of the evidence stacking up, for a robbery and shooting that he does not remember having committed.  He remembers calling 911 to report the shooting; but he discovers that it was he who shot the clerk, who identifies him at trial. He remembers none of this.  His moral amnesia is complete.  He serves time, he doesn’t protest his innocence, only his loss of memory of the events.  And he tells the story as not an as actor but as a witness to his own life.

The others—meaning the poet and all of us—listen, and let him finish, saying nothing, and then leave without comment.  This is an extraordinary story, Kafka-esque; did the teller expect a response?  Did we?  I did, or at least, I expected something other than the comment that the telling of the story in some way cut the teller loose to go falling as he and his story are then overtaken by the night that keeps on enlarging.

To summarize:  the world beyond what we can see from our four walls of perception is a world of accident without human response, a world that lacks ordinary human engagement; and the world within our vision is one of moral culpability without memory or certainty of the transgressive act, one in which even to tell the story is not to engage in one’s own life or to evoke a response from others beyond silence.

The goal perhaps is freedom, such as it is, a tarnished tainted freedom to go fall as night that comes on all of us continues to enlarge.

The vision is very dark, but also binding, in the way that the quote from Jon Anderson that I used to open this addendum suggests:  And so the lesson may be that at the base, when everything is stripped away, when there is nothing else, we all belong.

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