Larry Levis: Grappling with the Real World

Updated: Jul 25

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


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