A few days before his death in 1996, Larry Levis mentioned to his friend and former instructor Philip Levine that he had "an all-but-completed manuscript" of poems. Levine had years earlier recognized Levis as "the most gifted and determined young poet I have ever had the good fortune to have in one of my classes"; after Levis's death, Levine edited the poems Levis had left behind. What emerged is this haunting collection, Elegy.
The poems were written in the six years following publication of his previous book, The Widening Spell of the Leaves, and continue and extend the jazz improvisations on themes that gave those poems their resonance. There are poems of sudden stops and threats from the wild: an opossum halts traffic and snaps at pedestrians in posh west Los Angeles; a migrant worker falls victim to the bites of two beautiful black widow spiders; horses starve during a Russian famine; a thief, sitting in the rigging of Columbus’s ship, contemplates his work in the New World. The collection culminates in the elegies written to a world in which culture fragments; in which the beasts of burdenthe horses, the migrant workersare worked toward death; a world in which "Love's an immigrant, it shows itself in its work. / It works for almost nothing"; a world in which "you were no longer permitted to know, / Or to decide for yourself, / Whether there was an angel inside you, or whether there wasn't."
Elegy, as Levine says, was "written by one of our essential poets at the very height of his powers. His early death is a staggering loss for our poetry, but what he left is a major achievement that will enrich our lives."
About the Author
Larry Levis was born in Fresno, California, in 1946. His first book of poems, Wrecking Crew, won the United States Award from the International Poetry Forum, and was published in the Pitt Poetry Series in 1972. His second book, The Afterlife, won the Lamont Award from the American Academy of Poets in 1976. In 1981, The Dollmaker's Ghost was a winner of the Open Competition of the National Poetry Series. Among his other awards were three fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Larry Levis died in 1996.
Read an Excerpt
The Oldest Living Thing in L.A.
At Wilshire & Santa Monica I saw an opossum
Trying to cross the street. It was late, the street
Was brightly lit, the opossum would take
A few steps forward, then back away from the breath
Of moving traffic. People coming out of the bars
Would approach, as if to help it somehow.
It would lift its black lips &show them
The reddened gums, the long rows of incisors,
Teeth that went all the way back beyond
The flames of Troy & Carthage, beyond sheep
Grazing rock-strewn hills, fragments of ruins
In the grass at San Vitale. It would back away
Delicately & smoothly, stepping carefully
As it always had. It could mangle someone's hand
In twenty seconds. Mangle it for good. It could
Sever it completely from the wrist in forty.
There was nothing to be done for it. Someone
Or other probably called the LAPD, who then
Called Animal Control, who woke a driver, who
Then dressed in mailed gloves, the kind of thing
Small knights once wore into battle, who gathered
Together his pole with a noose on the end,
A light steel net to snare it with, someone who hoped
The thing would have vanished by the time he got there.
Anastasia & Sandman
The brow of a horse in that moment when
The horse is drinking water so deeply from a trough
It seems to inhale the water, is holy.
I refuse to explain.
When the horse had gone the water in the trough,
All through the empty summer,
Went on reflecting clouds & stars.
The horse cropping grass in a field,
And the fly buzzing around its eyes, are more real
Than the mist in one corner of the field.
Or the angel hidden in the mist, for that matter.
Members of the Committee on the Ineffable,
Let me illustrate this with a story, & ask you all
To rest your heads on the table, cushioned,
If you wish, in your hands, &, if you want,
Comforted by a small carton of milk
To drink from, as you once did, long ago,
When there was only a curriculum of beach grass,
When the University of Flies was only a distant humming.
In Romania, after the war, Stalin confiscated
The horses that had been used to work the fields.
"You won't need horses now," Stalin said, cupping
His hand to his ear, "Can't you hear the tractors
Coming in the distance? I hear them already."
The crowd in the Callea Victoria listened closely
But no one heard anything. In the distance
There was only the faint glow of a few clouds.
And the horses were led into boxcars & emerged
As the dimly remembered meals of flesh
That fed the starving Poles
During that famine, & part of the next one--
In which even words grew thin & transparent,
Like the pale wings of ants that flew
Out of the oldest houses, & slowly
What had been real in words began to be replaced
By what was not real, by the not exactly real.
"Well, not exactly, but . . ." became the preferred
Administrative phrasing so that the man
Standing with his hat in his hands would not guess
That the phrasing of a few words had already swept
The earth from beneath his feet. "That horse I had,
He was more real than any angel,
The housefly, when I had a house, was real too,"
Is what the man thought.
Yet it wasn't more than a few months
Before the man began to wonder, talking
To himself out loud before the others,
"Was the horse real? Was the house real?"
An angel flew in and out of the high window
In the factory where the man worked, his hands
Numb with cold. He hated the window & the light
Entering the window & he hated the angel.
Because the angel could not be carved into meat
Or dumped into the ossuary & become part
Of the landfill at the edge of town,
It therefore could not acquire a soul,
And resembled in significance nothing more
Than a light summer dress when the body has gone.
The man survived because, after a while,
He shut up about it.
Stalin had a deep understanding of the kulaks,
Their sense of marginalization & belief in the land;
That is why he killed them all.
Members of the Committee on Solitude, consider
Our own impoverishment & the progress of that famine,
In which, now, it is becoming impossible
To feel anything when we contemplate the burial,
Alive, in a two-hour period, of hundreds of people.
Who were not cliches, who did not know they would be
The illegible blank of the past that lives in each
Of us, even in some guy watering his lawn
On a summer night. Consider
The death of Stalin & the slow, uninterrupted
Evolution of the horse, a species no one,
Not even Stalin, could extinguish, almost as if
What could not be altered was something
Noble in the look of its face, something
Incapable of treachery.
Then imagine, in your planning proposals,
The exact moment in the future when an angel
Might alight & crawl like a fly into the ear of a horse,
And then, eventually, into the brain of a horse,
And imagine further that the angel in the brain
Of this horse is, for the horse cropping grass
In the field, largely irrelevant, a mist in the corner
Of the field, something that disappears,
The horse thinks, when weight is passed through it,
Something that will not even carry the weight
Of its own father
On its back, the horse decides, & so demonstrates
This by swishing at a fly with its tail, by continuing
To graze as the dusk comes on & almost until it is night.
Old contrivers, daydreamers, walking chemistry sets,
Exhausted chimneysweeps of the spaces
Between words, where the Holy Ghost tastes just
Like the dust it is made of,
Let's tear up our lecture notes & throw them out
Let's do it right now before wisdom descends upon us
Like a spiderweb over a burned-out theater marquee,
Because what's the use?
I keep going to meetings where no one's there,
And contributing to the discussion;
And besides, behind the angel hissing in its mist
Is a gate that leads only into another field,
Another outcropping of stones & withered grass, where
A horse named Sandman & a horse named Anastasia
Used to stand at the fence & watch the traffic pass.
Where there were outdoor concerts once, in summer,
Under the missing & innumerable stars.
Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage
It's a list of what I cannot touch:
Some dandelions & black-eyed Susans growing back like
innocence Itself, with its thoughtless style,
Over an abandoned labor camp south of Piedra;
And the oldest trees, in that part of Paris with a name I forget,
Propped up with sticks to keep their limbs from cracking,
And beneath such quiet, a woman with a cane.
And knowing, if I came back, I could not find them again;
And a cat I remember who slept on the burnished mahogany
In the scooped-out beveled place on the counter below
The iron grillwork, the way you had to pass your letter over him
As he slept through those warm afternoons
In New Hampshire, the gray fur stirring a little as he inhaled;
The small rural post office growing smaller, then lost, tucked
Into the shoreline of the lake when I looked back;
Country music from a lone radio in an orchard there.
The first frost already on the ground.
And those who slipped out of their names, as if
called Out of them, as if they had been waiting
To be called:
Stavros lecturing from his bequeathed chair at the Cafe Midi,
In the old Tower Theatre District, his unending solo
Above the traffic on Olive, asking if we knew what happened
To the Sibyl at Cumae after Ovid had told her story,
After Petronius had swept the grains of sand from it, how,
Granted eternal life, she had forgotten to ask for youth, & so,
As she kept aging, as her body shrank within itself
And the centuries passed, she finally
Became so tiny they had to put her into a jar, at which point
Petronius lost track of her, lost interest in her,
And at which point she began to suffocate
In the jar, suffocate without being able to die, until, finally,
A Phoenician sailor slipped the gray piece of pottery--
Its hue like an overcast sky & revealing even less--
Into his pocket, & sold it on the docks at Piraeus to a shop owner
Who, hearing her gasp, placed her in a birdcage
On a side street just off Onmonios Square, not to possess her,
But to protect her from pedestrians, & the boys of Athens
rattled The bars of her cage with sticks as they ran past yelling,
"Sibyl, Sibyl, what do you want?"--each generation having to
Listen more closely than the one before it to hear
The faintest whispered rasp from the small bitter seed
Of her tongue as she answered them with the same
Remark passing through time, "I want to die!" As time passed &
she Gradually grew invisible, the boys had to press
Their ears against the cage to hear her.
And then one day the voice became too faint, no one could hear it,
And after that they stopped telling
The story. And then it wasn't a story, it was only an empty cage.
That hung outside a shop among the increasing
Noise of traffic, &, from the square itself, blaring from loudspeakers,
The shattered glass & bread of political speeches
That went on half the night, & the intermittent music of strip shows
In summer when the doors of the bars were left open,
And then, Stavros said, the sun shone straight through the cage.
You could see there was nothing inside it, he said, unless you
noticed How one of the little perches swung back & forth, almost
Imperceptibly there, though the street was hot, windless; or unless
You thought you saw a trace of something flicker across
The small mirror above the thimbleful of water, which of course
Shouldn't have been there, which should have evaporated
Like the voice that went on whispering ceaselessly its dry rage
Without listeners. He said that even if anyone heard it,
They could not have recognized the dialect
As anything human.
He would lie awake, the only boy in Athens who
Still heard it repeating its wish to die, & he was not surprised,
He said, when the streets, the bars & strip shows,
Began to fill with German officers, or when the loudspeakers
And the small platform in the square were, one day,
Shattered into a thousand pieces.
As the years passed, as even the sunlight began to seem
As if it was listening to him outside the windows
Of the Midi, he began to lose interest in stories, & to speak
Only in abstractions, to speak only of theories,
Never of things.
Then he began to come in less frequently, & when he did,
He no longer spoke at all. And so,
Along the boulevards in the winter the bare limbs of the trees
One passed in the city became again
Only the bare limbs of trees; no girl stepped into them
To tell us of their stillness. We would hear
Rumors of Stavros following the gypsy Pentecostalists into
Their tents, accounts of him speaking in tongues;
Glossolalia, he once said, which was all speech, &
In a way, it didn't matter anymore. Something in time was fading--
And though girls still came to the cafe to flirt or argue politics
Or buy drugs from the two ancient boys expressionless as lizards
Now as they bent above a chessboard--
By summer the city parks had grown dangerous.
No one went there anymore to drink wine, dance, & listen
To metal amplified until it seemed, as it had
Seemed once, the bitter, cleansing angel released at last from what
Fettered it inside us. And maybe there
Wasn't any angel after all. The times had changed. It became
Difficult to tell for sure. And anyway,
There was a law against it now; a law against gathering at night
In the parks was actually all that the law
Said was forbidden for us to do, but it came to the same thing.
It meant you were no longer permitted to know,
Or to decide for yourself,
Whether there was an angel inside you, or whether there wasn't.
Poverty is what happens at the end of any story, including this one
When there are too many stories.
When you can believe in all of them & so believe in none;
When one condition is as good as any other.
The swirl of wood grain in this desk is it the face of an angel, or
The photograph of a girl, the only widow in her high school,
After she has decided to turn herself
Into a tree? (It was a rainy afternoon, & her van skidded at sixty;
For a split second the trunk of an oak had never seemed
So solemn as it did then, widening before her.)
Or is it misfortune itself, or the little grimace the woman
Makes with her mouth above the cane,
There, then not there, then there again?
Or is it the place where the comparisons, the little comforts
Like the cane she's leaning on, give way beneath us?
What do you do when nothing calls you anymore? When you turn
& there is only the light filling the empty window?
When the angel fasting inside you has grown so thin it flies
Out of you a last time without your
Knowing it, & the water dries up in its thimble, & the one swing
In the cage comes to rest after its almost imperceptible,
Almost endless, swaying?
I'm going to stare at the whorled grain of wood in this desk
I'm bent over until it's infite,
I'm going to make it talk, I'm going to make it
I was about to ask you if you were cold, if you wanted a sweater,
Because . . . well, as Stavros would say
Before he began one of those
Stories that seemed endless, the sun pressing against
The windows of the cafe & glinting off the stalled traffic
Just beyond them, this could take a while;
I pass the letter I wrote to you over the sleeping cat & beyond
the iron grillwork, into the irretrievable.
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