A Quiet Genius

The poems of Larry Levis are pleasures of language and thought.

The Selected Levis, by Larry Levis. University of Pittsburgh Press, $22.50.

The poem demanded the food, / it drank up all the water, / beat me and took my money, / tore the faded clothes / off my back, / said Shit, / and walked slowly away ...

Few lines in American poetry remain as truthful of the poet writing them as these taken from Larry Levis' "The Poem You Asked For" which read like an autobiography of the late author. Alcoholism, drug addiction, three divorces, half a life-time spent working on farms and in factories--Levis wrote through it all until his death of a heart attack at the age of forty-nine. And though life took its toll on the poet, the poetry he produced has become, as David St. John describes it, "a kind of touchstone for many of us, a source of special inspiration and awe."

Philip Levine, a long-time friend and mentor to the poet, laments how Levis' passing came as "a staggering loss for our poetry." With this tenor of loyalty and respect among contemporary poetry's elite, it comes as no surprise that only five years after his death, the best from Levis' five books have been gathered together in The Selected Levis, a collection that at once demonstrates the amazing power and versatility of one of contemporary poetry's quiet geniuses.

A native of California's San Joaquin Valley, with its miles of vineyards and fig groves, Larry Levis began his poetic career writing in the early 1970's when American surrealism was at its height. After infusing into the poetics of the late 1960's, the idea of the "deep image" passed to a second generation of poets and became a vogue.

Lyrical condensation, jolting imagery, haunting cadences, spare and simple diction, a smooth syntax--each of these qualities characterize a style that defined some of the most provocative writing of the 1970s and, taken together, provide an aesthetic context for Levis' first collection of poems, Wrecking Crew. Indeed, it is here that we witness a gifted imagist at work as in these lines from "The Magician at His Own Revival":

Once I thought my mouth was a scar

that disappeared

like spittle being wiped off of a plate.

so I shut up

and sulked

like last year's inner tube that hangs

in a noose all winter

through the rain.

For all the success this early style earned him--the U.S. award of the International Poetry Forum for his first collection and the Lamont Prize for his second effort, The Afterlife--we recognize very little of Levis' California and even less of its people.

In a 1982 interview with David Wojahn, Levis conceded the claustrophobia of a proto-surrealist mode: "... I saw, at one point, that if I kept trying to write these little jewel-like poems that were composed almost entirely of images, of exquisite pleasure, that it reduced what my poetry was or could be." Like most American poets who indulged the mode, Levis' surrealist phase was only temporary. "It's a matter of admitting other forms, other kinds of things into the province of poetry, otherwise poetry has to exist on a diet that is too rich, too sculpted down to one narrow, little cavern into which it's always in danger of falling into the abyss of utter language," Levis told Wojahn.

Virtually no American poet has been a surrealist through the greater part of his career or in the majority of his better poems. Levis is no exception. If the brief lyrics in Wrecking Crew and The Afterlife were the seeds, it was in his third collection, The Dollmaker's Ghost, where Levis' poetry began maturing in narrative complexity. Rather than a poetry that condensed around a few scattered imagery, Levis began composing, in a more conversational tone, poems that followed the billowing line of his own thought, often to intricate lengths as seen here in "Lost Fan, Hotel California, Fresno, 1923":

In Fresno it is 1923, and your shy father

Has picked up a Chinese fan abandoned

Among the corsages crushed into the dance floor.

On it, a man with scrolls is crossing a rope bridge

Over gradually whitening water.

If you look closely you can see brush strokes intended

To be trout.

You can see the whole scene

Is centuries older

Than the hotel, or Fresno in the hard glare of morning.

And the girl

Who used this fan to cover her mouth

Or breasts under the cool brilliance

Of chandeliers

Is gone on a train sliding along tracks that are

Pitted with rust.

All this is taking her south,

And as your father opens the fan now you can see

The rope bridge tremble and the lines of concentration

Come over the face of this thin scholar

Who makes the same journey alone each year

Into the high passes ...

Here, and to a greater extent in the selections taken from Winter Stars and The Widening Spell of the Leaves that round out the book, we witness the horizontal, metaphorical movements away from an initial narrative frame that would come to define Levis' more mature work. He comes to trust in the pleasure of language and of thought, allowing his sentences to unravel, to make associations, and, subsequently, to gather in emotional and intellectual momentum along the way.

Like a jazz riff that departs from its original line only to find its way back again, so does Levis' imagination indulge meditational improvisations. In poems like "The Assimilation of the Gypsies," "The Perfection of Solitude," and "Slow Child with a Book of Birds," Levis' becomes a speculative verse, one in which the images, once ends in themselves, become points of reference or touchstones for the brooding mind. And just as in jazz, these excursions often produce wonderful sprints in diction and tone.

The Selected Levis is the second book of poems published posthumously on Levis' behalf; the first was Elegy which remarkably saw the poet making yet another aesthetic leap, one towards an even fuller metaphysical mode. Still, whatever their style of thought, Levis' poems continue to find admirers even in death, all but promising Larry Levis a place in American literature for as long as poetry matters.

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