Exile on Main Street: The Poetics of Larry Levis
Banishment is everyone’s story. And while the words we conjure to tell that story perhaps console and sustain us, they also cast us further from the very worlds we are trying to revisit, recreate, resurrect.
In the closing sentences of “Eden and My Generation,” reprinted in his posthumous collection of essays and interviews, The Gazer Within (University of Michigan Press, 2001), Larry Levis writes about his departure from the San Joaquin Valley, where he’d grown up working in his father’s vineyards: “After I left for good,” he tells us, “all I really needed to do was to describe the place exactly as it had been. That I could not do, for that was impossible. And that is where poetry might begin.”
When I was asked recently to speak about the work of a poet I admire, my thoughts turned quickly to Levis, whose sudden death in 1996 deprived the poets of my generation of the opportunity to meet or study with him, though the proliferation of essays about him and his work by poets such as Edward Byrne, Philip Levine, Dave Smith, and David St. John—as well as his own prose in The Gazer Within and elsewhere—suggest the kind of dynamic force he was as a student, teacher, and peer in the world of poetry. Levis was born in 1946 in Fresno and spent his youth, as he writes in his collection The Dollmaker’s Ghost, “picking grapes in an abandoned vineyard” between the Sierras and the Pacific. Discussing that third book of his in a 1990 interview with Leslie Kelen in The Antioch Review, Levis describes an element of his composition that I think is central to his entire body of work:
Whereas, traditionally, in poetry, one might think of
a rhythm being linear, [I began to] think of it more
architecturally, as not only a linear but a vertical
figure establishing itself in rhythms or variations,
both across the line and then vertically down
through the poem, picking up repetitions and
motifs…more or less the way they are used in
Undoubtedly “repetitions and motifs” comprise a strategy central to Levis’s poetics. When I first experienced his poems—they are experiences, as Rilke reminds us poems should be—I felt a tremendous sympathy with his fragmentation of narrative, his poems’ way of seeing the world as a story that might have been whole somewhere, before we attempted to tell it. What has always attracted me to Levis’s work is his ability to develop a motif and then allow it to slip for long intervals under the surface of the poem, out of view but never quite out of mind. A motif—an idea, an image—might appear and disappear like some cryptic, aquatic creature, troubling the waters of the poem just enough to let us know it’s there. When it rolls up again in another line or section, we see perhaps a stretch of its dark body, though Levis never gives us the whole.
But why did Levis make this such an essential property in his poetics, a basic formal principle that served to both dominate and liberate his seemingly endless inventiveness? The answer, I think, is that all successful poems recapitulate their content in their formal strategies, and Levis’s content was inevitably the loss of what Freud, in a passage the poet was fond of quoting, called “a feeling which [once] embraced the universe and expressed an inseparable connection of the ego with the outside world.” This is the myth of the loss of Eden, of the Garden, of what Robert Hass has called—to call into question—“a first world / of undivided light.” If Louise Glück has reminded us that the myth of the Garden is a “great theme” that can “turn a good poet into a great one,” she has also noted that its “charm doesn’t always work, and many fine writers, in the grip of [its] narrative…are beguiled into impassioned production of disappointing art.” If Levis’s great theme is banishment—what he calls the “loss of Eden and the resulting knowledge which partially and paradoxically compensates for all solitary exile”—its treatment in his work is never disappointing, because his poems are always grounded in the particulars of tragedy, the particular music of what we do to one another.
“Eden becomes truly valuable only after a fall, after an exile that changes it, irrevocably, from what it once was,” Levis writes in “Eden and My Generation.” “When I returned to California in 1970 to teach,” he tells us, “I returned to a withered Eden.” Though he goes on in that essay to contend that many poets of his generation began to prefer “a more abstract,” “collective and generational” language of loss, he reminds us that the history of poetry has seen the Genesis myth become “more and more possible only in a radically secular way,” which means that “poetry began to locate Eden, not in public myth, but in the privacy of personal experience, and to explore it in the lyric rather than the epic mode.” Certainly Levis was thinking of his own work, for he speaks of loss as much through his formal choices as through his choices of material. Whenever Levis resurrects one of his motifs in a poem, for instance, even when he repeats an earlier phrase or image exactly, he shows us just how much it has been changed by the passage of time, by its new context in the language. If the motif is that cryptic creature rising again from the waters of the poem, Levis also gives us our own faces reflected in its glistening skin, and the poem’s effect is to show us just how much we, too, have irrevocably changed over the course of the poem’s unfolding. Even if that change is a diminishment, the poem’s triumph is to turn it into beauty.
The trouble with discussing Levis’s work is that so many of his poems, especially the later ones, are long, and therefore difficult to quote meaningfully. I know a handful of Levis readers who prefer his shorter, elliptical poems—the earliest of them forged under the heavy influence of deep-image poetics—but to my taste it’s the expansive work that allows Levis to fully explore his gift for structure. We all know Eliot’s remark that no verse is really free, but Levis does his best to remind us that one of the things the poem is never free from is the Self (even if it’s the suprapersonal, Whitmanic Self) that composes it, and he further reminds us that that Self is a structure, a form, a series of given laws that the poem must learn to embrace if it wants to transcend. This is Whitman’s “well-entretied” mystery, Thomas’s self that sings in its chains. It is also the “boy / With sow’s hoofs instead of hands” in Levis’s “Elegy for Poe with the Music of a Carnival Inside it,” who “keeps / Tapping at the glass, unable to tell his story.”
Yet, as Levis suggests in his remark about leaving home, it is precisely the articulation of that impossibility that makes it poetry, makes it triumphant. So many poets are done disservice by their anthology pieces, but it’s proper that Levis’s “My Story in a Late Style of Fire” is so often reprinted as a representation of his work. Its final lines are the kind of achievement I’ve been suggesting:
But I wanted to explain this life to you, even if
I had to become, over the years, someone else to do it.
You have to think of me what you think of me. I had
To live my life, even its late, florid style. Before
You judge this, think of her. Then think of fire,
Its laughter, the music of splintering beams & glass,
The flames reaching through the second story of a house
Almost as if to—mistakenly—rescue someone who
Left you years ago. It is so American, fire. So like us.
Its desolation. And its eventual, brief triumph.
Though those lines do not illustrate its overall structure, the poem as a whole is built on “repetitions and motifs,” albeit in a more compressed form than in the longer, terrifically writhing gestures of the poems in The Widening Spell of the Leaves and the posthumous Elegy—and even later poems and fragments. Levis employs this strategy often in his work, yet it is never forced, always organic. In his early poem “Linnets,” for example, there is really nothing to give the poem anything like structural coherence other than such motifs, and yet they do so splendidly. Levis himself told us that the poem’s apparent lack of a subject required him to learn how to write about “nothing at all,” which is another way of saying it required him to confront wholesale loss, wandering through what he would later call the “widening spell” of the poem’s wilderness to do so. Levis’s longer pieces are like this: they have a meditative expansiveness while also preserving a lyric intensity. To compare these poems to, say, Rilke’s Duino Elegies, would not be off the mark: both poets manage to sustain a lyric intensity across an expansive meditative mode, and both are unapologetically ambitious.
This brings me to another of Levis’s strategies: his very visible dialectic. I’ve always been deeply sympathetic to his poems’ ability to argue with and contradict themselves explicitly without becoming tonally flat or perfunctorily paradoxical. Instead, the tone and the contradictions are always sharp, always engaging. I’m thinking particularly of lines like these, at the end of “Those Graves in Rome,” from his fourth book, Winter Stars:
….no doubt the simplest fact
Could shame me. Perhaps the child was from
Calabria, & went back to it with
A mother who failed to find work, & perhaps
The child died there, twenty years ago,
Of malaria. It was so common then—
The children crying to the doctors for quinine,
And to the tourists, who looked like doctors, for quinine.
It was so common you did not expect an aria,
And not much on a gravestone, either—although
His name is on it, & weathered stone still wears
His name—not the way a girl might wear
The too large, faded blue workshirt of
A lover as she walks thoughtfully through
The Via Fratelli to buy bread, shrimp,
And wine for the evening meal with candles &
The laughter of her friends, & later the sweet
Enkindling of desire; but something else, something
Cut simply in stone by hand & meant to last
Because of the way a name, any name,
Is empty. And not empty. And almost enough.
Or these inimitable lines from “Sensationalism,” a poem in which he muses on a Josef Koudelka photograph of a man standing before a horse in what was then Czechoslovakia, amidst the ravages of history:
I do not wish to interfere, Reader, with your solitude—
So different from my own. In fact, I would take back
I’ve said here, if that would make you feel any better,
Unless even that retraction would amount to a milder way
Of interfering; & a way by which you might suspect me
Of some subtlety. Or mistake me for someone else,
Not disinterested enough in what you might think
Of this. Of the photograph. Of me.
The miracle is that the speaker manages to be standoffish and compassionate at the same instant, and it’s the candidness of the poem’s dialectic—it’s questioning itself—that saves it from self-righteousness, and so allows such confrontation. And if the Levis poem is always far from self-righteousness, it is always just as far from self-pity. Yes, banishment and its sorrow are at the heart of this work, but Levis fathomed the true meaning of the story of Eden: each life must participate in its being cast out of its garden in order to achieve some distant, cryptic knowledge, if not purpose. In a brief autobiographical piece originally published in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Levis relays a moment in his childhood when his mother and father discovered “a kind of obscene anatomical sketch of a woman” he had created. It’s a small, adolescent anecdote, not much of a Genesis myth. Yet Levis remembers its consequences: “I’m disgusted with you,” his father seethed, a remark that, Levis tells us, “expelled [him] from the paradise of [his father’s] affections.” Yet even the young Levis had the humanity to understand that all expulsions are at least partly willed by the subterranean forces in the expelled:
Blame and accusation fill the best-selling memoirs of our
time. The parents are usually indicted for just about
every kind of neglect, abuse, and failure. I couldn’t blame
mine for anything, not even my father’s remark, which
was mild enough as such things go with parents and
children. If I took it seriously enough for it to liberate
me in some way, I guess I can only blame my shrewd,
calculating unconscious for that.
And yet, for all of this apparent resignation to the forces within his own life, Levis’s aplomb never reduces to that kind of easy fatalism that would suggest "everything happens for a reason," and glibly leave matters at that. The poems challenge and haunt themselves; they back-pedal; they scour their depths for self-deception. And if the purpose of their speaker’s exile, or self-exile, remains forever hidden even from him, the poems acknowledge what Kafka understood in his great parable “Before the Law”: that the quest for such a purpose may be all we know of arrival, that the gates barring us from admittance to our own lives are made only for us, for we are both the gate and the gatekeeper.
“Fallen,” Levis once remembered, “I returned to my home, and, if I did not have any real vision then, I did have eyesight. I could see the place—that is one of the consequences of falling.” He might have said “blessings,” rather than consequences, for he knew as well as anyone that the wages of exile is a voice. What he knew, in the end, was that “the more we try to return to the Edenic place,” even if that place is merely a state of mind, even if it in fact never was, “the more our methods, our words, lock us out and turn the pain of our collective separation and exile into poetry.” Nonetheless, as Stevens writes, the poet’s hope is that the “being there together is enough,” and it’s this gathering in the song, this “collective pain” and collective joy that Levis understood best. His ability to take his own “radically secular” and personal Eden—his own San Joaquin Valley, his own difficult vision of America—and discover its universals, discover a way to show us that his story is our own, proves his poems should endure.
Because, in the end, those poems have heart. They care about and for us. They provide us with the inevitable impression that their speakers are deeply invested in our response, in our revival, even in our repair. More than occasionally, Levis’s longer poems come at us like a veritable tidal wave of text, yet they never dominate, bully, or preach to us; they never condescend to us or make promises they cannot keep. More often than not, they somehow convince us that we have been participating in the dialectic, and they do this by the grand, open-hearted way they question and erase and restate themselves, all in the attempt to make audible the chorus within us, with all its savory and unsavory characters. When Levis wants to give voice to one of the latter, he takes it on himself. When he wants to give voice to one of the former, he more often than not gives it to another, to a neighbor, to us.
If I’ve been guilty of quoting words of and about Levis that have been quoted often, let me do it again. A dream that Levis had while he was living in Salt Lake City has entered the canon of literary lore. In it, Levis often recounted, Yeats returned to gather a poem he had left behind:
He went quickly into the kitchen and emerged again with
the work in his hand, and passing by me glanced at the
new edition of his poems, the most complete and
scholarly one available, open to a place where I had
made a note in the margin, and he paused slightly and
then said, “What are you reading that for?” and looking
straight at me said, “Passion is the only thing that
matters in poetry. As a matter of fact, it’s the only thing
that matters in life.”
Passion, and its eventual, lasting triumph.