Larry Levis, born in Fresno, California, was an award-winning poet who often employed an imagist or surrealist approach in his work. Although his early work was overtly political, Levis described his late work as more personal: “By personal I do not mean 'confessional' at all. I mean the creation of a private, familial mythology which intends to be representative rather than idiosyncratic."
Steven M. Wilson, writing about Levis’s collection The Widening Spell of the Leaves, describes the "sometimes dizzying maze of images and meanings" that Levis uses to explore "the uses of intuition and personal history in reaching an understanding and acceptance of human existence." This maze of images and meanings can be seen in Levis’ later work, such as in “Ocean Park #17, 1968: Homage to Diebenkorn.” The poem begins with a moment from the speaker’s life:
What I remember is a carhop on Pico hurrying
Toward a blue Chevy,
A crucifix dangling from its rearview mirror
That jiggled as the driver brushed
A revolver against it, in passing, before tucking it
Behind his back & beginning to joke with her.
What I remember
Is the smooth arc the gun made & the way
Jesus shimmied to the rhythm.
This image is jam-packed with the carhop, driver, gun and dangling crucifix, and it gives way to a new section where we’re somewhere else entirely, the “place depicted by the painting, boarded over by the layers of paint.” Although the poem is image-heavy, time feels as though it has stopped, and each image is crisp and fully rendered:
And beneath the pastel yellows I’ll find
The Bayside Motel & the little room
With the thin, rumpled coverlet,
And sit down, drinking nothing but the night air
By the window, & wait for her to finish
Dressing, one earring, then another,
And wait until the objects in the room take back
Their shapes in the dawn,
And wait until
Each rumpled crease in the sheets & pillowcase
Is as clear as a gift again, & wait –
At a certain moment, that room, then all the rooms
Of the empty Bayside,
Will turn completely into light.
Levis uses line breaks superbly here, slowing down the poem while we wait in the abandoned room, waiting for it not to fill with light, but to actually “turn” into light. The entire room turning to light is a hint of surrealism before we’re brought into the present of another room in the next section where “That moment of light is already this one – / Sweet, fickle, oblivious, & gone.” In the final stanza, Levis combines all these images into some form of acceptance, melancholy and wrought as it is:
Where the shriek of the carhop’s laugh,
And the complete faith of the martyr, as he spins & shimmies in the light,
And the inextricable candor of doubt by which Diebenkorn,
One afternoon, made his presence known
In the yellow pastels, then wiped his knuckles with a rag –
Are one – are the salt, the nowhere & the cold –
The entwined limbs of lovers & the cold wave’s sprawl.
Wilson observes that, “Levis uses his life, but also looks outside himself and beyond the events he remembers to find connections with broader truths." Wilson goes on to say that Levis is, “a writer who considers, with at times artistic brilliance, the issues involved in being human.” This is certainly found in “Ocean Park #17, 1968,” where Levis brings memory, imaginative projection, and the present together into “the salt, the nowhere, & the cold – / The entwined limbs of lovers & the cold wave’s sprawl.”
Lisa Russ Spaar, revisiting Levis’s second book for the Los Angeles Review of Books, writes:
As Levis matured as a poet, his line and train of thought lengthened, deepened, discursively and meditatively, into what are arguably his best and best known poems. He moved gradually, although never completely, away from the terse, flagrantly surreal, deep image poems of his early books into a musing style marrying personal family story and America’s regional history in delicate, tensile, often inimitable ways.
This “musing style” can be seen in poems like “Make a Law So That the Spine Remembers Wings,” a poem that literally muses on a yet-non-existent law. The title itself is imaginative and complex – suggesting that the spine, presumably a human spine, once contained wings, and also that a law could exist that would allow the spine (not the mind) to remember it. The poem is quietly beautiful in its musings:
So that in his spine a memory of wings
Will make his shoulders tense & bend
Like a thing already flown
When the bracelets of another school of love
Are fastened to his wrists,
Make a law that doesn’t have to wait
Long until someone comes along to break it.
However, it’s also marked by playfulness and humor, giving the beautiful images an edge:
So that in jail he will have the time to read
How the king was beheaded & the hawk that rode
The king’s wrist died of a common cold,
And learn that chivalry persists,
And what first felt like an insult to the flesh
Was the blank ‘o’ of love.
Put the fun back into punishment.
Make a law that loves the one who breaks it.
With chivalry, a king and love all making an appearance in this stanza, Levis runs the risk of cliché, but he cuts those lines with the cheeky, “Put the fun back into punishment / Make a law that loves the one who breaks it.”
Levis died of a heart attack at the age of 49 in 1996, and, as Edward Byrne writes for Blackbird, “one of the most accomplished and still promising voices in contemporary American poetry was silenced.” Byrne goes on to note that, “Levis already had been perceived by many of his peers as one of the leading practitioners of his art.” Russ Spaar notes that Levis’s early passing hasn’t meant his work has gone unread: "His work, especially the later Levis, continues to be appreciated not only by his long-devoted readers but by new, young ones as well.” Indeed, interest in Levis’s work remains strong, especially with the highly-anticipated new volume of Levis’s poems, The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems (edited by David St. John) that will be published by Graywolf Press in 2015.
Levis held a bachelor’s degree from Fresno State College (now California State University, Fresno), a master’s degree from Syracuse University and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He was awarded a YM-YWHA Discovery Award, three fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Fulbright Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Levis taught at California State University, University of Iowa, University of Missouri, University of Utah, and finally at Virginia Commonwealth University from 1992 until the time of his death.
Wrecking Crew, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1972
The Rain's Witness, Southwick Press, 1975
The Afterlife, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 1977
The Dollmaker's Ghost, Dutton, New York, 1981
Sensationalism, Corycian, Iowa City, 1982
Winter Stars, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1985
The Widening Spell of the Leaves, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1991
Elegy, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1997
The Selected Levis, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2000
The Darkening Trapeze: The Uncollected Poems of Larry Levis (forthcoming), Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2015
Black Freckles, Peregrine Books, Salt Lake City, 1992
The Gazer Within, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2001
Poetry Off the Shelf: Reconcilable Differences: Eleannor Wilner on Whitman; David St. John on Larry Levis
Poetry magazine: On ‘François Villon on the Condition of Pity in Our Time’ by Larry Levis by David St. John
PoetryFoundation.org: Shop Talk: Bly, Levis, and Edson on Poetry and Poetics by Hannah Gamble
Los Angeles Review of Books: Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry by Larry Levis and Anna Journey by Lisa Russ Spaar
Blackbird: To Recover the Poet: Larry Levis's Elegy, The Selected Levis, and The Gazer Within by Edward Byrne