Friends of Dead Poets Society

Larry Levis’ latest (and possibly last) posthumous collection


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A writer’s choice in friends may never matter more than when he dies. We could have had Byron’s Memoirs, but his sister and his friends quarreled over the manuscript and it was torn and burned to ashes. Virgil gave instructions for the same to be done to the Aeneid, but Horace (and Augustus) wouldn’t hear of it. Franz Kafka begged Max Brod to incinerate The Trial and The Castle, but Brod’s better angels prevailed. Fred Kaplan recently announced in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement that he’s in possession of “four substantial loose-leaf volumes” of Gore Vidal’s witty and delightful letters but that he won’t be publishing them or turning them over to anyone else while he’s alive, as “a small bit of revenge” against the dead man.

Even once the decision to publish what remains has been made, friends, family, and legal advisors can’t simply rush every jot and tittle into print. A process of careful selection must take place, and heaven help us when heirs and readers disagree about what constitutes careful and selection.

In the last few years, for instance, early drafts of several beloved novels have been published as though they were finished works in themselves: Ernest Hemmingway’s posthumous True at First Light was reportedly transformed by his son’s editing; Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman is, famously, unedited entirely.

Regarding the remaining drafts and juvenilia of contemporary poets, the situation is no less knotty. We rely on friends, students, and executors who have the choice between saving only what the poet themselves would have been most proud of and making the book a learning experience: a story about a writer’s growth, missteps, and process. The latter route was taken (to some flack) by Christopher Ricks in T.S. Eliot’s Inventions of the March Hare and by Alice Quinn in Elizabeth Bishop’s Edgar Allan Poe & the Jukebox. The former route — trying to publish more-or-less the book that would have been published had the author lived — is clearly the one David St. John would like to have taken in the case of Larry Levis. But his was not the only vote.

Read It

The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems by Larry Levis

For Levis — who died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1996 at the age of 49 — posthumanity has been complex. His first late collection, 1997’s Elegy, edited by Philip Levine, was every bit as wistful and spooky as any of Levis’ five previous books. In Elegy we find poems about Levis’ childhood in the vineyards of Selma, California, the streets of Fresno, of “Piedra, Conejo, Parlier. Stars & towns,” of “Canal School with its three rooms,” of the summer of love where “Anybody with three dollars could have a vision.” Levis spent a Fulbright year in the disappearing country of Yugoslavia in 1989 in “the rain // Falling between the treeless, bleached yellow / of cheap housing projects, the rain // Showing them the way home, showing them the Future.”

As the above makes clear, Levis is not a strictly confessional poet — he weaves personal anecdotes alongside ghostly evocations of landscape and political contemplations and historical fantasias: the petty thief on Columbus’s ship who first spotted the shore of the New World, “the withheld breath of death” on the battlefield of Shiloh, Edgar Allan Poe waking up one morning in a municipal park in Richmond alongside three hard-luck cases (one of whom “would have become a car thief, if only / The car had started”).

The three of them stare off at a city that is there
In the distance, where they are loved for no
Clear reason, a city they walk toward when
They are themselves again, a city
That vanishes each morning in the pale light.
Poe would have admired them, & pitied them.
For Poe detested both the real city with its traffic
Crawling over bridges, & the city that vanishes.

Levis is not an epigrammatic poet. More than most, he begs to be read whole, because the strength of his lines lies in the intricate way they’re woven together. Later in “Elegy for Poe with the Music of a Carnival Inside It,” the writer’s ghost will visit a carnival sideshow, and, later still, wait forever at a busy intersection. Earlier, readers were introduced to the park itself where “grass wants to turn / Into dust” and a statue of several confederate soldiers stands in the rain. But “the stone is a kind of rain” and the three vagrants are, somehow, the soldiers. Poe and the vagrants are one, as are the sideshow freaks for whom “Poe comes back to see / Himself, disfigured, in another.” The real city, Richmond, is also the imagined city (a kingdom by the sea?), the city of wishes fulfilled. The corner where Poe waits through traffic is the intersection of both cities, “the intersection of radiance / and death.” The vagrants walk toward that city “when they are themselves again,” but when are they ever themselves, and who are these “selves” anyway? Who says?

At heart, Levis is a Romantic, though a dark one. Like Thomas Lovell Beddoes, his fantasies savor as much of the Gothic as they do of Keats’ mists and mellow fruitfulness. His lines are often long and captious, with broad vowels and a variety of scenes and characters passing through them and morphing one into the other. His work is metaphysical but it is skeptical rather than programmatic, and in this way, though he superficially resembles Walt Whitman, it is to Emily Dickinson’s party he belongs.

Whitman died believing himself a failure and begging despairingly that his every word be destroyed. His poems were intended not merely to be but to mean, to move the mind of mankind toward a democratic and spiritual unity. Levis too unites disparate figures and places, but his are the harmonic unities of art and the reveries of an austere and lonely spirit, not the subsuming power of an omnivorous oversoul.

In his latest (last?) posthumous collection, The Darkening Trapeze, edited by David St. John, Levis seems to identify himself with the absolute, if only briefly, and in the form of a question, and perhaps in the distant past, and perhaps under the influence of either hallucinogens or methamphetamine, in “If He Came & Diminished Me & Mapped My Way”:

Who was there in the uncountable stars, in the distance,
And in the cold glittering?
Who leaned with the wind against the trees all day,

And who slept in the swing’s empty stillness under them?

Who was present in the pattern of the snake fading
Into the pattern of the leaves again?

And who presided over the empty clarity of water falling,
Water spreading into a thin, white veil
Glimpsed just once in a moment clear & empty as a heaven—

Once heaven has been swept clean of any meaning?

Whose childhood is no more than a blackened rafter,
Something left after fire has swept through it?

The past finds its home in oblivion, in “the nothing all light is,” as he puts it in “A Singing On the Rocks.” We may be one with God but, rather than elevating mankind, this impoverishes the deity. In “François Villon on the Condition of Pity in our Time,” in the new collection, Levis speaks in the voice of the roguish 15th-century poet when he declares:

We’re broken buttons, we’re blown dust.
There’s not one tear left in all of us.
I know, for I am François Villon, murderer,
Thief: pustules, blisters, triumphing sores,
Your disappearing likeness on the cross!

Adamah is old Hebrew for dust, the stuff which Lord God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” So, we are blown dust. More darkly, we are no more than that. Villon suffers as Christ suffered and as Lucifer suffered. In Levis’ world, all are manifestations of the godhead, but the godhead himself is nothing more than “Time touching / the boxes we are wrapped in like gifts & splintering them / into wood again, at the edge of a wood,” as Levis writes in “Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern in It.”

After Levis died, his colleagues at Virginia Commonwealth University gathered various drafts of poems from his computer and attempted to assemble “final” versions. As St. John writes in his introduction to the new volume, “at times, they had even tried to include the revisions they’d found scrawled on scattered Post-its and other notes left on his desk.”

A paradox: though the best poetry is often made via razor-thin calls between similar words, and though a single poem may undergo a manuscript’s worth of revision before it feels just right to both reader and poet, some of the poetic texts we cherish most — collections of Emily Dickinson’s fascicles, or the First Folio of Shakespeare — have been assembled by way of scraps, best guesses, and any number of transcription errors.

The poems in Elegy, by and large, feel perfect, as though they came to the poet in a rush. The poems in the new collection also feel this way, but only about half of the time. There are more short poems here than in Elegy, some from earlier in Levis’ career, poems he cut from previous collections. As Philip Levin wrote of the clutch of drafts he was given, some were inevitably “not up to his own very high standards.” The rhymed experiment “Anonymous Source” was almost certainly one of these. A chronicle of a tumultuous moment in the history of an unnamed country, “Anonymous Source” is rhymed and slant-rhymed with dexterity (“I was given a sinecure / a tedious but mild post with the Department of Agriculture”) but the lack of any meter in the lines distracts from anything else the poem has to say and reading it feels like running along uneven ground to reach one rhyme, then another.

The longer poems here are uniformly excellent — a fantasia about Wallace Stevens and a fighter pilot and a manicurist called “The Necessary Angel” should be a part of any future selected Levis, as should the heartbreaking “God Is Always Seventeen” and a number of others. A few of the shorter, earlier poems might have been omitted (as Levis himself omitted them from earlier books) but all of them have at least one moment of fireworks or a handful of fascinating lines. The reader easily sees how difficult it might have been for St. John to consign them to the dust, and why it’s probably best that he didn’t.

Some of the poems included here turned up in properly finished versions only after Elegy had been sent to press, among them the marvelous “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire.” St. John writes that he suspects this poem “was meant to complete the cycle of ten elegies Levis had been working toward in order to create his own Duino Elegies, his own The Book of Nightmares.”

The trouble with this reading is that there are two other poems with “elegy” in the title in this collection, bringing the total to twelve. Is St. John insisting these were early drafts Levis would have discarded in the fullness of time? He doesn’t say. The question is further complicated by the fact that both of these poems, “Elegy for The Infinite Wrapped in Tinfoil,” where the sound of an arsonist’s fire becomes the sound of his girlfriend’s tongue in his ear, and “Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze,” in which we learn that “The only surviving son of Jesus Christ was Karl Marx,” both feel powerful and fully-formed.

Lines and scenes that repeat from one poem to another may be there deliberately or may be the detritus of earlier drafts, but it hardly matters. Reading The Darkening Trapeze is an absorbing and an oddly reassuring experience. Levis is a marvelous performer, one who can smile and shoot the breeze and then suddenly terrify or astound.

In “Ocean Park #17, 1968: Homage to Diebenkorn,” the speaker takes a room at The Bayside Motel and waits for the moment of dawn when “all the rooms / Of the empty Bayside, // Will turn completely into light.” Then:

I place a cup on the sill & listen for the faint
Tock of china on wood, & …

That moment of light is already this one—
Sweet, fickle, oblivious, & gone:

My hand hurrying across the page to get there
On time, that place

Of undoing—

Levis is vanished now, and immortal. He knew — as he writes in “The Cook Grew Lost in His Village, the Village in the Endless Shuffling of Their Cards” — that “the scent of immortality / and the savor of oblivion are one.” •


John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John’s published critical work in Sculpture, Bookforum, and The The Poetry Foundation. Say hi at John [at] JohnCotter [dot] net.