Cold, Cold Feeling
by Terry Lucas
The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems, by Larry Levis, edited by David St. John, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2016, 112 pages, $16.00 paperback.
IF ONE IS FAMILIAR WITH ELEGY, Larry Levis's first posthumously published book of poems, edited by Philip Levine with help from Peter Everwine and David St. John, one does not have to read too many poems from The Darkening Trapeze to realize that the poems David St. John was left to work with for this second posthumously published collection use much of the same imagery and diction found in Elegy. Not only do "snow," "trees," "wood," "leaves," and even the occasional "horse" make their regular appearances, but even some entire phrases and lines are shared between the two collections ("Death blows his little fucking trumpet" and that "scuffed linoleum floor" the boys are standing on in "Boy in Video Arcade" from Elegy and "La Strada" from The Darkening Trapeze, e.g.).
Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the first poem in The Darkening Trapeze seems to take up where the final poem left off in "The Widening Spell" section of The Selected Levis, which St. John edited after Levis's death and before the publication of Elegy. Here are the final lines from "At the Grave of My Guardian Angel: St. Louis Cemetery, New Orleans" addressing "Nothing," not as an absence but as a presence as real as any other:
We'd better be getting on our way soon, sweet Nothing.
I'll buy you something pretty from the store.
I'll let you wear the flower in your hair even though you can only vanish entirely underneath its brown, implacable petals.
Stop your sniveling. I can almost see the all night diner looming
Up ahead, with its lights & its flashing sign a testimony to failure.
I can almost see our little apartment under the freeway overpass, the cups on the mantle rattling continually—
The Mojave one way; the Pacific the other.
At least we'll have each other's company.
And it's not as if you held your one wing, tattered as it was, in contempt
For being only one. It's not as if you were frivolous.
It's not like that. It's not like that at all.
Riding beside me, your seat belt around your invisible waist. Sweet Nothing.
Sweet, sweet Nothing.
This passage could easily serve as a preceding section to the opening lines of The Darkening Trapeze in "Gossip in the Village," if The Darkening Trapeze had been published prior to Elegy.
I told no one, but the snows came, anyway.
They weren't even serious about it, at first.
Then, they seemed to say, if nothing happened,
Snow could say that, & almost perfectly.
The village slept in the gunmetal of its evening,
And there, through a thin dress once, I touched
A body so alive & eager I thought it must be
Someone else's soul. And though I was mistaken,
And though we parted, & the roads kept thawing between snows
In the first spring sun, & it was all, like spring,
Irrevocable, irony has made me thinner. Someday, weeks
From now, I will wake alone. My fate, I will think,
Will be to have no fate.…
And with these opening lines, St. John pulls us back onto the cold, dark road of Levis's world where "Nothing," is "riding beside [him]…seat belt around invisible waist," with enough corporality to wear "something pretty from the store," and where a sleeping village is as "alive and eager" as "someone else's soul" beneath its "thin dress" of snow; a world where Nothing provides enough company on the journey to elicit affection, but where, in the end, the reader arrives at a place where the poet's fate is "to have no fate."
This gesture of defining a thing with the absence of its core or the opposite of its chief characteristic is a signature move of Levis, brought into even sharper focus in The Darkening Trapeze. The "[f]lesh that has stepped out of its flesh" in "La Strada"; the "light…the nothing all light is" in "A Singing in the Rocks"; "…wailing…/ [that] Was really a quiet…" and the "Everything [that] became different/ By staying just the same" in "Idle Companion"; "the home he enters [that] is not his home…" in "The Necessary Angel"; "the café tables" in "Threshold of the Oblivious Blossoming" that "Were empty because it was raining./ The rain [that] was empty as well…"—all sprinkled throughout, lest we grow too confident in the world of sensate experience, reminding us that if we dig deep enough beneath our perceptions, what we find at the bottom of them all is "Nothing."
Many times in the same poem, Levis subverts our expectations by beginning a line in a way that will seem headed toward its polar opposite, only to move laterally in a direction we could not have predicted, seemingly mocking previous lines (an echo of Whitman's "Do I contradict myself?"), and even the reader for losing faith in everything, giving us just enough to believe in to seek some kind of progression in the next lines or the next poem. In closing lines Levis often uses two images or descriptions that might seem disparate in a different context, in order to accomplish this. After fearing, for example, that our fate, like Levis's, is to have no fate, we, like him, "feel suddenly hungry," only to find that "The morning will be bright, & wrong." In "Col Tempo" Levis ends the poem with "It seems so limitless, the litter in the streets,/ The large families of the poor…," juxtaposed with "the stars over it all." In "The Necessary Angel" he closes the poem with a double-double—two images and two adjectives to describe them both.
As she goes home to her small apartment, living alone,
The lights of the city glittering in the snowy air;
Said so that it can never be unsaid, by the creaking
Of his wife's chair, by the ironic scraping of limbs
Against a wall, until the two sounds are all there is—
Filling the house with their brief & thoughtless triumph.
Levis readers might be reminded of the closing lines to "My Story in a Late Style of Fire": "…It is so American, fire. So like us./ Its desolation. And its eventual, brief triumph."
Triumph is a fitting word for these final poems that complete Levis's body of work. Not a triumph of achieving more than in his previous poems, but the same triumph Levis speaks of in "Carte de l'Assassin à M. André Breton," where one world completes another.
Life has one sad wing,
And no claws.
Out of this lack,
It imagined the owl,
Though it did not tell it why.
Owls are as otherworldly
As they appear, they inhabit
Their shriek & the quiet
Glide of their wings,
They are the other world
That completed this one…
If these lines sound as if they were written about the relationship between previous collections and this one, it is only because Levis had a history of connecting poems not only within a manuscript, but across time and through the covers of multiple books, beginning with Winter Stars and moving through The Widening Spell of the Leaves, long before Levine and St. John divided up the two-hundred-some poems found on his computer and in his journals after his death into those found in Elegy and those that comprise The Darkening Trapeze.
We will never know the shape of the manuscript that Levis intended to make from these two-hundred poems, but the one poem everyone can be sure that Levis intended as the last, to whatever collection he had in mind when he spoke to Levine on the phone a few days before his death in 1996 and told him that he had an "all-but completed manuscript," is the haunting "God Is Always Seventeen." It begins with the lines "This is the last poem in the book. In a way I don't even want/ to finish it. I'd rather go to bed & jack off under the covers// But I'd probably lose interest in it & begin wondering about God." It concludes with a story that echoes the one in which Valerie Wellington plays a role "on an extinct Chicago blues label" (perhaps singing "Cold, Cold Feeling"), in a poem selected by Levine for Elegy, "The Smell of the Sea."
…I have a child who isn't doing well in school.
It's not his grades. It's that he can't wake up.
He misses his morning classes & doesn't answer when I call & doesn't
Return my calls. The last time I saw him we took the train down from Connecticut
To New York & wandered around Times Square. We went into this record store
And pretended to browse through some albums there
Because we didn't know what to say to each other. It was night. It was just
Before Christmas season, & the clerks in the store
Would call out loudly Can I Help Anybody & Can I Help Someone & there was
Some music playing & something inconsolable
And no longer even bitter in the melody & I will never forget
Being there with him & hearing it & wondering what was going to become of us.
After reading this second installment of his final poems, we know without a doubt what became of Larry Levis; he became not only one of the most significant poets of his generation, but of any generation. Like Valerie Williams singing the blues, Levis, in The Darkening Trapeze, once again renders his operatic pieces in a feverish "tenor voice of the sax & the snow swirling on the city streets" (from "A Singing In the Rocks"), reaching both a high register of ecstasy and a low of despair, that is "so American," yet unlike so many artists, has proven to be anything but brief.
Terry Lucas's first full-length collection is In This Room. He won the 2014 Crab Orchard Review Special Issue Featured Poet Award and the 2012 Littoral Press Poetry Prize; his poems have garnered five Pushcart Prize nominations. His work has been published in journals including Best New Poets 2012, Green Mountains Review, Great River Review, Grain Magazine, Columbia Poetry Review, Naugatuck River Review, MiPoesias, New Millennium Writings, and The Comstock Review. His chapbook, If They Have Ears To Hear, won the Copperdome Chapbook Contest. He lives in Mill Valley, California.