Let's Get Lost: The Image as Escape in the Poems of Larry Levis

Tony Hoagland

In Thom Gunn's incisive essay on the poems of Robert Creeley, he says:

     If Creeley has come to dislike simile, finally, as "always a displacement of what is happening," he has come also to dislike all regularization, because it does something like the same thing.

Simile, to Creeley, --and by zealous extrapolation, we might say all "invention"-- is a displacement of what is happening. His central concern is that Zen-like fidelity to being-in- the- moment, a sort of confrontation with the naked existential furniture. Creeley is one of our most Christ-like poets- crucifixion is his specialty, and that asceticism is the reason why some readers temperamentally find Creeley's work excessively stripped down, sparse, unfurnished, barren.

The contrastingly lush, rambling work of Larry Levis might be described, in this sense, as the polar opposite of Creeley's, --as being all displacement There is nothing, it might sometimes seem, that Levis wishes to do more than to travel as far as possible away from the moment His early work is founded in the image, and at points in his early and mid-career, at least, Levis' poems are, if not all simile, all inventive figuration. His narratives are studded with metaphor, and are themselves often a sort of expansion of image. Consider the fabular poem "Story," from The Dollmaker's Ghost, Levis' third book:

I know the white wedding dress is suicidal.
I know how the bride trembles, putting it on.

And tonight the groom is pissing into some shrubs
behind a tavern. It is late, and he thinks

of twin sores riding the rump of a horse
as it is being whipped into a slow trot,

and of how the driver nods to the butcher who waves
back after smearing his apron with the blood

of hogs. And now the butcher takes one long drink
of black wine, and calculates how many new flies

will hatch in the park, if there are three thousand
flies in each pond, if there are thirty ponds.

Then he calculates how many each carp will eat,
if there are fifty carp in each pond. It passes

The day, he thinks, this calculating the flies.
Still it is the butcher, slicing off his index finger

at the knuckle, who keeps death away from this poem
long enough for the bride to marry. Long enough

for the horse to die, two months later, standing still
in a slaughterhouse. And long enough for the flies

to swarm over the meat in their loud, black weddings.

From bride to groom to horse, to driver to butcher to flies and algebra we go, skipping dexterously, associatively along, like a rock across the surface of a pond, until we are almost out of sight of the original "topic" of the poem, the suicidal bride and groom. Of course, this poem tells us what is being fled from, what is being displaced--the populace of images is "keeping death away" from the poem. Is the displacement successful or unsuccessful? Well, both: the poem gets written, the reader and the poet take their journey, the bride and groom have gotten married. On other hand, the presence of suffering and death is hardly vanquished; doom hovers over the poem. The flight of the poem seems both towards and away from Mr. D.

The image of Death--any reader of Levis gets used to its constant presence. It is like a rudder, the steadying referent beneath all movement The overriding fatalism of his work, which is certainly a traditional Romantic preoccupation, comes eventually to be so familiar that it seems almost decorative. I remember one of my teachers in graduate school, who often claimed, with the relish of a poker player holding a stacked deck, that all speech was about death; because after all, he reasoned, speech was a flight from silence, and silence represents death. By the same logic, all thinking is implicitly a way of not thinking about death--which explained what we were doing in graduate school; we preferred it to the graveyard. Like most truths, it becomes fanatical and silly in its absolute form. But he was, after all, a professor.

Nonetheless, Levis' poem "Story" offers support for this paradigm; it describes the imagination as a functional flight Away-From, the image as escapist--and by proxy, for himself as an escapist poet, a terminal digressor, an escape artist.

But if Levis' poems are displacement, they are cathedrals of displacement, displacement symphonies, full of strange and entertaining delights. And if we feel a difficulty in saying what the poems are About, a good reader, unlike my professor, will have the feeling that Death is far too simple an answer to the question. As such a reader, I feel that they are not just moving Away from something , but Towards something. But what is, if not merely the evasion of death, their intention?

Let us return, for a minute, to the subject of image. Of course, Levis started as a poet of image, like many poets of his generation; in the 70's the manufacture of radical metaphor was practically de rigeur; clearly, that was the talent with which he instinctively began, on which his work is founded, the building block for all the rest. That reliance on image without explication is evident in Levis's most early poems, in Wrecking Crew. "Poem" is representative:

I am a used car dealer, speaking a dead tongue.
I am several unclaimed hats

I am an old Cuban in the rain,
or water pouring slowly.

I am only a naked man, sitting up in bed,
six hours out of New York by either
dogtrots or heartbeats
or the heavy breathing in bus depots.

When we recall our touchstone, Creeley, these sequential, fairly unadditive images seem clearly "displacements of what is." Though stanza 3 momentarily retracts its first two images, and returns to " only a naked man", we can see that it concludes in a digressive, distancing flurry of images: dogtrots and bus depots. For Creeley, identity is the existential crux--"who am I? what am I?" And for Creeley, forced self-confrontation, a cornering of the self, is the method of getting an answer. In Levis' "Poem," also nominally a poem "about" identity, we can see how profoundly unlike the two poets are, especially on the issue of selfhood. Creeley is heroically reductive; Levis is intrinsically a rover, a journeyer outward.

In The Afterlife, his second book, influenced by the South American poets, Levis became even more defiantly surrealist. "Elegy" is a relatively conservative poem from that period, but its first section illustrates Levis's constitution of the time:

At the end
she laughed at get well cards,
at each of her shoes
filling with silence,
until there was nothing
to laugh at-and
the oak and the elm
filled with the night
a child might draw.

I stare past you at
the little white knobs
on a dresser which
will outlast us.
Like the knuckle
on the mammoth--
astonishing and
too stupid to live.

Again, the perennial focus on mortality; again, the imagistic resources. But there are two further observations to make here. First is Levis' covert gusto for metaphor, the joy of displacement which any poet knows; splitting a thing into a simile, this into that, after all, is like splitting the atom, and what breaks out, even from the darkest poem, is Energy: "and the oak and the elm/ filled with the night! a child might draw." The discovery of images is one of the great dividends of writing. That energy, that great pleasure, is everywhere in Levis' work, as irresistible as death. Appearing together, as they do here, metaphor and morbidity represent a kind of counterpoint, or even split. And in Levis, especially in the early and middle work, that dualism of solemn tragedy and buoyant comedy, brooding fatalism and joyful figure-making, is so pronounced as to constitute a contradiction. In "Elegy," for example (as in "Story"), the comparison of the white dresser knobs to the knuckles of a mammoth is an exhibition of irrepressible (and for me, comic) imagination in an otherwise somber, straight-faced poem. It is the giggle at a funeral.

Secondly, the issue of Aboutness. In the refusal to explain or analyze his own images, we find the corollary for Creeley's Isness- for Levis, the object of poetic consciousness does not seem to be the self. It would be more true to say that his focus is the imagination in some pure form, the imagination with the self subtracted. That allegiance to unexplained improvisation, against interpretation, can be found in his essay "Some Notes on The Gazer Within"

That essay is as strange and strangely stubborn as Levis himself- in its adamant refusal to reduce poetry to terms of craft, in its looping trajectory, in its self-assuredness and mysteriousness. Among other things, Levis reiterates Stevens' theory that a poem's purpose is to resist the pressure of modern reality with an equal pressure of irreducible imagination. He speaks admiringly of W.C.Williams' intention "to break down and demolish the bedrock of dualism that kept Williams himself and the world the world." And he claims, among other things, that for him there is no inner life. That a man is empty--and so much for identity.

Here is what he says about the composition of his poem "Linnets":

     "I was relatively untroubled about what the poem might mean to anyone, or what it should mean... It felt better to connect than to know anything in advance, and besides, what did I care if it made sense?

     I'd begun to love going to this poem each day, as a child loves going to a secret place, inhabited by a secret love, speaking to that intimate No One. And after all, isn't the hermitage of the poem like that place? The words appear; the wave takes the shape of the fire: the trees turn green again for some reason..."

Perhaps Aboutness is not the point But, on a technical level, we can observe, in the progression of the books, Levis' evolution as a writer from talented image-maker to virtuoso sentence maker. As he gradually augmented and amplified his initial image manking and narrative gifts with syntactical fluency and rhetorical skills, he acquired the full muscular powers of momentum, pulse, and delay.


Those powers are for me, first fully visible, and mature, in the robust and elegiac 1985 collection, Winter Stars. And because I have been representing Levis as primarily an image maker, I want to contradict that picture by quoting a poem extraordinary for its unwavering, patient fidelity to the thing described -- "Some Grass Along a Ditch Bank :"

I don't know what happens to grass.
But it doesn't die, exactly.
It turns white, in winter, but stays there,
A few yards from the ditch,
Then comes back in March,
Turning a green that has nothing
To do with us.
Mostly, it's yellow, or tan.
It blends in,
Swayed by the wind, maybe, but not by any emotion,
Or partisan stripe.
You can misread it, at times:
I have seen it almost appear
To fight long and well
For its right to be, && be grass, when
I tried pulling it out.
I thought I could almost sense it digging in,

Not with reproach, exactly, But with a kind of rare tact that I miss,
Sometimes, in others.
And besides, if you really wanted it out,
You'd have to disc it under,
Standing on a shuddering Case tractor,
and staring into the distance like
Somebody with a vision
In the wrong place for visions...

What "Some Grass " is about is, besides grass, the poet's resistance to his own imaginative tendencies-- There all along in Levis, in his fondness for the negative definition, here finally amounting to an anthem to Thingness: the grass is not, he says, what I think it is. The poem is also a covert homage to Whitman. (A child said, What is the grass?" No accident the reference to "partisan stripe," or that the preceding poem in Winter Stars is the poem titled "Whitman:").

Yet even here, our poet's temperamental predilections will out, and "Some Grass" takes, in its final third, the turn which is characteristic of the collection Winter Stars, into an elegy for the father, and the speaker's own fatalistic longing for death:

The lucky sold out to subdividers,
But this is for one who stayed,
and how, after a few years,
He even felt a sympathy for grass--
Then felt that turn into a resentment
Which grew, finally, into
A variety of puzzled envy...

The images with which Levis began had, in their singularity, a stasis. Images on their own are much like photographs-- they have a non-verbal impact which is their power; but they do not, in their singularity, move. The technical progress through the books is clearly one of progressive animation--their movement at first somewhat stilted, but finally cinematic, narrative and panoramic, especially in the unwinding sentences of The Widening Spell of the Leaves. In those poems, and in those yet to be published, Levis achieves a mode more full of mystery than ever before, a fusion of lyric, rhetoric, and narrative which is all his own. What the poems are is hard to describe. Finally, it might be best to speak in terms of ambience: the feeling one has is of their exploratoriness, presided over throughout by an enormous calm. The reader is swept along, alone, through the elaborate, elaborating corridors and currents of the dream, and the fact that those poems defy any reduction to "subject matter," and have an Isness of their own, I imagine, would have made him happy. The title of that book defines them as well as anything: They are "widening spells," -from which I will quote two passages, both from the title poem. Both passages illustrate the twofold elements I have been speaking of here: Levis' continued, irrepressible relation to metaphor, and his allegiance to what I have been calling Isness: the irreducibility of reality, and the corollary irreducibility of the poem. The poem as a whole chronicles a journey in a foreign landscape.

Wind, leaves, goats, the higher passes
Locked in stone, the peasants with their fate
Embroidering a stillness into them,
And a spell over all things in that landscape,

That was the trouble; it couldn't be
Compared to anything else, not even the sleep
Of some asylum at a wood's edge with the sound
Of a pond's spillway beside it...

The landscape is like, but not like. In "Study of Two Pears," his own anthem to Isness, Wallace Stevens says, "The pears are not viols/ nudes, or bottles," having it both ways at once, suggesting resemblances while denying them. Here Levis does much the same thing, and again in a second passage, later in the poem.

There was no wind now.
I expected that, & though I was sick and lost,
I wasn't afraid. I should have been afraid.
To this day I don't know why I wasn't.
I could hear time cease, the field quietly widen.
I could feel the spreading silence of the place
Moving like something I'd witnessed as a child,
Like the ancient, armored leisure of some reptile
Gliding, gray-yellow, into the slightly tepid,
Unidentical gray-brown stillness of the water--
Something blank & unresponsive in its tough,
Pimpled skin--seen only a moment, then unseen
As it submerged to rest on mud, or glided just
Beneath the lusterless, calm yellow leaves
That clustered along a log, or floated there
In broken ringlets, held by a gray froth
On the opaque, unbroken surface of the pond,
Which reflected nothing, no one....

Here it is--a simile so lush and commanding it makes you forget that it is a simile. But is it a flight, or an arrival? This image for a pervading silence is so painstakingly realistic that it constitutes a confrontation with the thing itself. This silence is both annihilating and entrancing. It tastes, in its enormous living stillness, of both death and of eternity. And it is the summation and resolution of our argument about image versus presence.

Reading these labyrinthine poems, which seem to encircle a thing without a name, I'm sure that their reason for becoming was the deep immersion of the poet in his own vision. And I have no doubt that those poems were born with a disregard of audience, and a relative indifference to "subject matter." I don't know any other poet of our time who had such a pure relation to his art, and such a deep bemused allegiance to Mystery, one more unconcerned about what other people thought, or even about himself.

And it seems to me laughably inadequate to say that the poems are about death. Or that they are not about what Is. Death, just a word for something we don't understand, is the word that Levis assigned to Presence. From start to finish, that deep sonorous calm presides over Levis work--it never fidgets. If you want to say that his muse was the end of life, I would say that it was the stillness of the self which he sought, and explored, for it is in that cessation that the point of real contact with both reality and eternity takes place.

But Levis' own words, at the conclusion of his essay on "The Gazer Within," articulate it best:

"... trying to assess what all this represents, I find I've been speaking, all along, about the attempt of the imagination to inhabit nature and by that act preserve itself for as long as possible against "the pressure of reality." And by nature I mean any wilderness, inner or outer. The moment of writing is not an escape, however; it is only an insistence, through the imagination, upon human ecstasy, and a reminder that such ecstasy remains as much a birthright in this world as misery remains a condition of it."

This commentary really contains the answer to our questions about the paradox of his poetry. In his insistence upon the reality of the ecstatic, Levis is escapist; in their rapture, the poems are a displacement of ordinary existence, and in that sense, they are fundamentally different from Creeley's work. At the same time, there is in the poems a heroic insistence on Isness, on an encounter with the illuminated moment.

As befitting someone whose initial influences, or lineage, belonged to the French and Spanish surrealists, Levis' allegiance remained with Mystery throughout. Finally, he himself was transformed from one of its students or acolytes, into one of its priests.

We shall not see his like again. But we have a lifetime's work which we can enter and reenter, and participate in as dreamers.

Copyright ©1997 Tony Hoagland. All rights reserved.

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