A Way of Joining the Poems of Philip Levine & Larry Levis

By Alexander Long

Looking back on anything deemed complete—however miniscule, immense, fleeting, eternal—and discussing it in terms of its place within History, making sense of its genesis after the fact strikes me as inefficient because it dissolves the fluid and interchangeable processes of writing and living into static artifacts. I’d rather reconsider the work Philip Levine and Larry Levis, and their symbiotic influence, the way Proust suggested we approach life’s end: not as a problem to be solved but a mystery to be entered.

When I was eighteen, I had gotten Levis’s Winter Stars, and it was the first poetry I was able to hear. That is, Levis’s poems spoke directly to me; or if not to me, then to some aspect of my self waiting for me to acknowledge and accept it. In this way, my life began at eighteen. I am certain of it, for in those moments of reading Winter Stars, Levis began instructing me on how to look back on what was my youth; at the same time his poems pointed me toward “the blank/ Sail of the sky at the end of the world…”? Or was it toward “those twenty-six letters filling the blackboard”? Was it toward “Time itself”? Whatever it was, it began happening and has been happening ever since. The intimate, harrowing, unflinching, and gorgeous pull Levis’s poetry possesses set me out on a journey to bear witness to perhaps one of the more evasive yet necessary events in my life: my life.

The question for me ever since that epiphany has been: “How did Levis do that?” One answer is the confluence of experience, imagination, and instruction, or what we could call influence. This simple question leads to other questions: “How significant a role did Levine play in Levis’s poetic maturation?”, “How did the pressures of reality in 1960’s America shape their respective visions?”, “How much did their living in an around Fresno, California affect their subjects?”, “In what ways did Levine’s instructors influence him and his future student, Levis?”.

Two statements—one from Levis, the other from Levine—speak to these questions. The first comes from Levis during an interview in which he clarifies that

…it wasn’t Milton and Wordsworth who changed my life back there at Dust and Wind State College; it was Levine, his poetry, his teaching, the purity and fire of his genius that did that, and this further effected a change that my reading of Eliot had already begun. (A Condition of the Spirit 277)

The second comes from Levine’s 1996 essay simply titled “Larry Levis,” in which he sheds a light on his relationship with his former student:

By this time [1974] certainly he was no longer a son to me. Indeed he had come into himself. Or perhaps I should say he had created himself…. This was the Larry Levis to whom I mailed my new work each month—if there were work to send. He would return my poems with praise when they merited it and something else when they didn’t, and I tried my best to do the same for him with an equal measure of tact and honesty.

Looking back now, I can see that it was during my first year [1968] in Spain that my relationship with Larry began to change, for that was the first year of what became the crucial correspondence of my life. I was the only American poet I knew within driving distance, and so when Larry first sent me a poem for my approval or criticism I answered with one of my own. I had learned even during that first year as his teacher how sensitively and shrewdly he could read poetry, but it was only in the letters I discovered what a resourceful and brilliant practical critic he was, and as the years passed I grew more and more to need him in more ways than I can describe. (So Ask 34)

There’s no false modesty going on here. What we witness in these statements are two poetic geniuses acknowledging the tremendous degree to which they influenced each other. So, what better way, then, to more clearly and thoroughly witness their symbiotic influence than by looking more closely at their poems. For reasons of length, I’m examining only one poem each, Levine’s “Angel Butcher” and Levis’s “Elegy with a Chimneysweep Falling Inside It”.

Philip Levine was in his mid-forties when he wrote the poem “Angel Butcher.” Larry Levis, likewise, was in his mid-forties when he wrote the poem “Elegy with a Chimneysweep Falling Inside It.” Both were in the “middle” of their careers (though time manages to compress what “middle” finally looks like). Whereas Levine’s poem appears in his fifth book, They Feed They Lion, of (to date) seventeen, Levis’s poem appears in his sixth, and posthumous, book Elegy. Nevertheless, both poems can be held as representative works for each poet. By extension, both poems share remarkable similarities in their visionary arcs and stylistic signatures. In other words, a comparative analysis of “Angel Butcher” and “Elegy with a Chimneysweep Falling Inside It” can serve as kind of microcosm for the larger study of influence Levine and Levis share, a joining together that both informs and invigorates the work of these two poets.

“Angel Butcher,” a surreal kind of narrative, captures what seems on the surface an everyday moment between the speaker and the angel Christophe. What contributes to the poem’s resonance and power is primarily Levine’s ability to render such an “unbelievable” scenario so vividly, without fanfare, flourish, and ornament. The poem begins,

At sun up I am up
hosing down the outdoor abattoir
getting ready. The water
steams and hisses on the white stone
and the air pales to a
thin blue.
Today it is

Levine builds suspense by withholding the true nature of his job; the speaker is merely “getting ready” for another day of work. At the same time, the emotional texture of the poem is complicated by the description—serene, yet quietly menacing—of the water evaporating. “Today, it is/ Christophe” should indicate that this is not the first “session” the speaker has had with an angel, nor will it be his last.

Levine builds this quotidian, but otherworldly, scenario by intensifying the suspense with the element of hushed surprise:

…I don’t see him
come up the long climb or
know he’s here until I hear
my breathing double
and he’s beside me smiling
like a young schoolgirl.

Such peace, tranquility, and intimacy only jar us more; which is to say, we maintain, and
increase, our investment in the poem. Calmness mingling with terror, tenderness suffused with savagery, wonder mixed with rage, sympathy transfiguring into empathy…these are some of the most definitive characteristics of Levine’s vision. The image of the angel Christophe’s smile chills as much as it soothes, as does the understated purpose of their meeting.

Even when they talk, we learn only a little of what joins them together:

…He asks
me the names of all
the tools and all
their functions, he lifts
and weighs and
balances, and runs a long
forefinger down the tongue
of each blade.
He asks
me how I came to this place and
this work, and I tell him how
I began with animals, and
he tells me how
he began with animals. We
talk about growing up and losing
the strange things we never
understood and settling.

A visionary signature of Levine’s is his uncanny ability to pinpoint the exact gesture that seems to speak to one’s entire state of mind; Christophe running his finger down the tongue of the blade speaks to his curiosity and reverence for the tools, but also to his obsession with—or is it indifference to?—dying. We learn that there is a kind of leveling between them, that they are equals, that they have very similar origins, and that they have experienced many of the same things—loss, misunderstandings—as they matured. Still, we never quite learn the purpose of their meeting, and because of that, we are constantly on edge even when the speaker and Christophe share their stories.
Then, the speaker helps

him with his robes; he
has a kind of modesty and sits
on the stone table with
the ends of the gown crossed
in his lap.
He wants to die
like a rabbit, and he wants me
to help him.

Levine makes explicit not only the purpose of their meeting, but also the point of the
poem: the obliteration of suffering by whatever means available. And while the speaker is a butcher, he is anything but brutalizing or unempathic, as we see here:

…I hold
his wrist; it’s small, like
the throat of a young hen, but
cool and dry. He holds
mine and I can feel the
blood thudding in the ring
his fingers make.

This interaction between the speaker and Christophe is yet another signature of Levine’s vision. We cannot call it exactly a common humanity; perhaps we can call it a common spirituality. And while we have learned earlier that this is the speaker’s job, that this is not the first nor the last time he will butcher an angel, we also sense his reluctance to carry out his work:

…He helps me, he
guides my hand at first. I can
feel my shoulders settle and
the bones take the weight, I can
feel my lungs flower as the
swing begins. He smiles again
with only one side of his mouth
and looks down to the
dark valley where the cities
burn. When I hit
him he comes apart like a
perfect puzzle or an
old flower.
And my legs
dance and twitch for hours.

What are we to do with this frighteningly bizarre ending? What is Levine thematizing, mythologizing? What is the trajectory of his vision? Levine gives us none of his by-now signature outrage, nor does he pack the poem full of images of work (there are only brief references). Nor does “Angel Butcher” elegize or give a voice to the voiceless. And if Levine is a poet of place—which he is (Detroit, Fresno, Barcelona)—this poem is placeless.

“Angel Butcher” stands apart from the majority of Levine’s work as of 1972, perhaps his entire body of work. It is at once atypical and wholly representative of Levine’s vision of the unity of spirit. It illustrates Stevens’ notion: as the world grows more terrible, so does its poetry. But “Angel Butcher” swerves from Stevens in its tenderness between the speaker and Christophe, despite the violent climax of the poem.

We can only guess why Christophe desires annihilation; perhaps it is because the unnamed, archetypal cities are burning. Perhaps it is because Christophe understands that the only true communion can transpire through spiritual means, through transfiguration, and to achieve that spiritual union the bodily form must be “butchered.” “Angel Butcher” is a remarkable poem for its joining of violence and hope, terror and salvation, sadness and awe, human and spiritual. “Angel Butcher,” then, is an extended, implied metaphor for the enterprise of writing poetry.

The same can be said for Levis’s “Elegy with a Chimneysweep Falling Inside It.”
Typical of Levis’s work, the poem contains numerous landscapes that shift abruptly but seamlessly. The poem begins with the alphabet in an elementary school classroom:

Those twenty-six letters filling the blackboard
Compose the dark, compose
The illiterate summer sky & its stars as they appear

One by one, above the schoolyard.

Levis begins where Levine leaves off; that is, Levis makes explicit the unifying force between all living and eventual spiritual things: language. Instead of angels, Levis employs stars—distant, bright, and dead. This is typical of Levis’s vision, which can be at times much darker than Levine’s, despite the lush and gorgeous language and imagery. For example, in the next line Levis offers an audacious proposition on the existence of the soul and its relation to the human condition:

If the soul had a written history, nothing would have happened:

A bird would still be riding the back of a horse,

And the horse would go on grazing in a field, & the gleaners,

At one with the land, the wind, the sun examining
Their faces, would go on working,

Each moment forgotten in the swipe of a scythe.

To paraphrase, if someone had documented the soul’s history, it would change nothing. Or to put it another way, we do have a written history of the soul—the texts of organized religions, for example—and those written histories often are rendered powerless to temper human suffering. And all the while, time passes moment by moment, without a care for, or a memory of, any of us.

So in ten lines, Levis has made five leaps, another signature of his method and by extension his vision. His next leap is as every bit audacious as, say, Levine’s speaker butchering angels:

But the walls of the labyrinth have already acquired
Their rose tint from the blood of slaves
Crushed into the stone used to build them, & the windows

Of stained glass are held in place by the shriek

And sighing body of a falling chimneysweep through
The baked and blackened air. This ash was once a village,

That snowflake, time itself.

What walls, what labyrinth, what village? Where did the chimneysweep come from? Levis raises questions like these by implicitly asserting that their existence is undeniable, that they have been here all along. The walls, the labyrinth, the village, the chimneysweep have been in Levis’s side view before he began writing the poem, and they inform the lines that open the poem. What sits fixed directly in Levis’s front view for the entire poem is the soul itself:

But until the day it is permitted to curl up in a doorway,
And try to sleep, the snow falling just beyond it,

There’s nothing for it do:

The soul rests its head in its hands & stares out
From its desk at the trash-littered schoolyard,

It stays where it was left.
When the window fills with pain, the soul bears witness,

But it doesn’t write….

The soul is underwhelmed, abandoned. And whereas the poem purports that the soul has no written history, that is precisely what Levis provides in the poem itself:

Nor does it write home,

Having no need to, having no home.
In this way, & in no other

Was the soul gradually replaced by the tens of thousands
Of things meant to represent it—

All of which proclaimed, or else lamented, its absence.

In five and a half lines, Levis offers a written history of the soul, which is, of course, a
kind of précis for the human condition and its attendant suffering, a similar form of suffering that brings Levine’s speaker and the angel Christophe together. We can see, now, how Levis has stepped inside Levine’s poem and fleshed out the drama more specifically, that is, more universally. The common bond—in these poems, in humanity—is suffering, and our longing to end that suffering. That end, that relief seems insurmountably distant. So they write. The distance that longing requires joins them.

In the final third of the poem, Levis moves from philosophical posturing to
experiential observing, another signature of Levis‘s strategy:

Until, in the drone of the auditoriums & lecture halls, it became
No more than the scraping of a branch
Against the side of a house, no more than the wincing

Of a patient on a couch, or the pinched, nasal tenor
Of the strung-out addict’s voice,

While this sound of scratching, this tapping all night,
Enlarging the quiet instead of making a music within it,

Is just a way of joining one thing to another,

Myself to whoever it is—sitting there in the schoolroom,

Sitting there while also being led through the schoolyard
Where prisoners are exercising in the cold light—

A way of joining or trying to join one thing to another,

So that the stillness of the clouds & the sky

Opening beneath the blindfold of the prisoner, & the cop
Who leads him toward it, toward the blank

Sail of the sky at the end of the world, are bewildered

So that everything, in this moment, bewilders

Them: the odd gentleness each feels in the hand
Of the other, & how they don’t stop walking, not now,

Not for anything.

This bewilderment is the same bewilderment Levine’s speaker feels at the end of “Angel
Butcher,” with his legs dancing and twitching for hours. We can also sense the same “odd gentleness” between the speaker and Christophe as they feel each other’s pulses.

In fact, Levine and Levis felt each other’s poetic pulses for nearly thirty years, first as teacher and student at Fresno State University, later as readers and editors of each other‘s work, and finally as trusted friends who shared the labor of the frustratingly beautiful work of writing poems. Perhaps we can begin to see how the joining together of both the poets and his poems is finally a selfsame endeavor.

1 Levis, Larry. Elegy. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.