It’s staggering to think about, but May 2016 will mark the twentieth anniversary of Larry Levis’ death. Why St. John waited nearly twenty years to edit, arrange, and publish this collection isn’t entirely clear. But it is entirely understandable. It must have been no easy task working through the vast amount of poetry Levis behind, nearly two-hundred pages in all. The poems now arranged in The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems were culled from those not included in the “all-but-completed manuscript” Levis intended on sending to Philip Levine back in May 1996.
Whatever logistical and editorial obstacles there were (and there were quiet a few) St. John is capable of handling them. Something else was at work here, something much deeper to climb out of: grief. Grief best explains, at least to me, the near two-decade space between the publication of Elegy and The Darkening Trapeze. St. John’s grief over the loss of not only one of our most important poets, but also of one of his closest friends, must have felt insurmountable because, in fact, it was for a long, long time. Consider what St. John recalls about working with Levine on Elegy:
“The process of working on Elegy was difficult for Levine and for me; it felt emotionally charged and—to me, at least—psychologically daunting. I believe that Larry was the poet Levine admired most of all other contemporary poets, yet he was also as much a son to Phil as he was a protégé, as much an irreplaceable friend as an admired poet. For the first few months, every time Phil and I tried phoning one another to talk about the poems we’d been reading, well, we simply couldn’t do it; we couldn’t talk about this impossible task. In order to talk about some selection of Larry’s poems, we had first to admit that Larry was dead. It took almost five months before we could actually have our first conversation about the work itself. Finally, over that next nine months, Elegy took shape.”
(Blackbird v12 n2)
Only St. John, of course, knows what the process of arranging The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems felt like, to what extent his grief was alleviated or intensified by this project. But for anyone enamored, influenced, and entranced by Levis’ poetic oeuvre, reading The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems will become yet another definitive encounter with Levis’s poetry, one full of grief, yes, but also awe, amazement, and inspiration.
Those familiar with Elegy will immediately recognize many similar elements in The Darkening Trapeze. Many of the strategies, techniques, rhetoric, style, motifs, and landscapes found in Elegy reappear in The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems. Some lines found in Elegy are repeated—sometimes verbatim, other times riffed with slight variations—in The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems. When both books are considered as one larger whole, which is how Levis wrote them, the size and scope of their totality is staggering. More stunning is the fact that Levis wrote the vast majority of these poems in about five years. The poems are as gorgeous as they are agonized. Many may wonder if Levis himself felt the great weight of his imagination crash upon him, such is the enormity of its harrowing force as evidenced in the poems he wrote during what became the final years of his life.
There are also some telling differences between Elegy and The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems. The devout Levis reader knows that the heart and soul of Elegy can be found in the suite of nine elegies that comprise more than half of that book. But only two elegies, “Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze Inside It” and “Elegy for the Infinite Wrapped in Tinfoil”, in that mode are found in The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems. A good argument could be made, as St. John does in the afterword, to include “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire” as part of that sequence. Another telling difference is scant mention of Levis’s native San Joaquin Valley, specifically his family’s ranch in Selma; such minimal address of what Levis has called his Eden marks a first in any of his books. In its place, surrogate landscapes appear: Richmond, Virginia (in the Civil War poems) and Eastern Europe (most likely Romania), two locations with very complicated histories. And except for the book’s coda poem, in which Levis’s son Nicholas makes an appearance, Levis’s family never appears; this, too, is telling of a mind and spirit bereft of solace. The solitude that served as such a reliable muse in his previous books has given way to its more menacing double, isolation, which is nearly palpable throughout The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems.
To call The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems uneven is unfair, though some may try. Two poems—“Gossip in the Village” and “Ghazal”—are at least ten or at most fifteen years older than the rest of the poems in the book. St. John points out in the afterword that Levis wrote these poems around the same time he completed his fourth book Winter Stars (1985). “Gossip in the Village” has a place in The Darkening Trapeze because it hits many of the same notes found in a poem Levis wrote years later, Elegy’s opening poem “The Two Trees.” In the former poem, Levis has been devastated by desire, and finds himself alone:
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. I will feel suddenly hungry.
The morning will be bright, & wrong.
In “The Two Trees”, Levis riffs these sentiments, but with the rescuing element of humor:
Friends, in the middle of this life, I was embraced
By failure. It clung to me & did not let go.
When I ran, brother limitation raced
Beside me like a shadow. Have you never
Felt like this, everyone you know,
Turning, the more they talked, into . . .
Acquaintances? So many strong opinions!
It is a life’s work, to get over one’s self. What we witness in “Gossip in the Village” is a poem without the humor granted by some distance. More interestingly, perhaps, is that we’re given access to a dress rehearsal of a poem Levis hadn’t mastered yet.
“Ghazal”, the other “old” poem, is the book’s shortest at ten lines:
Does exile begin at birth? I lived beside a wide river
For so long I stopped hearing it.
As when a glass shatters during an argument,
And we are secretly thrilled…. We wanted it to break.
Always something missing now in the cry of one bird,
Its wings flared against the wood.
Still, everything that is singular has a name:
Stone, song, trembling, waist, & snow. I remember how
My old psychiatrist would pinch his nose between
A thumb & forefinger, look up at me & sigh.
Why Levis titled this poem “Ghazal” is mysterious, as it possesses none of the elements—be they strategic or spiritual—of the form I can recognize. But, I’m not inclined to impose my will upon anything written by Levis. I’m content to puzzle over it, to try to place it within the larger arc of his body of work.
What’s more compelling is St. John’s placement of “Ghazal” after “A Singing in the Rocks,” a poem nearly ten times its length and contains all the elements we might now come to expect from a late Levis poem: long, meandering lines; fluid stanza lengths; multiple narratives; dazzling imagery. And that voice. And an admission that should surprise no one who knew Levis intimately and the demons of addiction he wrestled with:
After driving all night I remember pulling over at dawn,
And climbing a low hill of twisted mesquite & a scattered
Outcropping of rocks gray in that light,
And hearing it there:
Dobro & steel guitar & the pinched, nasal twang of a country tenor,
A singing in the rocks though no one was there, & thinking
At first it was no more than the thin membrane & the cheap,
Inscrutable vision & brief psychosis that comes in the wake
Of methamphetamine, a beige powder that smelled
Like wheat & was as silent, & was, for years, the only company
I ever had the pleasure of being completely alone with.
Many of the poems in The Darkening Trapeze contain devastatingly frank lines such as these. Yet, they are written with such grace & control that the impact of such lines is at once terrible and beautiful, elegant and tormented, shattered and graceful.
But no matter what tragedies and heartbreaks and relapses befell Levis, however self-generated they were or weren’t, he was always writing—always—newer, fresher, more daring, more inventive, more capacious, seemingly uncontrollably widening poems that have no peer in American poetry. “A Singing in the Rocks” evidences Levis’s high-wire-no-net approach to writing, which intensified with each new book. The poem begins:
Quirai, the site of the Inquisition in the New World,
Is a cathedral of dust specks whirling in light now.
All the hallucinations of the nave, transept, the chalice with the sound
Of the wind inside it, the saint’s relic like something obliterated
By the cries of another century—are there
To show how little they matter.
He rocks himself to sleep in this refusal to explain.
He naps in the empty spiderweb & is no more than its glistening
In the limbs of the apple tree—
How little they matter.
Levis also gives us his reinterpretations of certain myths, including Christianity and the founding of the New World, most of which have had genocide whitewashed out of them. Levis’s vision, however, refuses to turn a blind eye toward humanity’s savage proclivities. To gaze upon such enormous and chronic catastrophes so consistently and intensely must be soul-crushing work. Who wouldn’t be tempted to retreat into “the thin membrane & the cheap,/ Inscrutable vision & brief psychosis that comes in the wake” of an altered consciousness, if only for a little while, and then a little while longer? The price, however, is steep, and addiction is a shrewd and ruthless negotiator who wins more than it loses; and in these poems, we witness Levis’s unflinching candor about himself:
So say it & be done with the saying of it:
He waits and will wait forever in the delicate, small bones of the knight
Asleep in his luster, his armor, the glint of the swordblade at his side
Reflecting the raining sky & a life without the slightest hesitation.
He rejoices in pleasures too pure for this world.
He is the sore screech of the wheel in the addict’s voice,
And disbelief itself under the summer stars.
And the tenor voice of the sax & the snow swirling on the city streets
To frame the unsayable, & mute the sayable.
And in the perpetual snow of syllables meant to praise him,
Nothing changes but his sex & his preoccupations, so that he becomes,
In time, the woman
With a birthmark & a puzzled expression on her face as she listens
To the clattering loom of voices in the asylum, listens
For the scrape of the keel on the sand & the gull’s cries.
If he is the saying, he is the obliteration of the saying,
And the sore screech of the wheel that outlives the addict.
If the poet is beyond rescuing, the poem isn’t. And really, hasn’t that always been the case? For most of us? Our work outlives us. Maybe. In the poem’s final movement, Levis transforms it all into an ars poetica:
What comes after, in the walking home alone forever, & the writing it
Out, is like the testimony of a witness, always imperfect, changing,
Until one is spent in the exhaustion of the music, in each twisted,
Unmemorized limb of mesquite scoring the blood spattered
Hawk’s screech of each note—no voice left in it & no accompaniment—
What comes after is the knowledge that
One is no longer part of it, & can no longer be part of it,
Who, with no one to answer to passes the brown, indifferent grasses
In the winter months, the lascivious blooms that come on later, cock
Purple and blush pink, noticing them one moment, then looking away
Without focusing on anything in particular, unable to believe either
The chill of visitation or any lie the wind tells him—
Forgetting, & becoming,
Without the slightest awareness of it in that moment, another.
In the strongest of these poems, Levis fixes his gaze on the consequences of desire, be they sexual, the tremors of the addict, the failures of religion and philosophy, all of which amounts to bearing witness to “petals of the magnolia blossom/ Flattened by passing traffic to the pavement & the gradual/ Discoloration of them….” These lines come from “Threshold of the Oblivious Blossoming,” a poem in the book’s final and strongest section, whose centerpiece is the poem from which the book gets its title, “Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze Inside It.” In it, Levis writes a poem of unparalleled ambition in 20th-Century American Poetry: a scathing critique of Christianity, a lament for the ideals of Marxism, a lyrical treatise on the failure of ideas, and a championing of the image as a mode of poetic exploration. The most striking of Levis’s last poems begin at the end of something, often the collapse of a civilization or the toppling of a regime. “Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze Inside It” is one of them. Levis begins by concluding that
The idea turned out to be no more than a cart wheel
Stuck in mud, & unturned fields spreading to the horizon while
Two guys in a tavern went on drinking tsuica & recalling their one
Accomplishment in life—the seduction of a virgin on the blank
Pedestal of a statue where Stalin one stood.
The state is an old man’s withered arm.
Those familiar with the last poem in Elegy, “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope,” will hear echoes of one of its most chilling lines: “History is a withered arm.” In “Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze Inside It,” Levis follows one of his trademark audacious metaphors with another one of his trademark audacious organizational stratagems: he simply stops, and “refuses to explain,” and begins wandering down another seemingly unrelated train of thought:
The only surviving son of Jesus Christ was Karl Marx.
You can tell by the last letter of his name,
Which has the shape & frail balance of an overturned cross
On a windswept hillside. It marked the end of things.
Of lumber that rots & falls. The czar is a shattered teacup,
The trouble with a good idea is that it has to work:
The only surviving son of Jesus Christ survives now
Mostly in English departments & untended graves.
In one swift and shrewd rhetorical gesture, Levis passes judgment on Christianity and Marxism, concluding both as failures. Moments like these appear all through The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems, and they are nothing short of breath-taking. Then, just after performing a kind of last rites on Marxism, Levis offers an image that reconfigures the Christ myth:
One thing he said I still remember, a thing that’s never there
When I try to look it up, was: “Sex should be no more important…
Than a glass of water.” It sounded vaguely like the kind of thing
Christ might have said if Christ had a sense of humor.
The empty bar that someone was supposed to swing to him
Did not arrive, & so his outstretched flesh became
A darkening trapeze. The other two acrobats were thieves.
The image of Christ not just as acrobat, but as an acrobat sold out and left, literally, hanging; the gravitas of the Passion Play recast and reset within the shabby, cheap environs of a travelling circus…it does, indeed, refuse to explain. How to describe such an image? It’s laughable to the point of the absurd. It’s convincing to the extremes of despair. It’s shocking to the confines of belief. It’s audacious to the heights of genius.
This poem, like so many of the poems found within The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems, is among the most brilliant poetic testimonies of bearing witness to what it meant to be alive during the devastations of the 20thCentury. These last poems, with their gorgeous music, terrifying insights, and insatiable imagination will serve as a Virgilian guide for anyone who is willing to follow Levis’s lead, to move through our next terrorized century with eyes and souls wide open.