C. Derick Varn reviews the final book of unpublished poetry by Larry Levis which has just been published, twenty years after his death.
Larry Levis, The Darkening Trapeze (Greywolf Press, 2016) p. 96
Released this year, The Darkening Trapeze consists of the final unpublished poems after Levis’s death 20 years ago. David St. John, a personal friend of Levis and an accomplished poet in his own right, has edited this posthumous collection and added the necessary context in his notes, forward and afterward. As a result, this collection is more tonally and stylistically consistent than most posthumous volumes of poetry. Levis’s work here seems to move into the more and more elegiac and lyric but continually pairs these styles with the commonplace, the banal, and the shocking. This weaving in and out of lyric to the everyday often juxtaposes moods and tones in ways that feel almost completely original to Levis.
There is a Whitman-esque quality to Levis. While not directly influenced by Whitman’s style in the way that poets such as Carl Sandberg and Allen Ginsberg were, Levis tries to condense characters and situations in more and more breathlessly ambitious poems in a Whitman-like way. Like the longer Whitman poems, the length of these poems tends to be several pages. Even in the 80s and 90s when they were written, poems were trending downward in length, making this unusual. This, paired with sometimes rapid seeming shifts in images and tone, can be dizzying.
Yet this is also joined with a tone and an eye that, for me, is almost dialectically unlike Whitman. Levis doesn’t allow for transcendence to sneak in or the orgiastic multitudes to make everything already. Indeed, Levis is characterized by dark honesty. In, ‘Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire,’ Levis is unblinking when he ends the poem, ‘And that / Is what it has become: / Having to imagine, having to imagine everything, / In detail, & without end.’ The details make it real, but they don’t redeem anything. As David St. John indicates, these juxtaposed emotions are deliberate and are consistent throughout the poems. Oranges and reds dominate, but in the middle of the collection, Levis devotes a poem to Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park which is dominated by cool blues. Levis continues to move in and out, from broad vistas with many characters coming into and out a fugue, moving from burning hotels to the writer’s trembling hands. What at first seems meandering builds into both polish and friction, so that there is a sharp clarity to Levis’s work.
This book seems to be continuously going up in flames. Arson is a key image, showing up in two poems, the aforementioned ‘Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire’ as well as ‘Elegy For The Infinite Wrapped In Tinfoil,’ both of which make the scene of burning bleak and bittersweet. In ‘Elegy For The Infinite Wrapped In Tinfoil,’ the arsonist notices ‘There alone past eaves & lawns that flowed / Beside him then as if he’d loosened them / From every mooring but brimming moonlight’ paired with an opening image of white flame. It is both sentimental and borderline nihilistic, particularly in the context of the arsonist, who is a boy on a prison farm.
As well as the theme of the burning archive, Levis seems to be dealing constantly with guilt: survivor’s guilt, sexual guilt, and the guilt of history itself. This is felt the most in Levis’s ‘Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze Inside It,’ where the poem’s narrator manages to convey the weight of history paired with humor:
The only surviving son of Jesus Christ was Karl Marx.
You can tell by the last letter of his name,
The only surviving son of Jesus Christ survives now
Mostly in English departments & untended graves.
Such self-conscious humor as this both undercuts and emphases the weight of the personal and historical scenes depicted in the elegy, and the same can be found elsewhere in Levis’s collection.
At first, the early poems in the collection, from the period around the writing of Winter Stars, seem disjointed in theme from the later work. However, the reader later feels that they are infected with the same double melancholy. From ‘Gossip in the Village,’ the first poem of The Darkening Trapeze, we read: ‘From now on 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.’ Again, here is the juxtaposition we see in later poems: snow drifts and hints of fire, beauty with dead-eyed stares. The entire collection does seem ‘bright & wrong,’ and apparently this burnt like white flame between Levis’s work from that period in the 1980s to end of his life.
The final poem in Coda, ‘God Is Always 17,’ announces itself as a ‘the last poem in the book’ and is an uncertain reflection on Levis’s son. The darkness, another motif that reoccurs, moves in, and poem ends with ‘wondering what was going to become of us.’ More painful because we know what did become of Levis, this collection, in all its chiaroscuro, ends with both grace and trepidation.
C Derick Varn is a teacher, poet, and theorist living in Cairo. He is a reader for Zero Books and the editor of the online literary magazine, Former People. His poetry has appeared in Axe Factory, Writing Disorder, Union Station, and Unlikely Stories.