Larry Levis’ last book, Elegy (1997), continues to be a huge influence on me as a poet. I love the intricate narratives laced with strong images and the long streams of iambs don’t hurt either. It is still free verse, but it veers close to blank verse at times, and that musicality hold the narrative together. Also tying the collection together are repeated leitmotifs, a technique as old as the rosy-fingered dawn but still effective. Here is the poem that stays with me most. I wonder if there is a journal out there yet that is gutsy enough to print a poem this long. Some say they want to,but will they? Does it take the stature of a Levis to earn the right to length and complexity? I hope it has not come to that.
[image from sBurke2478 on Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/14863785@N03/3084938952]
Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern in It
Now that the Summer of Love has become the moss of tunnels
And the shadowy mouths of tunnels & all the tunnels lead into the city,
I’m going to put the one largely forgotten, swaying figure of Ediesto Huerta
Right in front of you so you can watch him swamp fruit
Out of an orchard in the heat of an August afternoon, I’m going to let you
Keep your eyes on him as he lifts & swings fifty-pound boxes of late
Elberta peaches up to me where I’m standing on a flatbed trailer & breathing in
Tractor exhaust so thick it bends the air, bends things seen through it
So that they seem to swim through the air.
It is a lousy job, & no one has to do it, & we do it.
We do it so that I can show you even what isn’t there,
What’s hidden. And signed by Time itself. And set spinning,
And is only a spider, after all, with its net waiting for what falls,
For what flies into it, & ages, & turns gray in a matter of minutes. The web
Is nothing’s blueprint, bleached by the sun & whitened by it, it’s what’s left
After we’ve vanished, after we become what falls apart when anyone
Touches it, eyelash & collarbone dissolving into air, & time touching
The boxes we are wrapped in like gifts & splintering them
Into wood again, at the edge of a wood.
Black Widow is a name no one ever tinkered with or tried to change.
If you turn her on her back you can see the blood red hourglass figure
She carries on her belly,
Small as the design of a pirate I saw once on a tab of blotter acid
Before I took half of it, & a friend took the other, & then the two of us
Walked down to the empty post office beside the lake to look,
For some reason, at the wanted posters. We liked a little drama
In the ordinary then. Now a spider’s enough.
And this one, in the legend she inhabits, is famous, & the male dies.
She eats its head after the eggs are fertilized.
It’s the hourglass on her belly I remember, & the way the figure of it,
Figure eight of Time & Infinity, looked like something designed,
Etched or embossed upon the slick undershell, & the way there was,
The first time I saw it, a stillness in the pattern that was not
The stillness of the leaves or the stillness of the sky over the leaves.
After the male dies she goes off & the eggs
Live in the fraying sail
Of an abandoned web strung up in the corner of a picking box or beneath
Some slowly yellowing grape leaf among hundreds of other
Leaves, in autumn, the eggs smaller than the o in this typescript
Or a handwritten apostrophe in ink.
What do they represent but emptiness, some gold camp settlement
In the Sierras swept clean by smallpox, & wind?
Canal school with its three rooms, its bell & the rope you rang it with
And no one there in the empty sunlight, ring & after ring & echo.
It magnifies & I can’t explain it.
Piedra, Conejo, Parlier. Stars & towns, blown fire & wind.
Deneb & Altair, invisible kindling, nothing above nothing.
It magnifies & I can’t explain it.
Expressionless spinster, carrying Time’s signature preserved & signed
In blood & hidden beneath you, you move two steps
To the right & hold still, then one step to the left,
And hold still again, motionless as the web you wait in.
Motionless as the story you wait in & inhabit but did not spin
And did not repeat. You wait in the beehive hairdo of the girl
Sitting across from me in class, wait in your eggs,
Wait in the hair the girl teases & sprays once more at recess.
Lipstick, heels, tight sweater, leather anklet.
The story has no point but stillness itself, absence in a school desk,
The hacked and scratched names visible in the varnished wood,
No one there, the bell with its ring & after ring & echo.
In class, I remember, she would look back at me with a gaze deeper
Than calm, blanker than a pond’s scummed & motionless surface,
Beneath which there was nothing, nothing taking the shape of someone
Who had already drowned but could not die, & so sat in class
Because she had to, because that was the law.
Mrs. Avery went on & on at the blackboard so we could know
Who Magellan & Vizcaino had been, or sometimes she would make
The boy who spoke only Spanish read from a book,
Watch him as he used his forefinger to point at each syllable
He would read, read & mispronounce, & stumble over, & go on.
And this isn’t much of a story either, but it’s one I know:
One afternoon in August, two black widow spiders bit Ediesto Huerta.
He killed them both & went on working,
Went on swinging the boxes up to me. In a few minutes the sweat
Bathed his face until it glistened, & still he went on working;
And when I asked him to stop he would not & instead
Seemed to begin to dance slowly in the rhythms of the work,
Swing & heft & turning back for another box, then
Swing, heft, & turning back again. And within a half hour or so,
Without him resting once but merely swinging box after box
Of peaches up to me in the heat, the fever broke.
In the middle of turning away again, he stopped dancing,
He stopped working. He seemed to be listening to something, & then
He passed out & fell flat on his back. It looked as if he had gone to sleep
For a moment. I let the idling tractor sputter & die, & by the time
I reached him, he had awakened, &, in the next moment, his face
Began twitching, his arms & legs danced to something without music
And then stiffened, his jaws clenched & his eyes fluttered open
And turned a pure white. I made a stick from a peach limb & tore
The leaves & shoots off it & stuck it between his teeth
As I heard one was supposed to, &, in this way, almost
Killed him by suffocation, & so took the stick out & threw it away.
And later lifted him by the one arm he extended to me & pulled him up onto
The bed of the trailer. He dangled his legs off the rear of it.
We sat there, saying nothing.
It was so quiet we could hear the birds around us in the trees.
And then he turned to me, &, addressing me in a name as old as childhood,
Said, ‘Hey Cowboy, you wanna cigarette?’
In the story, no one can remember whether it was car theft or burglary,
But in fact, Ediesto Huerta was tried & convicted of something, & so, afterward,
Became motionless & silent in the web spun around him by misfortune.
In the penitentiary the lights stay on forever,
Cell after cell after cell, they call their names out, caught in time.
Ring, & after ring, & echo.
In the story, the girl always dies of spider bites,
When in fact she disappeared by breaking into the jagged pieces of glass
Littering the roadsides & glinting in the empty light that shines there.
All we are is representation, what we appear to be & are, & are not,
And representation is all we remember,
Something hesitating & looking back & caught for a moment.
God in the design on a spider’s belly, standing for time & infinity,
Looks back, looks back just once, then never again.
We go without a trace, I am thinking. We go & there’s no one there,
No one to meet us on the long drive lined with orange trees,
Cypresses, the bleaching fronds of palm trees,
And though the town is still there when I return to it, when I’m gone
The track is empty beside the station, & the station is boarded up,
Boarded over, the town is overgrown with leaves, with weeds
Tall as windowsills, window glass out & dark inside the shops.
The classrooms & school are gone & the bell, & the rope
To ring it with, & the boy reading form the book, forefinger
On a syllable he can’t pronounce & stumbles over again & again.
All we are is representation, what we are & are not,
Clear & then going dark again, all we are
Is the design or insignia that misrepresents what we are, & stays
Behind, & looks back at us without expression, empty road in sunlight.
I once drove in a ’48 Jimmy truck with three tons of fruit
On it & the flooring beneath the clutch so worn away I could see
The road go past beneath me, the oil flecked light & shadow
Picking up speed. Angel & Johnny Dominguez, Ediesto Huerta,
Jaime Vaca & Coronado Solares, Querido Flacco
And the one called Dead Rat & the one called Camelias;
We go without a trace, I am thinking.
Today you were lying in bed, drinking tea, reading the newspaper,
A look of concentration on your face, of absorption in some
Story or other.
It looked so peaceful, you reading, the bed, the sunlight over everything.
There is a blueprint of something never finished, something I’ll never
Find my way out of, some web where the light rocks, back & forth,
Holding me in a time that’s gone, bee at the windowsill & the cold
Coming back as it has to, tapping at the glass.
The figure in the hourglass & the body swinging in the rhythm of its work.
The body reclining in bed, forgetting what it is, & who.
While the night goes on with its work, the stars & the shapes they make,
Cold vein in the leaf & in the wind,
What are we but what we offer up?
Gifts we give, things for oblivion to look at, & puzzle over, & set aside.
Oblivion resting his cheek against a child’s striped rubber ball
In the photograph I have of him, head on the table & resting his cheek
Against the cool surface of the ball, the one that is finished spinning, the one
He won’t give back.
Oblivion who has my face in the photograph, my cheek resting
Against a child’s striped ball.
Oblivion with his blown fires, & empty towns…
Oblivion who would be nothing without us, I am thinking,
As if we’re put on the earth to forget the ending, & wander.
And walk alone. And walk in the midst of great crowds,
And never come back.