Larry Levis – My Story in a Late Style of Fire

How do we stumble upon the poets we read? In a bookstore? In an MFA class? Suggestions from friends? By google accidents? Well, yes, to all of the above. But I like to think my best teachers and poem suggesters are other poets, and that is the case here. I found the Steve Scafidi poem The Sublime which was dedicated to Larry Levis. I found a poem by Gerald Stern titled Larry Levis Visits Easton, Pa., During a November Freeze. Tom Lux has a poem called Thus, He Spoke His Quietus dedicated to Larry Levis. I found several others, then more. You get the idea. So I ordered a copy of Larry Levis’ book Elegy, and was blown away by the beauty of the poetry, the music singing from those long lines, the raw emotions, the craft, the artistry spilling down the page, poem after poem. I then got a copies of The Widening Spell of the Leaves, Winter Stars and The Dollmaker’s Ghost. Astounding doesn’t begin to describe the poems within these books. The following poem has become my favorite Levis poem. Do yourself a favor and find his work, dig deeply into it, and submerse yourself in the beauty, the music, the craft. You’ll be changed forever.

My Story in a Late Style of Fire

Whenever I listen to Billie Holiday, I am reminded
That I, too, was once banished from New York City.
Not because of drugs or because I was interesting enough
For any wan, overworked patrolman to worry about—
His expression usually a great, gauzy spiderweb of bewilderment
Over his face—I was banished from New York City by a woman.
Sometimes, after we had stopped laughing, I would look
At her & and see a cold note of sorrow or puzzlement go
Over her face as if someone else were there, behind it,
Not laughing at all. We were, I think, “in love.” No, I’m sure.
If my house burned down tomorrow morning, & if I & my wife
And son stood looking on at the flames, & if, then
Someone stepped out of the crowd of bystanders
And said to me: “Didn’t you once know. . . ?” No. But if
One of the flames, rising up in the scherzo of fire, turned
All the windows blank with light, & if that flame could speak,
And if it said to me: “You loved her, didn’t you?” I’d answer,
Hands in my pockets, “Yes.” And then I’d let fire & misfortune
Overwhelm my life. Sometimes, remembering those days,
I watch a warm, dry wind bothering a whole line of elms
And maples along a street in this neighborhood until
They’re all moving at once, until I feel just like them,
Trembling & in unison. None of this matters now,
But I never felt alone all that year, & if I had sorrows,
I also had laughter, the affliction of angels & children.
Which can set a whole house on fire if you’d let it. And even then
You might still laugh to see all of your belongings set you free
In one long choiring of flames that sang only to you—
Either because no one else could hear them, or because
No one else wanted to. And, mostly, because they know.
They know such music cannot last, & that it would
Tear them apart if they listened. In those days,
I was, in fact, already married, just as I am now,
Although to another woman. And that day I could have stayed
In New York. I had friends there. I could have strayed
Up Lexington Avenue, or down to Third, & caught a faint
Glistening of the sea between the buildings. But all I wanted
Was to hold her all morning, until her body was, again,
A bright field, or until we both reached some thicket
As if at the end of a lane, or at the end of all desire,
And where we could, therefore, be alone again, & make
Some dignity out of loneliness. As, mostly, people cannot do.
Billie Holiday, whose life was shorter & more humiliating
Than my own, would have understood all this, if only
Because even in her late addiction & her bloodstream’s
Hallelujahs, she, too, sang often of some affair, or someone
Gone, & therefore permanent. And sometimes she sang for
Nothing, even then, & it isn’t anyone’s business, if she did.
That morning, when she asked me to leave, wearing only
The apricot tinted, fraying chemise, I wanted to stay.
But I also wanted to go, to lose her suddenly, almost
For no reason, & certainly without any explanation.
I remember looking down at a pair of singular tracks
Made in a light snow the night before, at how they were
Gradually effacing themselves beneath the tires
Of the morning traffic, & thinking that my only other choice
Was fire, ashes, abandonment, solitude. All of which happened
Anyway, & soon after, & by divorce. I know this isn’t much.
But I wanted to explain this life to you, even if
I had to become, over the years, someone else to do it.
You have to think of me what you think of me. I had
To live my life, even its late, florid style. Before
You judge this, think of her. Then think of fire,
Its laughter, the music of splintering beams & glass,
The flames reaching through the second story of a house
Almost as if to—mistakenly—rescue someone who
Left you years ago. It is so American, fire. So like us.
Its desolation. And its eventual, brief triumph.

Larry Levis

Larry Levis died 49 years young, from a heart attack in 1996, only 1 year older than I am today as I type this.

His books of poetry are as follows:

Wrecking Crew (1972)
The Afterlife (1977)
The Dollmaker’s Ghost (1981)
Winter Stars (1985)
The Widening Spell of the Leaves (1991)
Elegy (1997)
The Selected Levis (2000)
The Gazer Within (2000) (Prose, essays, etc.)

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12 Responses to “Larry Levis – My Story in a Late Style of Fire”

  1. Dana Daniel Says:

    Thankyou, Paul, for this. It was a wonderful thing to start the day with.

  2. “..And where we could, therefore, be alone again, & make
    Some dignity out of loneliness. As, mostly, people cannot do.” Great line. Loved this poem.
    TY for another fine selection.

  3. PJ DeGenaro aka Chorophyll Says:

    Damn.

    That’s all I got.

  4. Alison (blueraven95) Says:

    :hi:

  5. You really need to get “The Afterlife.” I think you might have a new favorite Levis poem when you do. 😉

  6. Levis is my man! Did my MFA thesis on him. I caught Philip Levine on the phone for 45 minutes talking about him, as well. Wow! Levis gave me my mantra: “I’m going to stare at the whorled grain of wood in this desk/I’m bent over until it’s infinite.//I’m going to make it talk. I’m going to make it/Confess everything.” from “Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage.”

    • paulscotaugust Says:

      Terry, I just reread that poem the other day after reading your blog. Reading Levis is like listening to Stevie Ray Vaughn. You know you’ll never be that good, but damn if you’re not going to try anyhow. Thanks for reading and commenting…

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