Prof. Todd McKinney Recommends Three Books By Larry Levis

In the latest installment of our Recommended Reads series professor Todd McKinney recommends Winter Stars, The Widening Spell of the Leaves, and Elegy by Larry Levis.

As autumn takes hold and I prepare for winter, I reach for the books of one of my favorite writers, Larry Levis. In particular, I return to his last three books: Winter Stars (1985), The Widening Spell of the Leaves (1991), and Elegy (1997), the last one published posthumously after his too-early departure in 1996. I have lived with the poems in these books for some time now.

I first became enamored with Levis’ work in 1997 when I read Winter Stars, his fourth book and the one where his voice really becomes his own. I was drawn to his poems for their mix of narrative and meditation, a combination which allowed Levis to wax discursive on everything from shooting pool in his hometown of Fresno, CA to working on his father’s ranch with a number of migrant workers and to something seemingly so meaningless as grass beside the road. In fact, the poem, “Some Grass Along a Ditch Bank,” is one of my favorites in this book. It begins:

I don’t know what happens to grass.
But it doesn’t die, exactly.
It turns white, in winter, but stays there,
A few yards from the ditch,
Then comes back in March,
Turning a green that has nothing
To do with us.

From there, Levis continues to meditate on the nature of grass, even rambling some, noting how you’d have to “disc it under” to remove it, then commenting on it when its wet, and, before it’s over, Levis ends up with some reflections on the family ranch, the work his father did there, and then, subtly, the grass has  become a metaphor for that life, which

Went by, unnoticed, without feast days
Or celebrations—opening his mailbox
At the roadside which was incapable
Of looking any different—
More picturesque, or less common—
The rank but still blossoming weeds
Stirring a little, maybe,
As you drove past,
But then growing still again.

While it’s melancholic, I love how the small, seemingly ordinary thing has come to represent something else much larger. This happens often throughout the book, as he looks at the life he’s lived, as though staring up at a cold night sky, the stars so clear they seem close enough to touch and impossibly far away.

His next book, The Widening Spell of the Leaves, is even more ambitious. Likewise, the poems become longer and more discursive as he weaves stories from his personal experience with what he knows and imagines of people like Rembrandt and Miles Davis, of events like the Korean War and the violence at Kent State University, and of parts of the world like Haight Ashbery in San Francisco and Oaxaca, Mexico.

My favorite poem from this book is a section (“Caravaggio: Swirl and Vortex”) of a longer sequence, The Perfection of Solitude. And it’s beautiful and amazing. It’s a poem that begins with a description of a painting by the Baroque artist Caravaggio, a self-portrait of the artist in a scene of David v. Goliath, which, when the poem’s speaker (Levis, presumably) sees the painting he is reminded of his high school friend Eddie Zamora (a name you can trace with pencil and paper at the Vietnam War Memorial in D.C.) because as Levis says in the intro to the poem, Zamora “spent two years in a junior college but couldn’t afford to continue. And so couldn’t get a 2-S deferment. And so was drafted. And so died.” Heartbreaking stuff. Not only do I appreciate Levis’s take on grief when he writes toward the end of the poem:

All along the memorial, small
Offerings, letters, a bottle of bourbon, photographs, a joint of marijuana slipped
Into a wedding ring. You see, you must descend; it one of the styles
Of Hell. And it takes a while to find the name you might be looking for; it is
Meant to take a while. You can touch the names, if you want to.
You can try to tease out some final meaning with your lips.
The boy who was standing next to me said simply: “You can cry…. It’s O.K., here.”

but I also appreciate his willingness to bring up politics, a big risk, as he does here with the Vietnam War, but elsewhere throughout the book. What’s at stake for the speaker of these poems is what’s at stake for the American public, too.

Levis continues to explore the same concerns in Elegy (a book his first teacher, Philip Levine, edited—from a  manuscript in progress—after Levis died), starting with one of the first poems, “In 1967.” From the get-go, this book, I think, captures Levis at his most powerful. For me, at least. And, of course, the poems are even more discursive than the previous ones, getting longer and longer, the short lyric poem unable to contain Levis’ imagination.

From the title, it’s clear that these poems are going to be elegiac. And they are. With great titles like “Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern In It,” and “Elegy with the Sprawl of a Wave Inside It,” and “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope,” Levis takes the reader through more stories drawn from his personal life, moments observed abroad, his knowledge of history and literature. And the one that sticks with me is “Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage.”

Like so many of Levis’ poems, this one begins inconspicuously with the speaker mailing a letter, and then moves into a memory of a lecture, which touches on the story of Sibyl, the mythological figure who asked for eternal life but forgot to ask for eternal youth. So, over the centuries, she shrank to something so small she couldn’t be seen, not even her shadow as she jumped over the thimbleful of water in a bird cage in modern day Athens. And then the poem gets to this passage:

By summer the city parks had grown dangerous.
No one went there anymore to drink wine, dance, & listen
To metal amplified until it seemed, as it had
Seemed once, the bitter, cleansing angel released at last from what
Fettered it inside us. And maybe there
Wasn’t any angel after all. The times had changed. It became
Difficult to tell for sure. And anyway,
There was a law against it now; a law against gathering at night
In the parks was actually all that the law
Said was forbidden for us to do, but it came to the same thing.
It meant you were no longer permitted to know,
Or to decide for yourself,
Whether there was an angel inside you, or whether there wasn’t.

The poem continues from there, upping the ante as it does. I find it totally captivating.

Of course, I hope you read and listen to these poems. I admit that Levis’ poems are not what’s in style these days, and that’s fine with me. I will always return to his poems, especially at this time of year, when one year is coming to an end, just as a roll of receipt paper gets that pink line down the middle, while we prepare for the next year to unravel, out of all the littlest things of this world. And who knows what price we’ll pay for it. Well, Levis knows some of it.

Levis, Larry. The Widening Spell of the Leaves. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh, 1991.

Levis, Larry and Philip Levine. Elegy. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh, 1997.

Levis, Larry. Winter Stars. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh, 1985.

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