WRB—Jan. 2024 Poetry Supplement
Fathers and sons
[In our first-ever Poetry Supplement, I spoke withabout distance, intimacy, and enjambment in the work of American poet Larry Levis (1946–1996). In the supplement that follows, we’ve featured three poems from Levis’ later work, followed by conversation between Devin and I. Devin is an enormously talented reader of and writer about (and writer of!) poetry, so it was a delight to get to spend time with him discussing some of the work of a poet whom we both admire. —Julia]
My father once broke a man’s hand
Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor. The man,
Rubén Vásquez, wanted to kill his own father
With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held
The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first
Two fingers, so it could slash
Horizontally, & with surprising grace,
Across a throat. It was like a glinting beak in a hand,
And, for a moment, the light held still
On those vines. When it was over,
My father simply went in & ate lunch, & then, as always,
Lay alone in the dark, listening to music.
He never mentioned it.
I never understood how anyone could risk his life,
Then listen to Vivaldi.
Sometimes, I go out into this yard at night,
And stare through the wet branches of an oak
In winter, & realize I am looking at the stars
Again. A thin haze of them, shining
It used to make me feel lighter, looking up at them.
In California, that light was closer.
In a California no one will ever see again,
My father is beginning to die. Something
Inside him is slowly taking back
Every word it ever gave him.
Now, if we try to talk, I watch my father
Search for a lost syllable as if it might
Solve everything, & though he can’t remember, now,
The word for it, he is ashamed . . .
If you can think of the mind as a place continually
Visited, a whole city placed behind
The eyes, & shining, I can imagine, now, its end—
As when the lights go off, one by one,
In a hotel at night, until at last
All of the travelers will be asleep, or until
Even the thin glow from the lobby is a kind
Of sleep; & while the woman behind the desk
Is applying more lacquer to her nails,
You can almost believe that the elevator,
As it ascends, must open upon starlight.
I stand out on the street, & do not go in.
That was our agreement, at my birth.
And for years I believed
That what went unsaid between us became empty,
And pure, like starlight, & that it persisted.
I got it all wrong.
I wound up believing in words the way a scientist
Believes in carbon, after death.
Tonight, I’m talking to you, father, although
It is quiet here in the Midwest, where a small wind,
The size of a wrist, wakes the cold again—
Which may be all that’s left of you & me.
When I left home at seventeen, I left for good.
That pale haze of stars goes on & on,
Like laughter that has found a final, silent shape
On a black sky. It means everything
It cannot say. Look, it’s empty out there, & cold.
Cold enough to reconcile
Even a father, even a son.
This is the title poem from Levis’ fourth collection (1985), the second to last published in his lifetime (two more were published after his death in 1996).
When I think of images that reoccur in Levis’ work, stars are always the first one that comes to mind. I have these lines from “Fish,” a poem from his collection Wrecking Crew (1972), pinned up above my desk:
Once, I thought even through this
I could go quietly as a star
turning over and over
in the deep truce of its light.
It’s one of the moments in that debut collection where his voice emerges the most strongly.
In some ways, stars are a common enough image in poetry in general that their presence in Levis’ work might not seem remarkable, but there’s something that feels distinctive about his use of that image. I’m often struck by the sense of distance that runs through many of his poems. Moments when the poems’ gaze shifts to the stars, like in this poem—I am looking at the stars / Again—play into that sense of distance. Here in particular, there’s so much distance: emotional and physical distance from his father, and distance from his childhood sense of home in a California that no one will ever see again.
One moment when that sense of distance between father and son comes through in a particularly heartbreaking way, for me, is in the couplet I stand out on the street & do not go in. / That was our agreement, at my birth. That idea of an agreed-upon distance between the two calls to mind a similar moment in his poem “Blue Stones,” which he dedicates to his son, Nicholas:
And when you turn and enter a bar full of young men
And women, and your laughter rises . . .
To say that no one has died,
I promise I will not follow.
I will cross at the corner in my gray sweater.
I will not have touched you,
As I did, for so many years,
On the hair and the left shoulder.
What’s striking about that last line is that the specificity of it—the hair and the left shoulder—suddenly signals reality, and presence, in the midst of a speculative moment characterized by absence. That is to say, in this moment when Levis is telling his son that, in this theoretical future moment, he won’t touch him, we’re suddenly reminded that he did touch him, often, with this deep tenderness. That’s the other half of the stars’ significance, I think. As much as they’re a symbol of this great distance that Levis so often sees in human relationships, they’re present, and a symbol of presence and the gentleness and intimacy that can still emerge despite everything.
I hate to jump from “Winter Stars” all the way to “God Is Always Seventeen,” but I’m so struck about what you said in regards to distance, fatherhood, and sonship. I think the most heartbreaking line of Levis’ work for me is that line that cuts right into the end of the poem, when Levis writes I have a child who isn’t doing well in school. The child is not mentioned at all for any of the poem that comes before, but there is such a visceral to-the-quickness of this line that it makes you feel as if the child is on the speaker’s mind for the entirety of the poem.
And I think it’s that sense of quick-tangentiality that marks Levis’ work for me. You’re right to point out distance, and I think what Levis does for me is remind me of the fact that distance is not just some far-away-ness. It is also a closeness. To long for someone (a father, a son, a lover) is not just to be reminded of how far away they are, but it is also to know how close you are holding their memory. Stars are an apt metaphor for this, aren’t they? They are so far away and yet we are made of them. Distance and intimacy all at once. Levis captures that. I think that’s why, in a poem like “Winter Stars,” and in so many of Levis’ poems, he draws out the long moment—when the lights go off, one by one. There is something of that slow motion in his poetry, something that wants to hold what feels like it’s going away.
It’s funny, when we discussed which poems to feature, I didn’t even notice, initially, that all three we settled on deal with the father/son relationship. It’s unsurprising, though. It’s a theme that he continually handles with deftness and care.
In the City of Light
The last thing my father did for me
Was map a way: he died, & so
Made death possible. If he could do it, I
Will also, someday, be so honored. Once,
At night, I walked through the lit streets
Of New York, from the Gramercy Park Hotel
Up Lexington & at that hour, alone,
I stopped hearing traffic, voices, the racket
Of spring wind lifting a newspaper high
Above the lights. The streets wet,
And shining. No sounds. Once,
When I saw my son be born, I thought
How loud this world must be to him, how final.
That night, out of respect for someone missing,
I stopped listening to it.
Out of respect for someone missing,
I have to say
This isn’t the whole story.
The fact is, I was still in love.
My father died, & I was still in love. I know
It’s in bad taste to say it quite this way. Tell me,
How would you say it?
The story goes: wanting to be alone & wanting
The easy loneliness of travelers,
I said good-bye in an airport & flew west.
It happened otherwise.
And where I’d held her close to me,
My skin felt raw, & flayed.
Descending, I looked down at light lacquering fields
Of pale vines, & small towns, each
With a water tower; then the shadows of wings;
My only advice is not to go away.
Or, go away. Most
Of my decisions have been wrong.
When I wake, I lift cold water
To my face. I close my eyes.
A body wishes to be held, & held, & what
Can you do about that?
Because there are faces I might never see again,
There are two things I want to remember
About light, & what it does to us.
Her bright, green eyes at an airport—how they widened
As if in disbelief;
And my father opening the gate: a lit, & silent
This one is also from Winter Stars.
Devin, you made such a good point about the slow-motion aspect of so many of Levis’ poems. I see that again in this poem, where he describes the racket // Of spring wind lifting a newspaper high / Above the lights. I always love the way he constructs streetscapes in his work; there’s a beautiful attentiveness to place here. I can think of several moments, across his work, where he constructs urban spaces in this way that makes them feel so intimate. “After the Blue Note Closes” comes to mind on this front, as does “My Story in a Late Style of Fire:”
. . . 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.
There’s such a familiarity in the way he interacts with places, whether it’s the California of his childhood, or places like Missouri or Richmond where he lived during his teaching career.
I also love his lineation in “In the City of Light”. That hard enjambment at Most // Of my decisions have been wrong fascinates me—that moment of breath breaking up the sentence, and all that white space surrounding that admission.
Levis’ lineation has never ceased to amaze me—whether the long lines that sprawl across a page, or the tighter, more sparse and stunted lines of this poem here. That hard enjambment you mention was probably one of the first lines of Levis that embedded itself in my mind. I remember reading this poem and then, in the days that followed, finding myself saying Most // Of my decisions have been wrong to myself as I walked through the city.
I think he sets up the weight of that line with different poetic cues throughout this poem. Notice all the time he dangles a word set off by a comma right at the end of line: Once, or Tell me, . . .
This creates, I think, a pattern of alternating heavinesses. He loves the comma in this poem. Everything is set off, dangled, held back, held longer. I find it so beautiful. It does something with doubt and uncertainty. It feels really precious. Like Levis is giving us this poem gently—correcting, revealing, holding, wondering. Then, when you arrive at a moment like this—A body wishes to be held, & held, & what // Can you do about that?—it feels like an echo and a refrain all at once. Held . . . & held . . . & what.
Have you ever listened to The Koln Concert by Keith Jarrett? This longform improvised piece of piano playing? It’s beautiful. It’s made all the more beautiful by the fact of Jarrett figuring it out as it goes along, so that, when he hits a beautiful note, he is as stunned by it as we are, or, when he finds a motif, he plays into it, developing it as he goes. And I feel that in Levis’ poems, and especially in this poem. There’s this motif of light, yes, but there’s also this alternation between certainty and doubt, between the comma and the un-comma’d enjambment. This tension that Levis, I think, can feel and write into. I guess it’s a lot like music; which is to say it is a lot like life.
I remember Levis saying somewhere (probably in one of his essays in The Gazer Within) that he always started his writing sessions by putting on a record, and that it was usually jazz, so I love the connection you made between his poems and The Koln Concert. That conversational, or improvisational, tone carries across his body of work—particularly, I think, in his later work—and it’s always beautiful.
Tension is a perfect word for what he creates in this poem. There isn’t a single line in this poem that I couldn’t talk about for hours, but there’s one stanza in particular that’s worth mentioning here:
This isn’t the whole story.
The fact is, I was still in love.
My father died, & I was still in love. I know
It’s in bad taste to say it quite this way. Tell me,
How would you say it?
That simultaneous holding of joy and grief—in some of their most extreme forms, romantic love and familial loss—is complicated, and Levis isn’t afraid to admit how incomplete and imperfect his attempts to put that complexity into language are: I know / It’s in bad taste to say it quite this way. There’s something in that wording, bad taste, that’s both serious in its self-criticism and subtly flippant; it feels as though Levis is shrugging through the line.
The first time I read the last line in this stanza, How would you say it?, I stumbled over where the italics were. I expected it to read How would you say it? It’s a small but important distinction. Every time I reread it, I still think about that: it’s not that Levis expects for a solution to emerge from someone else’s perspective (the you); there’s something more insistent than that at work here. It has to be said, even if it’s said messily.
God Is Always Seventeen
This is the last poem in the book. In a way, I don’t even want
to finish it. I’d rather go to bed and jack off under the covers
But I’d probably lose interest in it & begin wondering about God,
And whether He’s tried the methamphetamine I sent Him yet, & if He still
Listens to the Clash & whether the new job He got for Mozart
As a janitorial assistant in Tulsa is working out.
Besides, I can’t imagine a body in the first faint stirrings of arousal
Without feeling sorry for it now, & anyway, I’ve built a fire in the fireplace
And I don’t have a fire screen yet, & have to watch it until it goes out,
Even the last lukewarm ember. It isn’t my house.
It belongs to a bank in St. Louis somewhere & they have four thousand
Different ways to punish me if the place goes up in flames, including the guys
From Medellín who work for them now & specialize in pain.
Besides, it’s still winter everywhere & maybe you want to hear a story
With a fire burning quietly beside it. The story on this night when it
Got really cold, & the darkness of the night spreading
Over the sky seemed larger than it should have been, though
Nobody mentioned it. It was something
You didn’t feel like bringing up if you were sitting in a bar
Among your friends. But all that happened was the night kept getting larger
Then larger still, & then there was a squeal of brakes
Outside the bar, & then what they call in prose the “sickening” crunch
Of metal as two cars collided & in a little while the guy went back to telling
This story in which the warm snow was falling on the yard
Where he & the other prisoners were exercising. I guess the guy
Had evidently done some time, though everyone listening was too polite
To bring it up. And what happened in it was a clerk bleeding to death
In a 7-11, & the guy telling it called 911 for an ambulance, & the police found both
Cash from the till & the gun on him when they arrived. He didn’t think he’d shot
Anyone that night or anyone ever & was surprised & puzzled
When they made a match on the gun, the clerk lived to testify, & they convicted
Him. No one along the bar said anything when he’d finished
Telling it, & the night went on enlarging in the story, & I think our silence
Cut him loose & let him go falling. And one by one, we paid & got up & left
And went out under the stars. I have a child who isn’t doing well in school.
It’s not his grades. It’s that he can’t wake up.
He misses his morning classes & doesn’t answer when I call & doesn’t
Return my calls. The last time I saw him we took the train down from Connecticut
To New York & wandered around Times Square. We went into this record store
And pretended to browse through some albums there
Because we didn’t know what to say to each other. It was night. It was just
Before the Christmas season, & the clerks in the store
Would call out loudly Can I Help Anybody & Can I Help Someone & there was
Some music playing & something inconsolable
And no longer even bitter in the melody & I will never forget
Being there with him & hearing it & wondering what was going to become of us.
This is from The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems (2016), a collection of previously uncollected poems of Levis’ compiled by David St. John.
You already mentioned the incredible turn that this poem has, when he pivots to I have a child who isn’t doing well in school. It’s a heart-wrenching line, and the ending that it moves the reader into is no less visceral. It’s a poem of incredible movement; Levis brings us to so many different places throughout it. At the same time, though, I’m so interested in how the opening lines connect to that ending. This is the last poem in the book. In a way, I don’t even want / to finish it. It’s a deeply anhedonic opening, and yet the final six couplets of the poem are so raw, so clear and simple in a way that shows how important this moment is to Levis. I will never forget / Being there with him . . . wondering what was going to become of us. It’s almost as though he doesn’t want to finish the poem because he knows he will have to land in this moment of disconnection in all its finality.
I think that’s such an astute point, one I’ve never considered. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? The ending moment arrives so bluntly—I have a child who isn’t doing well in school—that it almost seems like the only fully-formed thought that Levis is entering this poem with. Everything that arrives prior to that, with all its tangentiality and waywardness, feels like delay, the way that, when I know I have something I need to tell someone, something difficult, I might put it off or begin far out in left field, hoping that my mind might meander my heart toward honesty.
And that’s what’s so special about Levis, I think. Why I am so drawn to him. Any other poet might cut the opening however-many lines of this poem. But Levis allows them to linger. And that, I think, is because there’s a real humanness to them, to what they enact. See how peppered the beginning is with these words of distance and indecision: anyways, besides, maybe, I guess. And yes, how anhedonic that opening line is. I find the poem so powerful because of that loose indecision, that anhedonia. What so much of Levis’ work does, for me, is to recreate the strange and intimate and deeply personal work of a mind trying to navigate a feeling. Sometimes that involves, like this poem does, moving through narrative after narrative until we arrive at the story that is, after all, what we’ve been thinking of and feeling this whole time.
When we get to that final moment, those words of loose indecision and distance leave the poem and are replaced with a sad, frank certainty: It was, it was, I will never forget.
It’s a poem that speaks to me about how much we hold, and how hard all of that holding is.
How much we hold, and how hard all of that holding is. I’m not sure there’s a better way than that to state what it is that Levis is able to capture in so much of his poetry. I think that’s exactly what he brings us.