Review by Rick Marlatt
by Larry Levis
University of Pittsburgh Press
Eureka Building, Fifth Floor
3400 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
1997, 96 pp., $14.00
Larry Levis’ postmortem collection demonstrates a scope of excellence which far exceeds that of many of his contemporaries. Edited and preceded with an illuminating foreword by Philip Levine, Elegy manages to tell a multitude of thematically connected stories and do so in a style that is remarkably unique and unquestionably successful. While the majority of the text is driven by varying degrees of lamentation and elegiac melancholy, particularly in the final of three sections devoted exclusively to elegies, an effective balance of musicality and image throughout provides the reader with a more than satisfying multitude of emotions. Strong pieces in the opening section such as “Shiloh,” “Anastasia and Sandman,” and “In 1967” indicate the sharp, unparalleled precision of an artist with the ability to trigger on a particular moment or scenario in time and expand its meaning into universal understanding.
Specifically, in “The Oldest Living Thing in L.A.,” Levis intersperses a recounting of an observation of a possum trying to cross a late-night street. While many poems of this kind predictably begin with the trigger, in this case, the opossum, and then move beyond into the realm of what Richard Hugo calls the poem’s true subject, Levis proves more skillful. That is, after half the poem has been devoted to the narrative function of the opossum, specifically, the surrealistic portrayal of its mouth, Levis turns briefly to metaphorical history: “Teeth that went all the way back beyond / The flames of Troy and Carthage, beyond sheep / Grazing rock-strewn hills, fragments of ruins / In the grass at St. Vitale” (7). At the point in the poem where many writers would capitalize on this transition with a final punch towards universality in interpretation, Levis masterfully returns to the narrative, but carries with him the momentum which he has ignited and now sustains. As the focus returns to the physicality and uniqueness of the opossum, we see the poet offer a testament to the animal’s tenacity; Levis states: “It could mangle someone’s hand / In twenty seconds. Mangle it for good” (7). With the linear description of the event and the nostalgic battle imagery complimenting each other to perfection, Levis fuses present and past by carrying this interdependence on to the poem’s final lines. After describing the animal control officer as a knight in mailed gloves, Levis concludes: “who gathered together a pole with a noose on the end, / A light steel net to snare it with, someone who hoped / The thing would have vanished by the time it got there” (7). In this beautiful piece, we have nature and urban culture not colliding but attempting to realize a symbiosis. This speaks to the earnest attempt of the collection as a whole to come to terms with the past rather than backlash against it.
The collection’s second section begins a steady concentration towards the elegy form with poems such as “Elegy with a Petty Thief in the Rigging,” “Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern in It,” and longer narratives such as “The Cook Grew Lost in His Village, the Village in the Endless Shuffling of Their Cards,” in which Levis showcases his uncanny ability to shape-shift voice and teleport seamlessly in and out of unique consciousnesses. Yet, what again makes Levis so dynamic is his ability to accomplish soulful contemplation in the most unexpected of venues. “Boy in Video Arcade” exhibits the poet as a master of perspective. Unlike the opossum piece from earlier, Levis here launches right into interpretation of life in the opening lines: “Some see a lake of fire at the end of it, / Or heaven’s guesswork, something always to be sketched in. / I see a sullen boy in a video arcade” (19). Where as the opossum poem was an application of intelligent induction, this piece is a direct application of poetic deduction in which Levis utilizes his linguistic skill to illustrate his own reasoning by comparing it to that of the characters he has created. While the proponents of conviction and consequence see doom for the faithless and lackadaisical, and the boy, who is a victim of his own ignorance, sees nothing, “So death blows his little fucking trumpet, Big Deal, says the boy” (19), the speaker appears to plant his seeds of understanding firmly in the soil of existentialism. In this meditation, not a trace of irony, sarcasm, or whimsicality surfaces; rather, we see a poet who is at all times honest, exploratory, and persistent.
Elegies exclusively comprise the book’s final section, and reflective compositions such as “Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand,” “Elegy for Poe with the Music of a Carnival Inside It,” and “Elegy with an Angle at Its Gate” are stirring verifications of Levis’ superior artistry. Levis produces striking images in the realms of literature, religion, faith, and art which serve to make each poem a triumph. “Elegy with a Sprawl of a Wave Inside It” features the poet going into a moment in time almost as a painter would add to an already finished piece. Levis adds color, character, and tone, and makes the two black swans paddling though Sheffield Park an allegory for the speaker’s own life. The smells, color, and sound that Levis associates with this memory breath off the page like pulses on the beads of flashing moments. As with many of the poems in this collection, the final line is eloquent and indicative of the poet and reader’s journey: “The present can’t remember what it is” (46). The skill with which Levis expands and contracts the elegy form and forces us to reconsider the boundaries of what the elegy can accomplish from poetic and emotional perspectives, is remarkable. Levis continually formulates a new, fresh conception of the universe through weighty, profound lines that form confessions of an incredibly poetic voice.
While the lengthy Elegies in this final section repeatedly pull on the reader’s heartstrings, presenting emotional compilations of memoir, longing, and nostalgia, masterpieces such as “Elegy with a Chimneysweep Falling Inside It” and “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope” are anything but sensational. Rather, as Philip Levine so perfectly notes in his foreword, we are witnessing “one of our essential poets at the very height of his powers” (x). Indeed, what Levis leaves behind is not only a cornerstone upon which a legacy has no doubt been erected, but a template for magnificence in the future of contemporary poetry. Levis’ work strives to examine the universe on a variety of different levels, and the poet uses his versatility in form, structure, and prosody to adjust to the appropriate degree of analysis, commentary, memoir, and rebuttal. Thus, while studying Elegy is an exercise in the ambient and infinite possibilities of poetry, Levis offers us a consistent and earnest reflection which is truly commendable.
Rick Marlatt teaches English in Nebraska. He has BAs in English and Philosophy and a MA in Creative Writing from the University of Nebraska, and he is currently pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of California Riverside at Palm Desert. Marlatt’s most recent publications of poetry reviews include Gently Read Literature and Cold Front Mag, while his poetry appears most recently in The Pedestal Magazine, Superstition Review, and Barnwood International Poetry. Marlatt performs as an actor, poet, and writer, most recently, winning the University of Nebraska Sigma Tau Delta Short Fiction Slam.