May 25, 2009

Review by Rick Marlatt

by Larry Levis

University of Pittsburgh Press
Eureka Building, Fifth Floor
3400 Forbes Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
IBSN 9780822956488
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. Continue reading

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