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dorianne laux 06-10-2001 11:18 AM


--for Sharon and Earl

Our babysitter lives across from the Dodge Street cemetery,
And behind her broad, untroubled face.
Her sons play touch football all afternoon
Among the graves of clerks and Norwegian settlers.
At night, these huge trees, rooted in such quiet,
Arch over the tombstones as if in exultation,
As if they inhaled starlight.
Their limbs reach
Toward each other & their roots must touch the dead.

When I was fifteen,
There was a girl who loved me, whom I did not love, & she
Died, that year, of spinal meningitis. By then she
Had already left home, & was working in a carnival—
One of those booths where you are supposed
To toss a dime onto a small dish. Finally,
In Laredo, Texas, someone anonymous & too late, bought her
A bus ticket back….
Her father, a gambler and a horse dealer, wept
Openly the day she was buried. I remember looking off
In embarrassment at the woods behind his house.
The woods were gray, vagrant, the color of smoke
Or sky. I remember thinking then that
If I had loved her, or even slept with her once,
She might still be alive.
And if, instead, we had gone away together
On two bay horses that farted when they began to gallop,
And if, later, we had let them
Graze at their leisure on the small tufts of spring grass
In those woods, & if the disintegrating print of the ferns
Had been a lullaby there against the dry stones & and the trunks
Of fallen trees, then maybe nothing would have happened….
There are times, hiking with my wife past
Abandoned orchards of freckled apples & patches of sunlight
In New Hampshire, or holding her closely against me at night
Until she sleeps, when nothing else matters, when
The trees shine without meaning more than they are, in moonlight
And when it seems possible to disappear wholly into someone
Else, as into a wish on a birthday, the candles trembling…

Maybe nothing would have happened, but I heard that
Her father died, a year later, in a Sierra lumber camp.
He had been drinking steadily all week,
And was dealing cards
When the muscle of his own heart
Kicked him back into his chair so hard its wood snapped.
He must have thought there was something
Suddenly very young inside his body,
If he had time to think….
And if death is an adolescent, closing his eyes to the music
On the radio of that passing car,
I think he does not know his own strength.
If I stand here long enough in the stillness I can feel
His silence involve, somehow, the silence of these trees,
The sky, the little squawking toy my son lost
When it slipped into the river today….
Today, I am thirty-four years old. I know
That horse dealer with a limp loved his plain & crazy daughter.
I know, also, that it did no good.
Soon, the snows will come again & cover that place
Where he sat at a wobbling card table underneath
A Ponderosa pine, & cover
Even the three cards he dropped there, three silent diamonds,
And cover everything in the Sierras, & make my meaning plain.

jim zola 06-11-2001 09:32 AM

This poem, as so many of Larry's poems, has a way of sneaking up on the reader. The method is simple and yet dives so deep into the subject that there are times when I feel like I have to retrace my steps to see how I got to the places within the poem. The end leaves me chilled, much as his Koudelka poems do. A weaving of personal and imagined narrative that works so well for Levis.

Thanks for posting this one. I was a student of Larry's at Missouri and greatly miss him.... and wonder what wonderful poetry we missed by his passing. Not to say what he did leave behind isn't enough.

I have a poem I wrote for Larry. I am new on this board (I only registered upon finding this posting) and so I don't know if it would be appropriate to include it here. If not, then perhaps someplace on the board...or if I could just send it to you.


MEHope 06-11-2001 10:16 AM


I hope you'll post it here so we can all enjoy and welcome -- will you be sharing other poems here as well or is this a drive by?


jim zola 06-11-2001 01:16 PM


I am currently shopping for a house in the neighborhood, so I hope to stick around for awhile -- here is the poem I wrote for Levis --

The Poem You Didn't Ask For

I don't need to tell you how silver and black slide from paper
until what remains is smudged beneath the mention
of water, discordant shadows of familiar ghosts. Rumors
thud off the walls of pool halls, Club La Bouche, The Blue Note,
or echo in classrooms swelled with emptiness. Poet dead
at 49. I stare at my hands and see lines
that lead nowhere, lead to a house in the woods
surrounded by jonquil and weeping willow, to lives
barely lived, lead to lines in a poem unwritten. I tried
to write this for years. Each attempt ended without a word,
a blizzard of gestures, as if even a single mark
would be a betrayal. I cannot write elegies.
Your voice made each poem you read grow legs, arms,
its own voice. I remember these things like a deck of cards
spilling from the window of a train. They found you
days after you died from a sudden heart attack.
I suppose in that time between living and what the world
came to know as your death, that your face lost its sharpness,
the lines around the eyes, the mouth, fading, still, until all
that is left are cards face down on the pavement, then white, then gone.

-- for Larry Levis

robert mezey 06-11-2001 02:37 PM

I loved Larry as almost everyone did who knew
him, and I love some of his work a good deal.
But this one doesn't strike me as one of the
good ones. An ordinary story in an ordinary
telling, slopping over now and then into senti-
mentality, and the verse indifferent and nearly
tuneless. Pointless line breaks like "she /
had" and "wept / openly" and nothing much going
on in the long prosy lines. And perhaps too
many echoes of Jim Wright. Maybe his untimely
death has cast an aura around his poems, both the
good ones and those that didn't come off, and makes
it hard to judge them. As Borges said,

No hay cosa como la muerte
Para mejorar la gente.

MEHope 06-14-2001 03:34 AM


Thanks for posting this poem, it's taken me a few days to find a point where I could spend some time with it. I was just introduced to Levis' work this past year and I treasure this new "find". This poem is so simple and direct and I enjoy the images and movement.


Your poem is quite a tribute. You know I enjoy your writing and I'm happy to see that you may join us here. I just saw that you have again been chosen at the IBPC again, as well as Best of the Year for 1st and 3rd! Congrats! <u>Voudon Tale</u> is still a surprise to read through. Now did you ever get my note at Kay's site about your chapbook?

Welcome to the neighborhood, won't you be my neighbor?


dorianne laux 06-16-2001 10:40 AM

Sorry to be so long in writing a response to this poem. (End of term flurry has kept me away.) There are so many things I could say about how this poem works, but will stick with one thing I notice, for now. The trees. I love how Levis uses not only the image of trees as wisdom or knowledge, maybe also as harbingers of death, but how he threads the trees through the whole poem. First they are seen:

At night, these huge trees, rooted in such quiet,
Arch over the tombstones as if in exultation,
As if they inhaled starlight.
Their limbs reach
Toward each other & their roots must touch the dead.

Then, after a spell, they become tranformed into a reminder of his shame:

I remember looking off
In embarrassment at the woods behind his house.
The woods were gray, vagrant, the color of smoke
Or sky.

And then they are menntioned again in his dream of romance, the narrator as savior:

And if, later, we had let them
Graze at their leisure on the small tufts of spring grass
In those woods...

Then they are dead:

and the trunks
Of fallen trees...

Then, when his wife enters the dream they become:

Abandoned orchards

And then:

The trees shine without meaning more than they are, in moonlight...

Then,when the romantic dream dies and is replaced by reality, they become lumber:

Maybe nothing would have happened, but I heard that
Her father died, a year later, in a Sierra lumber camp.

Then, the lumber reappears as a chair that when his heart stops, kicks:

him back so hard its wood snapped.

(By the way, I dropped a line about the chair in my quick typing of this poem and will insert it in the original post of the poem.)

We then circle back to this image:

If I stand here long enough in the stillness I can feel
His silence (the father's silence/death)involve, somehow, the silence of these trees,

Until we are left with the final image of the father/gambler under a single, named tree:

a Ponderosa pine...

If you wanted to get really compulsive about how the image of trees transforms, not only does wood become lumber become chair, but also a deck of cards-- paper made from lumber's leavings.

I'm still trying to figure out the use of the tree as a transforming image in this poem, but I think it's pretty clear that it has something to do with that last line, which implies that death will take all of us and eventually cover over even memory and love. What's wonderful about this image is that it isn't obvious until you really read the poem a number of times, and yet the subtle use of the image helps to underscore his pervasive sense of loss and love's mortality. Do others have ideas about this?

jim zola 06-20-2001 08:01 AM


I loved your reading of this poem. Larry had a great respect for trees and liked to know the names of them.

You have given me a deeper appreciation of this wonderful poem. Thanks.


dorianne laux 06-20-2001 11:14 AM

Dear Jim-- Thanks for your response, and thanks for the poem about Levis. I've tried to write a poem for him and have failed and failed. My husband, Joseph Millar, is working on one as well-- we're both great Levis fans. His also takes up the gambling theme, and combines one of his favorite movies with one of his favorite poets.

For Larry Levis

"It's all in the wrist," she said, and I said
"I can't lose," which is what Paul Newman said
to Jackie Gleason and George C Scott
before the bums at Arthur's Roadhouse broke
both his thumbs in Robert Rossen’s "The Hustler".

I was trying to close the screen door in the gloom
of a power outage, warning the kids about the downed wires
spraying sparks behind the garage, and my girlfriend was reading
by candlelight curled up on our second-hand couch. It was May
and the broken stars of Christmas lights my neighbor Cruz
refuses to unwind from the cracked eaves of his porch
lay scattered underfoot. Cottonwood limbs fallen everywhere,
schools closed, roads flooded out. We could hear the children
whooping through the dusk before bedtime, the outlaw's
hubris flaring their nerves, as they ran through the fringe
of black grass by the dumpster.

Larry Levis had died, three thousand miles to the east,
alone in a house with no furniture, so someone said. Astonished,
we had watched for years as the gray vineyards vanished,
ploughed under each spring in the desolate spells of his poems,
the Malaga vines stacked, burned, and the horses with Spanish names
standing still in the valley’s thin shade. We had watched
the abandoned towns transform into hushed vagrant theaters
where men played cards in a yellow café, their women listening
to autumn’s soft dusk falling slowly inside them.

I never met him, but I think he would have liked this film,
circa 1963, black and white, the Ames
pool hall window’s dusty lens, tall cues standing
along both walls, the checkered tiles of the train station,
or the cafeteria's smudged light blotching the table
where Newman and Piper Laurie meet.
Most of us are afraid to disappear into the void pressing down
on the world, the skein of pale web fluttering over the door
where the house flies are trapped. Levis studied
these diminishing struggles, his rapt gaze undimmed
by grief or cruelty, compelled like Blake by the husk
of the infinite oozing its plasma just under the surface.

When the camera finally pans in tight on the gangster faces
lining the bar, it’s easy to think he might have sat down, admiring
the way the games simply continued after the violence was done,
the racked wedge of balls lined up on its spot,
tense figures hunched over the felt. Or the picnic scene
where Newman with casts on both wrists
explains how a man can be an artist at anything,
sunlight redemptive on his young face and arms,
offering the white plaster up to the air.

It's a movie you might someday watch from frayed velour seats
in a town like Duluth, where one taxi sleeps at the curb. Across
the square squats a dim casino you might stop in later,
the mauve fleur-de-lis on its men’s room walls
varnished with ancient cigar smoke and laughter.
The croupier's cuff links glint like blue ice.
And over the bar in the Gold Room, a young horse
painted the colors of daybreak grazes a field of dark flowers.

jim zola 06-20-2001 11:39 AM


A moving tribute. Thanks to you and your husband. I think Larry would have enjoyed it.


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