Asked in an interview what he most sought to achieve in poetry, Larry Levis once claimed, "I'm trying to stop Time."1
With its wild yet masterfully fluid leaps across dates and locales inscribed within the instant a bomb detonates, his sequence "The Perfection of Solitude" strikes me as the very fruit of these labors.
In the opening stanzas, Levis acknowledges Time's incessant drumbeat, asserting that "no one is ever at home inside a name," and "the word home // Has a bomb ticking inside it." Later, he confronts this reality, exhibiting the quality he said a poet may, at best, aspire to – "To ask something with the unbelievable honesty of a man who is about to vanish from the world"2 – when he poses the compact and baffling, "And this?":
And this? This is the most unscrupulous thing of all.
These scratchings all night,
These inquiries because you are not there, have
become, simply, you, white paper
Desiring the darkening effects of ink until, late at
night, it is black trees, White snow. A winter landscape, & the hush when I
come back to it as bitter & serene
As coffee, solitude, the first snow grazing the streets.
It is pure, the way cruelty is pure.
I swear I'd give the whole thing up for you.3
Here we witness the poet conquering the "swirl and vortex" of solitude, climbing out of himself to possess the same indifference to Time as "a winter landscape." Again and again, I'm floored by the humility, bravery, and beauty of this transfiguration: it is the moment Levis described elsewhere as being "not an escape … (but) an insistence upon human ecstasy."4 His work insists upon not merely his own, but especially our "ecstasy," which is to say, Levis does "give the whole thing up for (us)."
1. From Christopher Buckley's essay, "Elegy: Larry Levis — An Appreciation" in A Condition of the Spirit.
2. From an interview by David Wojahn in The Gazer Within.
3. "The Perfection of Solitude" in The Widening Spell of the Leaves. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.
4. From "Some Notes on the Gazer Within," in The Gazer Within.
* * *
by Larry Levis
From The Perfection of Solitude
One of my pastimes then was savoring the casual emptiness of
names, any name,
Even the name of that stranger I said over & over in bed until her
Slipped itself from all moorings, & her body became like wind
Until, free finally of its name, it would do anything.
And the next time I called her by another name, deliberately,
just to see…
And repeated the name over & over until her body belonged to no
one, to neither
One of us. It came to the same thing: without a name, the body
could be anyone's,
Open to any suggestion.
This was the petty blasphemy I flirted with, the wind gusting
over the empty tables.
I was learning how Guilt, feeding on the Body of Its Host, grows
Which is another way of saying it grows terrified of anything as
As Itself, & then is simply mute, the shore of a lake clouding over.
Then it is best to go home. * * *
From Beginnings, aB Intraby Justin Goldberg
I search the dark places
to know you better,
It's far too late
to ask you what they mean,
but I touch
your bedroom door
listen for footsteps
on the hardwood floor.
The house is silent
you lie fast asleep.
Lift your head now
from the crater in the pillow
where it rests, rise and hear
what I've uncovered.
When we wake,
we will face each other
hold our tongues
beneath the table.
* * *
From the poem sequence "The Perfection of Solitude" from The Selected Levis, selected by David St. John. Copyright © 2000. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA, 15260. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
From Speaking Past the Tongue selected by Henri Cole for the PSA New York Chapbook Fellowship competition. All Rights Reserved.