Reading Larry Levis at Dusk in November
By Kevin Clark
Maybe it’s true, as Henry Miller said, that the greats
Are all cracked with certitude—
Take Larry’s boy in the video arcade, a blade
Buried in his torn jeans, his bleeding knees
Mashing the machine as if it were school,
A sullen kiss-off to death. Take
That stunned soldier, his arms stretched like welcome
Over the trees of Shiloh…
In and of themselves, okay, both are brute rendering.
But don’t we want to make something better of it all?
Or is that urge called just-getting-by?
Pedaling home past the university meat plant yesterday
I looked up across the road to see Cuesta Grade turned out
In windy grace, as if the drought-dull greens
Had lit from within, irradiated by the setting sun—
A planned spectacle, a thing
Blissed with purpose.
Like Larry, there was a time I’d see such beauty
To all that’s missing in this world. The utter null
Of the verdant. I love the man’s poems,
Despite his great agonizing loss of faith
In any magic, any mystery in the universe. The song
Inborn in nearly every line he wrote is testament
To just that: a hidden undecodable
Absence. Don’t you want to float
For a while on his soft thermal? Sure,
I could be fooling myself lately. Have I twinged
The absolute into a redeeming question? I don’t know,
But I keep thinking,
What if it’s true—
That a photon dancing miles away from its twin
Follows its lead in perfect synch?
Are we then halfway to saved by the inexplicable?
—Or am I pressing my own ever-echoing what-ifs
Too far beneath the widening spell of Larry’s leaves,
The ones spread out on the Carpathian Frontier
In October of 1968 where he drove
Alone while his appendix worsened,
Comforted briefly as the leaves swept across the road
And settled like a prismatic carpet spooled out
In pain-killing beauty just for him? That next month
I flew north to Jersey from college, skeletal
From running cross-country, the first leaves of crape myrtle
And Chicasaw plum spotting the clay paths
Of north Florida. It was my time to deny god
Like the pain rising each day as micro-tears turned
The stems of my legs stronger. Truth is, I’d tired
Over the tropical hillocks, sick of my breath cadenced
Across the humid miles, sick
Of the incessantly voiceless god
I’d grown up with. Tonight, as Venus rises in my window,
I want to imagine the photons of its light
Flickering upon these pages like a signal
At the very moment Larry looks back to Mr. Hirata,
His family’s portrait photographer who would die
Behind the gates of Manzanar. Maybe
That’s it: Every line Larry breathed infused the air
With the kind of threnody
Intent on bringing back the dead.
Before my family choralled into grace, before
My mother stood me at the table’s head in place
Of my father to carve the bird, I stole out to the front drive
With a patio chair in the chill, surely
Crosscut by memory streams of my father’s voice
Revivified in the air despite his young death five years earlier.
And so I sat to study the dark tips
Of the leafless oaks of New Jersey as they chiaroscuro
the last lit blues of evening.
Okay. Maybe I misfigured Larry’s project.
I’m coming to think his lyric didn’t betray
An honest disbelief in god. Yes, his doubt was inviolable.
But wasn’t he writing after Mr. Hirata? After
The boy in the arcade whose vacant gut was filling
With the clotted bile of his own resentment. After
The dead man whose spread arms mocked the ground
Below the torn trees of Shiloh? Even
After that bay cowhorse from Piedra? He loved
All of them, caught as they were in the ruthless
Unstoppable declination that may stab you
In the side without warning, that would kill him at 48,
That would kill my father before his time—
As so many neighbors were compelled to tell me at fourteen
As they drank hard in the old manner of Catholic wakes—
Though even then I’d never believed there’s such a thing
As owning rights to time. I know
Larry would never grant the import of photons
Precisely entangled in their implausible dance, but
I do believe
That in the immeasurably far off region of space
Within us, undetectable neutrinos
Pass through, beyond notice of poetry.
—Even as the boy in the arcade lets the cigarette match
Char the tips of his fingers without flinching.
And Mr. Hirata once again says, Please smile now.
And the soldier’s arms at Shiloh
Descend at dusk to make whole his body.
—Even as my father’s eyes lift from the page I’m holding.
Even as, once more, the book