The new issue of Blackbird introduces six previously unpublished poems by former Warren Wilson faculty member Larry Levis, from The Darkening Trapeze: The Uncollected Poems of Larry Levis, forthcoming from Graywolf Press, 2015.
Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze Inside It
The idea turned out to be no more than a cart wheel
Stuck in mud, & unturned fields spreading to the horizon while
Two guys in a tavern went on drinking tsuica & recalling their one
Accomplishment in life—the seduction of a virgin on the blank
Pedestal of a statue where Stalin had once stood.
The State is an old man’s withered arm.
The only surviving son of Jesus Christ was Karl Marx.
You can tell by the last letter of his name,
Which has the shape & frail balance of an overturned cross
On a windswept hillside. It marked the end of things.
Of lumber that rots & falls. The czar is a shattered teacup,
The trouble with a good idea is that it has to work:
The only surviving son of Jesus Christ survives now
Mostly in English departments & untended graves.
One thing he said I still remember, a thing that’s never there
When I try to look it up, was: “Sex should be no more important . . .
Than a glass of water.” It sounded vaguely like the kind of thing
Christ might have said if Christ had a sense of humor.
The empty bar that someone was supposed to swing to him
Did not arrive, & so his outstretched flesh itself became
A darkening trapeze. The two other acrobats were thieves.
My colleague Otto Fick, who twenty years ago
Wrote brilliant lectures on the air, sometimes
Would pause & seem to consult notes left
On a podium, & then resume. A student once
Went up after class to look at them & found
Only a blank sheet of paper. Nothing there.
“In theory, I believe in Marx. In fact, my wife
Has to go in next week for another
Biopsy. Fact is disbelief. One day it swells up
In front of you, the sky, the sunlight on everything,
Traffic, kids on surfboards waiting for the next
Big set off San Onofre. It’s all still there . . . just
There for someone else, not for you.” This is what
My friend Otto told me as we drove to work.
I worked with men in vineyards once who were paid
In wages thin as water, cash that evaporated & rose like heat.
They lived in rows of makeshift sheds the owner hauled
Into an orchard too old to bother picking anymore,
And where, at dusk, a visible rushing hunger
Raced along the limbs of the trees surrounding them.
Their kids would watch it happen until a whole tree would seem
To vanish under it. There were so many of them.
By then the rats were flying over a sickening trapeze of leaves
And the tree would darken suddenly. It would look like brown water
Rushing silently & spreading everywhere
Before it got dark anyway & the kids went in.
“There was more rats in there than there was beads on all the rosaries of the dead.
We wen’ to confession all the time then ’cause we thought we might disappear
Under them trees. There was a bruja in the camp but we dint go to her no more.
She couldn’t predict nothing. And she’d always cry when you asked her questions,”
A woman said who had stayed there for a while.
Every revolution ends, or it begins, in memory:
Someone remembering her diminishment & pain, the way
Her scuffed shoes looked in the pale light,
How she inhaled steel filings in the grinding shed
For thirty years without complaining once about it,
How she might have done things differently. But didn’t.
How it is too late to change things now. How it isn’t.
They were the uncountable stars, the first time
We saw them, they were the glitter and the distance.
We were the swimming shapes of trees, that cast
Of shade extending over their tents. We hid
In ravines, but not to be one with nature.
We knew what being one with nature really meant.
And we were never the color-blind grasses,
We were never the pattern of the snake
Fading into the pattern of the leaves;
We were the empty clarity one glimpses
In water falling, in water spreading into
A thin white veil on what is never there,
The moment clear and empty as a heaven
Someone has just swept clean of any meaning.
If minié ball or cannon fire had a meaning,
We would have had maybe thirty seconds left
Of heaven to pin the right leaves back on trees
In summer and reattach the amputated limbs
Of boys. But the moment, clouding over,
Becomes again only an endless slipping of water
Over the spillways, and falls roaring in the ears
Until they ring, and the throat swollen
With failure and desire mingling there.
I could taste it in my mouth for days. It tasted
Like the wafer a friend said the Holy Ghost
Came wrapped up in. The Holy Ghost tastes like dust.
It liberates the body from the body so riddled
With rifle holes you can look right through us.
Look through us to what? To slums and shopping malls?
To one suburb joining another? Who grieves
On minimum wages? Look through us to that place—
Within sight of the trailer park and the truck stop—
Where Gettysburg could not be reenacted,
Where what was left of us on either side
Lay down our rifles, wept, embraced each other once.
That dust you taste in the Holy Ghost is us,
Dust ground into the windows you gaze out of,
And whether those windows burn or whether lights
Come on again in rows of quiet houses is a matter
Of how you treat him, sitting over there and still
Bleeding from a bad haircut, that captured soldier, that
Enemy, that risen dust, that boy, that stranger, you.
God Is Always Seventeen
This is the last poem in the book. In a way, I don’t even want
to finish it. I’d rather go to bed and jack off under the covers
But I’d probably lose interest in it & begin wondering about God,
And whether He’s tried the methamphetamine I sent Him yet, & if He still
Listens to the Clash & whether the new job He got for Mozart
As a janitorial assistant in Tulsa is working out.
Besides, I can’t imagine a body in the first faint stirrings of arousal
Without feeling sorry for it now, & anyway, I’ve built a fire in the fireplace
And I don’t have a fire screen yet, & have to watch it until it goes out,
Even the last lukewarm ember. It isn’t my house.
It belongs to a bank in St. Louis somewhere & they have four thousand
Different ways to punish me if the place goes up in flames, including the guys
From Medellín who work for them now & specialize in pain.
Besides, it’s still winter everywhere & maybe you want to hear a story
With a fire burning quietly beside it. The story on this night when it
Got really cold, & the darkness of the night spreading
Over the sky seemed larger than it should have been, though
Nobody mentioned it. It was something
You didn’t feel like bringing up if you were sitting in a bar
Among your friends. But all that happened was the night kept getting larger
Then larger still, & then there was a squeal of brakes
Outside the bar, & then what they call in prose the “sickening” crunch
Of metal as two cars collided & in a little while the guy went back to telling
This story in which the warm snow was falling on the yard
Where he & the other prisoners were exercising. I guess the guy
Had evidently done some time, though everyone listening was too polite
To bring it up. And what happened in it was a clerk bleeding to death
In a 7-11, & the guy telling it called 911 for an ambulance, & the police found both
Cash from the till & the gun on him when they arrived. He didn’t think he’d shot
Anyone that night or anyone ever & was surprised & puzzled
When they made a match on the gun, the clerk lived to testify, & they convicted
Him. No one along the bar said anything when he’d finished
Telling it, & the night went on enlarging in the story, & I think our silence
Cut him loose & let him go falling. And one by one, we paid & got up & left
And went out under the stars. I have a child who isn’t doing well in school.
It’s not his grades. It’s that he can’t wake up.
He misses his morning classes & doesn’t answer when I call & doesn’t
Return my calls. The last time I saw him we took the train down from Connecticut
To New York & wandered around Times Square. We went into this record store
And pretended to browse through some albums there
Because we didn’t know what to say to each other. It was night. It was just
Before the Christmas season, & the clerks in the store
Would call out loudly Can I Help Anybody & Can I Help Someone & there was
Some music playing & something inconsolable
And no longer even bitter in the melody & I will never forget
Being there with him & hearing it & wondering what was going to become of us.
This life & no other. The flesh so innocent it walks along
The road, believing it, & ceases to be ours.
We’re fate carrying a blown-out bicycle tire in one hand,
Flesh that has stepped out of its flesh,
Always ahead of ourselves, leaving the body behind us on the road.
Zampanò, what happens next? The clown is dead.
You still break chains across your chest though your heart’s not in it,
Your audience is just two kids, & already there is
Snow in little crusted ridges, snow glazing cart tracks & furrows
Where you rest. And then what happens?
One day you get an earache. One day you can’t breathe.
You notice the old nurse wears a girdle as she bends over you,
You remember the smell of Spanish rice from childhood,
An orphanage with scuffed linoleum on its floors.
You sit up suddenly, without knowing you have.
Your eyes are wide. You are stepping out of the flesh,
Because it now belongs to Zampanò, the Great.
Zampanò, I can’t do all the talking for you. I can’t go with you
Anymore. What happens next?
“Always what happens next, & then what happens after that.
It’s like you think we’re in a book for children. What happens next?
What does it look like is going to happen? It’s a carnival.
It happens on the outskirts of a city made of light & distance.
And well, it’s just my own opinion, but . . . I think
It’s a pretty poor excuse for a carnival, torn tents, everything
Worn out. But I guess it has to go on anyhow. And I guess
Death will blow his little fucking trumpet.”
The Necessary Angel
Buddy you got no idea how fast it happens,
The tail gunner said to no one in particular,
And flicked the gunsight up with his index finger.
A moment later he turned to a wet rose
Blossoming all at once & too large
For the glassed-in hot house turret to explain—
The bombardier still telling him a joke
Over the now quiet, frozen intercom.
The next day they fired on & sank
A harmless fishing junk with bleaching sails.
The one flag still believed in after the war,
Unfurling a lasting insult to a neighbor,
Was the index finger. Who christened it? When?
Half my country still believed in witches
The day they tricked the atom with a mirror.
And the sad whorl of flesh above the knuckle
Looks back at me as if to say the body
Is another’s body, & the dark’s within the dark.
So the girl who received a whipping with a birch cane
In the schoolroom in front of all the others there,
Who witnessed in the passing weeks the bruises
Turn yellow & rose, until her flesh resembled
The random patterns blooming on late peaches—
Peaches & Cream is what the others called her,
Taunting her—is now a woman who watches, dry-eyed,
Above the cramped kitchen sink of a house trailer,
The way the wind whips the weeds in a vacant lot,
The way it blows trash against the chain-link fence
Along the interstate. She is just watching it get darker,
The dark seeming to spill out of the dark, out of what
Is already dark. She moves her hips forward until
They touch the sink, withdraws them slowly, pushes them
Close again. Some enchanted fuckin’ evening, she says,
A moment or two later. She sticks her tongue out
At the dark. She begins chopping things up for a salad.
Buddy you got no idea how dark it is, the blood swears
Against the glass. She hears the light hissing above her
In the kitchen, & thinks she may well be the witch
They said she was. A power without a switch to turn
It on. The birch cane falling through the autumn light
Of the classroom, the switch that left her in the dark.
The switch that can’t explain her life, or why she’s poor
And white in all this dark. It’s 1952.
White Trash—that’s what all her neighbors call her.
White Trash—the sprawl of a wave on a rock is all
That’s left within the words when I say them slowly now.
She isn’t in them anymore. And whenever she appears
It’s 1952 & she is making dinner.
This is before the country enters history. This is before
The president is fast forwarded out of his own blood—
Lifted & dropped like a sheet of paper in the wind—
Into the front seat of the white limousine. Wide awake.
If you still the frame the president looks wide awake.
Like the woman in the kitchen of her trailer making
Salad, her script for Benzedrine refilled, the bottle of it
On the counter there. Wide awake in 1952,
And as the dark filled the field outside she’d masturbate
With a cucumber, then slice it up & serve it to
Her husband in his salad. She’d watch him douse it
In Thousand Island dressing & wash it down with bourbon
While she smoked—she wasn’t hungry—across from him
At the table. It was the moment of the day
She waited for, the wind hissing outside the trailer,
Her husband still in uniform. Then she would switch
The cigarette to her left hand, reach between her thighs
With her right, & slowly unfurl her index finger.
It stood right up to him in the wordless dark beneath
The table. Death & Resurrection & the dark we are.
And against the dark? The lobby’s polished brass,
The bright light of a hotel barber shop, & a music
In a chair, his mind on nothing. Beyond the window,
Is Hartford in a downpour & a fallen world where,
Every Tuesday afternoon for twelve years,
My hill witch does Wallace Stevens’s nails while he reads
The New York Times. Sometimes it’s Bergson or
Santayana, the book folded into the newspaper so it looks
As if he’s reading the paper, & sometimes it’s the paper,
And at least twice each time he visits Stevens
Finds himself staring at her breasts
That rise & fall to the quickened rhythm of her breath.
He feels her warm breath on his fingernails
As she polishes them. He watches her & he thinks
Of the clouds slowly changing shape in the night sky
Of Florida, & knows if he reaches out, & touches her,
Touches the swelling cotton fabric of her sweater,
He will begin the long fall that culminates
In a commonplace of wave sprawl & a coastline
Filling with service stations, taco stands, motels,
A screen door banging endlessly in the wind.
And Oh he wants to! The desire has less to do with her
Than with a wish to fall & keep falling silently.
Out of the world. All it requires is this slight gesture,
His index finger uncurling like a thought
Made flesh to taste the withering cold to come.
She could feel him watching her.
And said to herself, as she dusted his nails & blew
Hot little breaths on each one of them,
“So you wanna floor show with your manicure.”
The next time she undid a button on her blouse,
Stopped filing for a second, & looked into his eyes . . .
He couldn’t work for a week. He waited for a warm,
Overcast afternoon in March before he tried to touch her,
And waited for his body to open like a parachute.
She was buffing the pink fingernails
Of his right hand when he discovered that his left
Index finger would not move. He tried again, & found
He could not move any muscle. He stared
At the swimming print of the paper on his lap
And saw instead the wave sprawl on the rock
And the beach growing colder, emptier than
The sound it held. Then he was falling toward it
In the dark. “It’s all right, it’ll be all right,” he heard
A voice saying. It was like the voice of a mother
In the night, the calm in its wake a widening, spiraling
Calm, like the pattern in a carpet he remembered,
Like a voice from childhood whispering in his ear,
The calm voice of a woman in a quiet house,
A voice he knew, a voice he had always known.
It was embarrassing to wake & find it was
The voice of a woman whispering in his ear,
To find he’d fainted in the shop while she
Was giving him a manicure, & to find her touch
On his face was gentler than the remembered
Touch of his wife, or mother, or any other touch,
That it was like the night air of Florida, incorporeal,
The finally dissolving pattern of a final heaven.
After that, the men who fell & were found frozen
In ditches, their parachutes spreading around them
Like picnic blankets, were much like the men he saw
Strolling behind lawn mowers in the summer dark.
Lights came on in houses & the stars came out.
All of it seemed a part of what was uneventful,
A part of all there was that went on falling
Into a silence that seemed to enter everything
Or else had been there all along without their knowing.
They felt its presence in the gauzy, late afternoon
Light falling through the windows of the lobby. As he
Read the paper, as she went on filing his nails—
The silence of the empty barber’s chair next to them,
The silence of jars on a shelf & magazines in a rack—
Was neither the clothing of things nor the nakedness
Of things. It wasn’t this. It wasn’t that. It was
The blank, the the that set the whole aspin.
He would begin to doze off, his hand in hers,
And the sound of the nail file was the sound of his steps
Racing over the dry beach grass on a winter day
As if he were still a boy one step ahead of the quiet. . . .
But where the quiet overtakes him everything
Is changed: her breasts awaken to his touch
Only to disappear into this cold air in his palms.
And if streams unthaw, if the lazy gauze
Of vegetation comes back along the street, it finds
She isn’t there, that she is air & fire & absence.
The file sounds like the gate scraping shut behind him.
And the world tinged in frost. It glitters in the sun.
He is surprised to find he’s already walking past
What has become the illegible. In its raw light,
Where the eyes of the poor are like flaking paint,
Where an expressionless boy with a headband leans
On the crumpled fender of a car, & spits once
As he passes, there is no other sign—only the marquee,
Flashing, half-lit, on the motel beneath the overpass.
In the room the headboard of the bed shakes
From the ceaseless traffic passing overhead,
His things in a little jar in the bathroom tremble
And tinkle constantly. He does not understand why,
When he reaches out to test how firm the peaches are,
The store clerk in a white apron threatens him
With a baseball bat. And all of it happens in silence.
The color of the apron seems to change each time
The clerk raises the bat in both hands, changes
Like a remembered beach that was now in sunlight,
Now in the shadow of clouds—all there is left
Of the picked over, looted, empty attic of heaven.
What was the worm doing there, at heaven’s gate?
But now it had eaten heaven, now the light along
The coast was real, & was light. Now there was nothing,
Nothing but the empty, stretching arm of the beach
Beneath the empty clouds. It was up to him to put it
Back together, & he thought he might begin now
With the wave sprawl on the rock & the tern’s cry.
Outside, the scent of exhaust, the smell of baking
Bread, seemed more familiar now than the smell
Of sex, that sudden garlic overwhelming the dry
Lilac that had become the body of his wife.
The hymen of his soul parted as he walked
For traffic, for the rain changing back again to snow.
And the home he enters is not his home although
A doily on a sofa seems the perfect expression
Of a perfect quiet except . . .it isn’t there. He’d taken
Those exuberant, tasteless fantails of a distant aunt
And thrown them in the trash bin years ago . . .
He looks again & hears her saying “It’ll be all right,”
He sees that the doily isn’t there, sees that the only
Embroidery is invisible, is what the quiet
Is making within the stillness of the study.
He hears his wife’s step, then the creak of her chair
Above him. She is reading there in her room or sewing
Something. She is there. And she is not there.
He closes his eyes a moment & sees a rock,
And then the sprawl of a wave against the rock,
And then the gleaming rock again, & he feels afraid.
Had the woman creaking in the chair above him
Become a rock & the sprawl of a wave against
The rock? Had she become the terns’ cries
As they gathered once, just once, into a tight,
Converging knot above the surf that just
As suddenly undid itself, & was not, was gone
Like the drying froth the wave left as it receded,
Like the windblown sparks of a fire on a beach
That left him walking there alone in winter?
He hears the creaking of her chair on the floor above—
What will he say of them? Her step, the creaking
Of her chair is asking, asking, asking: it is defiant.
He bends his head a little as if he is listening
To the wood grain in his desk turn into music.
But the grain in the wood is silent & the boy is dead.
And the sad whorls of flesh, or wood swirl of the knuckle
Above the forefinger, thumb, & middle finger that hold on
Tight to the pen, Swan or Waterman, for the carnival ride,
Hesitate a second at the top of the rickety scaffold—
At the top of the Wild Worm he can smell the sea—
Before the steep drop, the rush through the summer air,
On which is written “It is an illusion that we ever lived.”
It is what the wave sprawl on the rock said & the boy
Who was dead. What is not written anywhere is what
Was said in the moment after—said finally & once
To the bare breasts of the woman kneeling there,
To the manicurist herself chewing gum on the bus
As she goes home to her small apartment, living alone,
The lights of the city glittering in the snowy air;
Said so that it can never be unsaid, by the creaking
Of his wife’s chair, by the ironic scraping of limbs
Against a wall, until the two sounds are all there is—
Filling the house with their brief & thoughtless triumph.
A Singing in the Rocks
Quirai, the site of the Inquisition in the New World,
Is a cathedral of dust specks whirling in light now.
All the hallucinations of the nave, transept, the chalice with the sound
Of the wind inside it, the saint’s relic like something obliterated
By the cries of another century—are there
To show how little they matter.
He rocks himself to sleep in this refusal to explain.
He naps in the empty spiderweb & is no more than its glistening
In the limbs of the apple tree—
How little they matter.
After driving all night I remember pulling over at dawn,
And climbing a low hill of twisted mesquite & a scattered
Outcropping of rocks gray in that light,
And hearing it there:
Dobro & steel guitar & the pinched, nasal twang of a country tenor,
A singing in the rocks though no one was there, & thinking
At first it was no more than the thin membrane & the cheap,
Inscrutable vision & brief psychosis that comes in the wake
Of methamphetamine, a beige powder that smelled
Like wheat & was as silent, & was, for years, the only company
I ever had the pleasure of being completely alone with.
But the woman traveling with me heard it too, walking up the hill,
Waking to it there, so that she stopped & listened, but it was
As if she listened beyond it.
Even after we heard it there were the routine nights when she liked
To get quietly drunk on cheap vodka & think of her daughter—
Lymphoma a dead bloom in the woods, suspended leaves,
And how the nibbling of what was not yet pain when it began again
Was like disbelief flowing suddenly into the veins,
She was beginning to die, and to know it.
And so the singing, & the no one there, must have been
Different for her.
There was nothing we could do about it, & when the singing began
To grow fainter & cease, there was nothing we
Could do about that, either.
Not that a singing could have changed either one of us.
And the fact that we could not be changed seemed the brief meaning
Of what we listened to, there, until, after a while,
We could hear nothing but the unraveling sigh of traffic behind us
On the interstate. “Fuck you,” she said, & turned to walk down
A small path leading to the car, the parking lot, to a couple of
Weather–beaten public restrooms, the beige paint flaking off
The concrete & cement.
Beyond the valley I looked across there were mountains,
And beyond them, only another range of mountains,
And beyond them, another.
He is & is not the empty track of the fox,
And is & is not the edge of the wood that seems to be listening,
The paths disappearing again & again,
And the swirled snow making the darkness of the shop fronts
Visible, to show you how little they matter.
So say it & be done with the saying of it:
He waits & will wait forever in the delicate, small bones of the knight
Asleep in his luster, his armor, the glint of the swordblade at his side
Reflecting the raining sky & a life without the slightest hesitation.
He rejoices in pleasures too pure for this world.
He is the sore screech of the wheel in the addict’s voice,
And disbelief itself under the summer stars.
And the tenor voice of the sax & the snow swirling on the city streets
To frame the unsayable, & mute the sayable.
And in the perpetual snow of syllables meant to praise him,
Nothing changes but his sex & his preoccupations, so that he becomes,
In time, the woman
With a birthmark & a puzzled expression on her face as she listens
To the clattering loom of voices in the asylum, listens
For the scrape of the keel on the sand & the gulls’ cries.
If he is the saying, he is the obliteration of the saying,
And the sore screech of the wheel that outlives the addict.
They will say he is the saying & the finishing of the saying,
And that even the unsaying restores the beginning.
It isn’t so, & the hawk caught in the boy’s net
That I watched, later that day, had no sophistry about it, no guile.
Its choice was the tearing of itself to shreds.
So that, in an hour or so, it bled to death. And, therefore, no.
He is the moment the trap springs give & something is snagged
For a last time in the cross–stitched mesh of the net.
So say that on a hill of twisted mesquite & a scattered outcropping
Of rocks gray in that first light,
He was the singing & the no one there,
Dobro & slide guitar & the pinched nasal twang of a country tenor.
And a dust of snow, already, glimpsed suddenly in a furrow,
On a windowsill, on the frayed cuff of someone on a park bench
Staring intently at nothing, at passing traffic.
And therefore I say without the fear
That has been my faithful accomplice, & conniver corkscrewing
Through all my days until they resembleth the cracked glaze of frost
By light, by the nothing all light is,
That in the moment after Dobro & slide guitar & the pinched note
Of defeat in her voice had ceased,
Something continued, unaccompanied, as I turned away from it,
He is the singing in the rocks & the no one there.
He is the pain & the frostbite in the melody.
There should be some third & final thing to say of him here, although
It should be said by someone else, leaning at four a.m.
On the scuffed black leatherette of a too–tall, out–of–fashion speaker,
Only the amp glowing on the dark stage of a country rock bar
In Missouri, smoking & staring out at the empty dance floor,
And there isn’t. And therefore:
What comes after, in the walking home alone forever, & the writing it
Out, is like the testimony of a witness, always imperfect, changing,
Until one is spent in the exhaustion of the music, in each twisted,
Unmemorized limb of mesquite scoring the blood spattered
Hawk’s screech of each note—no voice left in it & no accompaniment—
What comes after is the knowledge that
One is no longer part of it, & can no longer be part of it,
Who, with no one to answer to, passes the brown, indifferent grasses
In the winter months, the lascivious blooms that come on later, cock
Purple & blush pink, noticing them one moment, then looking away
Without focusing on anything in particular, unable to believe either
The chill of visitation or any lie the wind tells him—
Forgetting, & becoming,
Without the slightest awareness of it in that moment, another.