Poetry | March 01, 1991
Poetry Feature: Larry Levis
Featuring the Poems:
- To A Wren on Calvary
- Labyrinth As the Erasure of Cries Heard Within It Or: (Mr. Bones I Succeeded…’Later) [Poem of the Week April 22, 2012]
- The Clearing of the Land
- As It Begins with a Brush Stroke on a Snare Drum
To A Wren on Calvary
“Prince Jesus, crush those bastards . . .”
—François Villon, Grand Testament
It is the unremarkable that will last,
As in Brueghel’s camouflage, where the wren’s withheld,
While elsewhere on a hill, small hawks (or are they other
Are busily unraveling eyelashes & pupils
From sunburned thieves outstretched on scaffolds,
Their last vision obscured by wings, then broken, entered.
I cannot tell whether their blood spurts, or just spills,
Their faces are wings, & their bodies are uncovered.
The twittering they hear is the final trespass.
And all later luxuries—the half-dressed neighbor couple
Shouting insults at each other just beyond
Her bra on a cluttered windowsill, then ceasing it when
A door was slammed to emphasize, like trouble,
The quiet flowing into things then, spreading its wake
From the child’s toy left out on a lawn
To the broken treatise of jet-trails drifting above—seem
Keel scrapes on the shores of some enlarging mistake,
A wrong so wide no one can speak of it now in the town
That once had seemed, like its supporting factories
That manufactured poems & weaponry,
Like such a good idea. And wasn’t it everyone’s?
Wasn’t the sad pleasure of assembly lines a replica
Of the wren’s perfect, camouflaged self-sufficiency,
And of its refusal even to be pretty,
Surviving in a plumage dull enough to blend in with
A hemline of smoke, sky, & a serene indifference?
The dead wren I found on a gravel drive
One morning, all beige above and off-white
Underneath, the body lighter, no more than a vacant tent
Of oily feathers stretched, blent, & lacquered shut
Against the world—was a world I couldn’t touch.
And in its skull a snow of lice had set up such
An altar, the congregation spreading from the tongue
To round, bare sills that had been its eyes, I let
It drop, my hand changed for a moment
By a thing so common it was never once distracted from
The nothing all wrens meant, the one feather on the road.
No feeding in the wake of cavalry or kings changed it.
Even in the end it swerved away, & made the abrupt
Riddle all things come to seem . . . irrelevant:
The tucked claws clutched emptiness like a stick.
And if Death whispered as always in the language of curling
Leaves, or a later one that makes us stranger,
“Don’t you come near me motherfucker”;
If the tang of metal in slang made the New World fertile,
Still . . . as they resumed their quarrel in the quiet air,
I could hear the species cheep in what they said . . .
Until their voices rose. Until the sound of a slap erased
A world, & the woman, in a music stripped of all prayer,
Began sobbing, & the man become bystander cried O Jesus.
In the sky, the first stars were already faint
And timeless, but what could they matter to that boy, blent
To no choir, who saw at last the clean wings of indifferent
Hunger, & despair? Around him the other petty thieves
With arms outstretched, & eyes pecked out by birds, reclined,
Fastened forever to scaffolds which gradually would cover
An Empire’s hills & line its roads as far
As anyone escaping in a cart could see, his swerving mind
On the dark brimming up in everything, the reins
Going slack in his hand as the cart slows, & stops,
And the horse sees its own breath go out
Onto the cold air, & gazes after the off-white plume,
And seems amazed by it, by its breath, by everything.
But the man slumped behind it, dangling a lost nail
Between his lips, only stares at the swishing tail,
At each white breath going out, thinning, & then vanishing,
For he has grown tired of amazing things.
Labyrinth As the Erasure of Cries Heard Within It Or: (Mr. Bones I Succeeded…’Later)
—for John Berryrnan
—Is dog eat dog out dere’—Big Business, Mr. Bones.
You know what I’m doing now? I’m watching the Complete
Poems of Hart Crane as they are slowly fed
Into a pulping machine in East Bayonne.
How intime, this foreman shouting in my ear.
I think each page should make a little speech
As it is shredded, but I don’t hear a thing
Except . . . he seems to be implying I don’t work here.
I mean . . . so far he’s called me Yid, Spic, Dago,
Commie, & Queer—I’ve never been so . . . honored.
And Mister Crane, the year I left the South,
It was not only out of print, your oeuvre,
It had become so many other things:
Kindling, dog food, a kind of diluted cereal
They feed to hogs, to fatten them for slaughter;
And some of the poems went into suburban landfills
Out on Long Island. You see, the pulp, if mixed
With all the trash of Manhattan, sometimes makes
A kind of land where there isn’t any land.
People live there. In fact, you’d be amazed
At all the different things your poems are used for.
Some were compressed into those artificial
Logs, to burn with other logs. You see? You still
Catch fire. Skiers, lovers, urban dwellers,
Cold winter travelers, they read those flames,
Just like they read a poem. It has, always,
A different meaning for every one of them.
Sometimes, around a campfire, Mr. Crane,
They grow still, as if remembering
Phrases like “adagios of islands” or
“A burnt match skating in a urinal”:
Really they think of nothing, nothing at all.
Even Mr. Yvor Winters, your trusted friend,
Who schooled my sister in unhappiness,
Who grew (of North Beach) paranoid in the end,
—Because he fear hisself, he fear de madness
Dere’—like Heisenberg, who wore the braille
Of snowshoes, even on summer days,
Going out, among the milder particles,
Braced for the bright light, to get his mail.
The Clearing of the Land
The trees went up the hill
And over it.
Then the dry grasses of the pasture were
Only a kind of blonde light
And framing the randomly strewn
Outcropping of gray stone
That anchored them to soil.
Who were they?
One in the picture, and one not, and both
With nothing in common but a perfect contempt
For a past;
Ancestors of stumps and fallen trees and . . .
One is sitting on a sorrel mare, idly tossing
Small stones at the rump
Of a steer that goes on grazing
At tough rosettes of pasture grass
And switching its tail
In what is not even irritation.
What I like, what I
Have always liked, is the way he tosses each small
Stone without thinking, without
A thought for anything, not even for aiming it,
The easy, arcing forearm nonchalance
Like someone fly-casting.
For this is what he wanted:
To be among the stones, the grasses,
Savoring a stony self
That reminded him of no one else,
And on land where that poacher, Law,
Had not yet stolen through his fences,
The horse beneath him twitching
Its withers lightly to keep
The summer flies away,
And the woman in the flower print dress hemmed
A half mile off
Is the authoress of no more than smoke rising,
Her sole diary,
From a distant chimney.
They have perhaps a year or two
Left of this
Before History begins to edit them into
Something without smoke or flies, something
Beyond all recognition.
As It Begins with a Brush Stroke on a Snare Drum
The plaza was so still in that moment two years ago that
everything was clear,
As if it had been preserved beneath a kind of lacquered
stillness, &, for a while,
I did not even notice the pigeons lifting above the sad tiles
Or how they must have sounded like applause that is not
meant for anyone;
I must not have noticed that blind woman on the corner who
For a living, who had one eye swelled shut entirely while
the other, a thin film
Of glaucoma over it that had taken on the lustreless sheen
of a nickel,
Was held wide open to witness spittle on the curb. And soon
In their sun-bleached military uniforms were tuning up beneath
the blossom of rust
Covering the gazebo, its eaves festooned with the off-white
spiderwebs of unlit Christmas lights.
And that girl, Socorro, her smile surfacing voluptuously as
an unspoken thought
Again, was selling gardenias—their petals already beginning
Faintly discolored around the edges—from a basket she carried
on her head
In an unwobbling stillness; Martin was selling chicklets but
no one bought
Chicklets anymore; no one bought the little squawking birds
or the cheap stone
Animals turned out on a lathe in Veracruz, either; no one
wanted his shoes shined.
By then the band was playing show tunes from My Fair Lady
& South Pacific & was
Interrupted only once because of a routine demonstration by
the Communists, who,
Mostly, were demonstrating because it was Sunday & because
that is what they did,
On Sundays. After a while I started walking vaguely away
beside some fading stonework,
Which in fact is not called Our Lady of Perfect Solitude nor
even Our Sister
Of Perpetual Solitude, but simply Santo Domingo. I do not
know why I walked near it then,
& passed without entering.
Still, in the painting the children kept skating, & the others
Walking home from school at this moment in their yellow
The stale smells left on wax paper locked in their lunch pails.
Keeps brushing her hair, & so somewhere it is still 1970 &
the riot police
Are spilling Out of their buses. On the marsh above the
Sound there were egrets,
There were black swans nesting in the rushes; the canal was
warm, & salty.
There was a cabin filling with so much moonlight I almost
believed I could
Dissolve in it if I sat very still, & I sat very still. I watched
Skating at the edge of a pond in his sleep. It was summer
by the time
I finally saw the painting in Brussels & counted each one of
the children as if
To make sure they were still there, & then gradually
lost count, & in the dream
Of the plowman on the hill there must have been the face
of an English poet
Looking as lined as a maple leaf pressed between the pages
of a book. Beneath it
The Danube is gliding, & I am just holding his book now,
not even needing to read it
Anymore as I cross into the frontier—green wheat, alfalfa, a
feeling of distance
In it all like sleep or rain reclaiming some lost, rural Missouri
slum town until
It no longer exists—& now the Hungarian checkpoint, where
guards with stars
The shade of American lipstick on their caps will enter &
seem proud of the unchipped,
Deep blue enamel on their machine guns. Most of them are
just poor teen-agers
From the surrounding villages & farms . . . & innocent, &
The only glamour that is left
On the Orient Express
Is a soiled, torn doily on an armrest.
Rhyme then, rhyme & dream, but in the other painting,
which is not a painting,
They are trudging home from school in the rain which is like
a kind of sleep
When one of them thinks the mind is not the mind in the
First shaping of numbers on a blackboard; it is only the
shadow of a skater over
A white pond. There is a sea beyond it, roughened by
whitecaps, & the mind
Moves first one way, then another, then both ways at once,
& then one long
Glide past the pines that look black from this far away, but
The boy’s friend is saying he “hates school, but only sort
of.” But the child’s
Not listening, he is thinking that something he painted was
something he dreamt,
And then some of the dream got mixed in with the paint,
& then with recess,
The afternoon, this long walk in the rain, & now he will
never get it sorted
Out . . . In the story, the boy, falling, must have thought his
father had wings
Unlike his own, & real. That is why the myth is so clear,
& so cruel,
And why we survive it. Yellow rain gear. Black woods. Gray
Is where you can forget some things, the boy is thinking,
because he is
Tired from having to walk for so long & because he has left
At school & his shoes are wet as he unthinkingly turns his
back to me now,
Goes up the worn, slick steps of a front porch, & the door
Because I am not allowed to see it, there is a glass of milk
on the table,
The stairs behind it are dark, & from a narrow upstairs
window there is
A glimpse of the sea, & later, in his dream, there is sometimes
And then it is more like a story about a father, & then it is
the hush of ice
Over a pond’s surface. In spring, when it begins to thaw,
there is a little
Noise underneath it like steel sighing, if steel could sigh as
it seems to,
Sometimes—when you are walking home alone on a trestle
above a river & there
Is a broken pattern of geese above it, a vee decomposing, a
sky mottled with blue
And some clouds. It is like a father dissolving, & setting you
free, & what
Has the father ever achieved that will outlast his own
vanishing? And so
The boy spits over the raillng & watches the silvery web
of it falling
And thinning until it is gossamer, a filament untying itself
forever & saying
Exactly what forever always meant to say—that this long pull
of spring tide in the river
Needs nothing, nothing except its one momentary witness,
a boy pausing
Above it all on a bridge.
In Oaxaca, after the bomb went off, there were nevertheless
a few seconds . . .
A pure stillness in which I could hear the fountain in the
plaza, distant traffic,
The sudden silence of birds. Then everyone was rushing
through the streets
Toward a place where sound had been, a place that wasn’t
there. It is funny,
But the sound of a bomb, a few seconds after it has gone
off, is no longer even
Surprising. In a little while it seems only right, & sad. I sat
in the balcony of a restaurant
Overlooking it all, & read a poem by Alberto Blanco in the
magazine edited by Paz,
And waited for the place to open, & in the next hour watched
Gradually fill with the usual crowds . . . those who love, or
those who think they love,
Novelty; & change.
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