This week we offer a poem to commemorate the late Larry Levis. Levis passed away on May 8, eighteen years ago, at the age of 49. A co-editor of The Missouri Review in the late seventies, he is recognized as one of the most accomplished voices in contemporary American poetry. His books include, among others, Wrecking Crew (1972), The Afterlife (1977), The Dollmaker’s Ghost (1981), Winter Stars (1985), The Widening Spell of The Leaves (1991), and Elegy (1997). This poem by Levis was first published in the 1991 issue 13:3 of TMR.
Photo by Jay Paul
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 birds?)
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.