Blackbird’s second issue, published in 2002, introduced the first Levis Remembered feature recognizing the winner of the annual Levis Reading Prize and calling particular attention to the work of poet Larry Levis, who was a friend to many of us connected to the journal. This fall, we put forward six Levis poems from The Darkening Trapeze: The Uncollected Poems of Larry Levis, edited by David St. John and forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2015. We consider it a distinct privilege to do so.
These poems share many of the thematic and imagistic concerns that characterize Elegy, and their expansive nature typifies Levis’s later work. They mine familiar Levis preoccupations to spotlight continuing injustices while they unabashedly set up housekeeping in imagined spaces that many poets writing today seem to fear are shopworn or uninhabitable, littered with the detritus of ironic detachment.
“Every revolution ends, or it begins, in memory: / Someone remembering her diminishment & pain,” Levis tells us. He then concludes with lines that could resonate in much of the work published in this issue: “How she might have done things differently. But didn’t. / How it is too late to change things now. How it isn’t.”
Michael McGriff, the sixteenth recipient of the Levis Prize, introduces us to an Oregon where these lines might hold particular resonance. As Lena Moses-Schmitt notes in her review of Home Burial, his winning collection, McGriff sets a stage “for the dueling desires to suppress one’s own history and to constantly revisit it; to keep it close, if only to dig it up again and again.”
McGriff is represented by four poems from Home Burial as well as by new work, a conversation with VCU students and faculty, and audio of the Levis Prize reading itself.
Also in Levis Remembered are two photo images from the Cabell Library collection of Levis’s papers, notes on the editing process of The Darkening Trapeze by David St. John, and an essay by Anna Journey that views work by three Richmond-connected writers through the lens of the Levis poem “Ghost Confederacy.”
Other poems gathered here invite readers to get caught (and caught up) in the act of listening. To stand in the dark with Michael McGriff and take in “the story the night tells itself,” the one with owls “diving through the circles / their iron silences / scratch into the air.”
Brian Teare celebrates the fleeting consolations of late summer wildflowers and the seeding grasses that supplant them, recognizing, in this process of oblique renewal, a “fit occasion to say the litany of their names dogtail foxtail // beard barley rye a list of ships on which the season sails home.”
Diane Seuss cagily repurposes one of Whitman’s most memorable metaphors to make her own case concerning what ails the human creature, complaining, “We fear the undulant, / the uterine wave, the forlorn sway / of ships leaving harbor // and the rippling uncut hair of graves.”
One possible remedy: the earthy stoicism of Yang Jian (presented here in deft translations by Ye Chun and Paul B. Roth) who testifies, “I must first return to dust, before I can say I am dust. / I must first rise into the air, before I can say I’m flying.”
Norman Dubie travels the contested zone between the sacred and the profane, relentless in its tonal complication and its rhetoric (“why do you think those aztec / fuckers fed all those hearts to the hitching post. / history is progress. or else // not”), his map an eschatology of fire. In lines rigged with threat, he uploads the scintilla of the lit match, the hurled Molotov, the disembodied nightmare that recurs each time “a new moon begins its search of integers / like belief crossing the burning night streets.”
Richard Dillard laments the hyper-rational paralysis we, earth’s apex predator, can suffer, trapped inside the “empty / Space from which we / Watch the world / But do not enter in,” daring us with wit and rue to recognize that freedom is not merely an idea but a physical sensation and a birthright of other protean primates who still dwell among (within?) us, scribbling kinetic “stanzas of leap, / Stanzas of swing, stanzas / Of soar, stanzas, too, / Of wild careen.”
The intelligible signals pushing through the interference seem to suggest a notion as old as legend, hidden right under our noses in nursery rhymes and fairy tales, replaying, as Christopher Munde suggests “each night a bit differently: / From the trees beside the lake by the woods”—all beauty, all monstrosity is collectively experienced. As winter draws on and daylight wanes it may still be possible, as Edward Mayes suggests, for us to wax “ruth // Rather than ruthless, reck rather than reckless.”
In Fiction, Julie Hensley’s story, “At the Bottom,” dances on the fragile, uneasy balance between identity and interpersonal connections, creating a narrative arc that turns perpetually inward even as the outer landscape expands, moving us through the sweeping vistas and canyons of Arizona.
Just as panoramic is Adrian Dorris’s “Of Rivers and Caves,” the editors’ selection for the second Rebecca Mitchell Tarumoto Short Fiction Prize. One of several pieces here that take threatened childhood and grief for concerns, the story provides an unflinching study of a family in crisis, weaving deftly through the private, closed-off spaces where the family’s secrets and fears fester.
Eric Thompson also explores the possibilities of lives lived and unlived in “Happy Here for a Minute,” introducing a spiraling universe that maintains its narrative tension by skirting only the edges of conflict. In Dani, we find a protagonist who embraces the unknowable “what happens next, & then what happens after that,” (as Levis writes in “La Strada”) a young woman who sees a world of endless, expansive opportunities.
On the other hand, Manuel Martinez’s excerpt from his unpublished novel, Miami Don’t Know, offers an unsettled cultural kaleidoscope, privileging the authentic voice of its narrator and the layered, contradictory nature of storytelling: “She’ll tell it both ways, and even though I know how it really happened, I won’t say anything to her or to anyone else, just let her tell it however she wants to and keep the real story to myself.”
In Nonfiction, David Wojahn introduces Airmail, the recently collected correspondence of the poets Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer, remembering “a time when letters served as a chief form of intimate dialogue . . . a particular sort of human exchange that will not exist in anything like its pure mode again,” and Edward Hower meditates on how his past influenced his present by reliving his days on the New York opera scene in the 1960s.
“Not Dead Yet,” is Constance Adler’s examination of her disappointment upon winning a fake book prize, and Susan Settlemyre Williams reviews and celebrates Adler’s memoir, My Bayou, for poignantly capturing the small nuances that make up New Orleans’s history and character, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Matthew Phipps praises Leni Zumas’s new novel for its gutsy and energetic lyricism while dealing with despondent circumstances, proving that prose can indeed find “beauty amid all this chaos and dysfunction.” Also in the Nonfiction, Laura Van Prooyen and Caitlin Doyle review the debut poetry collections of Matthew Olzmann and Will Schutt, respectively.
Work in Gallery explores evidence both spiritual and physical left by societies and individuals. The VMFA trails off into the no-man’s land of the distant past in its study of the head and body of their rare portrait sculpture of Caligula, while Kristen Radtke’s video essay parses the more recent disintegration of the city of Detroit. Dan O’Brien’s scenes from his play, The House in Hydesville, look to identify the intersection where family dysfunction meets a manifested spiritualism, and Mark Strand’s “Collages,” a view of his recent show at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, demonstrate a welcoming and intelligent control of hint and implication wielded by a master at the art of erasing and trimming away. Also in the Gallery is a reprint of Julian Street’s wonderfully witty 1913 article “Why I Became a Cubist” that provides a quick trip in the time machine to when high modernism first came to New York.
In Features, audio of three poetry readings rounds out the issue: Tom Sleigh reads at VCU, Tarfia Faizullah and Jamaal May read in Richmond, and former contributors to Blackbird and the poetry journal diode read poetry at AWP 2013 in Boston.