The World as L. Found It
A: Is it possible to review this book with anything approaching disinterest? Levis is a poet I’ve loved and been astonished by for many years. That this is his last book, following his sudden and unexpected death in May, 1996, “is a staggering loss for our poetry,” as Philip Levine says in his introduction.
B: Yes, of course. But try not to go all misty on me. We’re talking here about the book, the text. Start by telling me what you had in mind by quoting from the Tractatus.
A: Jesus, you’re a cold fish.
B: Not at all. I’m casting “a cold eye / On life, on death.”
A: Coarse man, pass by!
B: Look. I grant that Levis’s death was shocking, a terrible waste. But I can’t think about that as I read Elegy. To do so would be to betray the high standards Levis held for the art of poetry and to adopt a kind of People-magazine aesthetic.
A: I could perhaps agree that the death of a poet who had nothing to say about death is irrelevant to the way we read his or her last book. But Elegy—Elegy!—is a book wherein almost every poem tries to find a Rilkean embrace of what Levis calls “the great Unlistening No One.”
B: All right, but you can’t let yourself add or subtract anything, so to speak, from the text on account of your grief.
A: Fair enough. In fact, what you’re saying relates to the Wittgenstein quote. In Elegy, there is no personality directing the poems, no “Levis.” I mean this quite literally. The poems have speakers, obviously; but the speakers are “nonpsychological subjects,” not egos.
B: You sound like you’re quoting somebody.
A: I’m thinking of John Koethe’s helpful essay on Ashbery, “The Metaphysical Subject of John Ashbery’s Poetry” (in David Lehman’s collection, Beyond Amazement). Koethe makes a distinction between poets who write out of a “‘voice,’ which basically amounts to a projection of a personality—either the poet’s actual personality or one he assumes” and those, like Ashbery, whose work “is informed by a nonpsychological conception of the self . . . . a unitary consciousness from which his voice originates, positioned outside the temporal flux of thought and experience his poetry manages to monitor and record.” Levis’s poetry could easily be mistaken for a poetry of personality or voice. But, as I hope to show, Koethe’s description of Ashbery fits Levis rather well. The speakers in Elegy embody a conception of the self which is very close to Wittgenstein’s “subject“—a subject that, once isolated, is shown (“in an important sense”) not to exist.
B: Wait a minute. First you argue that we can’t not think about Levis’s death as we read these poems, and then you argue that there is no “Levis” in them to mourn. Do I have that right?
A: Yes. Here’s Wittgenstein again in the Tractatus: “The subject does not belong to the world; rather, it is a limit of the world.” Another way to say what I’m trying to say is that Levis’s poems in Elegy are unblinking forays into self-making and -unmaking. The self in these poems is not assumed beforehand; it accrues as the poem comes into being. As soon as it accrues, however, it is experienced as a limit, a barrier:
Again and again in these poems, the speakers try to step out of their own way in order to be as faithful as possible to the world’s presence. Sometimes they succeed—
—but mostly they fail:
B: I think I agree with you but I worry that your focus is too narrow. Is “self-making and -unmaking” the only—or even the primary—force behind these poems?
A: Certainly it’s not the only—
B: Doesn’t the urgency in these poems in fact come from their vision of the world as “litter and catcalls” in which “the soul [is] gradually replaced” by
To say that this is a bleak vision of the world is simply to say that it is realistic. As the speaker of “Boy in Video Arcade” puts it,
Levis aspires to include in these poems “everything and the nothing / In everything”—a line (from “Elegy with an Angel at Its Gate”) that announces Stevens and Charles Wright as avuncular voices.
A: I hope you’re not missing what I take to be the main trajectory of the book. Levis’s fierce imaginings of, and relentless attention to, “moment[s] forgotten in the swipe of a scythe” inform, alter, even redeem—permit me this embarrassing word—the bleakness.
B: But these poems are fully aware that they cannot redeem what they see. Listen to “Elegy with the Sprawl of a Wave Inside It.” The speaker is describing two black swans “paddling the brown canals of Sheffield Park”:
To avoid the “exaggerations,” the poet would have to stop writing. I for one am glad he didn’t stop.
A: You sound as though you wish Beckett would have cut his famous line, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” after the comma! Beckett’s line captures the particular spiritual agony of Elegy. Sometimes the speakers can’t go on observing and imagining and ordering, and sometimes they can. It’s a rhythm you seem to be deaf to. As the ending to the final poem (“Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope”) has it, there is always a “scripture” to be read, a “weathered Cyrillic of some / Indecipherable defeat.” At the same time, however, there’s always a “girl skipping rope in her communion dress,” interrupting our reading of dour scripture. But is it an interruption or an invitation? Listening closely, we hear “the endless, / Annoying, unvarying flick of the rope each time / / It touches the street.” It’s an image that calls to mind something Levis said in his remarkable essay, “Some Notes on the Gazer Within” (in A Field Guide to Poetry and Poetics, eds. Friebert and Young): “The moment of writing is not an escape. . . ; it is only an insistence, through the imagination, upon human ecstasy, and a reminder that such ecstasy remains as much a birthright in this world as misery remains a condition of it.”
B: What’s the image that reminded you of the sentence you just read? The sound of a skipping rope? That’s your image of “human ecstasy”?
A: Well, yes, it is. It’s an image of the world suspending the endless ache of self-consciousness. That it’s such a common image, albeit one heard with uncommon precision, is a large part of its power. Like Thomas Traherne in Centuries of Meditation, Levis in Elegy discovers that “the best things” are “the most obvious and Common Things”: “Air, Light, Heaven and Earth, Water, the Sun, Trees, Men and Women, Cities, Temples &c.”
B: Doesn’t all this sound a bit, well, sentimental? I mean, Thomas Traherne, for Christ’s sake!
A: No, I don’t think so. Especially when you consider that, as we’ve seen, in order to experience “human ecstasy,” the speakers in Elegy have to extinguish themselves. Only then, as the speaker of “Elegy with an Angel at Its Gate” has it,
The Rilkean embrace of “the great Unlistening No One,” in other words, occurs only when there is no one to do the embracing.
B: It’s a severe mercy.
A: Yes. And how can I not think of Levis’s literal, wasteful death after reading a book full of such severe mercies?
B: You can’t.
A: I can’t.
Tom Andrews’s “The World
as L. Found It,” a review of Larry Levis’s collection Elegy,
originally appeared in The Ohio Review, No. 57, published in 1997. It
is reprinted with permission.