Levis Here and There
Critics have referred to Larry Levis as a poet of the rural farmland, especially the grape fields and migrant camps of California’s central valley. His voice in behalf of labor and laborers is clear, politically astute, and sustained. David St. John contends that Levis can recall the San Joaquin valley with “John Steinbeck’s dramatic sweep of the landscape.” Other readers point to Levis’s urban sites, identifying him as a city poet; he can be charming, urbane, even droll, like Milan Kundera, and at ease among museums and cloud-high buildings, comfortable walking “the lit streets / Of New York, from the Gramercy Park Hotel / Up Lexington . . . hearing traffic, voices,” like that other great metropolitan writer, Walt Whitman.
Neither and both critical positions are, to my mind, exactly right. Larry Levis is a poet of here and there—thus of travel, anxiety, flux—never and always at home. “In the City of Light” is one of my favorite Levis poems, and its fluctuating locus clarifies the poet’s restless need to move and move on and move again. In fact, the dominating trope of “In the City of Light” is of traveling, not stasis, though the poem’s persona at first appears intent to find a way to find his way, even from the poem’s first sentence: “The last thing my father did for me / Was map a way. . . .”
Of course the father’s gift is made ironic by two circumstances. The father’s death is less an “honored” destination than a fateful fact; and his mapping of “the way” is superfluous, since death is an inevitable termination. What remains for Levis, in his poetry, consists of a restless meander through loves, landscapes, memories, and by his admission, mostly “wrong” decisions. His location is less important than his language for moving. Levis undercuts any prospect of arrival by the many quick veerings-away into self-consciousness—sometimes coy withholdings, sometimes equally self-aware but deepened revelations.
The poem’s center does seem to be the event of his father’s dying, when the speaker leaves his lover, saying “goodbye in an airport & [flying] west.” Or is that actually what happened? Is that the way “the story goes”? The speaker undermines his own linear narrative with the switchback of “It happened otherwise.” Thus, we wonder, did the speaker forsake the familial obligation of the father’s funeral to stay in New York with his lover? Or did something else happen “otherwise”? The tug between the two coastal cities, as between the two kinds of love—a son’s, a lover’s—provokes this self-incriminating confession: “It’s in bad taste to say it quite this way.” Either way, in this poem, Levis resides in two places at once.
Residing in two places is a classical definition of irony. Harold Bloom defines such irony as the “clash of incommensurate forces.” Bloom does not mean, nor is Levis often satisfied with, the irony of voice, mere sarcasm; rather he prefers the irony of circumstances doubled, events or issues inexorably at odds. For Levis such situational irony is the stepping-off point for meditation and the locus for language’s deepest inquisitions. And even here, in “In the City of Light,” his offerings of wisdom come in two varieties. The first is quick, even admittedly shallow or “wrong,” the temporary solution of an either/or choice: “My only advice is not to go away. / Or go away.” Likewise, as the story goes, Levis’s speaker finds himself “wanting to be alone & wanting / The easy loneliness of travelers.” In such dichotomous cases, Levis realizes that he will never be able to choose a single, sufficient location or abiding stance. He realizes further that “Most / Of my decisions have been wrong.”
This is the point where Levis deepens his best poems, in rejecting any singular landedness or site and instead embracing the uncertainty of the plural. Thus his second manner of wisdom, the harder kind, finds Levis at ease, or at least anxiously at home, among contradiction and multiplicity. In this poem he rinses himself of the past, of the determinacy of singular choices, in a cleansing gesture: “I lift cold water / To my face. I close my eyes.” At precisely this point Levis renders the poem’s most splendid moment, enlarged beyond any single place or person, beyond any single relationship, into a kind of brilliant clarity. It is part of Levis’s grand yet self-effacing wit that this moment of revelation is rendered as a question: “A body wishes to be held, & held, and what / Can you do about that?” The doubling of “held” enforces the speaker’s realization that he can have, finally, neither of the poem’s two central loves—not father, not lover. And his transition into the second person further installs a kind of rhetorical difference in the statement. This moment expands the poem beyond any singular choice, as beyond any singular narrative, representing Levis at his best, here and in other poems. The wisdom of uncertainty and plurality occurs at the shifting site of poetry’s truest capabilities: the capable power of metaphor, complexity, and depth. This explains, in the poem’s conclusion, Levis’s condition—a choice? an inevitability?—to live in both places at once. This further identifies his wish and his fate to remember the multiple-choice offered by the eastern city and the western promise:
These lines seem virtually to anticipate a posthumous existence, as Keats termed it. The lover’s eyes at the airport widen “in disbelief,” he says, though her reaction also expresses a shocked recognition of the real. The father’s gesture of opening and entrance, however, must take place in the “city” of the afterlife, that immortal but imaginary location. Larry Levis, in his finest poems, opts to be neither here nor here. Rather, he is always already here and there.