ELEVENTH ANNUAL LEVIS READING PRIZE
A Reading by Matt Donovan
The roll call of previous prize winners is getting to be quite long: Joshua Weiner, for From the Book of the Giants; Ron Slate, for The Incentive of the Maggot; Spencer Reece, for The Clerk's Tale; David Daniel, for Seven-Star Bird; Susan Aizenberg, for Muse, Steve Scafidi, for Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer; Nick Flynn, for Some Ether; Joel Brouwer, for Exactly What Happened; Sandra Alcosser, for Except by Nature; and Belle Waring, our first Levis Prize winner—for Dark Blonde—in 1998.
With this award, we remember a distinguished poet, essayist, teacher, scholar, and, above all, mentor for many of us in the department. Larry was our colleague until his untimely death in 1996.
Along with Larry himself, we are pleased to recognize Larry’s family whose support has contributed to making possible this yearly highlight in the life of our department. In that vein, I commend the selection committee for choosing such a deserving winner, and I thank Matt Donovan for joining us to share his poetry with us. An important tradition can thus continue.
I first met Larry Levis in his poetry. And there, not only did I discover engaging bits of striking stories scattered as vignettes throughout his work, but later I also had the special pleasure of hearing some mighty good stories over dinner directly from Larry himself. Including the many stories about his childhood in California, where he grew up on what he always called “the ranch,” south of Fresno in the Central Valley, surrounded by orchards and vineyards where he picked and loaded fruit alongside migrant workers, where he drove a tractor and poisoned weeds with a muttered Dominus vobiscum, and where he sometimes rode horses, which sometimes were worthless horses—which is not to say that those horses did not enjoy his esteem. It might seem a somewhat unlikely connection between us, two college professors with more or less genuine PhDs, but we both did know something about the peculiar lives and days of some particular horses.
I could identify with Larry’s stories because I had spent a considerable amount of time in my own childhood working on my grandfather’s farm in central Missouri, where he not only raised corn and wheat and hay, but he also bred registered Polled Hereford cattle, and sometimes I rode horses, some of whom I could also, on occasion, have to call worthless. I can recall quite distinctly a tall copper-colored quarter horse named Duke, a horse on which I herded cattle and rode fence lines. The horse was a remarkable cow pony, an agile cutting horse, but Duke was eccentric and temperamental and, like most horses, he could be incorrigibly lazy and downright uncooperative.
My grandfather was in the habit of riding that horse out to the location he actually called the “south forty,” a forty-acre patch of land a half-mile down the gravel road and separate from the main part of the farm. And when he was going to work that patch with a tractor or a combine which he had parked there, he would arrive in the field, dismount, and slap the horse on the behind and let it run back to the house on its own. The horse was then free for the rest of the day to graze on the lawn until my grandfather came back to unsaddle him and put him in the barn.
One day my grandfather told me to ride out to the south forty to check on a fence line where some Angus cattle had recently jumped or broken down the fence and had gotten onto his land from a neighbor’s pasture. My grandfather did not tell me about his habit of swatting the horse and letting him gallop home. Duke had been objecting to taking this trip out to the south forty the entire way, walking ever more slowly and balking and stumbling as if there was something terribly wrong with him, but although the horse was certainly no longer young, he was not yet in any sort of decrepit state of old age and I knew very well that he was faking it. Eventually, as we drew near to the south forty, he became almost totally impossible to handle, acting as if he was going to fall down completely, and I gave him a swat on the rear to get him to behave. The horse reared up with what I could swear was a smile on his lips; he wheeled around on his hind legs and took off for home at a blazing galloping speed—the fastest I had ever seen him run—flying along the road, kicking up gravel and dust, with me hanging on for dear life on his back, shouting and jerking back on the reins, but nothing I did fazed him in the least and he sped along at a spectacular clip like one of the champion steeplechase horses from which he was descended. My grandfather was an excellent judge of horses, and he always had one very good, very spirited horse on the place.
When we got near the farmhouse, the horse—who was completely beyond my control at that point—veered off the road and took a shortcut under the trees lining the edge of the front yard. One of the low-hanging branches caught me square in the forehead and knocked me nearly unconscious and mostly out of the saddle, and I only kept myself from getting dragged by hanging on to the pommel. When I arrived in the backyard, my grandmother walked out the backdoor to see her city-slicker grandson hanging limply off to the side of the horse, one foot hung up in a stirrup and one slipping from the top of the saddle, my forehead bleeding. She caught me as I fell off and laid me down in the grass and she looked at me there for awhile. And then she said, “My land, can’t you ride any better than that?”
In Larry’s beautiful poem “Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand,” we find him engaged in an extended meditation on the memory of several of the dearly departed among the horses he has known, with a particular focus on an old bay cow horse named Querido Flacco. I’m not sure who the “dear” person was after whom the horse was named, but it was a bay horse. So if you want to see it clearly in your mind, such a horse has a reddish-brown body along with a mane, tail, ear edges, and lower legs which are black. And a “washed-out” palomino—basically, they’re the ones with the cream-colored body and white mane and tail. And that horse was named Misfit, perhaps after the character in the Flannery O’Connor story, I don’t know. His [Levis's] parents and family, unlike my grandparents and family, were rather well-read people.
Those two horses, Querido Flacco and Misfit, misbehaved in the way of all horses, especially older horses, but Larry seemed to have been particularly fascinated, as always, by the far-off dreaminess and utterly self-contained attitudes they exhibited. Those were attitudes with which Larry himself clearly and strongly identified, I believe. And so the horses were kindred spirits and likable companions and, in the poem, when the horses misbehave as he’s trying to ride either of them bareback, he just slips down off the horse and lets them have their way, walking them “slowly back, letting them pause when they wanted to.” That’s definitely not a way of working with horses that either his father or my grandfather would have approved at all. Larry saw those horses as being “other worlds. Worlds uninhabited /
And without visitors,” Looking at them in the moonlight, considering their oncoming and inevitable deaths, he discovers that he can easily reject the idea of any sort of heaven, which he figures as a kind of rider to be thrown off one’s back, and as a bunch of “splintered lumber no one could build anything with.” A Catholic boy throwing off the idea of heaven is no light matter, as I well know, having been one myself.
And the answer of Larry Levis sounds out not only the cry of carpe diem, seize the day, and his answer not only speaks for us all in this very moment, but it also continues to speak for him from beyond the grave. Who desires this moment?
“Me. I do. It’s mine.”
[Larry Levis reading “Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand” reprinted by permission of The University of Pittsburg Press.]
Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand
One was a bay cowhorse from Piedra & the other was a washed-out palomino
Around their eyes & muzzles & withers.
Their front teeth were by now yellow as antique piano keys & slanted to the angle
Chins were round & black as frostbitten oranges hanging unpicked from the limbs
In the slowness of time. Black time to white, & rind to blossom.
Teased out of ourselves. And become all of them.
The bay had worms once & had acquired the habit of drinking orange soda
At traffic going past on the road beyond vineyards & it would follow each car
Of great interest to him.
If I rode them, the palomino would stumble & wheeze when it broke
Underneath me like a rocking chair of dry, frail wood, & when I knew it could no longer
Only a step or two when I nudged it forward again, I would slip off either one of them,
At dawn in winter sometimes there would be a pane of black ice covering
They were worthless. They were the motionless dusk & the motionless
Moonlight, & in the moonlight they were other worlds. Worlds uninhabited
And turn a radio on, but only for a moment before going back to whatever
Wordless & tuneless preoccupation involved them.
The palomino was called Misfit & the bay was named Querido Flacco,
And Rolling Ghost & Anastasia.
Death would come for both of them with its bridle of clear water in hand
Acknowledge it much; & for a while I began to think that the world
Rested on a limitless ossuary of horses where their bones & skulls stretched
Whine of traffic on the interstate.
If I & by implication therefore anyone looked at them long enough at dusk
At the unhappy wedding of a sister.
Heaven was neither the light nor was it the air, & if it took a physical form
Heaven was a weight behind the eyes & one would have to stare right through it
So he could walk for once in his life.
Or just stand there for a moment before he became something else, some
Of cars entering the mouth of a tunnel.
And in the years that followed he would watch them in the backstretch or the far turn
Watch the way they were explosive & untiring.
And then watch the sun fail him again & slip from the world, & watch
And filling what were once its eyes—this one with its torn tickets
And if the voice of a broken king were to come in the dusk & whisper
Who among the numberless you have become desires this moment
Which comprehends nothing more than loss & fragility & the fleeing of flesh?
You know, when our students and faculty narrow down the submissions to the Levis Contest—and this year there were one hundred and fifty published first and second books we considered for the competition—our first criteria is excellence; we want to honor the best book. But we also want to do honor to the memory of Larry Levis, whose work has been a profound inspiration to so many of us, and whose importance to American poetry continues to grow as the years go on.
And Matthew Donovan possesses many of the virtues we associate with Larry’s work. He has something of Larry’s ability to mix erudition and street savvy, a big frame of reference that can incorporate Charlie Chaplin, Stalin, Houdini, The Lumiere Brothers, and places like East Toledo and The Cactus Lodge Hotel. And he also, as you see in a graceful memorial for a friend entitled “Shapes of Stone and Prayer,” has something of Larry’s elegiac concerns and, above all, Larry’s deep sense of the tragic—for Vellum is a book that unflinchingly reckons with tragedy. It explores the manifold and often seductively beautiful ways that we allow the world to reduce and dehumanize us. And, as a poem like “Montezuma’s Painters” attests, art itself, the very thing which we poets hold so dear, is as often as not an unintentional instrument of that dehumanization. And Donovan understands that it is human error and our failings, and not art itself, which are to blame for this condition.
Art never lies, but we can lie to it, just as we can lie to the world and lie to history. And in this election season, we’re reminded again and again of how easy that is to do, how you can hide demagoguery and false counsel by calling yourself the “original maverick,” or by insisting that you’re chasing the moneylenders from the temple while at the same time they’re throwing huge wads of cash at you. Larry Levis would have hated that. He hated that pettiness and cynicism, and told us that the poet’s task is to stand against that sort of falsehood, and instead be willing to enter what he called “the swirl and vortex of history.” Matthew Donovan, I’m sure you will now see, is willing to enter that same maelstrom, and we’re really lucky to have him tonight.
Edge that snips the line, whittles an owl, juliennes, traces a lip.
the kind of thing that would have snagged in a cow’s mottled hide
before it is bled & flayed & turned, as was always its purpose,
[“Saint Catherine in an O: A Song About Knives,” Matt Donovan, Vellum, Houghton Mifflin, 2007, also appears with permission of the publisher in this issue of Blackbird.]
The next poem centers on John Keats’s last days. He travelled to Italy knowing he was dying and he travelled with his friend and the artist Joseph Severn who did a number of drawings along the way. And I think one of the things for me that’s most moving about those last letters of Keats’s is there’s a kind of expansive rapture, an expansive sense of beauty that you can see in those last gestures, even as he knows that his life is closing down and coming to an end. He studied as a medical student before he was a poet and he knew, as he said, that death was very imminent and this poem uses as sources the drawings of Severn and also letters written by Keats quoted from Severn here, too. This is called “Those Two Sketches by Severn in Italy.”
[“Those Two Sketches by Severn in Italy,” Matt Donovan, Vellum, Houghton Mifflin, 2007.]
I had the really good fortune of studying with an amazing music teacher that I met even when I was fourteen, and this poem in the book is dedicated to him, William Appling. I just learned a few weeks ago that he passed away. He was an enormous influence on my life, and he introduced me at the time, kind of begrudgingly, to the music of Brahms and Schubert; he also sat me down and made me listen to John Coltrane for the first time. He had me listen to Charles Mingus for the first time which, you know for a freshman in high school it was a mind-blowing experience. And I think much to his disappointment it also led me to a lot of really raunchy tenor-wild R & B songs as well that I still have a lifelong passion for. This poem is a meditation on one of those songs. It also swerves into Sonny Liston’s early and violent life but especially because this poem is dedicated in the book to him, I wanted to read this tonight for William Appling. I feel as if he taught me how to listen to music.
[“Night Train: A Listener’s Guide,” Matt Donovan, Vellum, Houghton Mifflin, 2007.]
I’m going to read a two-part poem—reading some new work. The poem is called “Audubon Diptych,” and the first part takes a moment from Audubon’s journals that is meditated upon and also begins with a series of legends and myths associated with swallows and the second part is borrowed from a biography from Richard Rhodes a number of years ago. He wrote about Audubon and among many other things one thing he captures so well are Audubon’s kind of early, awkward years where he’s fumbling after his technique, where he is still trying to rarify how it was that he was going to bring these birds alive on the page. And, I have to say, at least in my work, those are the artists I’m most drawn to, where they are hard-earned moments of grace versus someone like Mozart who seemed to be writing operas and sonatas at the age of like one and half and the effortless nature of that. So the second part interweaves those kind of—what I think of as really wonderful failings—with one of Ovid’s creation stories.
[“Audubon Diptych,” Matt Donovan, Vellum, Houghton Mifflin, 2007.]
I’ll read a couple new poems. Here’s another poem about an artist in kind of a creative purgatory. John Singer Sargent, of course, is an artist known most for his portrait work and he was also commissioned late in his life and late in World War I to be a war artist by the British government. And I think what drew me to this part of Sargent’s biography was this convergence of the world of that iconographic, Madam X portrait with the scandalous black gown dress strap hanging over her shoulder, that juxtaposition with the real horrors of WWI. And most of this poem kind of centers on Sargent’s uncertainty as an artist about how he’s going to render this material—what he’s actually witnessing in the war. And the premise of the poem also pivots on a direct address to Vulcan, the Roman blacksmith god, and the reasons for that I think will be clear when I read the epigraph in which Sargent—rather oddly given the circumstances—links his failure as an artist to render this subject matter to the famous myth of Vulcan composing—and creating rather—the net where he ensnares his unfaithful wife and her lover on his own couch, by God. I’ll read the epigraph first and then I’ll read the poem. This is “Sargent Adrift at the Trenches.”
[“Sargent Adrift at the Trenches,” unpublished.]
I also have been thinking about the vortex of history.
[“Randy Mandy’s Lame Ass Allegory of History: A Corrective,” unpublished.]
I’ll just end with one last short poem. Charlie Chaplin had a really odd coda to his life. He was a victim of a grave-robbing and two Eastern European mechanics stole his body with the plan of selling it back to the family in the hopes of getting a garage that they dreamed of. And they botched it really horribly, the whole crime. It was described like a Keystone Cops caper but, for a small period of time when the body was held in a field in the south of France, and one of the lovely things about this story, I couldn’t get this into the poem, but Chaplin’s widow, after the body was restored and returned to the gravesite, she would always return to that field as a place of remembering her husband. That, for her, held much more resonance—that spot, than the actual grave marking. And this is this story. I remember hearing this, or reading this at some point and I had it in my head for years not sure how I was going to use it, not sure how I was going to employ it, but wanting to get it somehow. And I realized, after a while, that it’s a story of resurrection and the hope for an afterlife. I mean, to die and end up in the south of France, even for a few days, seems like a pretty big deal and maybe the most we can hope for.
[“Charlie Chaplin Dug Up and Ransomed: A Prayer,” Vellum, Houghton Mifflin, 2007.]
Thank you very much. Thank you for coming.