V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




I offer what follows years after it’s happened and may happen again.   
    In July 2004, I’d flown from Philadelphia to Santa Barbara to visit my former teacher and friend Chris Buckley.  My purpose was to tend to the silver cats Cecil and Lizzie, while Chris and his wife Nadya traveled abroad.  My stay would also afford me seven weeks of solitary confinement to write what became a large portion of my dissertation on the work of Philip Levine and Larry Levis.  Those were important weeks, though at the time I couldn’t grasp just how necessary and rich that solitude was. 
    By August, only four weeks in, I’d grown sufficiently mad and occasionally brave.  One evening, I called Philip Levine.  Since I was “in the area,” I wondered if I could take a drive and meet for lunch.  “In the area?,” I remember Phil saying on the phone.  “Sure, sure come on up,” Levine said.  “And call me Phil.”   
    I remember the sun and the heat from the sun, August-in-The-San-Joaquin-Valley heat.  I remember being nearly broke, a paltry $23.04 in my checking account.  I still have the ATM receipt.  August 13, 2004.  I remember the four-hour drive from Lompoc to Fresno.  I remember wondering if I’d make it, when — not if — I’d run out of gas somewhere on the outskirts of the Mojave.  I remember thinking if I got to the Levines’ house I’d sit in the car for awhile, consider not getting out, then not ever get out.  Turn around and bag the whole thing.    
    I did get out of the car, and I did knock on the Levines’ door.  But before I knocked, I told myself to remember the tall eucalyptus in their front yard, the shade it offered, and how certain patches of their lawn resembled golfing greens, only tanner and smoother, like suede.  I remember being hit, again, by Larry’s poem “Some Grass along a Ditch”:

        I don’t know what happens to grass.
        But it doesn’t die, exactly.
        It turns white, in winter, but stays there,
        A few yards from the ditch,
        Then comes back in March,
        Turning a green that has nothing
        To do with us.

Larry’s lines came to me as naturally as smoke to light.  I didn’t summon them.  They just came, rose.  I’ve wondered since if I was moving my lips then, and if I was how disturbed I must’ve looked to the neighbors on the street, to the Levines inside.
    I knocked on the door.  Phil’s wife Franny answered.  “You must be Alex,” she said.  She was beaming, but I’ve learned since that Franny beams; it’s her thing: genuine, welcoming. 
    “Phil’s just gotten back from the gym.  He’s lying down.  Come, come.  Come in,” Franny said.  As she walked into the kitchen, her voice faded: “Phil, Alex is here….” 
    It was noon by now, and there was a stranger heat inside.  “By noon,” Larry writes in Black Freckles, “it is ninety-nine degrees.”  But there wasn’t the sun to blame anymore.  The heat felt like muggy fog walked through and breathed in, only thicker.  This new heat was everywhere because it was only within me, and everywhere it was gauze I could not entirely see through.  Whenever I moved, I could feel a little less of me.  I was, in some important ways, turning into someone else.  Even then, I could intuit that much.  I was gratefully frightened.
    Phil came out from around a hallway wearing a white T-shirt maybe a size too big and blue sweatpants.  He had these white New Balance running shoes on that looked brand new.  He moved slowly, a kind of slowness that runners have after a workout: that oddly necessary mixture of ache with relief.  I was struck by his height.  On a good day, I’m six feet, and Phil seemed taller. 
    “Hello,” he said.  I don’t remember what I said.  I jingled some coins in my pockets, both pockets, and I was immediately reminded of the $23.04 in my checking account.  Here I was, in Phil Levine’s house, I’d traveled nearly three thousand miles to get there, now standing before him, and all I could think of was the $23.04. 
    Phil said “Hello” again and kept his hand held out.  I’ve wondered since how long we stood there, Phil waiting for a response, any response.  Me standing there but not quite there at all.  I didn’t think of this then, but I wish I had: Phil’s lines from “The Simple Truth”:

            Some things
        you know all your life.  They are so simple and true
        they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
        they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
        the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
        in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
        naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

    “Hungry?” Phil said.  I shook Phil’s hand and said “hello” back.  Phil and Franny gestured for us to sit down and eat.  For the moment, I got over myself and followed them.
    Franny asked Phil when Bruce would be arriving.  Around 1 o’clock Phil said.  Long drive up from San Diego, Phil said. 
    “Who’s Bruce?” I asked, somewhat surprised I could speak.  B. H., or Bruce, Boston, Phil said.  A good friend and fellow classmate of Larry’s when they were attending Fresno State. 
    “Let’s wait for Brucie,” Franny said. 
    “Right, right,” Phil said. 
    Phil asked how my drive up was.  Franny asked if I was thirsty.  I was.  When Bruce arrived, we all sat back down to eat.
    Phil, Franny, and Bruce caught up with each other.  Kids, work, health, heat, the strange rains in San Diego that summer.  Then Phil said to me, “So you have some questions about Larry, do you?”  I did.  I was there under the guise of the earnest graduate student writing a dissertation. 
    I asked the questions I’d prepared.  One after the other, Phil answered with candor, clarity, and specificity.  I’d asked him if he’d ever elegized Larry. 
    “Sure, sure I have.  I’ve tried, I mean,” Phil said. 
    Tried?  Some things, I was learning, you do know all your life.  And, yes, they must be said with complete honesty.  They must stand for themselves, and “…in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.”  Before that day, I thought I understood Phil’s poem, grasped its power.  I’d gotten it all wrong until that day, that moment when Phil said tried.  Phil went into his study and came back out with a copy of his book The Mercy
    “This one is a kind of elegy for Larry,” Phil said.  The poem is “Cesare,” page 66.  Phil sat down next to me and pointed to these lines, then read them:

        In my imagination even in the rain,
        with his wool cap pulled down over one eye,
        he passes the window of the café
        like a ghost as the day fails.  I see him
        coming toward me now, tall, thin, myopic,
        full of delight in his awkward body,
        still only a boy with a boy’s wide smile
        as the rain streams down.  You too must know  
        men like Cesare, still so young, brilliant,
        full of plans and tall tales.  Then women
        enter their lives and the unfillable need
        for tenderness.  They fall in love, then
        fall in love again and again and nothing
        comes of it but heartbreak.  And they are men,
        so when you reach to touch them, to help them,
        they turn away because men must do that.

Strange how the heart breaks.  We think we know why it does, we think we know why it shouldn’t.  But when it happens, we can’t make it not happen.  No one’s immune.       
    Some wine was opened, for it was after 2 p.m. by now.  That may account for my courage in asking Phil what it was like editing Larry’s last book Elegy. 
    “Awful” he said. 
    “Why?” Bruce said.
    “Everyone wanted a piece of Larry once he died,” Phil said. 
    I wanted a piece of Larry.  Why else would I be there?  More than eight years after Larry’s death, I was justifiably implicated.  Phil said he was shipped a box full of Larry’s unfinished poems and was asked to make a book out of it.  He did.  It’s Elegy
    Some days, it was too much for him, Phil said.  Too painful, too close, too great a loss.     
    “I did it,” Phil said.   
    Months later, back in Philadelphia, I thought of Phil’s poem “What Work Is” again, but with that conversation fresh in my memory:

        How long has it been since you told him
        you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
        opened your eyes wide and said those words,
        and maybe kissed his cheek?  You’ve never
        done something so simple, so obvious
        not because you’re too young or too dumb,
        not because you’re jealous or even mean
        or incapable of crying in
        in the presence of another man, no,
        just because you don’t know what work is.

    “An awful time,” Phil said.  “I wanted to grab Larry by the lapels and say, ‘Hold on for just a little while longer,’” Phil said.  “The stuff in Elegy is that good,” Phil said.
    Franny and Bruce sat quietly, and I picked at my salad. 
    Then Bruce said, “Larry was one of the funniest, goofiest guys.” 
    “Oh my God, the clothes he’d wear,” Franny said.
     “A hobo, he’d dress like a God-damned hobo sometimes,” Phil said. 
    “One time,” Phil went on, “he showed up at our place, this place, wearing ripped jeans, a raggedy sweater, and stained blazer.  Ketchup or old mustard.  Who knows?  He was still a kid, couldn’t have been more than 20 then.”  Phil was laughing.  “Said he had a date.  Or a job interview, or something.  He came by to ask me how he looked.  So, I told him.  Like a hobo.  And Larry said, ‘Yeah, I know.  I don’t like her very much.  I’m hoping she’ll dump me.’” 
    The room filled with Larry’s absence while we laughed, “And that is why people make poems,” Larry wrote in his poem for Zbigniew Herbert, “about the dead.  And the dead watch over them, until they are finished….”  In this way, laughter becomes a kind of water.
    “He was a real Miles-head,” Bruce said.  “And Coltrane.  Bird, too.”   
    “Loved Bird,” Phil said.
    “What was that thing he’d do with his elbow?” Franny said. 
    “Yeah, he had these double-jointed elbows,” Phil said.  “And he’d loop his arms over his head.” 
    “Elbows.  Plural.  Great party trick,” Bruce said.  “He was great at parties.  God, he could talk.”
    “For a country boy, Larry had this incredible sense of wit and irony.  He could be scathing, but he had these huge eyes and even bigger eyebrows.  And this sweet, California boy voice.  You’d think if he tried to swat a mosquito, he might get knocked down,” Phil said.
    More laughter.  One would have to be dead not to hurt from it.  I was listening to their particular laughter.  It was a laughter borne by grief.  The belly aches and the laughter is so hard and full and right, and it is like this because the pain is hard and full and complete.  They were living in memory where they ached for what was theirs and had lost. 
    I know this because I was, and still am, merely an observer.
    Phil turned to me.
    “More questions.  What else you got?” 
    “More wine?” Franny asked. 
    I don’t know why, but I asked a question about Berryman.  Something about Berryman’s influence on Larry.  I’d been reading up on how Berryman’s workshop at Iowa — one was all it took — left an indelible mark on Phil, on an entire generation of poets.  I was trying to make a connection between Berryman and Larry, the kind of specious connections graduate students are compelled to make.  Phil must’ve intuited this, so he indulged me.
    “Sure, Larry was influenced by Berryman.  As a teacher.  Berryman’s audaciousness.  The way Berryman ran a class.  Utterly honest, unrelenting.  But also a consummate showman.  Tough.  Not mean.”
    “James Wright,” Bruce said.  “Larry loved James Wright.”
    “Yeah, yeah,” Phil said.  “And, you know, early on I could see that Larry was his own guy, his own poet.  His early poems, I never got them really.  But anyone who knows how to read could see there was talent there.  I just told him what I liked and what I didn’t understand.”
    I asked Phil about their relationship once Larry started publishing books and directing creative writing programs. 
    “We traded poems for years,” Phil said.
    I needed something specific.
    “Salts and Oils,” Phil said.  The poem is in Sweet Will, and Phil pointed to these lines:

            …On the way north
        I lived for three days on warm water
        in a DC-6 with a burned our radio
        on the runway at Athens, Georgia.  We sang
        a song, “Georgia’s Big Behind,” and prayed
        for WWIII and complete, unconditional surrender.
        napping in an open field near Newport News,
        I chewed on grass while the shadows of September
        lengthened; in the distance a man hammered   
        on the roof of a hangar and groaned now he
        was out of luck and vittles….

    “The rhythm, mainly,” Phil said.  “Larry tinkered with my rhythm.  On this one and I don’t know how many others.  That’s the thing, we never questioned each other’s ‘visions’ or anything like that.  We had enough respect for each other to let whatever came come.” 
    I asked Phil if he thought Elegy was a “dark” book.
    “Oh, yeah.  But I don’t know how or why really.  I don’t.  Something crawled in there, so Larry accepted it.  And he wrote.”
    Then Bruce said, “When we were undergrads, there was this guy who hung himself in the dorms, and Larry wrote this poem…what’s it called…?”
    I knew what Bruce was referring to.  I remember Chris showing me that poem when I was his student.  It’s “The Double,” from Larry’s second book, The Afterlife:

        This poem so like me
        it could be my double.
        I have stood a long time
        in its shadow, the way I stood
        in the shadow of a dead roommate
        I had to cut down from the ceiling
        on Easter break, when I was young.

        That night I put my car
        in neutral, and cut the engine
        and lights to glide downhill
        and hear the wind rush over
        the dead metal.
        I had to know what it felt
        like, and under the moon,
        gaining speed, I wanted to slip
        out of my body and be
        done with it.

Their laughter dwindled for the final time that day, and I was reminded that Larry was dead now, too.  But also, too, that the energy and love in that room was Larry’s life.  I remember feeling like I almost knew him. 
    Then the expected awkward silence came upon us.  Phil stood up and said, “Alright, we’re done here.  Let’s go.” 
    I gathered my notepad, pen, and bag.  I cleaned my place at the table.  Bruce grabbed his hat.  Franny stood up for what I assumed, and hoped, would be a big hug goodbye. 
    Then Phil said, “We’re going to the ranch.”
    The what? 
    Bruce, searching his pockets for his car keys, said, “We’ll take mine.  It’s a sweet rental.  A Sebring with a CD player.” 
    The where?
    “Phil, take a long-sleeved shirt,” Franny shouted from the hall closet.
    “Hold on.  Before we go, I’ve got something to show you,” Phil said as he patted my shoulder.  He walked back into his study and returned holding a fountain pen, a Parker 51.
    “This was the pen Larry was writing with when he died.”
    Go where?  Ranch?  The pen…?  The what?
    Phil assured me it didn’t work.  “Don’t bother, my friend…,” he said.  He was going to have his guy replace the nib and “see what happens.” 
    So I held a pen that once worked.
    We made our way out onto the front yard and I found the keys to Chris’s car.  I prepared myself for one of those long farewells everyone’s embarrassed by: too much gratitude, exaggerated praise for the food and company, the requisite we must do this again soon usually reserved for loathed in-laws.
    Thing was, I meant it all. 
    Thing was, I wasn’t going back to Lompoc.  I was going to Larry’s. 
    “Where the hell you going?,” Phil said.  “Didn’t you hear me?  Come on.  Bring your notebook.”
    We were going to the Levis family orchard, the Ranch in Selma.  Phil and Bruce in the front seat, me in the back.  Phil turning around hounding me hounding him: “More questions.  What else you got?”  Bruce wondering if that left was the right left or the other left.  Me wondering how I’d gotten here.  Phil cursing the guy in the SUV who cut us off.  Bruce pretty sure that was Mendocino Avenue.  Phil concurring, “but we need South Mendocino….”
    10818 South Mendocino Avenue.  Right there on the mailbox.  Right there, the driveway lined with palm trees on either side for at least half an acre.  Palm trees three, four stories tall for at least half an acre. 
    Bruce took the car slowly down the driveway.  At the end of it, a little white rancher with a rotting roof, patches of parched grass, a struggling rose bush, and a sprinkler watering its own fertile circle.
    “Who turned that on?” I said.  I later found out that Larry’s mother had died earlier that year, and that the estate was still in the hands of the courts.  In her nineties and ill, Larry’s mother had grown incapable of keeping up the surrounding acres, let alone the modest house. 
    Phil walked around back. 
    Bruce wandered off to the left, toward the rows of short thirsty trees, “mostly almond I think…or used to be,” I thought I heard him say. 
    I stood by the car, took some pictures with my disposable camera, then wandered around the side of the house.  I peered inside a window and saw nothing but some dented vertical blinds and a few glass jars that looked as if they were caked in greasy dust.  I’ve felt wrong ever since, not for what I saw but because I looked. 
    Around back Phil and Bruce were pointing toward the many rows of short trees.  I overheard them say words sounding like orange, almond, insurance….  An empty pool painted white.  And I could see the dead priest from Larry’s Black Freckles: “His body rocks a little as if he had suddenly remembered a confession and blurted out laughing at it, only to inhale the water immediately after….  This is a true story.  Even the address is correct.”
     As we drove away from the house and down the driveway, I couldn’t not think of Larry’s poem “Picking Grapes in an Abandoned Vineyard”:

        Today, in honor of them,
        I press my thumb against the flat part of this blade,
        And steady a bunch of red, Malaga grapes
        With one hand,
        The way they showed me, and cut—
        And close my eyes to hear them laugh at me again,
        And then, hearing nothing, no one,
        Carry the grapes up into the solemn house,                           
                    Where I was born. 

That’s how it has to be: Bruce, Phil, and me heading one way, Larry heading another.  For now. 
    Larry’s smiling where he is, in those dreams I have of him from time to time.  Sometimes he’s hunched over a desk, holding that pen between his index and middle fingers, like a cigarette.  Other times he’s wearing an apron and he’s flipping steaks on a barbeque.  It must be a special day because there are balloons and streamers and rows and rows and rows of picnic tables and a stocked bar and no one else there but him and me and he says Where the hell you been?  You like it well or rare?  Cool apron, huh? 
    Nice balloons.  What are we celebrating again? 
    Just another day, man, Larry says.  How’d you say you like it…well, rare, what?   

            —for Bruce, Chris, Franny, and Phil

© by Alexander Long


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