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
But it doesn’t die, exactly.
It turns white, in winter, but
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,
“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
“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
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”:
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
“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
“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
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
with his wool cap pulled down
over one eye,
he passes the window of the
like a ghost as the day
fails. I see him
coming toward me now, tall, thin,
full of delight in his awkward
still only a boy with a boy’s
as the rain streams down.
You too must know
men like Cesare, still so young,
full of plans and tall
tales. Then women
enter their lives and the
for tenderness. They fall
in love, then
fall in love again and again and
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
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
it not happen. No one’s
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,”
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
How long has it been since you
you loved him, held his wide
opened your eyes wide and said
and maybe kissed his cheek?
done something so simple, so
not because you’re too young or
not because you’re jealous or
or incapable of crying in
in the presence of another man,
just because you don’t know what
“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
Then Bruce said, “Larry was one of the funniest,
“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
“Yeah, he had these double-jointed elbows,” Phil
said. “And he’d loop his arms over his head.”
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
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
“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
…On the way
I lived for three days on warm
in a DC-6 with a burned our radio
on the runway at Athens,
Georgia. We sang
a song, “Georgia’s Big Behind,”
for WWIII and complete,
napping in an open field near
I chewed on grass while the
shadows of September
lengthened; in the distance a man
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
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.
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.”
Bruce, searching his pockets for his car keys, said,
“We’ll take mine. It’s a sweet rental. A Sebring with a CD
“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
Go where? Ranch? The pen…? The
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
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
Today, in honor of them,
I press my thumb against the flat
part of this blade,
And steady a bunch of red, Malaga
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
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?
balloons. What are we celebrating again?
another day, man, Larry says. How’d you say you like it…well, rare,
—for Bruce, Chris, Franny, and Phil
© by Alexander Long