Alexander Long: "The Natural Prayer of the Soul: The Shared Gaze of James Wright and Larry Levis"


The Natural Prayer of the Soul:

The Shared Gaze of James Wright and Larry Levis


     In a speech given on the occasion of receiving the Georg Buchner Prize, Paul Celan suggests that the “attention which the poem pays to all that it encounters, its more acute sense of detail, outline, structure, colour, but also of the ‘tremors and hints’—all this is not, I think, achieved by an eye competing (or concurring) with ever more precise instruments, but, rather, by a kind of concentration mindful of all our dates.  ‘Attention’, if you allow me a quote from Malebranche via Walter Benjamin’s essay on Kafka, ‘attention is the natural prayer of the soul’” [Collected Prose 50].  What Celan longs for is a faculty beyond the sense of sight, beyond whatever presents itself before us, beyond the present itself.  He desires an articulation of something sharper than sight and deeper than vision.  Celan’s gaze fixates on nothing less than eternity, that condition of existing where and when all tenses become one, “a kind of concentration mindful of all our dates.”     

     What do I mean by gaze?  I’m tempted to say gazer, but I’m addressing something else, something perhaps beyond definition, something that resonates longer and deeper than any one person.  By gaze I mean the poet’s engagement with that part of the psyche that reaches beyond what’s usually referred to as voice or vision or, deeper still, imagination.  Wallace Stevens insists that “[t]he imagination is the only genius.  It is intrepid and eager and the extreme of its achievement lies in abstraction” [Collected Poetry & Prose 728].  True enough, but only up to a point.  The gaze transforms what the imagination renders as abstract into something, or someone, necessarily concrete because the gaze, literally, needs something, or someone, to hold.  Or as Larry Levis puts it: “[a] poet finds what he or she is by touching what is out there, finding the real” [The Gazer Within 69].  The real, of course, is subjective; so, whatever the poet is drawn to reveals the poet’s gaze.  Or what John Berger identifies as “an eye we cannot shut” [About Looking 42].  The gaze is a particular kind of sustained intensity of attention that doesn’t merely, passively observe.  The gaze gathers and creates; it preserves the imagination through its capacity to operate as both a noun and a verb simultaneously.  The gaze is what and how the imagination manifests and realizes itself, which in turn enables the poet to realize himself or herself.  A poet’s gaze reveals his or her temperament and obsessions, how he or she positions himself or herself in relation to what he or she observes, experiences, and imagines; and not just how he or she renders those observations, experiences, and imaginings, but also why.  When a poet’s gaze is at its most intense, his or her attention is at its most concentrated.  In those privileged moments, the poet may find him- or herself possessing a state of awareness teeming with diverse and simultaneous sources of attention, be they spiritual, metaphysical, or mystical.  Or to quote Levis once more: “And so this is what happens at the moment of writing: the wave takes shape of the fire.  What is ‘out there’ moves inside.  The poet becomes threshold” [The Gazer Within 83].  This this Levis addresses is the gaze.  When fully engaged and realized, the gaze is the poet, “the flesh become Word,” whatever and whomever else he or she wants to, or must, become. 

     Despite the obvious and various differences in the surfaces—e. g., style, prosody—of their mature work, James Wright and Larry Levis share a gaze.  When I read their poems, I hear and see almost the same poet.  Consider these two passages, the first from Wright in 1963, the second from Levis in 1990.  Wright, on Georg Trakl, says: "In the poems which we have translated, there are frequent references to silence and speechlessness.  But even where Trakl does not mention these conditions of the spirit by name, they exist as the very nourishment without which one cannot even enter his poems, much less understand them" [Collected Prose 83, my emphasis].

     And now Levis in an interview, responding to a question about what drew him to poetry as a teenager.  Levis says: "I’m not sure I can except that it gave voice to a kind of adolescent loneliness or alienation I felt.  And it made sense of things.  It was also incredibly beautiful.  I mean, the language moving into that state of being where it was a condition, or is a condition, of the spirit.  It seemed utterly convincing" [A Condition of the Spirit 33, my emphasis].

     Indeed, the same exact phrasing separated by nearly three decades: a condition of the spirit.  Levis’s gaze, however, doesn’t derive itself from Wright’s, nor does Wright’s derive itself from Trakl’s, and so on.  Unlike style or voice or any idiosyncratic prosody, a gaze cannot be derivative.  A gaze is shared, not borrowed; given, not imitated.  To borrow a gaze would be no different from borrowing someone’s life and, by extension, his or her soul.  Rather, the gaze indicates awareness, and vulnerability because of that awareness, that plumbs the substrata of a poet’s poems.  What I really mean, in fact, may reach beyond a gaze.  I mean, as Celan means, the natural prayer of the soul, that palpable but ineffable source in each of us that, as Dickinson puts it, “opens further on…without a tighter breathing.”  

     Specifically, I’d like to consider more closely the gaze James Wright and Larry Levis share.  Wright’s gaze blossomed with the deep image, and then moved into his own “pure, clear word.”  Levis’s gaze expanded because of the deep image, but he fully rendered it through his widening spell of discursive and meditative narrative.  What fundamentally joins their respective gazes is what Robert Bly calls the “absolute necessity of the image” [Claims for Poetry 21]How they handle the image within their poems varies greatly, of course.  Otherwise, I’d be talking about the derivative poem instead of the singularly shared gaze.    

     I’ve identified five manifestations of gaze that Wright and Levis share: The Gaze on the Other, The Gaze on the Self, The Ekphrastic Gaze, The Historical Gaze, and The Elegiac Gaze.  None of these gazes exists mutually exclusive from one another.  They differ only in degree when, for example, the gaze upon the other has really been a projection of gaze upon the self; or when an ekphrastic gaze gives way to an elegiac one.  Besides, don’t all gazes, more or less, possess a disposition of reclination when confronted with the elegiac?  I’ve approached these poems without any conscious use of theoretical templates, paradigms, or agendas.  Any reference, inference, or allusion to a particular theoretical lens I may seem to make is purely coincidental.  More importantly, such coincidences—if they do exist and if that is what they are—may finally speak to some larger, but in some ways still latent, issues asking for further examination when we talk about the poetics of gazing.  


The Gaze on the Other

     The poet’s gaze needs to be directed inward as well as outward.  Such double vision is a key element that differentiates vision from gaze.  When the gaze moves outward, it desires communication, if not communion, with the other.  In the mature work of Wright and Levis, the gaze on the other often comes with a sense of elegiac repose and responsibility, as they do in Wright’s “In Memory of a Spanish Poet” and Levis’s “For Miguel Hernandez in His Sleep and in His Sickness: Spring, 1942, Madrid.”  Both gazes refigure Hernandez alive in a prison cell dying of tuberculosis.  Wright employs as epigraph Hernandez’s last lines of verse, which he scrawled on the wall of his cell: “Take leave of the sun, and of the wheat, for me.”  Then, the poem begins:


                        I see you strangling

                        Under the black ripples of whitewashed walls.

                        Your hands turn yellow in the ruins of the sun.

                        I dream of your slow voice, flying,

                        Planting the dark waters of the spirit

                        With lutes and seeds.


Wright’s gaze not only focuses on Hernandez the man, but also on his voice and verse, which through the force of his attention Wright scatters across fields for future harvesting.  He couples precise details with imagery evocative of Hernandez’s own poetry; that is, Hernandez’s gaze has entered Wright’s gaze, which exists both in the daylight world of his imagination and nightlight realm of his dreams.  Wright then shifts his gaze from Hernandez to himself, from a prison cell in Spain to


                        Here, in the American Midwest,

                        Those seeds fly out of the field and across the strange

                                   heaven of my skull.

                        They scatter out of their wings a quiet farewell,

                        A greeting to my country.


                        Now twilight gathers,

                        A long sundown.

                        Silos creep away toward the west.


Wright’s gaze expands the extended metaphor—seeds are poems, poems are seeds—until both tenor and vehicle reach their natural conclusion: twilight, sundown, darkness, death, silence.  Curiously, Wright’s gaze doesn’t return specifically to Hernandez, and instead envisions inside “the strange heaven of [his] skull” Hernandez’s spirit blown worldwide.  The poem commands an attention much longer and larger than its mere thirteen lines.  Wright captures this illusion of expansion with the equally slow and expansive last stanza in which time itself seems to slow down so he can prolong his memory of Hernandez.  The world, too, in Wright’s gaze here seems to be sliding away from itself.  And yet, as the poem travels from one continent to another, it finally exists solely in the mind of Wright and is brought into being through his gazing at Miguel Hernandez. 

     Notice, too, how Wright handles time with his gaze on Hernandez.  The poem proper begins in the present tense, but the epigraph is a fragment written by Hernandez decades earlier.  Most of the poem, in fact, takes place in the present and concludes with an affirming gesture toward the future: the silos holding all the seeds of Hernandez’s poetry to be scattered across the world on some future date.

     Levis refigures time in a similar fashion in “For Miguel Hernandez in His Sleep and in His Sickness: Spring, 1942, Madrid.”  Like Wright, Levis employs the intimate direct address; both place Hernandez squarely and clearly before us.  Levis also begins in the present tense, but in a conditional, speculative mode:


                        You have slept for two days now,

                        And still you do not want

                        To die in here.        

                        If you had a choice,

                        You would lie without thoughts in the long grass,

                        Where the grass is whitest—

                        Each blade of it a flame that says nothing,

                        That loves nothing….

                        If you had a choice,

                        You would be done with loving forever.


Levis’s gaze on Hernandez provides him access to the workings of Hernandez’s mind, whereas Wright’s gaze on Hernandez places him at a remove.  Never does Wright assume a thought for Hernandez.  Levis, however, uses that speculative gesture—“If you had a choice”—to propel the poem forward.  And whereas Wright’s gaze transforms Hernandez into an infinite number of seedlings in the spirit of Whitman’s transubstantiation at the end of “Song of Myself,” Levis’s gaze largely focuses on the corporeal Hernandez suffering from tuberculosis in a prison cell imaging his life had Franco’s goons left him alone:


                        You would walk toward a loud square in Madrid,

                        And lie down, unnoticed, in the twisting shade

                        Of a black tree, and sleep.

                        Or maybe you would only pretend to sleep—

                        Maybe you would close your eyes in the sun,

                        And let the flies settle on your lips,

                        And listen to the threadbare blood rushing

                        Inside your veins;

                        Maybe you would let the stray goats nuzzle your hands,

                        Since there is nothing shameful

                        Under the sky.


The more speculative Levis’s gaze becomes the more intricately and precisely it renders the details in its view.  Like Wright’s “strange heaven of [his] skull,” Levis’s gaze also maneuvers its way inward, but with one important difference: Wright moves inwardly, into his own mind; Levis, too, moves inwardly, albeit speculatively, into Hernandez’s mind: “And listen to the threadbare blood rushing/ Inside your veins….”  Wright’s gaze maintains its fidelity to compression, to resonant brevity, to the “absolute necessity of the image.”  Levis’s gaze employs the image similarly, but not as a means to its own end.  His gaze uses the image as a base from which he unravels his speculations.  The more he speculates, the more his gaze begins to imagine the physical and psychic pain Hernandez was forced to endure:


                        But on the third day

                        Without food, or prayers, or water,

                        You would see your first and last words grow still

                        As a glass of wine in a woman’s hand:

                        She would be sitting in a café, alone,

                        Not noticing you, not

                        Hearing your breath become quick and shallow—

                        Until finally you would let it all out in one hard laugh

                        That withers quickly

                        Into the noise of the street.


Wright’s gaze seemingly forbids him to wander into the discursive vignette.  Levis earnestly generates expansion.  What unifies their respective gazes is imagining the other, Miguel Hernandez, during, then after, his death.  For Wright, Hernandez will be scattered across “the American Midwest,” and anywhere else his spirit is needed.  In Levis’s gaze, Hernandez’s soul lingers locally:


                        And without breath,

                        You would become the street:

                        You would become these goats braying,

                        The scrape of soldiers,

                        A girl’s laugh inside a bar…

                        I could visit you years from now

                        In these bricks and these black shops and even

                        In this shattered glass that no one cleans up,

                        That shines in the sun—

                        That remains

                        When everyone goes home to curse, or sleep,

                        Or lie awake between his own two hands.


The goats, the soldiers, the girl in the bar, the bricks, the shops, the shining shattered glass, the anonymous figure enduring his singular yet common despair: Wright’s gaze doesn’t allow these indifferent yet intimate details into his poem, whereas Levis’s gaze raises them into being.  What their gazes share, finally, is the spirit of Whitman: the “vapor and the dusk,” bequeathed to “the dirt from the grass I love.”

     Where else for gazes to be shared but in the cosmos?  “And who knows,” Levis asks near the end of his poem,


                        …how this night will end?

                        The grass stirs once and stills

                        Outside the prison.    

                        You think no one is worth his life, and the stars,

                        Even the rare, white ones that are so useless             

                        To men and women,

                        Show up again above you.


Wright’s gathering twilight filtered through Levis’s gaze becomes the rare, white, and useless stars.  Their extinguished yet immovable presence, in fact, seems to mock Hernandez in his sleep and sickness.  Wright’s gaze of Hernandez concludes remarkably similar to Levis’s: the “twilight gathers” and the useless stars “show up again” above him. 

     Something democratic and communal strikes me about these two poems when I hold them next to each other: what begin as poems gazing on an other, both decidedly elegiac, end as poems gazing outwardly to wider expanses. 


The Gaze on the Self

     When Wright and Levis turn their gazes toward their respective selves, they often envision themselves as an other.  These poems don’t invite themselves to be understood as autobiographical.  They’re poems that allow Wright and Levis to use themselves not just as the subject but also the gaze of the poem.  What’s the difference?  Using the self as the subject for the poem—or an autobiographical poem—doesn’t necessarily possess a gaze upon the self.  In an autobiographical poem, the poet uses his or her life to reach an insight or an understanding apart from or beyond his or her self.  Conversely, when the poet turns his or her gaze upon his or her self, the poet realizes new aspects of his or her self. 

     Wright’s “The Poor Washed Up by Chicago Winter” primarily focuses on those around Wright, the anonymous poor.  The bulk of the poem observes others, but his gaze remains fixed on his self, often against his will.  Wright pities those he has turned his attention toward, which means, actually, he pities himself:


                        Well, I still have a train ticket valid.

                        I can get out.

                        The faces of unimaginably beautiful blind men

                        Glide among mountains.

                        What pinnacles should they gaze upon

                        Except the moon?

                        Eight miles down in the secret canyons and ranges

                        Of six o’clock, the poor

                        Are mountainously blind and invisible.

                        Do they die?

                        Where are they buried?

                        They fill the sea now.

                        When you glide in, men cast shadows

                        You can trace from an airplane.

                        Their shoulders are huge with the barnacles

                        That God has cast down into the deep places.

                        The Sixth Day remained evening, deepening further down,

                        Further and further down, into night, a wounded black angel

                        Forgotten by Genesis. 

                        If only the undulating of the shadows would pause.

                        The sea can stand anything.

                        I can’t.


What a strange, terrifying, unhinged stanza.  Wright’s attention is, literally, all over the place, jumping from Chicago to mountains to the moon to secret canyons and ranges to the sea to being aboard an airplane to the Book of Genesis and back to the sea.  But notice, too, that the stanza begins and ends with I: “I still have a train ticket valid./ I can get out…. I can’t.”  Despite his best efforts, it seems, Wright can’t not focus his gaze upon himself.  All that he sets his attention on in this stanza manifest themselves as projections for Wright’s own psyche.  It’s a dark, dark place, for it’s nothing more than an ossuary, not entirely imagined, of those victimized not just by the harsh, indifferent elements of nature but also by the even harsher and colder machinations of a capitalist economic system.  Unwieldy as the foci of this poem’s first stanza are, its gaze remains fixed on the I—i. e., Wright—especially the further he reaches beyond his self.  To put it another way, when a poet’s attention is scattered so wildly yet specifically, it shouldn’t take us terribly long to realize that the poet has shrewdly divulged an obsessive compulsion in the self.

     In the second, and much shorter and focused, stanza, Wright comes clean and admits directly:


                        I can remember the evening.

                        I can remember the morning.

                        I am too young

                        To live in the sea alone without

                        Any company.

                        I can either move into the McCormick Theological Seminary

                        And get a good night’s sleep,

                        Or else get hauled back to Minneapolis.


This second stanza couldn’t resemble the first less, from its myriad foci to its voice to its imagery.  In fact, there’s no imagery to speak of.  The scattered, frenzied focus of the first stanza has been reduced to a single-minded purpose of self-preservation: to simply escape a brutal Chicago winter…an option the poor don’t have.  Wright’s panicked voice in the first stanza has been broken, and in its place a voice of defeat mingling with acceptance surfaces. 

     So, what’s transpired in the white space between stanzas?  What may account for such a drastic transformation in voice, imagery, subject, and emotional center?  To paraphrase Stevens, the pressure of Wright’s perceived reality has compressed his gaze into that mixture of acceptance and defeat I mentioned above, or what might be better identified as submission.  Wright, basically but essentially, has given in to his gazing at himself and has emerged with a more acute awareness not just of himself but of the whole human lot. 

     Levis’s “Rhododendrons” exacts the terror that Wright uncovers in his self in “The Poor Washed Up by Chicago Winter.”  Levis begins his poem in as winter ends:


                        Winter has moved off

                        somewhere, writing its journals

                        in ice.


                        But I am still afraid to move,

                        afraid to speak,

                        as if I lived in a house

                        wallpapered with the cries of birds

                        I cannot identify.


                        Beneath the trees

                        a young couple sits talking

                        about the afterlife,

                        where no one, I think, is

                        whittling toys for the stillborn.

                        I laugh,


                       but I don’t know.


Levis’s emotional center uncannily resembles Wright’s in its quiet desperation bordering on terror.  The source of Levis’s anxiety is rooted in his inability to identify the strange cries of birds, whereas Wright’s terror surfaces from his ability to perceive too much.  Nevertheless, Levis, like Wright, is afflicted with this terror because of his gazing upon his self, which shifts three times within the poem’s first three stanzas.  Levis begins by observing the passing of winter, then turns toward himself—the angst-triggering gesture—then, shifts away from himself toward the couple “talking/ about the afterlife.”  His gaze doesn’t settle on any one person, place, or thing, ostensibly to defer the inevitably painful gaze upon his self:


                        Maybe the whole world is absentminded

                        or floating.  Maybe the new lovers undress

                        without wondering how

                        the snow grows over the Andes,

                        or how a horse cannot remember those

                        frozen in the sleigh behind it,

                        but keeps running until the lines tangle,

                        while the dead sit coolly beneath their pet stars.


The nod to Dickinson—“Horses’ Heads were / toward Eternity—” is obvious enough.  Perhaps less obvious but no less evident are those elements Levis fixes his gaze upon, some of the same elements Wright brings to his poem: mountains and celestial bodies.  But gazing at the stars eventually leads to a gaze upon the self, and Wright and Levis know this.  They can’t pretend they don’t know what that gaze finally means: to gaze upon their mortality.   

     Levis’s last four stanzas in “Rhododendrons” exude a similar temperament in Wright’s final stanza of “The Poor Washed Up by Chicago Winter.”  Levis, like Wright, uses the first person singular.  Levis’s voice is wider than Wright’s, which enables him to speak plainly, and therefore more powerfully, about what he desires and why:


                        As I write this,

                        some blown rhododendrons are nodding

                        in the first breezes.  I want

                        to resemble them, and remember nothing,

                        the way a photograph of an excavation

                        cannot remember the sun.


                        The wind rises or stops

                        and it means nothing.


                        I want to be circular;

                        a pond or a column of smoke

                        revolving, slowly, its ashes.


                        I want to turn back and go up

                        to myself at age 20,

                        and press five dollars into his hand

                        so he can sleep.

                        While he stands trembling on a street in Fresno,

                        suddenly one among many in the crowd

                        that strolls down Fulton Street,

                        among the stores that are closing,

                        and is never heard of again.


Levis’s direct expression of what he wants echoes Wright’s unadorned admission: “I can remember the evening. / I can remember the morning.”  Wright stops short of the lyrical complaint—“I want…”—which Levis admits three times.  But the temperament behind such unpoetic lines is the same.  It’s as though their gazes upon their selves have broken them down to the point where only the direct, almost austere expression will suffice. 

     And though Levis’s gaze moves further inward than Wright’s, they have the same impossible epiphany: in order to avoid acute turns of terror, they must fix their gaze away from their selves. 


The Ekphrastic Gaze

     The ekphrastic poem cannot exist without the gaze.  Its very essence is necessitated by the gaze, and through the force of the poet’s gaze the object under view (most often a painting, sculpture, or photograph) emerges transformed, often enlarged by the poet’s interpretation and imagination.  The ekphrastic poem can confine the poet’s gaze because, after all, there’s only so much of a photograph, for example, the poet can address before he or she moves on to speculative musings and conjectured narratives.  In fact, the more intricate and detailed the speculation and conjecture, the clearer and more intense the poet’s gaze becomes.  It’s not so much that the original object under view becomes secondary; rather, what the poet’s gaze invents becomes equally as arresting as the object.  This is certainly true of the ekphrastic poems of Wright and Levis. 

     I was surprised to uncover that Wright has a very small number of ekphrastic poems, at least those I understand as ekphrastic in a more traditional sense.  “The Vestal in the Forum” qualifies as ekphrastic more than any other poem in Wright’s oeuvre.  A brief poem, I’ll quote it here in its entirety:


                        This morning I do not despair

                        For the impersonal hatred that the cold

                        Wind seems to feel

                        When it slips fingers into the flaws

                        Of lovely things men made,

                        The shoulders of a stone girl

                        Pitted by winter.

                        Not a spring passes but the roses

                        Grow stronger in their support of the wind,

                        And now they are conquerors,

                        Not garlands any more,

                        Of this one face:


                        Clearer to me than most living faces.

                        The slow wind and the slow roses

                        Are ruining an eyebrow here, a mole there.

                        But in this little while

                        Before she is gone, her very haggardness

                        Amazes me.  A dissolving

                        Stone, she seems to change from stone to something

                        Frail, to someone I can know, someone

                        I can almost name.


What moves me most about Wright’s ekphrastic gaze is its bravery.  “The Vestal in the Forum” appears in his posthumous This Journey, and he most likely wrote it after he was diagnosed with the cancer that claimed him at fifty one.  Sure, this biographical fact exists in the margins of the poem and not in the poem proper, but that fact remains absolutely vital to my understanding of this poem’s achievement.  Wright’s gaze into the decaying statue is at once a gazing into ancient history as well as his own rapidly encroaching mortality.  Still, Wright’s bravery astonishes: “This morning I do not despair….”  From that moment forward, Wright’s gaze only accrues more and more bravery, dignity, and clarity.  Unlike his earlier gazes upon an other and upon his self, Wright renders his ekphrastic gaze replete with affirmation, beauty, and awe.  Roses “are conquerors, / Not garlands anymore.”  Men make things with “flaws,” but they are “lovely” all the same.  “Before she is gone, her very haggardness / Amazes….” Finally, the statue becomes for Wright a portal into whatever’s next in the next, undiscovered country. 

     How does Wright achieve this?  His gaze desires contact not so much with the statue but with what the statue represents: a Keatsian posthumous immortality.  Wright’s ekphrastic gaze animates stone and transforms the statue from a something into a someone, “someone I can know, someone / I can almost name.”  Wright’s terrified and frenzied searching vanishes when he engages his gaze ekphrastically, a concentrated form of attention that manages to reach a truce with the inevitable, soothing the otherwise forced consent to death.

     Levis’s ekphrastic gaze differs from Wright’s in manner only.  Levis’s attention initially seems more diverted than Wright’s, but is actually as concentrated as Wright’s.  “Sensationalism,” a moderately sprawling poem at seventy-four lines, nearly belies its ability to be anything but intensely and ekphrastically focused.  The genius of Levis’s ekphrastic gaze is that very paradox: the longer he gazes ekphrastically on a figure the more he deciphers patterns of similarities among other, sometimes vastly different, figures.  In order to harness his widening gaze, Levis relies on a strategy sustained by braided narrative threads, a compositional approach he learned not so much from Wright (very little in Wright’s oeuvre—including the extant Amenities of Stone—indicates a tendency toward such a Whitmanic expansiveness) but from his teacher and friend Philip Levine.

     “Sensationalism” begins modestly, casually enough:


                        In Josef Koudelka’s photograph, untitled & with no date

                        Given to help us with history, a man wearing

                        Dark clothes is squatting, his right hand raised slightly,

                        As if in explanation, & because he is talking,

                        Seriously now, to a horse that would be white except

                        For its markings—the darkness around its eyes, muzzle,

                        Legs & tail, by which it is, technically, a gray, or a dapple gray,

                        With a streak of pure white like heavy cream on its rump.

                        There is a wall behind them both, which, like most walls, has

                        No ideas, & nothing to make us feel comfortable….

                        After a while, because I know so little, &

                        Because the muted sunlight on that wall will not change,

                        I begin to believe that the man’s wife & children

                        Were shot & thrown into a ditch a week before this picture

                        Was taken, that this is still Czechoslovakia, & that there is

                        The beginning of spring in the air.  That is why

                        The man is talking, & as clearly as he can, to a horse.


Levis’s ekphrastic gaze imaginatively breathes life into the otherwise still life of the photograph and transforms it into a moving picture.  He accomplishes this in no small measure through his speculations, which he often offers as seemingly inconsequential asides: “Seriously now” (line 5); “technically” (line 7); “like most walls” (line 9); “because I know so little” (line 11); “& as clearly as he can” (line 17), etc.  What Levis imagines invents a life—a tragic one—for the man, his family, and his horse, all of whom are victimized literally, imaginatively, or both by the brutality of Nazi goons.  Unlike Wright’s stunned amazement in “The Vestal in the Forum,” which arrests his imagination and enables him to project himself into the statue, Levis’s ekphrastic gaze is significantly less ecstatic as he holds the photograph at a not-so-slight remove. 

     The longer Levis gazes at the photograph the more animated it becomes.  The man in the photograph is


                        …trying to explain these things,

                        While the horse, gray as those days at the end

                        Of winter, when days seem lost in thought, is, after all,

                        Only a horse.  No doubt the man knows people he could talk to;

                        The bars are open by now, but he has chosen

                        To confide in this gelding, as he once did to his own small

                        Children, who could not, finally, understand him any better.

                        This afternoon, in the middle of his life & in the middle

                        Of this war, a man is trying to stay sane.

                        To stay sane he must keep talking to a horse, its blinders

                        On & a rough snaffle bit still in its mouth, wearing

                        Away the corners of its mouth, with ear cocked forward to listen,

                        While the other ear tilts backward slightly, inattentive,

                        As if suddenly catching a music behind it.


The more elaborate Levis’s speculations become the more he begins to reveal that the man talking to the horse is, in some ways, Levis himself: both want answers, something factual and concrete to prevent them from slipping into pure speculation, a mode of bearing false witness.  Of course, the stakes for the man in the photograph—albeit ostensibly imagined—are higher than they are for Levis…if we believe Levis’s speculations to be true.  Pure speculation doesn’t suffice for Levis.  For Levis, speculation serves as a guide toward the truth but must not be confused for the truth. 

     So, in a move equally risky and inevitable, Levis comes clean:


                        … Of course,

                        I have to admit I have made all of this up, & that

                        It could be wrong to make up anything.  Perhaps the man is perfectly

                        Happy.  Perhaps Koudelka arranged all of this

                        And then took the picture as a way of saying

                        Good-bye to everyone who saw it, & perhaps Josef Koudelka was

                        Only two years old when the Nazis invaded Prague.

                        I do not wish to interfere, Reader, with your solitude—

                        So different from my own.  In fact, I would take back everything

                        I’ve said here, if that would make you feel any better,

                        Unless even that retraction would amount to a milder way

                        Of interfering; & a way by which you might suspect me

                        Of some subtlety.  Or mistake me for someone else, someone

                        Not disinterested enough in what you might think

                        Of this.  Of the photograph.  Of me.


Even though Levis’s extended aside shifts away from his ekphrastic gaze, it nevertheless contributes a vital commentary on the power of his gaze and its consequences.  Levis reminds us that we must address the moral and ethical issues in art, especially when we’re engaged in the seemingly innocuous act of gazing into a photograph.  When we observe and interpret a piece of art, Levis reminds us, we must take special care not to play loose and fast with the facts of history; for if we do, we run the risk of destroying a life and the memory of that life.

     It would seem, at this point in the poem, Levis has written himself into a corner.  Possibly on purpose.  While he gazes at the Koudelka photograph, Levis is actually thinking about something else, someone else:


                        Once, I was in love with a woman, & when I looked at her

                        My face altered & took on the shape of her face,

                        Made thin by alcohol, sorrowing, brave.  And though

                        There was a kind of pain in her face, I felt no pain

                        When this happened to mine, when the bones

                        Of my own face seemed to change.  But even this

                        Did not do us any good, &, one day,

                        She went mad, waking in tears she mistook for blood,

                        And feeling little else except for this concern about bleeding

                        Without pain.  I drove her to the hospital, & then,

                        After a few days, she told me she had another lover…. So,

                        Walking up the street where it had been raining earlier,

                        Past the darkening glass of each shop window to the hotel,

                        I felt a sensation of peace flood my body, as if to cleanse it,

                        And thought it was because I had been told the truth….

                                 But, you see,

                        Even that happiness became a lie, & even that was taken

                        From me, finally, as all lies are…. Later,

                        I realized that maybe I felt strong that night only

                        Because she was sick, for other reasons, & in that place.

                        And so began my long convalescence, & simple adulthood.

                        I never felt that way again, when I looked at anyone else;

                        I never felt my face change into any other face.

                        It is a difficult thing to do, & so maybe

                        It is just as well.


Initially, “Sensationalism”’s two narrative threads couldn’t appear more dissimilar.  Levis’s ekphrastic gaze, however, leads him into imaging a life for the man in the photograph, a particular form of attention that triggers guilt for interfering with not just the readers’ solitude but also, possibly, distorting the facts of history. 

     In the poem’s concluding sequence, Levis returns his gaze back to the photograph and reaches a conclusion reminiscent of Wright’s conclusion in “The Vestal in the Forum”:


                        … That man, for instance.  He was a saboteur.

                        He ended up talking to a horse, & hearing, on the street

                        Outside that alley, the Nazis celebrating, singing, even.

                        If he went mad beside that wall, I think his last question

                        Was whether they shot his wife & children before they threw them

                        Into the ditch, or after.  For some reason, it mattered once,

                        If only to him.  And before he turned into paper.


The man in the photograph returns to the form in which Levis first encountered him, the paper on which a photograph is printed.  For Wright, the statue “…seems to change from stone to something / Frail, to someone I can know, someone / I can almost name.”

     Stone and paper: inanimate stuff animating the soul through the shared ekphrastic gaze of Wright and Levis. 


The Historical Gaze

     How can anyone gaze upon something as enormous and malleable as history?  How do we define history?  Can we define history?  The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics’ entry for “historicism” comes close to defining what we might understand as history, but finally backpedals, equivocating that: "…[historicism] asks how it is possible for the historian, who is subject to the presuppositions of his or her own culture, to give an “objective” account of those of another culture.  The problem lies in the deliberate or unwitting imposition of the historian’s own cultural presuppositions on the culture he studies.  [Historicism] poses these difficulties in the form of a dilemma: either the historian must reject his own cultural presuppositions wholly in favor of those he studies, or he is constrained to filter the latter wholly through the former.

     "This dilemma leads to [historicism] being used to describe two opposed but related enterprises: the interp. of past history as something totally foreign to present perspectives; and the interp[retation] of past history as wholly a function of present perspectives" [Preminger and Brogan 529-530].

     Wright and Levis confront this dilemma—i. e., that objectivity is a myth—directly and attempt to solve it through the force of their shared historical gaze.  Specifically, both Wright and Levis braid seemingly disparate narratives and time periods not to juxtapose them, but to lay bare their uncanny similarities.  Wright’s “A Mad Fight Song for William S. Carpenter, 1966” and Levis’s “Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex” employ the historical gaze by addressing the historical event of their lives: America’s military involvement in Vietnam.  Whereas The Vietnam War may be the immediate subject of their respective poems, Wright and Levis address the entire tragic, violent, and cyclical reality of human history.  

     Wright brackets “A Mad Fight Song for William S. Carpenter, 1966” with an epigraph and a parenthetical note at the end.  The epigraph—Varus, varus, gib mir meine Legionen wieder—is most commonly attributed to Roman Emperor Octavian Augustus, circa 9 AD, when he learned that some 20,000 Roman soldiers were slain by Germanic warriors led by Arminius.  The note Wright provides at the end clarifies who William S. Carpenter was: "(Note: Carpenter, a West Pointer, called for his own troops to be napalmed rather than have them surrender.  General Westmoreland called him “hero” and made him his aide, and President Johnson awarded him a Silver Star for courage.)"

     Wright’s pairing of antiquity with his modern history is arguably the most powerful component of his historical gaze.  In between the epigraph and note is a poem steeped in allusion, some of it esoteric, some of it painfully vivid.  The poem begins nostalgically with a memory, though violent, of still relatively innocent times:


                        Quick on my feet in those Novembers of my loneliness,

                        I tossed a short pass,

                        Almost the instant I got the ball, right over the head

                        Of Barrel Terry before he knocked me cold.   


                        When I woke, I found myself crying out

                        Latin conjugations, and the new snow falling

                        At the edge of a green field.


                        Lemoyne Crone had caught the pass, while I lay

                        Unconscious and raging

                        Alone with the fire ghost Catullus, the contemptuous graces tossing

                       Garlands and hendecasyllabics over the head

                       Of Cornelius Nepos the mastodon,

                       The huge volume.


Wright’s ecstatic moment, albeit an ecstasy caused by a recreational collision, actuates his historical gaze.  Getting knocked, literally, out of his mind for a moment or two, Wright wakes speaking in tongues, recounting the strange journey into antiquity his concussion has granted him.  This moment of unconsciousness, ironically, provides him a new kind of clarity: intimate access to the distant past.  Wright collaborates, if you will, with the Roman poet Catullus, who dedicated the majority of his work to Cornelius Nepos, the first documented biographer to have written in Latin (hence, “the huge volume”).  Wright connects his memory of youth with his revelation of Catullus and Cornelius Nepos quite simply, but shrewdly, with the image of tossing: Wright a football, Catullus garlands and poems.  If Wright were to end the poem here, we would have a vivid, daring, and ultimately puzzling poem because his historical gaze has yet to fully enter the poem.  And wouldn’t the title, epigraph, and note at the end only compound our confusion?

     The poem’s final two stanzas, a mere eight lines, elevate this poem from one of ambitious observing to one of historical gazing, the latter of which is charged with political outrage:


                        At the edges of Southeast Asia this afternoon

                        The quarterbacks and the lines are beginning to fall,

                        A spring snow,


                        And terrified young men

                        Quick to their feet

                        Lob one another’s skulls across

                        Wings of strange birds that are burning

                        Themselves alive.


The edge of the field ostensibly in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio is now overlayed with the killing fields of Southeast Asia in 1966.  Wright, the quarterback from the first stanza, has been replaced by a countless number of former high school quarterbacks who are now boots on the ground and dust in the air.  The members of the offensive line who failed to protect Wright and who are ultimately responsible for his concussion have been replaced with falling lines, both offensive and defensive, on the all-too-real fields of combat.  The tossed football, garlands, and poems—this is the most tragic transformation Wright’s gaze reveals—have been replaced with the lobbing of “the terrified, young men[‘s]” skulls across birds napalmed  in midflight. 

     Wright does more than juxtapose the poem’s three events, for his gaze, particularly his historical gaze, reaches beyond superficial similarities and toward continuity, if not perpetuity.  Wright’s historical gaze illustrates just how little has changed between Octavian Augustus’ exasperated plea and Carpenter’s refusal to surrender.  The intensity of Wright’s historical gaze—his “concentration of all our dates”—evidences the moral imperative of paying attention because such attention is nothing less than “the natural prayer of the soul.”

     Like Wright’s “A Mad Fight Song for William S. Carpenter,” Levis’s “Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex” reaches beyond surface likenesses as well as across centuries.  But unlike Wright, Levis’s historical gaze gathers each of the three tenses, shuffles them, scatters them, and then reassembles them.  Levis arranges the poem into five distinct, but unnumbered, sections, which enable his historical gaze to collage myriad epochs, art, artists, and places: the seventeenth century with the twentieth century; Baroque art with American hippie culture; Caravaggio with The Grateful Dead; The Borghese with The Haight. 

     “Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex” propels itself through Levis’s ekphrastic gaze.  But what his ekphrastic gaze creates are simultaneously elegiac and historical gazes.  (As I mentioned earlier, these respective gazes are not mutually exclusive but are differentiated only by degree.)  Levis’s historical gaze is more powerful than the other gazes in this poem because of his ability to braid the past with the present, the present with the future, and the future with the past, “…like entering the wide swirl & vortex of history” (l. 20).  His ekphrastic and elegiac gazes grant him access to his historical gaze. 

     The poem’s narrative, per se, could not be simpler: Levis stares at Caravaggio’s painting David with the Head of Goliath.  The longer he stares the more he begins to gaze, and as his gaze takes him deeper into the painting, Levis finds himself assembling a panoply of memories, speculations, and epiphanies, each more painful than the next:



                        In the Borghese, Caravaggio, painter of boy whores, street punk, exile & murderer,

                        Left behind his own face in the decapitated, swollen, leaden-eyed head of Goliath,

                        And left the eyelids slightly open, & left on the face of David a look of pity


                        Mingling with disgust.  A peach face; a death mask.  If you look closely you can see

                        It is the same face, & the boy, murdering the man, is murdering his own boyhood,

                        His robe open & exposing a bare left shoulder.  In 1603, it meant he was available,


                        For sale on the street where Ranuccio Tomassoni is falling, & Caravaggio,


                        Puzzled that a man would die so easily, turns & runs.


Even if one is unfamiliar with the painting, Levis’s description of the painting is so precise, that one can figure at least a resemblance of the painting in his/her imagination.  Still, Levis is merely observing, his vision only gliding along the surface of Caravaggio’s painting.

     But once Levis starts interrogating the painting, he begins to enter, and realize, his historical gaze:


                        Wasn’t it like this, after all?  And this self-portrait, David holding him by a lock

                        Of hair?  Couldn’t it destroy time if he offered himself up like this, empurpled,

                        Bloated, the crime paid for in advance?  To die before one dies, & keep painting?


                        This town, & that town, & exile?  I stood there looking at it a long time.


                        A man whose only politics was rage.  By 1970, tinted orchards & mass graves.


Levis’s historical gaze begins to reveal itself in the way he compresses time.  He flashes forward three-hundred-and-sixty-seven years, from 1603 to 1970, in half a line: “…/ By 1970, tinted orchards & mass graves.”  More than a deftly executed transition, Levis’s leap across the centuries begins to illustrate the inexplicable repetition of violence and the resemblance of Caravaggio, David, Goliath, and a friend of Levis’s who has yet to enter the poem, who is the true focus of Levis’s gaze.  Levis delays his friend’s entrance into the poem in order to set the scene and prepare us for the gravitas of his friend’s fate. 

     In the second section, Levis situates us in the Haight-Ashbury district in 1970 on the night the historic venue Fillmore West was shut down, signaling the beginning of the end of hippy culture, the prolonged summer of love, and the anti-war movement; and ushering in an escalated American military activity in Vietnam and the Nixon administration’s paranoid and suffocating grip on American domestic and foreign policy:


                        The song that closed the Fillmore was “Johnny B. Goode,” as Garcia played it,

                        Without regret, the doors closing forever & the whole Haight evacuated, as if

                        Waiting for the touch of the renovator, for the new boutiques that would open—


                        The patina of sunset glinting in the high, dark windows.


                        Once, I marched & linked arms with other exiles who wished to end a war, & …

                        Sometimes, walking in that crowd, I became the crowd, &, for that moment, it felt

                        Like entering the wide swirl & vortex of history.  In the end,


                        Of course, you could either stay & get arrested, or else go home.


                        In the end, of course, the war finished without us in an empty row of horse stalls


                        Littered with clothing that had been confiscated.


In these ten lines, Levis moves closer to what’s personally at stake in this poem.  Still, he delays mentioning his friend.  Essentially, in this second section Levis’s historical gaze transitions from the wide panning shot to a sharper zooming shot whose final focus may be only a bit clearer.  The vertiginous “swirl & vortex of history” may be the best way to describe the kinetics of Levis’s historical gaze: always spinning—sometimes rapidly, other times indolently—and always widening in scope and increasing in force.   

     In the third section, not coincidentally the shortest, Levis at last brings his friend into the poem, and we begin to understand why Levis’s historical gaze has forbidden him from doing so sooner:


                        I had a friend in high school who looked like Caravaggio, or like Goliath—

                        Especially when he woke at dawn on someone’s couch.  (In early summer,

                        In California, half the senior class would skinny-dip & drink after midnight


                        In the unfinished suburb bordering the town, because, in the demonstration models,

                        They filled the pools before the houses sold….  Above us, the lush stars thickened.)

                        Two years later, thinking he heard someone call his name, he strolled three yards


                        Off a path & stepped on a landmine.


Placed directly in the middle of the poem’s five sections, this third section is the poem’s literal and emotional center; and Levis’s friend’s pointless early death is at the heart of that center.  All allusions, juxtapositions, overlays, and connections have their origins in the death of Levis’s friend.  Suddenly, the “wide swirl & vortex of history” is no longer impartially abstract.  Instead, history is devastatingly concrete and personal.

     Notice, too, how Levis, like Wright, begins braiding the various seemingly dissimilar figures and elements of the poem through the “absolute necessity of the image.”  Wright braids images of tossing and lobbing (a football, garlands, and skulls).  Levis braids images of the faces of Caravaggio, David, Goliath, and his friend (whose name we don’t learn until line 48, or until five lines before the poem’s end).  These images function essentially as keystones for Wright’s and Levis’s shared historical gaze. 

     The fourth section begins with another apparent non-sequitur.  It seems as though—and in all likelihood probably is—Levis’s grief is absolute, which renders him mute.  In his essay “Some Notes on Grief and the Image”, Levis concludes that “[t]here is one problem with men who grieve absolutely.  They may be beyond language, or language may no longer have any real hold on them” [The Gazer Within 121].  Of course, there are no non-sequiturs in this poem, only the expanding historical gaze:


                        Time’s sovereign.  It rides the backs of names cut into marble.  And to get

                        Back, one must descend, as if into a mass grave.  All along the memorial, small

                        Offerings, letters, a bottle of bourbon, photographs, a joint of marijuana slipped


                        Into a wedding ring.  You see, you must descend; it is one of the styles

                        Of Hell.  And it takes awhile to find the name you might be looking for; it is

                        Meant to take awhile.  You can touch the names, if you want to.  You can kiss them,


                        You can try to tease out some final meaning with your lips.


                        The boy who was standing next to me said simply: “You can cry….  It’s O.K., here.”


Though Levis doesn’t specifically mention when in time this section is set, clearly it’s some time after November 10, 1984, when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was completed.  The significance of this lies in the fact that Levis persistently broadens the scope of time he incorporates into the poem, such is the capacious range of his vision.  Notice, however, how this section begins and how it ends.  “Time’s sovereign.” rings of flat and defeated declaration.  It’s also uncharacteristically abstract.  But as Levis unravels this section, his attention increases in focus and, consequently, his historical gaze increases in intensity.  The painfully particular litany of items placed along the Wall when juxtaposed with this section’s opening demonstrates the full force of Levis’s historical gaze.  And the boy—a kind of Virgilian guide for Levis’s descent into “one of the styles / Of Hell”—attempting to console Levis states what perhaps has been concerning Levis since the poem began: fighting the impulse to cry, to grieve absolutely, long enough to finish the poem.

     The fifth and final section begins yet again after what seems to be a prolonged silence suffused with grief:


                        “Whistlers,” is what they called them.  A doctor told me who’d worked the decks

                        Of a hospital ship anchored off Seoul.  You could tell the ones who wouldn’t last

                        By the sound, sometimes high-pitched as a coach’s whistle, the wind made going


                        Through them.  I didn’t believe him at first, & so then he went into greater

                        Detail….  Some evenings, after there had been heavy casualties & a brisk wind,

                        He’d stare off a moment & think of a farm in Nebraska, of the way wheat


                        Bent in the wind below a slight rise, & no one around for miles.  All he wanted,

                        He told me, after working in such close quarters for twelve hours, for sixteen

                        Hours, was that sudden sensation of spaciousness—wind, & no one there.


                        My friend, Zamora, used to chug warm vodka from the bottle, then execute a perfect

                        Reverse one-&-a-half gainer from the high board into the water.  Sometimes,

                        When I think of him, I get confused.  Someone is calling to him, & then


                        I’m actually thinking of Carvaggio…in his painting.  I want to go up to it


                        And close both eyelids.  They are still half open & it seems a little obscene


                        To leave them like that.


Levis’s historical gaze comes full circle, back to the painting, but the painting has been transformed.  There are many lives depicted in the painting, and not just Caravaggio’s, David’s, Goliath’s, even Zamora’s.  Levis implies that the visages in the painting are meant to evoke any and all of those lost in that pointless war, in any war.  Why else mention, for example, the “Whistlers,” “the mass graves” twice, and the allusion to Dante’s Inferno?  Indeed, “Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex” can be read as a kind of lyrical and elegiac précis of history, specifically a history of violence and needlessly wasted lives.  Wright, too, offers a similar kind of lyrical and elegiac précis of the human history of conflict and violence.  In doing so, Wright not only elegizes the soldiers; he also, like Levis, takes political and ethical stances that cherish life and dignity, especially when they are bullied by the governments who control them. 

     Wright’s and Levis’s shared historical gaze may evoke Shelley’s terribly accurate maxim: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”  


The Elegiac Gaze

     The elegiac gaze, generally speaking, contains both mourning and melancholia as Freud defines them: "This, indeed, might be so even if the patient is aware of the loss which has given rise to his melancholia, but only in the sense that he knows whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him. This would suggest that melancholia is in some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious [Freud]. 

     In Freud’s view, then, melancholia is more akin to a condition of the spirit, a heavy nebulous weight fixed solidly at the center of the psyche and soul, what Lorca understood as “the pain which has no explanation” [In Search of Duende xii].  Easier to pin down is mourning; we have explanations for our grief (e. g., of course, death).  Mourning can trigger prolonged melancholia, however, and open (or re-open) previously latent psychological wounds that influence the poet’s gaze, be it elegiac or otherwise.

     Wright’s and Levis’s shared elegiac gaze contains both mourning and melancholia but in varying degrees.  Levis’s body of work reveals deeper and more prolonged currents of melancholia, whereas Wright’s body of work demonstrates fiercer bouts of mourning that often manifest themselves in anger.  In their elegies, both Wright and Levis express mourning more than melancholia because, after all, elegies are occasional poems often with a verifiable, concrete source of loss.  Their elegiac gazes, however, sustain their lyricism because of the melancholia they’re enduring.  At times, both Wright’s and Levis’s elegiac gaze straddles mourning and melancholia, trying to reconcile the true sources of their pain. 

     It was no easy task selecting one elegy apiece for Wright and Levis because in many ways their oeuvres could be classified as predominantly elegiac.  I took the simplest, most obvious tact: similar subject matter in Wright’s “Honey” and Levis’s “Winter Stars.”  First, Wright and Levis elegize their fathers.  Second, Wright and Levis remarkably ward off narcissism, often a defining and overwhelming characteristic of grief and by extension the elegy/elegist.  Third, Wright and Levis manage to reconcile not only the loss of their fathers but also mortality itself.  Fourth, Wright and Levis view their fathers with a bewildered sort of awe, which creates a distance between them.  This distance is necessary for creating, informing, and maintaining their shared elegiac gaze because, paradoxically, the elegiac gaze is also the most personal and painful.  Finally, Wright and Levis utilize distance as a means of controlling their mourning and melancholia, however fleeting and/or illusory that control may be.

     Wright’s “Honey” appears in his posthumous This Journey.  Wright finalized many of the revisions as he was being treated for throat cancer and, finally, a grim diagnosis.  Perhaps his intensified awareness of mortality served as a catalyst to write an elegy for his father and, perhaps, himself:


My father died at the age of eighty.  One of the last things he did in his life was to call his fifty-eight-year-old son-in-law “honey.”  One afternoon in the early 1930’s, when I bloodied my head by pitching over a wall at the bottom of a hill and believed that the mere sight of my own blood was the tragic meaning of life, I heard my father offer to murder his future son-in-law.  His son-in-law is my brother-in-law, whose name is Paul.  These two grown men rose above me and knew that a human life is murder.  They weren’t fighting about Paul’s love for my sister.  They were fighting with each other because one strong man, a factory worker, was laid off from his work, and the other strong man, the driver of a coal truck, was laid off from his work.  They were both determined to live their lives, and so they glared at each other and said they were going to live, come hell or high water.  High water is not trite in southern Ohio.  Nothing is trite along a river.  My father died a good death.  To die a good death means to live one’s life.  I don’t say a good life.

            I say a life.


Wright’s choice of the prose poem offers a glimpse into his elegiac gaze.  The prose poem form as Wright employs it—even as we simply encounter its modest shape on the page, before we read the poem itself—shrewdly asserts a lack of ornamentation, an allegiance to austerity, a refusal of sanctimony, a projection of modesty, and as Gary Young puts it, “a faithful utterance of the heart” [Bear Flag Republic 50].  The implication here in the choice of the prose poem is that to craft, for example, a sonnet—which Wright was more-than-capable of doing—to elegize his father would feel, to borrow a word from the poem, “trite.”

     The prose poem form also complements the poem’s substance, namely frustration, honesty, resilience, and finally humility.  Surely, Wright could’ve cased his memory and imagination for a more, shall we say, endearing or flattering vignette of his father.  To do so, however, would be the gravest of insults.  Instead, Wright presents a portrait of his father not so much as he understood him to be but actually as he was: strong, angry, tender, and capable of warm-hearted silliness. 

     But what of the last line, and what does it reveal about Wright’s elegiac gaze?  Has he deleted “good” from “a good life”?  Or has he conflated good with life, and further conflated good with life as well as with death into one redemptive form of attention?  In a stunning, yet typical, stroke of truncation, Wright reveals his elegiac gaze with four simple words.  What does his elegiac gaze look like?  Precisely what the poem’s first prose stanza reveals: all of that love borne by anger, frustration, violence, and fear.  And choosing love despite it all.  There’s virtually no melancholia nor mourning in “Honey,” and yet without both melancholia and mourning Wright would not have been able to complete the poem so surprisingly and powerfully.  Ultimately, “Honey” is a celebratory poem, but it’s a hard-won, hard-lived, and tough-loved celebration.  Despite the blood, the vow to “murder” a family member, the constant reality of unemployment and poverty, and the perpetual threat of natural disaster, Wright still manages to understand his father as he was, and is: someone good and someone certainly worthy of celebration. 

     Levis’s “Winter Stars” shares many similarities to Wright’s “Honey.”  In addition to being elegies for their fathers, both poems recount an-almost-necessary violence the sons witness their fathers take part in.  Both poems also reveal an awe the sons have for their fathers, which creates a necessary distance between father and son, a distance that proves useful when fathers place themselves within their sons’ elegiac gaze.  “Winter Stars,” like “Honey,” also ultimately desires reconciliation with the father, and by extension the son’s inheritance of mortality. 

     Levis’s “Winter Stars” isn’t an elegy proper because his father hasn’t yet passed when Levis writes the poem.  Rather, his father “is beginning to die.”  We might call “Winter Stars” an elegy pre hoc.  Essentially, Levis begins his work of mourning without his father’s death having yet occurred, a condition of the spirit actually resembling melancholy more than mourning.  Like Wright, Levis holds his father at a distance, specifically his impending passing, a distance that creates, informs, and maintains his elegiac gaze.  He begins the poem unassumingly enough, similar to how Wright begins “Honey,” without fanfare, with a bald statement of fact:


                        My father once broke a man’s hand

                        Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor.  The man,

                        Ruben Vasquez, wanted to kill his own father

                        With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held

                        The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first

                        Two fingers, so it could slash

                        Horizontally, & with surprising grace,

                        Across a throat.  It was like a glinting beak in a hand,

                        And, for a moment, the light held still

                        On those vines.  When it was over,

                        My father simply went in & ate lunch, & then, as always,

                        Lay alone in the dark, listening to music.

                        He never mentioned it.


                        I never understood how anyone could risk his life,

                        Then listen to Vivaldi.


Levis opens the poem with violence between a father and son to serve as a proxy—sans the knife and apparent rage—for Levis and his father.  The opening vignette, an indelible memory from Levis’s childhood, portrays Levis’s father as a strong, brave, quiet, and finally distant man.  This memory engenders awe for his father, and Levis fails to understand him, particularly his silence and yearning for solitude and serenity.

     It may be that this memory has resurfaced so vividly because Levis now knows that his father’s death is imminent, and consequently his elegiac gaze begins to place itself behind his eyes:


                        Sometimes, I go out into this yard at night,

                        And stare through the wet branches of an oak

                        In winter, & realize I am looking at the stars

                        Again.  A thin haze of them, shining

                        And persisting.


                        It used to make me feel lighter, looking up at them.

                        In California, that light was closer.

                        In a California no one will ever see again,

                        My father is beginning to die.  Something

                        Inside him is slowly taking back

                        Every word it ever gave him.

                        Now, if we try to talk, I watch my father

                        Search for a lost syllable as if it might

                        Solve everything, & though he can’t remember, now,

                        The word for it, he is ashamed….


Levis’s elegiac gaze is distinct from Wright’s in that Levis straddles not just mourning and melancholia, but also their chronological counterparts: respectively, the past and the present.  (He also implicitly anticipates the future: “My father is beginning to die.”)  Perhaps most compelling is the fact that Levis’s elegiac gaze doesn’t yet have the distance in time from his father’s death, a distance that enables Wright to celebrate his father’s life.  So, lacking this distance in time, Levis finds himself staring first at an oak tree and eventually—almost inevitably—at stars persistently shining even though many of them may have died thousands of light years ago.  Before too long, however, Levis’s elegiac gaze has nothing to gravitate toward except the largely unknown cosmos, and he returns—again, perhaps inevitably—to the painful reality of his father’s slow death.  The silence between them is no longer one caused by a rift between father and son but by a prolonged battle with Parkinson’s disease. 

     In yet another shift in focus, Levis’s elegiac gaze moves into the mind itself, specifically his father’s deteriorating mental health:


                        If you can think of the mind as a place continually

                        Visited, a whole city placed behind

                        The eyes, & shining, I can imagine, now, its end—

                        As when the lights go off, one by one,

                        In a hotel at night, until at last

                        All of the travelers will be asleep, or until

                        Even the thin glow from the lobby is a kind

                        Of sleep; & while the woman behind the desk

                        Is applying more lacquer to her nails,

                        You can almost believe that the elevator,

                        As it ascends, must open upon starlight.


                        I stand out on the street, & do not go in.

                        That was our agreement, at my birth.


Levis’s extended metaphor of mind-is-city, and further still mind-is-hotel-closing-down-for-the-night, illustrates not just the wide-ranging scope of Levis’s elegiac gaze but also his willing refusal to steady his gaze on just one person or object for too long.  But no matter where he shifts his gaze he always sees his father, and is reminded of the distance between them, which examines further if only to understand why it persists and possibly also to reconcile it:


                        And for years I believed

                        That what went unsaid between us became empty,

                        And pure, like starlight, & that it persisted.


                        I got it all wrong.

                        I wound up believing in words the way a scientist

                        Believes in carbon, after death.


These lines, the rawest and most direct of the poem, lay bare Levis’s shame, remorse, and grief.  Writing what has become an elegy as well as an apologia, Levis desire nothing else but to nullify the distance between himself and his father, which is impossible. 

     Nevertheless, Levis speaks directly to his father through the poem:


                        Tonight, I’m talking to you father, although

                        It is quiet here in the Midwest, where a small wind,

                        The size of a wrist, wakes the cold again—

                        Which may be all that’s left of you & me.


                        When I left home at seventeen, I left for good.


                        The pale haze of stars goes on & on,

                        Like laughter that has found a final, silent shape

                        On a black sky.  It means everything

                        It cannot say.  Look, it’s empty out there, & cold.

                        Cold enough to reconcile

                        Even a father, even a son.


In this otherwise wrenching poem replete with familial conflict, grief, and remorse, Levis’s elegiac gaze fixes itself, finally, not on mourning and melancholia, but on reconciliation.  Levis looks toward continuance and reunion, not oblivion and estrangement.  Stars go “on and on,” and the winter Midwestern wind proves to be the force that brings father and son together again, “all that’s left of you and me.”

     What’s uncanny about both Wright’s and Levis’s elegiac gaze is their shared desire for acceptance, reconciliation, and reunion despite the violence, distance, and grief that have triggered their respective poems.  Essentially, Wright’s and Levis’s shared elegiac gaze begins with a violent provocation and—through the transformative power of paying acute attention—and ends with reconciliation.  Such a transformation reaches beyond literary or artistic achievement.  Finding absolution and acceptance—and the expression of them—for the curious occasions of our births and deaths and everything in between is nothing less than achieving a sublime condition of the spirit through the “natural prayer of the soul,” the myriad manifestations of the gaze Wright and Levis share. 

Works Cited

Berger, John.  About Looking.  New York: Vintage, 1992.  Print.

Buckley, Christopher and Gary Young.  Bear Flag Republic.  Santa Cruz, CA: Greenhouse Review Press/Alcatraz Editions, 2008.  Print.

Freud, Sigmund.  “Mourning and Melancholia.”  Web.  23 July 2013.

Hall, Donald.  Ed. Claims for Poetry.  Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press,1983.  Print.

Levis, Larry.  The Selected Levis.  Ed. David St. John.  Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.  Print.

--.  A Condition of the Spirit: the Life and Work of Larry Levis.  Eds. Christopher Buckley and Alexander Long.  Spokane, WA: Eastern Washington University Press, 2004. Print.

Lorca, Federico Garcia.  The Search of Duende.  New York: New Directions, 1975. Print.

Stevens, Wallace.  Collected Poetry and Prose.  New York: Library of America, 1997. Print.

Wright, James.  Above the River: The Complete Poems.  Ed. Donald Hall.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992.  Print.

--.  Collected Prose.  Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1983.  Print.