Anyone who’s talked with me about poetry in the past seven years has probably had to endure my going on and on obsessively about Larry Levis. Levis often gets categorized as a poet’s poet, but when I read his work to my biology, engineering, computer science, pre-med, and art students, they respond in much the same way I did when I first encountered his work. I’m going to try to avoid being sappy here because poets are notorious for that shit, but Larry Levis’s poems showed me a different way of existing in the world. They’re so considerate and lush with brilliant images and moments that will chill your marrow. If you don’t have a copy of Pitt’s The Selected Levis, that’s probably something you should remedy.
One poem that I’ve been sharing with my students since I taught in Texas is the beastly, three-pager, “OVERHEARING THE DOLLMAKER’S GHOST ON THE RIVERBANK.” Levis disrupts the narrative chronology, giving us details about the speaker’s early life in the middle of the poem, but more than that, the voice in combination with the brilliantly described images in the opening pulls me through the poem with such increasing interest, that I start to lose the beginning of the thread. I have a very-early-morning voiced reading of the poem that you can listen to here:
OVERHEARING THE DOLLMAKER’S GHOST ON THE RIVERBANK
by Larry Levis
The Missouri is only a mile from this place,
But I haven’t seen it glint through the bridge railings
For two months, its back careless, flat,
Seen for the first time it moves faster
Than you expected, like the back
Of an animal you glimpse from the highway
But can’t identify.
And once, on its banks near Canada,
I saw a bear
Moving quickly through goldenrod glance up once
And judge me. Then it
Walked off with a sort of arrogant peacefulness
In each stride.
And held for a moment in the contempt
Of its stare, hearing
The wind over the blind stones,
I learned only what I knew:
That the sun would go down,
The bread I was eating would be water,
And the river would flow under the creaking pilings
Until another shack came riding high
In the spring floods.
And trapped twice by rising water,
I was lucky enough to crawl into a cave and share it
With scorpions, and admire their selfishness,
And bless power.
But nothing could laugh fear out of my house—
It lived in the brown shoes I had to put on
Each morning, and in the cancer blooming under
My father’s lapel, and in my mother’s taking in laundry
All through World War I.
Fear was curious: it asked me
My name, asked me to sit down and showed me all the tools
In the shed, and asked me if I knew their uses.
And I lied because I needed the money;
And because they said someone had to place buttons
Carefully in the skulls of dolls,
and do this over and over,
I was a dollmaker.
Until each doll grew luminous and each inhaled
My gaze. And then I gave those eyes
Everything they asked,
Which was nothing.
Which was thirty years.
And once, driving home, I saw a torn mattress
High on a riverbank, and wondered
Who had slept there, what love stains
Might be drying on it in the late afternoon sun,
And what lice might be sleeping inside it,
Unaware that their hosts had moved elsewhere.
And so strapped it over the roof of my car,
And got it home,
And sat there on it, drinking wine and grinning.
And it was my wide grin and all 29 teeth
That remembered who I had slept with
In 1947, and who was
Blinded at random on the street by acid thrown
Into her eyes,
And why the sky is for sale.
Because in the end it wasn’t a bear
Or a mattress on a raft that saved me.
It wasn’t my body
Like a graveyard glimpsed inside a sunset
While someone is writing a letter;
It wasn’t even my disappearance,
Or my cousins dredging the water.
It was the river moving all night under me,
It was the fast, black river
That didn’t care what I did,
That slowed when I looked at it closely
And carried twigs and shoes
And a rank stench like unwashed human hair and flesh
Past the abandoned freight yards of the Missouri,
And past the white hair of women who go mad on its banks,
Watching for my body to surface in the warming water.
And now I will sit here all night carving
At a dry stick of wood,
Ignoring whoever it is
That gets up slowly and walks back
To his car, and rolls up the windows—
So he won’t hear the grass dying all around me
In late August—
And drives away.
The title cues us in to our location and gives us at least a sense of the paranormal, since we’re told that someone’s overhearing a ghost. But the opening lines present a clear, distinct voice that gets so caught in the elaborate description of the river–“it’s back careless, flat, / And unaging” or “like the back / of an animal you glimpse from the highway / But can’t identify”–so wrapped up in these descriptions that it takes us to the river and away from where we start. My mind’s eye veers towards this river, and once it does, Levis quickly embeds the first little narrative to keep me there, as if in a spell.
The story about the bear, the underlying tension of the threat contrasting with the bear’s seemingly nonchalant attitude, the danger of the rising water, and the lovely detail of sharing a cave with scorpions. Who can’t imagine how frightening that would be? And why admire selfishness and bless power? This is about a way of looking at the world. The speaker tells us he respects their aggressive behavior, but ultimately that he’s thankful that he’s bigger than they are. But Levis squeezes that whole idea into a small gesture, which is one of his greatest powers as a poet.
Like I mentioned earlier, the exposition of the speaker’s life doesn’t come until the middle section of the poem. At this point, I’m so drawn in by the speaker’s voice and the story that I’m committed to finishing. The speaker’s already moved us from his location to the Missouri and then to another time and location altogether. So when we jump back even further, it seems less disorienting. If the poem had started this way, as a reader I wouldn’t have enough empathy for the speaker yet for it to be interesting enough. Not that the details about the father’s cancer, the brown shoes (I read this as a reference to depression), or his mother having to take in extra work to make ends meet, or him working as a dollmaker aren’t interesting. Those details are central to the poem. Maybe that’s why they go in the middle, hah. But the first section works like a fishook in a way that the second section couldn’t. The narrative drama’s less palpable.
The details about the dollmaker’s life, the dolls inhaling his gaze, the way thirty years and nothing are weighted the same, offer us a tone of defeat and desperation. Our speaker tells us he did this job because he “needed the money,” and I get a sense that this work was precious to our speaker. How else would they grow luminous? The gesture at the end, him giving them everything they asked confused me at first. The way I think of it is: these dolls didn’t ask for anything (how could they?), but he gave them everything he could (almost seems like he did it b/c they couldn’t ask?), which was thirty years of his life. But the inversion of nothing = thirty years kind of pops whatever balloons are in the air.
The final story in the poem is perhaps one of my favorite images in a poem. I’ve never met anyone who would sit on a used mattress they found on a riverbank, but for some reason, I can sense the joy that our speaker has about the act of retrieving it, of even imagining its history–down to imagining the ignorance of the lice who might be inside–, like this mattress is some great triumph. And when he shows us the wine and the grin, Levis quickly moves the camera (think of how the camera has moved throughout this whole poem–it’s remarkable) away and chills us with a blip from the past about the woman who was blinded by acid thrown in her eyes. And why is the sky for sale? my students often ask. I dunno? I say. Because everything is?
But the poem begins to funnel back through the previous stories to arrive at some point. The momentum starts to build with the repetition of “It wasn’t,” which we see three times. We see the images we’ve seen before, tying the bear and mattress stories together, and we see the speaker’s body “glimpsed like a graveyard inside a sunset / while someone is writing a letter.” The simile here deepens as it unfolds across the enjamb to the point where I can imagine looking up from a desk out at the sunset and seeing light skitter through headstones, but more than just creating the image in my mind, the gesture is casual, which suggests that our speaker’s body wasn’t handled with the care that he gave those dolls.
So if it wasn’t all of those things, what was it that saved our speaker? He tells us it was the river, and the way the camera angle zooms in that moment “that slowed when I looked at it closely / and carried twigs and shoes,” brings us right to the riverbank. I can see the water too. The images just underscore how much the river doesn’t care what you do, how nature’s bigger than that. And that’s ultimately what our speaker claims saved him.
And the final stanza wraps up a nice little bait-and-switch that the poem sets up. The first few years I read this poem, I don’t think I understood it very well. I didn’t understand that the voice of the speaker is the voice of the ghost. The poet is overhearing the ghost talking, but because the poet has removed himself from the poem, the speaker is the ghost. The final strophe takes us back to the beginning of the poem, about a mile from the Missouri, and our speaker tells us that he sees someone get up and go to his car and roll up the windows. This is Levis’s imagining of how the ghost perceives/interacts with him. The person walking to the car at the end has been recording our speaker, giving his voice to us, and when he drives away, all that’s over. It’s also fun to think about the way the em-dashes seem to enact the rolling up of the window.
It’s magic. The story as I understood it changes at the end. I’m emotionally invested in a dead stranger who’s life, though filled with strange grief, teaches me about perspective, voice, dedication. It’s one of my favorite poems, and I find something new to praise every time I return. That’s how you know it’s gold.
P.S. Levis has been in the news more lately with the release of The Darkening Trapeze, which Graywolf published in January.