Dec 23 2013

Review of: Damnatio Memoriae, by Michael Meyerhofer

damnatio memoriae

Dec 10 2013

Review of: The Other Poems, by Paul Legault

The Other Poems, Paul Legault

Apr 29 2013

12 Months of Essays on Poetry and Craft: April 2013 Vol. 5 # 10


The Light in the Darkness:

Misreading Larry Levis


By Timothy Shea

Date 4/29/2013

I first encountered the poet Larry Levis in graduate school.  Standing in the stacks of another university’s library, I remember flipping Winter Stars open to the title poem and latching-on to what I thought was resentment toward his father for their relationship’s deficiencies.  And as I encountered more of his introspective poems—what I came to call his Dark Night of the Soul poems—I was seduced by the meditative tone, focused only on it, and missed the range of human emotion that this tone can reach.  Of course, if you’re guilty of misreading once, you’ve probably committed this crime countless times with countless poets.  The result of my practice of misreading Levis ranged from a slew of poor imitations to, more severely, a misunderstanding of what I had read, and thus, faulty conclusions about his poetry and my thinking about the world.  These errors began during a stretch of years in which I was in a prolonged down-and-out period.  That is not the point of this essay, only the context for a practice that, my sense tells me, is not limited to feeling low-down.  In fact, these errors occurred, I believe, due to a failure to surrender entirely to the poem I was reading.  When I would come to a poet whose work I admired, I would not only look for what I wanted to be present in the poem (thus not recognizing what that poem was offering of its own accord), but I would frequently project my feelings toward that subject matter on his or her poem.  It’s this idea, the reader hindering his or her understanding of a poem, which I hope to articulate with some examples of breaking this pattern of behavior. 

            First, I would like to hone in on the types of poems to which I’m referring.  The poems that struck me came in Levis’ final four books, The Dollmaker’s Ghost, Winter Stars, The Widening Spell of the Leaves, and Elegy.  I don’t know if there is a term for the types of poems this essay discusses, so I will rely on the clarity of Tony Hoagland, who writes “again and again in the poetry of Larry Levis, a character will stop and stare, entranced—at a brick, at a river, at the grass, into space.  What unfolds in that prolonged moment is a little piece of eternity—not a fixed infinity, but a shifting, permuting one.  The moment becomes a sort of portal, in the frame of which the object of perception mutates under pressure of the gaze,” (485). 
            The poem, “The Wish to be Picked Clean,” resonates a desire for nothingness. This is not a poem that Levis wrote, I assume, after a night of great partying.  The poem is as deceptive as the world is deceptive.  We are presented with many specifics—“a dead spider on the sill,” “the air of a struck chord,” a black man’s unmatching socks “one a fading gold, / one white,” the veins on the man’s hands, the Ohio River—but the poem has no place.  It is set in no specific location.  It occurs only in the mind, sprung from a feeling of wanting something.  And the poem deceives us by moving, from time to time, away from the cold, objective tone of the line “I was nothing, then” and toward a humor and lightness that is sparse, subtle, and which I missed completely for years.

          The first line is “I still oversleep these winter mornings.”  Later he wants “a stillness in the wake of each thing.”  Then he says that he “wanted, once, to be picked clean by music, / by wind, by sunlight.”  Sitting in the stacks of that library, seduced by this serious, hard-staring tone, I read these lines and said, yes, Larry.  I feel that way all the time.  You’re a low-down son-of-a-bitch like me, aren’t you, Larry?  The poem continues:

I would stand outside in the winter dusk,
I would think
Of those extinct Scottish poets
Who placed stones on their bare chests
And then laid down in snow each night until
The right poem came.
They praised, always, the hard ways of their Lord;

Because we’ve been lulled into the poem’s surrender and solemnity and empathize with the metaphor of this human being standing in the elements until whatever it is he’s looking for comes to him, it’s easy to miss the humor in the next lines:

Their grins frightened even
their wives…

In one of the essays in The Gazer Within, Levis’ essays on poetry, he writes about how, as he began writing longer narrative poems, he broke lines on articles and weaker words as a device to move the reader down the page.  However, now I read less importance into line breaks or the half-meaning that the Scottish poets were so grizzled and scary that even their grins were frightening, than I do into the line “Their grins frightened even” as the joke’s setup forcing the reader to move to the next line for the payoff, “their wives.”  Because I was treading water in the sea of simple, all-or-nothing cognition that I was at the time, the notion that one could find humor in anything while contemplating a serious personal matter was non-existent to me.  Not only was I missing the poem’s humor and a piece of this poet’s charm, but I was also perceiving this poem from a faulty logical foundation, and missed the self-awareness in this moment of the poem.  The joke that the Scottish poets’ are ugly enough to scare their own wives demonstrates that Levis recognizes the futility in his wish for anything.  Once he arrives at this humorous realization, he begins to spiral back toward the poem’s original tone, but that tone rarely, if ever, sinks to the despair with which the poem began.  Instead, the poet recognizes the significance of a moment of intense consciousness:

It took me fifteen years to learn
How not to pray,
And tonight I toast a blind, black man
With a cane,
Who I met, once, in Louisville.
Whose socks were unmatching: one a fading gold,
One white.
It was humid in the park,
And he sat there,
Smiling at each thing I said.
I thought he liked the feeling of the sun
On his face, or on his hands,
Or that he liked my company.
I learned, later, that he was simply terrified,
And that a gang of boys had crept up, earlier,
With sticks—
I was too young, then;
I was nothing, then

He nears the original tone is those last two lines, but he has moved to the past tense.  “I was too you, then; / I was nothing, then,” is a reflective statement, not the declaration of the poet’s misfortune as we see at the beginning of the poem.  But all does not end in the depths of sorrow, as Levis casts some light on the blind man.  “If I could imagine him now,” he writes, “picked clean / and without pain…”

It would be easy,
It would be a wind no thicker than your wrist
Over this page, or the music of wind

            “The Two Trees” is another poem that rises out of a sense of dejection, alienation, disenfranchisement.  Here we have a middle-aged man who is staying out to “read late in the library,” where “the black windows looked out onto the black lawn.”  The tone has been set.  Levis, a poet whose facility for description is as good as they come, has gone negative again, and calling out to Dante, the poem continues:

Friends, in the middle of this life, I was embraced
By failure.  It clung to me & did not let go.
When I ran, brother limitation raced

Beside me like a shadow.

And later:

                                                My head ached.
And I would walk home in the blackness of winter.

This is not a portrait of a family man who hurries home to get little Larry to the soccer field.  This is a man who comes and goes as he pleases, who frequently eats alone.  If this poem were a scene in a film, we’d meet our character as he is exiting the library.  But before opening the door, he’d stop to raise his raincoat’s zipper to his chin or pull its hood over his head, and then he’d step outside onto a quiet city street of minimal traffic and light rain in that three-quarter-slow-motion speed that filmmakers like Wes Anderson employ—the audio of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” fading in. 

            We’re into another meditative, contemplative Dark Night of the Soul walk.  “Everything I have done has come to nothing,” he tells his two friends, who are the trees.  “It is not even worth mocking.”  And then, in direct retort to that statement (and to himself, because the easiest way for a poet to say something about his- or herself is to make someone else say it), one of the trees replies, “You do not even / have a car anymore.”  So wrapped up in a combination of my own emotional turmoil and reading inexperience, I was unable to swim out of the poem’s low-down tenor and climb to a safe, critical vantage point, and thus I missed the hilarity present here:  a tall, lanky, mildly hunchbacked but completely mustachioed poet talking to and receiving feedback from a box elder and a horse chestnut in Utah.  But what is important to note here is that, after a bit of light, the poem’s focus becomes external: 

In time, in a few months, I could walk beneath
Both trees without bothering to look up
Anymore, neither at the one

Whose leaves & trunk were being slowly colonized by
Birds again, nor at the other, sleepier, more slender

One, that seemed frail, but was really

Oblivious to everything.  Simply oblivious to it,
With the pale leaves climbing one side of it,
An obscure sheen in them…

            Failure, shadow, black, blackness, late, limitation, winter: for years I would lie on the floor of my apartment reading this poem and I would have a similar experience to when I listened to Otis Redding sing.  And this seems to me the crux of my misreading, and one of the elements that highlights Levis’ literary abilities: his tone will seduce you, but the range of human experience is always there, too.  If one opens “The Two Trees” and feels instead of reads, one will encounter an pathos of such depth that one will be transported into a great soul music album.  If, however, one brings a critical eye to the poem, the classical allusions to Ovid’s Daphne and Apollo, and to Dante’s middle-aged journey through hell are that of a learned, daring scholar and maker of elegy. 

            Before discussing Levis’ father poems, I need to depart, briefly, to touch on the severity of this next element of my misreading.  To misread a poem as a result of inexperience is excusable and to be expected, but to simply insert oneself into a poem and assume knowledge of that poem’s intellect, humanity, and emotional depth is in direct violation of that poem’s autonomy, and it seems, a violation of oneself.  Even if poems are not autonomous things, to read closely is to listen closely, and in that way, a reader who projects his or her emotional baggage onto a poem cannot fully listen to or be with a poem.  At the time I encountered these poems, I was writing a good deal about my father, who shares the qualities of silence and stoicism that Levis attributes to his father.  So when Levis described his father’s emotional distance, I assumed the poet was, like me, resentful, when in fact he was forgiving or desiring reconciliation.  The reason this practice is so harmful to a reader is not that you misunderstand what you’ve read, it’s that you’re blind to a human perspective from which you could gain a greater understanding of yourself.

            The first two examples of light in Levis’ work occurred in poems about the current state of his life, and the light arrived in the form of subtle humor or self-deprecation (or both).  The second type of light that I missed occurs when he writes about his father, and that light exists in the form of forgiveness.  “To a Wall of Flame in a Steel Mill, Syracuse, New York, 1969,” opens with things disappearing.  The snow is thawing, and the poet’s father, who “longed to disappear,” desires “to be grass, / and simplified.”  His thoughts move “like the shadow / of a cloud over houses.”  There is significant emotional space between speaker and father.  I resented that space for many years, and as a result of that resentment, I missed the gratitude in:

But in the long journey away from my father,
I took only his silences, his indifference
To misfortune, rain, stones, music, and grief.
Now, I can sleep beside this road
If I have to,
Even while the stars pale and go out,
And it is day.

In those six lines, Levis expresses that while there were elements of their relationship that were missing, there were also essential skills that his father displayed to him and which the poet benefitted from: toughness, resiliency, contentment from within.  There is a world of humanity present in this gesture, and my failure to recognize it during my early reading was a direct reflection of the absence of this gesture in my own life.

            The title poem of the book Winter Stars is perhaps the most telling, and therefore the most embarrassing, example of my misreading.  After all, the final two lines are “Cold enough to reconcile / even a father, even a son.”  When I first came to this poem I focused on the single line “When I left home at seventeen, I left for good,” and I felt anger and disappointment.  Looking at this poem now, I see forgiveness, a desire for resolution, and recognition that not all relationships are defined by the language shared between two people.  The poem’s opening scene has a man named Ruben Vasquez trying to kill his own father.  Levis’ dad intervenes, breaks Ruben’s hand, and then goes inside, saying nothing of it:

                        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.

Ironically, we then learn that:

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…

During those weeks in which I first read this poem, I was looking at pages ten and eleven of Winter Stars and, at times, I was even saying the words out loud.  So how could I have executed such poor reading on a relatively straightforward poem?  All I can say for sure about this experience is that if listening completely is a state of being, then I was nothing.  Once, I stopped reading after the lines “I stand out on the street, & do not go in. / That was our agreement, at my birth.”  But what I missed was:

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.

And then:

That 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.

The telling word here is cannot.  Michael Longley once said that a poet should take what he or she has learned at the end of a poem and apply that to the beginning.  Taking that advice, this is a poem in which Levis forgives his father for being a distant man of few words by layering images of speechlessness.  Another way of putting it is that you can have a great deal of love for a person to whom you rarely speak.  Once I was able to see that, this poem began to glow as brightly as the city in the poem’s fourth stanza, a city that is “placed behind / the eyes, & [is] shining.”

            I remember standing in the middle of my wife’s living room early in our dating days, and relishing in the cleanliness of the place.  It had been dusted, the hardwood floors had been scrubbed with white vinegar and the scent persisted.  Clean lines abound.  Colors matched.  And outside, an impressive flower garden immaculately arranged and cared for: buddleia, peonies, zebra grasses, black-eyed susans.  Flowerbeds she designed, dug, and lined only with aged bricks stamped with town names, business names, the names of railroad lines.   At a party in that yard I once heard someone say that the garden was so clean, all the bugs must have moved into the house.  Of course, as time passed, I gathered a more complex definition of her, and I came to know the woman who often leaves crumbs on the counters, dishes for me to trip over in awkward places, who is as human and error-prone as us all.  And I only loved her more.  This is not to say that I fell in love with her because she kept things tidy, there are many other reasons of character, beauty, humor, and vision, but early on I found the orderliness an attractive quality.  I fell in love for, partially, flawed reasons, and I still loved after coming to know more fully.  This is the scenario I find myself in with the poetry of Larry Levis.  When I came to his poems, I was in something of a trance state, and I reacted to his meditations.  I was self-absorbed and projected my feelings on his subject matter.  But as I continue to read these poems, I come to know a multi-faceted poet capable of humor, sorrow, meditation.  I come to know a poet who isn’t afraid to plumb the depths, and then to light the way.




About the Author:

Timothy Shea holds degrees from Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia and Southern Illinois University Carbondale.  He has also studied at the National University of Ireland Galway and at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen's University Belfast.  His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry London, Third Coast, Southern Humanities Review, and Poetry Ireland Review, amongst others.  He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Mar 26 2013

12 Months of Essays on Poetry and Craft: March 2013 Vol. 5 # 8

The Sound and the Fury:
A Brief Journal
Date 3/26/2013




Here’s how it goes: I say wa-ter, my daughter mouths back wa-wer, I congratulate her effort genuinely, and she gallops around the house shouting madly her wa-wer to the heavens. When she finally wears herself out, I am waiting there in the kitchen, cup in hand, to ask if she would like some more wa-ter.



One of my favorite literature professors in college said the entire Iliad could be boiled down to a single word: rage.



The first sonnet I ever wrote, I didn’t write out of love. I wrote instead, at the age of eighteen in my senior year English class, an angry little sonnet. It was Shakespearian, and I felt at the time that there was an automatic success bestowed upon anyone such as myself who had paid his dues with fourteen lines in strict iambic pentameter and a formal rhyme scheme. My reward: it was a poem. It was a very bad poem, which, like every other young poet’s first formal venture, followed dutifully “the letter but not the spirit of the law” (as Willard Spiegelman put it in his 2012 VQR essay “Has Poetry Changed? The View From the Editor's Desk”).


But I was a troubled eighteen-year-old, and the formal rules of old-guard poetry world soon felt like a close cousin of the societal laws with which I had so often found myself at odds (letter, spirit and otherwise). I wore leather, cavorted, smoked, drank, drugged, got arrested, hung a poster of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe on my wall, and in no time flat was writing free verse. It was good for me, even if (like Philip Levine said in an interview last year with Jake Marmer) “my earliest poems were not written with the benefit of the knowledge of poetry.” In those efforts, I learned how to be a poet, how to be inspired, to produce and to collect and to organize poems thematically. What’s more important, I learned why poets write poems—the dissatisfactions, the occasions.



A free verse poet without an ear is a dog without a nose—he has nothing left to follow, nothing certain to chase after.



            Spoken quietly: Anger is a gift



Rodney Jones told me the story of this poet, a student of his, who had real talent—the kind of talent most poets would envy, if not kill to possess. As Rodney tells it, she came to his office one day unannounced, sat down and asked if she had what it took. He didn’t follow. “You know, to be as good as Yeats?” she asked. To which he shrugged and said in his mild, egalitarian manner: “I don’t know. If you work fiercely at it for the next forty years… maybe?”

What he stopped short of saying is what I’ll add here: it’s not so much that a poet has the technical capacity to say something in poetry, but whether or not he actually has something to say. Virtuosity of language and syntax will only get him so far; the poet must be a human first, querulous, dissatisfied in some way with the world he inhabits, uneasy in his flesh. And then to be a decent poet, he also must be reflective, deliberate and inclusive with his indictments.

When Aristotle declares in his Nicomachean Ethics that “righteous indignation is a mean between envy and spite,” he is suggesting that the road to empathy passes through the heart of anger, that outrage itself is a compelling moral virtue. When poets can infuse syntax, sound and image with the energy embedded in the fiercest, most candid moments of human emotion, here’s what you get:


I’ll pull, you push, we’ll tear each other in half.

Come on, baby, lay me down on my back.  

Pretend you don’t owe me a thing  

and maybe we’ll roll out of here,  

leaving the past stacked up behind us;

old newspapers nobody’s ever got to read again.

            (Ai, “Twenty-year Marriage”)




The whiskey on your breath  

Could make a small boy dizzy;  

But I hung on like death:  

Such waltzing was not easy.

            (Theodore Roethke, “My Papa’s Waltz”)





Stop here.

Living brings you to death, there is no other road.

            (Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares)




Gray whale

Now that we are sending you to The End

That great god

Tell him

That we who follow you invented forgiveness

And forgive nothing

            (W.S. Merwin, “For a Coming Extinction”)




             There is no key to writing great poetry: only the will, the patience, and the confidence to do nothing else with your life.

Feb 10 2013

12 Months of Essays on Poetry and Craft: February 2013 Vol. 5 # 4


Poetry That Moves:
A brief definition of the Active Image
Date 2/10/2013
This isn’t a new concept. In fact, it’s as old as poetry itself. Perhaps though, for the sake of this short essay, the term, which Kerry James Evans and I came up with independent of any perfunctory research, just might be: The Active Image.
How does the active image differ from the plain old traditional image? Pound’s imagism? Simple. The active image accomplishes the piecemeal creation of the moving image in the mind of the reader—it is controlled and measured, and moreover the twenty-first century reader has been programmed (thanks largely to cinema) to expect this type of image development as just one part of the standard progression of scene.
It accentuates the fundamental truth that nothing is static. Even if we assume sometimes that the paper on the desk is motionless, the walls and roof around us as stolid as vault doors, we are only taking for granted the subatomic writhing, sparking and quirking which is actually going on within every single thing our senses come in contact with, forgetting the ground is shifting beneath us, that the earth is hurtling the known world through space toward some unknown calamity.
Look, neither I nor Kerry were (are, or will ever be for that matter) prodigious geniuses. We were drawn to write poetry more out of a kindred emotional discontent, rather than any intellectual pursuit: an addiction to the sonic resonance of language (set into the motion of syntax and broken with the line) within the restless spirit of humankind. That sounds haughty, scratch it from the record.
How about, poetry did for us what nothing else could, and one night during graduate school back in Carbondale, Illinois, Kerry and I were throwing darts in his home office, drinking Miller Genuine Draft, and trying to unpack this thing we’d found so appealing, this device. We’d looked at Pound’s list of Don’ts: “An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” until finally Kerry landed on the term, to give credit where credit is due.
We settled that the image, at its most evocative, moves and participates in the play of ideas—in short, is active with a purpose. A very utilitarian example:
                        Green olive sunk in a martini glass
                        waits to be carried by a waitress
                        across the crowded bar to a table
                        to make the surgeon’s hand stable.
First: Green olive sunk in a martini glass: even when the verb is past tense, as with sunk, the motion is still implied, and the reader sees a replay of this happening in the present tense of the imagination. The object itself is all the reader has by the time the line break hits, and they’re left with a martini glass floating in the ether.
Second: waits to be carried by a waitress: the green olive is now waiting like someone shifting from foot to foot at a bus stop (note: the active image is often a mixture of character action and personification). There is both potential and kinetic energy at play in the verb, and at the end of the line we bring in the waitress—thus far we have zoomed out enough from the martini glass to incorporate the waitress station at the end of the bar.
Third: across the crowded bar to a table: now the scene is complicated or made fuller by the mention of two words: across and crowded. The reader is moving through the room, filling in the pieces, line by line, until the scene is ready, the table has been prepared.
Fourth: to make the surgeon’s hand stable: the revelation, of course, is the payoff—the joining of two forces, a symbiosis. It’s where the motion has led us both surprisingly and inevitably.
Now, one could make the argument that the second and third lines are filler, that the scene itself stands without them, that the waitress and the crowded bar are implicitly conjured in the reader’s imagination. One could make that argument, I suppose, but every great poem, every great story, is about a journey not just a destination, just as every impassible gorge needs a bridge to sway between its two sides, if we are to pass. The buildup gives resonance to any revelation. And not to mention, to favor the precision of the image and scene is to spend a little extra time developing it (purposefully developing it)—that the development, the building, is essential to animating the scene.  
Warning: the danger in overuse is no different than the danger in overusing any other technique: the stilted poetry of the one-trick pony. “Verb stacking,” Kerry James called it, which is quite simply an overload of action verbs used to sustain the motion of the scene for the sake of motion. Like most things that announce themselves, you know it when you read it. Its visual equivalent might be the indiscriminate use of stereoscope in any new film. 
I know craft-speak is good, wholesome fun, but I need to get back to writing poetry; so rather than parading out the army of historical and contemporary examples to make my case more compelling (the fodder of a much longer essay), let’s leave it at this: poetry has a few things it does uniquely better than other genres and mediums of expression: the editorial is more timely, the novel is more dogged in its pursuit of the narrative, the painting has more play between color, and the sculpture more dimension; music is more sonically nuanced while dance has more command over the human form; opera has a more expansive vocal range, drama has more momentary beauty and film has the ultimate collaborative power.
Poetry though, is more methodical than any other genre of writing, more present in the imagination than any other medium, and more precise in its ability to create an image, to build a scene, line by line, and the active image (so far as I can tell) is the key to setting that scene in motion.