Sunday, February 21, 2010

Poems Connected at the Lips II

According to Philip Levine, when he was given the task of editing the late Larry Levis' "all but completed manuscript" that became Elegy under Levine's guidance, he first thought that Levis was "cannibalizing certain passages from some poems in order to heighten and enlarge other more ambitious poems." But Peter Everwine, Levine's colleague at Fresno State, convinced him the Levis was using "motifs or riffs to unify the collection." It is my assertion that these connective themes and tropes also flow across the covers of previous collections, spilling forwards and backwards, informing and being informed by other poems from other works, much like separate poems that are variations on a theme. The strongest example of this process is found in the two poems, "To a Wren on Calvary" (from The Widening Spell of the Leaves) and "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World" (from Elegy).

Due to its length, I will not reprint here "To a Wren on Calvary," but rather will direct the reader to the following link for reference:

What follows is a reprint of the shorter poem:

The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World

Once, there was a poem. No one read it & the poem
Grew wise. It grew wise & then it grew thin,
No one could see it perched on the woman's
Small shoulders as she went on working beside

The gray conveyor belt with the others.
No one saw the poem take the shape of a wren,
A wren you could look through like a window,
And see all the bitterness of the world

In the long line of shoulders & faces bending
Over the gleaming, machined parts that passed
Before them, the faces transformed by the grace
And ferocity of a wren, a wren you could look

Through, like a lens, to see them working there.
This is not about how she thew herself into the river,
For she didn't, nor is it about the way her breasts
Looked in the moonlight, nor about the moonlight at all.

This is about the surviving curve of the bridge
Where she listened to the river whispering to her,
When the wren flew off & left her there,
With the knowledge of it singing in her blood.

By which the wind avenges. By which the rain avenges.
By which even the limb of a dead tree leaning
Above the white, swirling mouth of an eddy
In the river that once ran beside the factory window

Where she once worked, shall be remembered
When the dead come back, & take their places
Beside her on the line, & the gray conveyor belt
Starts up with its raspy hum again. Like a heaven's.

How to get into these poems? There are so many entry points! Had "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World" never been written, there still would be a plethora of worlds to explore within "To a Wren on Calvary." We could begin with the reversals, each of which seem to be a kind of ideational chiasma: "the unremarkable," rather than the remarkable being that which lasts, the faces of the thieves being covered with wings and their bodies naked, "the quiet flowing into things," for example. Or we could contrast Levis' use of understatement alongside his pragmatographic descriptions, such as the "unremarkable wren" set against "small hawks (or are they other birds?)/...busily unraveling eyelashes & pupils.../I cannot tell whether their blood spurts, or just spills." Or, as in the virtuosic passage in lines 50 ff., which begins unassumingly with auditory meiosis, crescendos through ordinary description and, finally, ends in graphic sounds of violence:

Still . . . as they resumed their quarrel in the quiet air,
I could hear the species cheep in what they said . . .
Until their voices rose. Until the sound of a slap erased
A world, & the woman, in a music stripped of all prayer,

Began sobbing, & the man become bystander cried O Jesus.

The virtuosic is achieved, in part, because of the two worlds that Levis has created--the one on Calvary, and the one taking place on every hill in every city that is populated with people who are trying to love through their hate and hate through their love--and, in part, with the blurring of these two worlds by borrowing images from one and putting them into the other, fitting so perfectly, without explanation or the need to explain--the child camouflaged behind his toy left out on a lawn, while his parents tear at each other with claws and beaks sharper than those of any bird of prey, the boy who "saw at last the clean wings of indifferent/Hunger, & despair?," the father who cries out to Jesus when he sees what he has become as a bystander to (and thus a participant in) the violence around him.

Were this poem the last word from Levis about the world of the thieves dying on Calvary and the world of the neighbor couple and their boy being robbed of their lives "in the town/That once had seemed, like its supporting factories/That manufactured poems & weaponry, Like such a good idea," it might seem enough. But Levis will not let enough alone.

Somewhere between the time this poem was published in The Widening Spell of the Leaves in 1991 and a few weeks before his death in 1999, Larry Levis wrote "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World,"--both an answer to, and a continuation of, "To a Wren on Calvary."

What is immediately noticeable about this new poem, is that its jagged typographical edges have been smoothed down with time. Unlike its predecessor, the poem is written exclusively in quatrains, its lines flush against one another like feathers, without a single one out of place. This is an enactment of the more palpable presence of the wren, despite the indication in the title that it is invisible "to the world." But certainly it is quite visible to the world of the poem, being named no less than six times in twenty-eight lines, compared with only four times in sixty-seven lines previously. What world, then, is blind to "the poem take[n] the shape of a wren" that is "perched on the woman's/Small shoulders as she went on working beside/The gray conveyor belt with the others?"--the wren of ferocity and the wren you could look through (contrasted with the dead wren with its "oily feathers stretched, blent, & lacquered shut/Against the world . . . a world [the poet] couldn't touch" in "To a Wren on Calvary"), the wren that flew off and left the woman standing on the bridge, "With the knowledge of it singing in hr blood."

Is it the world that does not read the poem--meaning the world devoid of the poem, devoid of the "surviving curve of the bridge," the bridge that connects the extraordinary to the ordinary, the bridge that is the poem, that is our salvation as we take our places "beside her on the line, the gray conveyor belt/Start[ing] up with its raspy hum again?"

But the poem that returns is not simply a revised version of the original. It is a closer look at the post-messianic world created in the first poem, the world as it exists for the woman in the second poem, not only after the deaths of the men on the crosses, but after the death of her marriage and (dare say I?) the death of the husband himself. And because the relationship of the second poem to the first is that of one facet, enlarged in the lens of the jeweler's loop, to the whole of the gemstone, the second cannot only be instructed from the first, but it can tech the first, re-examined in light of its uniquely focused and polished material.

Not only, for example, do we see in the "long line of shoulders & faces bending/Over the gleaming, machined parts" the small hawks plucking at the faces of the thieves on Calvary, but in the actions of the birds "unraveling eyelashes & pupils" the dehumanized indifference of factory workers brought on by the drudgery and meaninglessness of their work except to provide them with their next meal. Not only do we hear Calvary's death-whisper in the river that flows below the bridge where the woman stands, we can hear the river's flow and its connectedness to everything in Death's whisper. Not only does the cross of Calvary inform "the limb of a dead tree leaning" in "The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World," the image of the dead tree points to a path away from the soteriological sufficiency of the cross.

These examples of dialogue between the two poems grow from Levis' nearly objective position, allowing for multiple voices within him to not only be heard, but to collaborate in the construction of a poem, or in this case, of a larger work that transcends the bounds of one volume of poems and breaks through into another.

"Poetry must be made by all, not by one," said Lautreamont. May we not only listen to all of its voices, but answer them as well as Larry Levis in his "Widening Spell."

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