A Larry Levis poem in the New Yorker, now, eighteen years after his death. Like a star long extinguished whose light is just reaching us. I guess that’s an easy metaphor for all the writers who continue to be read after they have left us. The “new’ poem sure reads like the Levis I knew, but when I read it, I think of Levis the man, not so much Levis the poet, though these roles cannot be disentangled.
I remember hearing about his death:
The phone that never rings at this time, on this day, rings now. True to its unlikely timing it’s an unlikely voice. A friend, who is a poet, has heard from a friend, also a poet, that Levis was dead. Poets in death as in life singing each to each.
I can’t say we were friends exactly or that I knew him very well. A poet’s poet. Some of those will have this impulse I’m having and dismiss it because others still will do it better. And they will. Good writing wishes to occupy a surface, implying a massive seven/eighths beneath its waters: This is just the tip of the iceberg, baby. But this writing isn’t like that. This is the full extent of it. Close to all there is.
When I first taught creative writing as a graduate student, new teachers were to attend a colloquium with the director of creative writing, Levis. We met a couple three times, that many of us, in his office in the evening. Levis slouched in his chair and spoke softly in fading daylight about poetry. He talked about “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Williams wading in the pond holding up by the arms a child dying from diphtheria. After that “The Red Wheelbarrow” would not look the same to me, and a thing once known cannot be unknown again. He talked until long after dark, never turning the light on.
I was talking with a colleague about the human price of writing. I remembered an interview with Clapton who had no memory of ten years of his life save for the songs he had written and recorded during that time. He believed it had been a fair bargain. Which, I don’t suppose, is the same thing as saying you’d do it over again. I told my friend that Levis had once been in a writing workshop with Lou Reed. She said, “Imagine that: two heroin addicts in the same workshop.” I hadn’t known.
In our Salt Lake days my wife and I and our friend Skip would eat breakfast together on Saturday mornings and between Skip’s apartment and the restaurant we passed Levis’ house. One morning in winter, there was Levis standing on his front porch, in a tee-shirt, barefoot in the snow, smoking a cigarette. The blue tarp over his motorcycle flapping in the wind, ladder leaning up against the side of the house. When we told Skip he just shook his head, “The rest of us are just kidding ourselves, aren’t we?”
Skip and I had previously agreed that owning a ladder was a marker of manliness. A marker neither of us possessed. Skip lived in a small apartment and his distant friends, non-literary types from places like Long Island and San Diego visited him there. One time his guest drank too much, while Skip, under some deadline or another, toed the line of moderation and wrote late into the night. His friend woke out of a dead drunk sleep, raised his arms above his head as if in triumph, announced, “I am Levis!” and passed out instantly.
Once Levis and I were in the same aerobics class. We went with our wives and were the only men and least coordinated members of the class. Levis and I in the back row. Levis rolling around on the mats laughing at his own awkwardness, the impossibility of it all. Aerobics with your wife might be a marriage saving gesture. But for Levis it didn’t work.
I was reading my work in town with a poet. A sponsored event, readers chosen by juried submission, in a grand setting–hardwood floors polished to a high gloss and carafes of white wine on the Arts Council’s tab. I was nervous even though, truth be told, I probably knew most of the people in the room. When Levis appeared I was shocked/flattered and almost simultaneously realized he was there to hear the poet, who was to read first and had been his student. At the intermission he apologized for having to leave. “I can’t stay, David, but I’ll buy your book.” I believed him, too. But the book took another twenty years and Levis has been gone now almost twenty and I myself am ten years older today than he was when he died.
It comforts me to imagine that he knew how much we all admired his work, even though I, for one, never told him. Never asked him to sign one of his books for me. No, I was far too cool for that. I think back to the last time I saw him: but I can’t begin to recall it. How could I? I didn’t know then, whenever it was, that it would be the last time I saw him. I feel foolish, like the last person on earth to realize you can’t know a thing like that at the time: that that was the last time. Right up against it, the sheer irreversibility of time is surprising, its cruel linearity. With a little distance it all becomes ordinary and what had seemed a revelation loses its power and becomes once again, a pop-culture sentiment, a line from James Taylor: “thought I’d see you one more time again.”
I am reminded what a silly exercise it is to read a writer’s work after his death and recast it all in that light. Death or something like it inscribed in every line. How could it not be so in a collection called The Afterlife? Could anything be more obvious than that great artists understand the facts of their own mortality?
Of course, Levis contains multitudes. Just as many of his lines are inscribed with life. I imagine all the words and images in his work, thousands and thousands of them spinning on a great whirling lotto wheel, slowing down and stopping with his last breath on what line, what word? Would that it came to rest on something like the opening of “The Quilt”: “I think it is all light at the end; I think it is air.” Would that he were right that time.
I heard they found him at his desk, at the scene of writing. I heard he was in the bath. I heard three days before they found him. I heard five.