David St. John chose a fitting title for Larry Levis’ posthumous collection: The Darkening Trapeze. Most of these terrifying yet dazzling poems were written in the last two years before his unexpected death in 1996, at the age of forty-nine. The title phrase is pulled from “Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze inside it” which is one of two Elegy poems that were not included in Levis’ 1997 posthumous collection, Elegy. In the afterward, the editor of The Darkening Trapeze, David St. John, explains that Levis was inspired by the film auteur Federico Fellini, whose movies such as La Strada, often feature the circus.
In this collection, as in a Fellini film, a figure hovers between earth and sky, between the mundane and the infinite. Sometimes this figure is Jesus Christ, sometimes the medieval French poet and thief François Villon, and other times the poet himself. Levis probes this divide, or rather this threshold aching to be crossed, obsessively in both Elegy and The Darkening Trapeze. While in Elegy this divide was epic in scope and spanned what seemed like all of humanity, here, Levis explores his own personal connection with death and the beyond. In several poems, the poet calls heaven empty, and says it has been– “swept clean of any meaning”. It seems instead that what remains after death is just sound, “the sore screech of the wheel”, “the tern’s cry”, “the sound of chirring crickets in a ravine.” That we long for a story that never ends makes us foolish children. Yet our sound, our voices, the music of our daily lives survives us, as indeed Levis’ voice will survive him. In one of the most cinematically sweeping poems of the collection, “A Singing in the Rocks”, a ghostly chorus of voices from another century hovers nearby a man and woman:
“After driving all night I remember pulling over at dawn,
And climbing a low hill of twisted mesquite & a scattered
Outcropping of rocks gray in the light,
And hearing it there:
Dobro & steel guitar & the pinched, nasal twang of a country tenor,
A singing in the rocks though no one was there”
Throughout this poem the song of the rocks repeats and repeats much like the thematic repetition of “the sprawl of a wave against the rock” throughout the collection. Though, as David St. John suggests, the fiery oranges and reds of Francis Bacon’s paintings are a central color motif of the collection, so is the calming blue water and the wave of the ocean that perpetually washes over rocks. In fact, included in the collection is a poem about Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park series, which is dominated by pastel blues. Fire and water, elements that seem opposite, are both elements of destruction and cleansing, and are at the center of the vortex that is The Darkening Trapeze. Levis’ poems are cinematic in the sense that there are vivid settings, complex characters, cinematographic tricks and emotional soundtracks, but more importantly, his camera eye is always moving seamlessly from the wide-angle shots of a desolate dessert or a row of abandoned houses to the close shot of the narrator’s face, or the way his hand trembles.
Levis’ close-up shots of the speaker are also like long brushstrokes in a portrait. In the afterward, St. John discusses how Francis Bacon’s Portrait of Lucian Freud expresses something essential in Levis’ work. Perhaps that a portrait can only ever be attempted, that no portrait captures what is beneath the image of a person, and yet this is the essence of the modern poet’s struggle. Levis with his discursive meanderings, with his altered repetitions, with his melding of the interior with the exterior, and his expression of suffering came as close as any poet this century has come to painting and honest portrait of an American.
At first reading, Levis’ earlier poems (dropped from Winter Stars when that manuscript changed titles) felt thrown in by the editor to fill up space. It seemed unlikely that Levis himself would have included poems written over a decade before the others. Even though all the poems are written by Levis, the shape of this book reflects the choices of the editor, who was one of Levis’ closest friends. “Gossip in the Village” is the opening poem of The Darkening Trapeze, not merely because it introduces the motif of snow that drifts across much of the collection, but because it reads as something of a message from David St. John to both Levis and the reader. The poem speaks of two people parting:
“From now on I will wake alone. My Fate, I will think,
Will be to have no fate. I will feel suddenly hungry,
The morning will be bright & wrong.”
Reading The Darkening Trapeze at times feels “bright & wrong.” Bright because the words rekindle a fire inside of us that will always desire more fanning, and wrong because this book is absolutely haunting; we will never know how Levis would have completed and arranged the poems collected here and in Elegy had he lived long enough to have finished the work. It is also impossible to ignore this collection’s preoccupation with drugs, methamphetamine in particular, and addiction that is at the core of so many of the poems. In “A Singing in the Rocks” meth is described as the “only company/ I ever had the pleasure of being completely alone with”, and in “Threshold of the Obvious Blossoming” the procuring of the drug is treated as a commonplace occurrence, “Sitting inside & waiting for my dealer to show up so I could buy/ Two grams of crystal methedrine from her, talk for a moment, / and finish my coffee.” Knowing now that methamphetamine usage causes heart disease, these poems raise uncomfortable questions that perhaps future biographers will answer.
The way trapeze artists defy death is to get so dangerously close to it that they could describe the way it smells like cigarettes and wheat, how it looks crystalized and tastes like sweat and yet somehow their hands grip and release the line, grasp it at those crucial moments, and survive. Though Larry Levis the man did not survive, Larry Levis the poet survives, because of the way he could hold that line and somehow compress what seemed like all our shameful human history into it. He defied gravity with the light gymnastics of his words and the constant slant of their rhymes, words so dense and muscular it was difficult to imagine they could ever disengage from this earth at all. His long lines slip into your ear like the worm that slips into Van Gogh’s ear in Levis’ poem “The Worm in the Ear,” when they get to the cranium they have nowhere else to go, they take root in your mind and you feel like you could never dislodge them, there the rocks will always be singing, the hotel will be always be on fire, and the strongman will always fail to see what the fool knew intuitively.
Larry Levis (1946-1996) was born in Fresno, California. His collections of poetry include Wrecking Crew, Winter Stars, The Widening Spell of the Leaves, and Elegy, edited by Philip Levine, The Selected Levis, and The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems, edited and introduced by David St. John. Levis taught at the University of Missouri, the University of Utah, and at Virginia Commonwealth University until his untimely death in 1996.
Anita Olivia Koester’s poetry can be found in numerous publications including Unsplendid, HEArt, Tahoma Literary Review. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2015. When not traveling, she lives in Chicago with her books and her Australian Shepherd.