The Afterlife, Levis’ second volume of poetry (Wrecking Crew was his first), won the 1976 Lamont Poetry Prize of The Academy of American Poets. All of the poems in The Afterlife are finely crafted; there is not an image, word, syllable, or comma which seems unnecessary or out of place. The images are clear and crisp although they are unusually new, esoteric, erotic, and frequently—if not pervasively—surrealistic.
The tone of these poems resembles quite often certain poems of Wallace Stevens such as “Domination of Black” and “The Snow Man” in which images are grouped together in such a way as to create a fantasy world, a world which is ultimately an unanswerable, paradoxical riddle.
The words Levis uses are not difficult, rather typical; the reader is not burdened with vague connotative meanings. However, like Stevens, Levis is a master craftsman because he fashions the ordinary words in such a way as to evoke strange, haunting, and sometimes terrifyingly beautiful images. For example, in “Rhododendrons,” from which the title of the book is taken, the persona (“I”) realizes that the end of Winter, which ought to be a time of rebirth and hope, has left him inarticulate, “afraid to speak”
as if I lived in a housewallpapered with the cries of birdsI cannot identify.
Then, in a dreamlike image, the persona sees that
Beneath the treesa young couple sits talkingabout the afterlife,where no one, I think, iswhittling toys for the stillborn.
The afterlife is a metaphor for love as well as death, and also a place from which to view all the events of life and death. In the afterlife no one creates useless toys. They create poetry.
At the beginning of stanza five of “Rhododendrons” the persona says that as he writes “this” (the poem), he wishes to be like the flowers in the Spring, tossed and blown by the breezes. To be like them, natural and innocent without thought or memory, seems to be an idealistic state for which the persona hopes. In another image, to be like smoke circling in the air is to be free from mortality and, therefore, free from death.
In the final stanza, the persona wishes for a return to the past where he can confront himself at age twenty on a street in Fresno, give himself five dollars for a place to sleep, and then disappear forever in the crowd “that strolls down Fulton Street.” He wishes to meet his past self as a stranger would bump into someone on a crowded street. Self-confrontation juxtaposed with the desire to be anonymous gives “Rhododendrons” a haunting mood and tone.
All of Levis’ poems are highly personal, with a very private mythos and a symbolic elegance. The image of the afterlife itself seems to be symbolic of that place which is as private as the place reserved for the creation of poetry; for example, the writer of the unfinished letter in “The Witness” comments:
I stared at the wordsno one could havefathered, until theygrew still and took onthe depth of woods, . . .
There appears to be an intentional ambiguity in the antecedent for “they.” It refers to both “words” and “no one.” The words as well as the writer of words involve a private ritual; whether it is a letter or poem or letter within a poem, the act of creation—like the rituals of loving, remembering, and dying—is sacred and as unexplainably and terrifyingly beautiful as “the depth of the woods,/ the patience of ponds/ blackening under/ the flat shadows,/ all the hearses/ of shadows that ride/ quietly as glass/ placed over the eyelids/ of the dead.”
The images in Levis’ poetry are various and are created by the juxtaposition of the natural world and the private world of memory, fear, and the instinct to survive. Because of this welding together of the real world of nature and the surreal world of dreams, most of Levis’ poems are not grounded in a specific time and place. The dream life, like the afterlife, clearly dominates his poems. Consequently, the images float free of concrete settings.
For instance, “The Witness” opens with the image of a carp frozen in ice; the fish’s eyes do not blink but his gills work: “His gills open and close,/ thoughtless./ He’s an eye only. . . .” Suddenly the scene shifts to some hotel lobby in Missouri where the persona has been sitting all night with “still lips/ slightly parted,/ listening.” Like the fish frozen staring thoughtlessly at his world, the witness of the disjointed events of his personal world is dumbfounded. After asking three metaphysical questions concerning birth, the persona concludes by answering: “I don’t know./ Ask the heel/ of your mother’s shoe,/ ask the rain/ whose one syllable/ becomes the voice/ of your father/ who stares up/ from the couch.” The witness can explain nothing; only the things around him have the means to relate answers. “No one knows anything” he says in the last line of the first part of this poem.
The witness is an isolato for whom answers about birth and death are as mysterious as the fish frozen in the first ice of Winter. There are no answers. The natural world continues for man to witness, to ask questions about, and to juxtapose events of the world and of dreams in order to give meaning to a universe which keeps the answers to itself. The persona of “The Witness,” however, survives the hostility of a dream-rain which he imagines “is eating its way,/ finally, into/ every stranger I know”; he walks out into the real rain to see death:
. . . the thrift shop
(The entire section is 2548 words.)