Throughout his career, Larry Levis drew on the landscape of his childhood, from the vineyards and orchards of central California to the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Sierra Nevada to the east. He contrasted that edenic setting with his painful recognition of the sterility of urban development. On the other hand, his poems revealed a warm regard for the worth of individuals, especially ones whose lives were socially and economically difficult. Levis wrote about the lives and work of a wide array of people—photographers, poets, painters, laborers—in addition to his own.
At all stages of his career, Levis returned often to personal experiences that he would then recast into new poems. Although his use of memories remained constant, his style changed dramatically over the years. The Deep Image style that Levis employed early in his career used terse imagery and short lines, but Levis recognized that poets like Robert Bly and Charles Simic had succeeded so well in that mode that change was inevitable. He believed that the jewel-like imagery that had been used in the 1970’s to embody emotional experience would ultimately lead to language devoid of meaning. He supported the trend of writers in his generation away from the hardened image in favor or a more relaxed approach. Levis gradually expanded his poems into meditative forms using sweeping sentences generously spaced on the page.
Levis reflected constantly on the force of death. His subjects inevitably move toward an unsettling end. Contrary to their somewhat romantic associations, magicians, ghosts, and angels represent disenchantment in his work. For Levis, death is a process that gives meaning only to life, because following death there is literally nothing. Over the years, Levis became ever more convinced of his assertion that death is the only arbiter of life; his argument culminated in the appropriately titled volume Elegy, itself published posthumously.
Wrecking Crew portrays the ills of the United States through a narrator who is at once cynical and detached. The volume’s hard-hitting style depicts old people “High on painkillers” and depicts yawning go-go girls. In “For the Country” the narrator states, “I am the nicest guy in the world,/ closing his switchblade and whistling.” Levis described his method as attempting “to build a great deal of energy into a very small system” and to avoid being “diffuse or discursive.” This anger inspires a surrealistic treatment of the ordinary.
Discouraged by the Vietnam War and related events, Levis was drawn to “irrational realities” and assumed the persona of a magician, a popular figure in rock music, for a series of poems. These describe the birth of the Magician (who suffers an exit wound), his ride to the hospital, his pursuit by “pals [who] frowned like a firing squad,” and attendance at his own revival. In the succeeding section, “Magician’s Edge and Exit,” the weather worsens, a frayed tire skids, and the Magician is (magically) “suddenly air.” Finally the Magician notes that “a shrug of stars and years drifts through me.” Levis was more successful in this type of acrobatic passage that “let the flesh go” than in more overtly political lines such as “You are America./ You are nobody./ I made you up.”
The Afterlife, like other works by Levis, is imagistic in style, but it contains a new emphasis on private matters. Far from submitting to the confessional tendencies that critics imagined, Levis attempted to create a personal mythology whose truths readers would recognize in their own lives. For example, in “A Poem of Horses,” he writes of “going further into the blank paper” and finding “the dark trousers of your father” and the “hairpins of your mother.” As a result, “You hold them in your hands.” As if in stream-of-consciousness mode, the next stanza portrays a poor gelding waiting in the rain beside a jail in Santiago. Finally the time...
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