The empty bar that someone was supposed to swing to him
Did not arrive, & so his outstretched flesh itself became
A darkening trapeze. The two other acrobats were thieves.
from "Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze Inside It"
The Darkening Trapeze collects the last poems by Larry Levis, written during the extraordinary blaze of his final years when his poetry expanded into the ambitious operatic masterpieces he is known for. Edited and with an afterword by David St. John and published twenty years after Levis's death, this collection contains major unpublished works, including final elegies, brief lyrics, and a coda believed to be the last poem Levis wrote, a heart-wrenching poem about his son. The Darkening Trapeze is an astonishing collection by a poet many consider to be among the greatest of late-twentieth-century American poetry.
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About the Author
Larry Levis (1946-1996) was the award-winning author of five poetry collections during his lifetime, including Winter Stars and The Widening Spell of the Leaves, and the posthumous collections Elegy and The Selected Levis.
Read an Excerpt
The Darkening Trapeze
By Larry Levis, David St. John
GRAYWOLF PRESSCopyright © 2016 Estate of Larry Levis
All rights reserved.
A SINGING IN THE ROCKS
GOSSIP IN THE VILLAGE
I told no one, but the snows came, anyway.
They weren't even serious about it, at first.
Then, they seemed to say, if nothing happened,
Snow could say that, & almost perfectly.
The village slept in the gunmetal of its evening.
And there, through a thin dress once, I touched
A body so alive & eager I thought it must be
Someone else's soul. And though I was mistaken,
And though we parted, & the roads kept thawing between snows
In the first spring sun, & it was all, like spring,
Irrevocable, irony has made me thinner. Someday, weeks
From now, 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.
NEW YEAR'S EVE AT THE SANTA FE HOTEL, FRESNO, CALIFORNIA
for Bruce & Marsha
Smoke, laughter, & a bar whose solemn oak
Has outlasted worse times than my own ...
In the ballroom of their last hotel, whole families
Of Basques had come again to dance, slowly,
Some austere polka nobody but Basques
Had ever seen, or learned. Once a year
I come back to this place, embrace friends,
And drink to what got lost in bad translation:
The town we tried to change, changed anyway.
The street we blocked off on a warm day
In 1970 is lined with cute
Boutiques, & that girl, once queen
Of her high-school prom, who two years later
Left to harvest sugarcane in Cuba,
Works late tonight, taking inventory:
So many belts, so many sandals sold.
Then jogging five miles home before she sleeps.
We drank Fundador late, & I went out
Alone in the cold New Year to find
No one on the street, no trains
Pausing in their own breath in the depot
Behind the hotel, no soldier, & no lovers
Either. What I heard & saw were a hundred
Sparrows gathering in one small tree,
Their throats full of some ridiculous
Joy or misery at being sparrows, winged,
Striped, & handicapped for life. I thought
That coming back here always showed me just
How much this place has changed; but no. The only
Real change is me. Now, when I sit
Across from two friends at a table, I am
Whatever's distant, snow beginning to fall
On the plains; a thief's fire. Someday I won't
Be home to anyone. Some days, it takes
Two hours of careful talk before I'm me
Again. I miss that talk, although I think
I'm right to be alone, in the gift of my
One life, listening to songs not made
For me, invented by no one I know, for luck,
For a winter night, for two friends who,
Some nights, some days, gave me everything.
This life & no other. The flesh so innocent it walks along
The road, believing it, & ceases to be ours.
We're fate carrying a blown-out bicycle tire in one hand,
Flesh that has stepped out of its flesh,
Always ahead of ourselves, leaving the body behind us on the road.
* * *
Zampanò, what happens next? The clown is dead.
You still break chains across your chest though your heart's not in it,
Your audience is just two kids, & already there is
Snow in little crusted ridges, snow glazing cart tracks & furrows
Where you rest. And then what happens?
One day you get an earache. One day you can't breathe.
You notice the old nurse wears a girdle as she bends over you,
You remember the smell of Spanish rice from childhood,
An orphanage with scuffed linoleum on its floors.
You sit up suddenly, without knowing you have.
Your eyes are wide. You are stepping out of the flesh,
Because it now belongs to Zampanò, the Great.
Zampanò, I can't do all the talking for you. I can't go with you
Anymore. What happens next?
* * *
"Always what happens next, & then what happens after that.
It's like you think we're in a book for children. What happens next?
What does it look like is going to happen? It's a carnival.
It happens on the outskirts of a city made of light & distance.
And well, it's just my own opinion, but ... I think
It's a pretty poor excuse for a carnival, torn tents, everything
Worn out. But I guess it has to go on anyhow. And I guess
Death will blow his little fucking trumpet."
CARTE DE L'ASSASSIN À M. ANDRÉ BRETON
It was Breton's remark after someone read it
Aloud to him that broke us up,
The remark, not the letter.
The letter was a madness with a system,
A pure system, Breton would say of it,
Pure because unafflicted by history,
A madness of childhood, handwritten.
I had to reconstruct it all this afternoon
By memory against the kind of chatter
That went on endlessly in the cafés
In those days. Now the style
Is to look as if you're molting in a cage,
Kids in leather like those sullen finches
From North Africa they sell in the pet shops now,
Who can't adapt to Paris. Or to anything.
Eh bien, at my age it's going to be more difficult
To adapt to what comes after Paris, since
What comes after it is nothing, & this,
I hasten to remind you, is a late spring night
On the Boulevard Saint-Michel, this
Is paradise! You can embrace it or you can sleep
Through it like a flowered wallpaper & pretend
You're still in, say, Omaha.
But the letter went like this:
* * *
Dear M. Breton,
Life has one sad wing,
And no claws.
Out of this lack,
It imagined the owl,
Though it did not tell it why.
Owls are as otherworldly
As they appear, they inhabit
Their shriek & the quiet
Glide of their wings,
They are the other world
That completed this one,
This one with its
Wars, amputations, bells
Above doors of shops,
A Louis Quinze chair in a window.
With only one wing & no claws,
It does no good
To know the owl's face
Is not a mask,
That it only looks like one,
That it is a thing
Without treachery becoming
A white target on a branch,
Followed immediately by shame
In the quiet after the shot,
In the figures of birds rising
On the inlaid platinum
Of the antique Belgian 12-gauge double,
The little scene etched there
Above the trigger guard & makers' name,
Schwarz Frères, Luxembourg.
So that was childhood, he thinks,
Years later, a world within a world,
And the scratch of a pen
As he writes a letter?
He thinks he'll find it again,
If he keeps scratching at the paper,
He is convinced it will all
Be there, the boy, the owl
Turning its face to him
There, on the branch,
And finally he does not even
Need the pen or paper,
He looks for it in the tree-lined
Neighborhoods he passes
Driving around all night
In Dallas, in New Orleans,
When in fact it is the gun
He is looking for.
He loved the gun.
And now it is for sale
In a window.
Everything is for sale in a window.
And the woods float up the hill
As the owl glides above them at night
As it hunts perfectly
And without any apparent
Strain or effort.
* * *
Therefore, in accordance with
Your avertissement in a magazine
I ran across one day,
The rain outside the windows
Of the library, L'Ephémère I think
It was called, sitting there
With the others, pickpockets,
Drunks, unemployables, guys on the run
From something, all of us
Reading, reading, just reading
For hours, I hereby
Proclaim my willingness to be
Blindfolded, as you specify,
And spun around three times
By your assistants,
And at the busiest corner in Paris
You can think of, at noon,
And to fire a revolver of your selection,
Held at arm's length,
Randomly into the crowd
Until the chamber is as hot,
And as empty, as the skull
Of an owl.
* * *
My employment for such a purpose
May be easily confirmed upon the receipt
Of a round-trip, first-class ticket
To Paris from the city postmarked
On this letter.
Postscript: The nine-millimeter
Beretta is my weapon of preference,
If, however, your stipulation
Of a revolver is not negotiable,
A Smith & Wesson,
Appropriate caliber, please.
* * *
And, upon hearing its close,
Amidst the clatter of the little bar
Behind us there on Saint-Germain-des-Prés —
A place we didn't go to much, but it was
Out of the way, & most of us by then
Were getting on, were getting annoyed
By noise, by the long empty laughter in cafés,
By history, by ... everything —
Breton exclaimed softly in that voice of his,
"America! Poor America!"
I'm sorry, but at the time ... well,
It seemed quite funny to us at the time.
THE WORM IN THE EAR
If peasants had written they would have ceased to be peasants. They remained peasants by remaining illiterate, & they only accomplished this against greater & greater odds as time passed by refusing to learn to read. In this way, they created the distance between themselves & anyone observing them. This is why, when Heidegger meditates upon a peasant he takes the peasant from a painting by van Gogh instead of any actual peasant he might have seen. And it takes Heidegger only a few sentences to forget the peasant & to think instead about a pair of boots in one of van Gogh's drawings.
Van Gogh, painting in those fields of stubble near Arles, set up his easel a few yards away from the peasant he began to sketch in. He was, by then, afraid to get too close to his subject. He was afraid of being ridiculed by the peasant he painted, by the small chorus of other peasants who might join in, who would begin to gather, as they had before, joking & jeering at him.
By that time van Gogh had already cut off his ear, but not, apparently, to get even with a prostitute. He did it because of the pain of Meniere's disease — they say now that was the reason — the excruciating pain that kept increasing, that came in the wake of the little Meniere's worm & its slow progress, day by day & week by week, into the canal of the ear & then, after that, into ... into a pain I can't imagine. And of course it did no good to cut the ear off. It was too late. The worm was already deep inside the pink, lightless, inner tissues. Van Gogh would drink absinthe to kill the pain, which it sometimes did, although the by-product of absinthe, in the end, was the same as Meniere's, & van Gogh went mad from the worm which, having reached the end of the ear's canal, & having no other alternative, passed into the brain. He went mad just as absinthe addicts went mad from the distillation of wormwood, the principal ingredient used in absinthe. I don't know if he mailed the ear to the prostitute or not. The legend is full of bitterness & simplicity. Who knows? Maybe he imagined she might, someday, sew it back on. Maybe he had second thoughts, misgivings. Maybe he thought she could place it on her windowsill to listen for her, when she didn't want to listen anymore. Who is to say whether it was meant to comfort or to terrify?
* * *
As for the peasant, there is this one last thing to say for him. He refused to become a representation of a peasant. He was a peasant. He inhabited himself completely. The world would end, with or without him in it, & he would still be a peasant. The field would either be there or not be there. What difference could it possibly make?
That is what Heidegger envied, & what van Gogh painted.
And if that is it, if the soul becomes a peasant, & the peasant becomes only a representation of himself, & both remain illiterate, one within the other, walking together, the leaves flying, then the snows flying — then, since neither one of them can ever tell on or reveal the other, or ever have any reason to or any wish to, they have no excuses, no excuses for anything as the cold comes on.
Chin up? Ready?
Excerpted from The Darkening Trapeze by Larry Levis, David St. John. Copyright © 2016 Estate of Larry Levis. Excerpted by permission of GRAYWOLF PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsI. A SINGING IN THE ROCKS,
Gossip in the Village, 5,
New Year's Eve at the Santa Fe Hotel, Fresno, California, 6,
La Strada, 8,
Carte de l'Assassin à M. André Breton, 10,
The Worm in the Ear, 17,
Twelve Thirty One Nineteen Ninety Nine, 19,
A Singing in the Rocks, 21,
II. THE SPINE REMEMBERS WINGS,
Ghost Confederacy, 31,
Make a Law So That the Spine Remembers Wings, 33,
In Theory, 35,
The Space, 37,
Idle Companion, 41,
Elegy for the Infinite Wrapped in Tinfoil, 45,
III. A HOTEL ON FIRE,
The Necessary Angel, 49,
Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire, 57,
IV. THE CONDITION OF PITY IN OUR TIME,
Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze inside It, 67,
Col Tempo, 70,
If He Came & Diminished Me & Mapped My Way, 72,
François Villon on the Condition of Pity in Our Time, 75,
Anonymous Source, 76,
Ocean Park #17, 1968: Homage to Diebenkorn, 80,
Threshold of the Oblivious Blossoming, 83,
God Is Always Seventeen, 87,
Afterword by David St. John, 95,