The Darkening Trapeze

Afterword to The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems of Larry Levis (2016)

After Larry Levis’s death in May 1996, his sister, Sheila Brady, asked his oldest friend, former teacher, and lifelong mentor, Philip Levine, if he would be willing to edit a posthumous collection of Larry’s poems. Levine agreed, and he asked me if I would help him look through what he’d been told was a significant amount of unpublished work. This posthumous collection became the book published as Elegy.

I had known Larry Levis since I was eighteen years old, when he first introduced me to Philip Levine, and he had become my closest friend in and out of poetry. Except for Levine, who knew Larry’s work more intimately than anyone, I felt that I had an unusual perspective on these unpublished poems, as Larry was in the habit of sending copies of his poems to me, Phil, and other friends for comment long before they would appear in journals or in books. He would also send his friends a typescript copy of each new book as he was assembling it. I had agreed to help Phil in whatever way he needed, and not long after, we both received identical boxes filled with copies and drafts of Larry’s poems. For the most part, this work had been pulled from Larry’s computers in his office at Virginia Commonwealth University or found among his papers in his home office. Mary Flinn and Greg Donovan—founders of the superb online journal Blackbird and Larry’s close friends and colleagues—as well his former student and friend Amy Tudor all worked to find every unpublished poem available. What we found, as Levine mentions in his introduction to Elegy, were multiple drafts of many of the poems, some of which were clearly unfinished; yet others seemed remarkably finished. Larry’s friends at VCU had been, in my view, heroic in assembling the most complete and final versions they were able to find or construct from his many drafts; at times, they had even tried to include the revisions they’d found scrawled on scattered Post-its and other notes left on his desk.

I recognized a few of the poems in the box as having come from the period when Larry lived in Utah (1980-1994), and they’d clearly been pulled off the computer he’d brought with him from Salt Lake City to Richmond. A few other poems were originally part of a manuscript he’d sent me called Adolescence, but were later dropped as that manuscript became the book Winter Stars, published in 1985. Yet, to me, the most astonishing thing about looking at these poems gathered in their huge cardboard box was that the great majority—nearly 200 pages—had been written since The Widening Spell of the Leaves, published in 1991. This was almost entirely new work.

The process of working on Elegy was difficult for Phil and for me too; it felt emotionally charged and—to me, at least—psychologically daunting. I believe that Levis was the poet Levine admired most of all other contemporary poets, yet he was also as much a son to Phil as he was a protégé, as much an irreplaceable friend as an admired poet. For the first few months, every time Phil and I tried phoning one another to talk about the poems we’d been reading—well, we simply couldn’t do it; we couldn’t talk about this impossible task. In order to talk about some selection of Larry’s poems, we first had to admit that Larry was dead. It took almost five months before we could actually have our first conversation about the work itself. Finally, over that next nine months, Elegy began to take shape.

Levine had a clear idea of how he wanted to present Levis’s work, and that was to include a group of the shorter, more lyrical pieces we had found and to set them alongside the sequence of longer “elegy” poems, which were somewhat similar in style to Levis’s late work in The Widening Spell of the Leaves. Yet, as we looked through the poems, it was clear that there were also many longer poems that were distinct from the “elegy” poems and that stood apart from that sequence. Because it was impossible for reasons of space to include those poems also, we set them aside and, with two exceptions, included only those nine poems that were clearly meant to be part of the “elegy” sequence. Almost all of those longer, operatic, and at times wildly ambitious poems necessarily held back from Elegy are collected here for the first time in The Darkening Trapeze.

Included also in this collection is a poem with a fascinating history, “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire,” which I have always believed was meant to be the tenth of Levis’s “elegy” poems. Some of the “elegy” poems had been titled, in their early incarnations, “Poem with…” instead of “Elegy with….” I believe that “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire” was meant to complete the cycle of ten elegies Levis had been working toward in order to create his own Duino Elegies, his own The Book of Nightmares. Sadly, the final page of “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire” had been dramatically X-ed out by Levis, with an indecipherable revision scrawled down the margin alongside the X-ed-out typescript. None of us—all of whom had read Levis’s cursive for twenty years or more—could read the revised version. Levine, with regret, decided we couldn’t publish the poem, as we had no way of knowing what Levis had intended for the final draft. Remarkably, only a month or two after the publication of the book Elegy, a video tape of Levis reading “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire” just two weeks before his death was made available to Mary Flinn. This reading is posted for viewing at Blackbird, which also holds a wealth of essays and commentaries about Levis’s poetry. The version of the poem that Levis read on the video was the final, revised version we had been looking for. If this final draft had been available at the time, I might have argued to publish two separate books of Levis’s poems—one volume of the ten elegies, and a second volume containing the shorter poems in Elegy, along with a dozen or so of the longer poems now collected in The Darkening Trapeze.

After I had completed editing this collection, I decided to ask Mary Flinn, Greg Donovan, and Amy Tudor if they might offer some recollections about their original work gathering Levis’s poems for that initial box of poems, especially as this took place so soon after his death. Tudor’s response led to a realization that there was a final poem—most likely the single last poem Larry ever completed in its entirety, a poem that had not been included in the original group of poems in that box—a poem that I had never seen. Amy recounted this story:

Mary explained the system they’d started and then we worked together for a bit, talking here and there. Our goal was to try to decide which had been the most recent draft of a poem, either because the piece was dated in some way or because it showed a progression of some sort that seemed a newer version of the piece. I recall thinking that what we were going to be trying to do was attempt to parse and reconstruct Larry’s thinking process, his creative process, and how sometimes following a conversation with him could get a bit mysterious, so this seemed a hopeless task. But that’s what death gives you, I’ve come to think…

I started on the stack of drafts of the poem that would eventually become “Elegy with an Angel at Its Gate.” I laid the drafts out on the table like cards or puzzle pieces and read, and read, and read. I looked for dates first, then for significant additions (“longer equals later” seemed a good rule of thumb, at least to start), then any word changes. If there was a line that matched a previous draft but which Larry had done freehand work on (crossing things out, rewriting), you could safely assume (if any of the assuming is safe) that the handwritten changes were likely a later draft. It was part logic, part instinct, part familiarity with Larry’s voice in his notes to himself. Sometimes he would have random comments in the margins or on slips of paper. Some were incredibly funny. It was strangely like spending time with him while simultaneously making me miss him more.

I did the best I could on the poem. I did the best I could on all of it. Then I read a poem he wrote about Nick—I think it was called “God Is Always Seventeen”—sitting by itself in a single draft. It was clearly recent because it had in it the darkness I’d seen in him all winter, something that was sort of gray-coated and not at all like the vaguely amused and wry face he presented most of the time. He wrote heavy poems, but he did not despair. This poem had an edge of that to it, and it was lonely and full of grief and honestly, it made me too sad to go on with the work for that day. I ended up sitting and talking to Mary on the couch for a while instead and then going home.

I immediately wrote to Mary Flinn, but she had no memory of seeing the poem. At last, Tudor found a copy of it on files from an old computer, where she’d happened to save a copy for herself. Out of the blue, we had the concluding poem for The Darkening Trapeze. In my view, it is without question the final piece Levis finished, the poem he’d clearly intended to use as the last poem of his next collection.

A few years after Elegy was published, Sheila Brady asked Levine if he would also edit Levis’s Selected Poems. But the editing of Elegy had come at a profound emotional expense for Phil, and he suggested to Shelia that she ask me to edit the Selected Poems, which I did. In the fall of 2010, a conference, Larry Levis: A Celebration, was held at VCU to celebrate the acquisition of a superb and varied collection of Levis’s papers by the Special Collections and Archives division of James Branch Cabell Library. It was at this conference that Sheila asked if I would consider editing a collection of Levis’s uncollected poems, as she knew I felt strongly that there was an enormous body of astonishing work still left to be published—work that only a few people had ever seen. At first, however, I said no, admitting that I felt it would be too wrenching a project. I suggested several poets who might take on the editing of the uncollected poems, but Sheila said that she would simply prefer to wait until I was ready, as she knew that, at some point, I would be. Of course, she was right. I’ve titled this collection The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems, and it pleases me that these last poems of Levis’s are no longer lost.

I continue to believe that poetry remains one of our most vital reservoirs of reflection, solace, and outrage within a world replete with horrors. Larry’s poems help to remind us of our daily and necessary struggle. I see in the poetry of the poets of my own generation—as well as in the poems of those poets of the next—the lasting influence of Larry’s extraordinary work. I feel the remarkable poems in this collection will now add to the conviction of many of us that Larry Levis was one of the truly major American poets of his time.