Sunday, July 26, 2009

Larry Levis - A Damn Grand Poet

Prepare yourself for one of my favorite poems I'm working on my syllabus and felt the need to share it with you good folk.

My Story in a Late Style of Fire

Whenever I listen to Billie Holiday, I am reminded
That I, too, was once banished from New York City.
Not because of drugs or because I was interesting enough
For any wan, overworked patrolman to worry about—
His expression usually a great, gauzy spiderweb of bewilderment
Over his face—I was banished from New York City by a woman.
Sometimes, after we had stopped laughing, I would look
At her and see a cold note of sorrow or puzzlement go
Over her face as if someone else were there, behind it,
Not laughing at all. We were, I think, “in love.” No, I’m sure.
If my house burned down tomorrow morning, if I, my wife
And son stood looking on at the flames, and if, then
Someone stepped out of the crowd of bystanders
And said to me: “Didn’t you once know. . . ?” No. But if
One of the flames, rising up in the scherzo of fire, turned
All the windows blank with light, and if that flame could speak,
And if it said to me: “You loved her, didn’t you?” I’d answer,
Hands in my pockets, “Yes.” And then I’d let fire and misfortune
Overwhelm my life. Sometimes, remembering those days,
I watch a warm, dry wind bothering a whole line of elms
And maples along a street in this neighborhood until
They’re all moving at once, until I feel just like them,
Trembling and in unison. None of this matters now,
But I never felt alone all that year, and if I had sorrows,
I also had laughter, the affliction of angels abd children.
Which can set a whole house on fire if you’d let it. And even then
You might still laugh to see all of your belongings set you free
In one long choiring of flames that sang only to you—
Either because no one else could hear them, or because
No one else wanted to. And, mostly, because they know.
They know such music cannot last, and that it would
Tear them apart if they listened. In those days,
I was, in fact, already married, just as I am now,
Although to another woman. And that day I could have stayed
In New York. I had friends there. I could have strayed
Up Lexington Avenue, or down to Third, and caught a faint
Glistening of the sea between the buildings. But all I wanted
Was to hold her all morning, until her body was, again,
A bright field, or until we both reached some thicket
As if at the end of a lane, or at the end of all desire,
And where we could, therefore, be alone again, and make
Some dignity out of loneliness. As, mostly, people cannot do.
Billie Holiday, whose life was shorter and more humiliating
Than my own, would have understood all this, if only
Because even in her late addiction and her bloodstream’s
Hallelujahs, she, too, sang often of some affair, or someone
Gone, and therefore permanent. And sometimes she sang for
Nothing, even then, and it isn’t anyone’s business, if she did.
That morning, when she asked me to leave, wearing only
The apricot tinted, fraying chemise, I wanted to stay.
But I also wanted to go, to lose her suddenly, almost
For no reason, and certainly without any explanation.
I remember looking down at a pair of singular tracks
Made in a light snow the night before, at how they were
Gradually effacing themselves beneath the tires
Of the morning traffic, and thinking that my only other choice
Was fire, ashes, abandonment, solitude. All of which happened
Anyway, and soon after, and by divorce. I know this isn’t much.
But I wanted to explain this life to you, even if
I had to become, over the years, someone else to do it.
You have to think of me what you think of me. I had
To live my life, even its late, florid style. Before
You judge this, think of her. Then think of fire,
Its laughter, the music of splintering beams and glass,
The flames reaching through the second story of a house
Almost as if to—mistakenly—rescue someone who
Left you years ago. It is so American, fire. So like us.
Its desolation. And its eventual, brief triumph.

-Larry Levis

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

eggleston and the south

The book I'm writing begins in the 1960's South and so I have been collecting photographs and ads from Life's hanging around Salvation Army's, etc. for inspiration. Artistically, I keep coming back to William Eggleston. He brought respect to the color form and hails from Mississippi though he lives in Memphis now from what I gather. The photos he takes are so moving because they feel like so much of my childhood. When I think of growing up in a small town, I think of the subjects of Eggleston's photos: boys who gathered grocery store carts, the sprawl of overgrown fields, and perfectly coiffed old women. I lived in Alabama for seventeen years but hustled Christmas visits haven't given me an image of what it's like now, what still remains. I do notice a new strip mall every time I go home and that all but one Dairy Queen has gone out of business. It took about ten years, but I am deeply missing it. There is an anthology of the best Southern stories which comes out annually and in the 2008 edition ZZ Packer says in her introduction, "the sit-ins, the marches, the hope of better days…began in the South. Every other region can jam its fingers in its ears and shake its head and tunelessly chant 'Not in My Backyard,' but not so in the South. The South is the backyard. And as backward as we've been portrayed—or as backward as we've sometimes portrayed ourselves, slipping behind a curtain of innocent and naïve agrarianism, rural somnolence, and sleepy everlasting vowels—the truth is that every awful and beautiful thing that has happened in America happened in the South first."