Elegy with Two Trees
In memory of Larry Levis (1946-1996)
Dengue, and dysentery, and near-death
Experiences in careening cars,
A midtown bar, a besieged capital—
Of my time here below I should remember
More than the accidents of history,
Which I somehow survived. But since close calls
Shape much of what I write, I can believe
That the abyss opening underfoot
At the end of every line is what he glimpsed
That night, waiting for the last lukewarm ember
To die out in the fireplace, wondering
If he had hooked God on his gift—a stash
Of methamphetamines, which would go well
With a single malt distilled in an alembic
Once used by Cleopatra the Alchemist,
Who passed along to poets the elixir
Of life—the animating principle
That undergirds lyrics and elegies
Alike, the quickening I feel whenever
I read between the lines of his last poems.
We dared not speak of the oracular
Ashes heaped in our memory of the war,
For fear of being exiled or condemned
To servitude and death in some ungodly
Plantation wrested from the first stakeholders—
An angry cohort of religious bigots
Who never learned the language of the tribe
That let them carve out of the wilderness
A more restrictive covenant with God,
Which would inspire them to exterminate
Their hosts without a second thought. Our people,
Sad to say, who failed to see the errors—
Doctrinal, moral, geographical—
Embedded in the sacred text they used
Ruthlessly to subjugate their hosts,
Who had their own cosmology and customs,
And then consign them to a reservation
Far from the world they had inherited.
Regard the poet under a box elder
Or a horse chestnut on a winter night,
In the embrace of failure, avoiding his friends,
Who will accuse him once again of thinking
Only of himself, remembering
The solitude of childhood and the lost
Songs of the Mexicans hired by his father
To prune the orchards and pick grapes from the vines,
Which seemed like cages to the boy, who drove
The tractor discing fields and memorizing
Poems—his stay against the fear he witnessed
In the landowners stirring drinks at dusk.
Her allergies? Almonds and opioids,
To which he might have added marital
Relations, humor, and fidelity,
If any paramedic asked. None did.
The ambulance left for the hospital,
Its siren blaring, and he followed after
In his Rent-a-Wreck, concocting a new story
To tell the doctors and police, who would
Investigate him for the rest of his life—
Which was, in the event, curtailed by crystal
Meth and a shot of Herradura Silver.
Scrawled on the last page of a manuscript
He loathed with the passion of the fiancé
Left at the altar was the pseudonym
Invented for the scribe who failed to note
His place in history: Anonymous.
What he remembered of arranging grapes
For drying on his father’s roof was not
The raisins but the drudgery. The golden
Leaves falling in the grove of quaking aspens
Where we had stopped for water and a snack
And the intimations of mortality
His dying girlfriend raised matter-of-factly
While doling out trail mix she made that morning—
These prompted him to say that poetry
Was nothing like a raisin … or everything.
He lit a cigarette, and we resumed
Our hike into the wilderness. What joy
I sometimes felt in Larry’s company
Was tempered by my knowledge of the depths
Of the abyss he measured with such glee.
What madness to expect him not to fail
To have my back when I most needed him.
He needed all of us more than we knew.
The poetry workshop broke hourly
In his seedy flat in downtown Salt Lake City
So he could do another line or two
In the bathroom, from which he would emerge
Sniffling, bright-eyed, and brilliant until the rush
Began to fade and he slumped down and down.
Once someone asked a poet to explain
A complicated image. Oh, you know,
She replied, how we lacerate each other
Ten thousand times a minute? No one said
A word. Finally, Larry roused himself
Enough to say that everybody fails.
That isn’t interesting. What’s interesting
Is when we pick ourselves up and start again.
He drank his fill of pleasure and despair
Producing in his cups a poem to close
The book on his short life—a dirge best left
Unfinished, so he seemed to think, preferring
To jack off in his bed, though he expected
To lose interest in the act and begin
To wonder about God. He built a fire
In the fireplace and monitored the embers,
Remembering how an ex-convict’s story
Enlarged a cold night in a bar: the clerk
Shot in a 7-Eleven, cars crashing,
A walk under the stars. The patrons’ silence
Released the storyteller from any claim
Night and his conscience might hold over him.
Not so the poet thinking of his son,
Who was exhausted and estranged from him.
Of their last day together he recalled
A melody, more inconsolable
Than bitter, playing in a record store
In Times Square, punctuated by the clerks
Asking if anybody needed help.
A father and his son, reluctant to speak,
Pretended to browse through the bins of albums,
Certain he would remember this forever—
That is, until he finished typing up
The poem a friend retrieved from her computer
Long after he was planted in the earth.
Notes: The phrase, the last lukewarm ember, was published in Larry Levis’s The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems, edited by David St. John (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2016). Oracular ashes appears in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.
Kindly ignore the sequencing of approvals,
St. Peter told a cohort of arrivals
Whose final day on earth had coincided
With shortfalls of belief in those who prided
Themselves on never being wrong. A pity,
An undertaker thought, leaving the city
At dusk, exhausted and exuberant,
Having upended yet another rant
From a family member of the newly dead:
Go to Hell, is what he always said.
The ferry sailing down the Hudson River
Carried among its penitents a lover
Of drawings by the Old Masters. She believed
Happiness was forbidden; hence she grieved
For what was never in the cards for her:
A picnic in the Palisades, the chirr
Of crickets, and her husband skipping work
That day at Windows on the World—his smirk
Was what she longed for when she took her seat
Aboard the ferry in her winding sheet.
Their suffering assumed a new disguise:
The laurel wreath, almonds instead of eyes,
Bonfires of books and drawings set each night
Of the insurrection, swallows taking flight
Below a wooded ledge reserved for duels
Before the Civil War, more drills in schools,
Militias meeting at the barricades
To sing hosannas to the hotel maids
On strike for better pay and safer work
Conditions, while the guests all go berserk.
Lines for the Winter Solstice
Lower Rio Grande Valley
This convocation of bald eagles watching
For any movement in the grass below
The leafless mesquite sprayed with an herbicide,
Which the agronomists claim will not harm
The prickly pear and desert Christmas cactus,
Will fly away before the longest night
Falls on the Wild Horse Desert, where shale oil
Production has eclipsed the cattle ranches
In revenue and rendered useless all
The laborers who live across the border,
While years of drought have laid waste to the land.
My mother’s dying far away from here.
A vintage Piper Cub flies low along
The Rio Grande toward Laredo, marking
The charred remains of a casita burned,
Perhaps, in the drug war, and the slow progress
Of a green pickup toward the greener water,
Where as a child the pilot used to swim.
Now he banks sharply left, his mineral interests
The map he follows to his ranch to count
The cattle grazing dangerously close
To his airstrip, where we must land by sunset.
(He cannot navigate in the dark.) Winter
Wheat grows below in irrigated circles.
The ouroboros wants what’s his, the guide
Explains to the official delegation
Sent to negotiate a better deal
On trade and tariffs with a client state
Determined to exact their pound of flesh
For military basing privileges
And access to high-value prisoners
Arrested in the Global War on Terror
And then forgotten in their zeal to start
Another war on the periphery
Of their declining sphere of influence.
The snake that eats its tail always survives.
My father died last winter, and my mother,
Who has advanced dementia, kidney cancer,
And what remains undiagnosed—a wild
Anger directed at her children—sleeps
All day and night, barely speaking or eating,
Awaiting our inevitable parting.
Her toenails need clipping, her hearing aids
Are broken, and her rings (engagement, wedding)
Are missing, likely lifted by the crone
Who wanders into other women’s rooms
To see what might look good on her. This sapphire,
She whispers. Just what I was looking for.
At dusk, I fill the wood stove with mesquite
And crumpled pages from The New York Times
And light a fire to keep me company
On the first night of winter, remembering
An orphanage in Juba, South Sudan,
Where the Ambassador and her Marines
Knelt on the floor to read books to the girls
Saved from the streets, thanks to the volunteers,
Who wanted to rebuild a country riven
By civil war—which would flare up again
Within the week, closing the Embassy.
I do not know what happened to the girls.
Lines for the New Year (1)
A snowy egret taking wing from the sand castle
Dissolving in the rising tide, and pelicans
Skimming over the Gulf, and in the warming shallows
Fevers of feeding stingrays undulating near
The boys on kickboards and a photography instructor
Who won’t adjust his camera to the fading light.
The stingrays leap out of the water to avoid
A hammerhead patrolling the sandbar—white flashes
Against the gray horizon. A two-masted schooner
Tacks westward, toward the Yucatan. It’s time to go.
A wooden crab cage tethered to a frond of kelp,
On the wrack line below a condominium
In which a couple is dividing up their books
And photographs—of the Venetian gondolier
Who left their luggage on the pier; of gaunt hyenas
Watching a pride of lions finish off a zebra;
Of a skyscraper tilting toward the setting sun…
Amicable? Unlikely. A windsurfer cuts
Around a buoy, while his partner glides beyond
A fishing boat returning with a haul of tuna.
No sign, in dream, of our security detail.
And when we left the University of Baghdad
We had to ask for directions to the Embassy.
Our taxi driver’s last fare was a suicide
Bomber who blew himself up in a crowded market.
Nor did we stop at the checkpoint, where the Marines
Were teasing the new German shepherd with a rag
Soaked in the blood of the lamb slaughtered for the Feast
Of the Immaculate Conception. What to do
Until the Champagne, resolutions, Auld Lang Syne?