Tuesday, February 15, 2011



I’m tired of praising the dead
Tired of ghosts.
I am just sitting in my yard, watching
Thin clouds move above me,
And the grasses are bending in one direction.
This wind has no friend but me;
It is Spring,
And I am addressing you, Spirit,
Because the wheat ripens for no one,
Not for the sky,
Not even for you.
And you, who do not believe in words,
Care less for my life than for a broken comb you’ve left
In a movie theater, or in a bar.
Each day at noon
I used to close my eyes,
And lie alone in the dark, listening.
And you never spoke,
Never uttered the thin prayer that was me.
Or on the long bridges when I drove to work,
You would stare into the river
Until you made yourself think of nothing.
And when you found you could do it,
You were thrilled,
You were like a spider
Moving laboriously, and without thoughts, over a bead
Of water shining in its web.
You stayed out later, and later.
You loved knives, bars, drugs, music.
When you would turn on the radio
And dance alone, in the kitchen
Of the diner,
I kept sweeping.
You have become pure, finally.
You have become that silence just under the water
Where the river turns brown, and slows,
And a stillness rides alone
Over that place –
And I just drive past it, now.
If only I could reach in and pull you out,
Or if only you were a fish,
And then, if you did not speak to me,
As a fish did once, in a dream,
I would slice you up to the stomach and slap
Your head against stone.
And make you flesh,
Even while these flies dance on the rocks.
But I am a stranger, I will pass,
And always, when I bend to drink
From this place, I come up with nothing, with
Broken water, a fine
Trembling in my hands,
Which must be you.

~ Larry Levis, from The Dollmaker’s Ghost


For me, the poem starts here (pardon this workshop habit of saying: “The poem starts here”):

It is Spring,
And I am addressing you, Spirit,
Because the wheat ripens for no one . . .
And you, who do not believe in words,
Care less for my life than for a broken comb you’ve left
In a movie theater, or in a bar.
Each day at noon
I used to close my eyes,
And lie alone in the dark, listening.
And you never spoke,
Never uttered the thin prayer that was me.

~ This is a complaint. The transcendent part of the young man, maybe that “larger self” that Adam Zagajewski mentions in his poems, does not seem interested in its container, so to speak – the daily self of the poet. Eventually that part of him becomes “a silence just under the water,” and, later “a fine trembling” in the speaker’s hands. And yet this is not a negative poem, when you consider the beauty of it, especially the beauty of the last lines. The poem illustrates one of the paradoxes of poetry: the content may seem despairing, and yet the reader is left in a state of hushed awe, and nourished with beauty.


I can't help replying again, in reference to the self becoming bigger than one's self. Obviously not even Levis' ghost grew bigger than himself, and he ardently stays shut up (and down) in his own pity. Then, there is "Salmon Boy," who becomes caught up in his separate ego-self until his father spears him and his mother filets him- so that he is left out, exposed to the sun, to become the food for his people - to become one with them, or to become integrated, or to become larger than himself. This is the ancient act of initiation; this is the ancient act of the father, who must give the blow, in order for his son to become "bigger than himself" and his own self- infatuation or self-pity. Oh, I am a bit tired of the one who chooses to remain a stranger and not dip down into the river, not see his own "ghost spirit," not make of it a fish.

Salmon Boy, by David Wagoner

That boy was hungry. His mother gave him Dog Salmon,
Only the head. It was not enough,
And he carried it hungry to the river's mouth
And fell down hungry. Salt water came from his eyes,
And he turned over and over. He turned into it.

And that boy was swimming under the water
With his round eyes open. He could not close them.
He was breathing the river through his mouth.
The river's mouth was in his mouth. He saw stones
Shimmering under him. Now he was Salmon Boy.

He saw the Salmon People waiting. They said, "This water
Is our wind. We are tired of swimming against the wind.
Come to the deep, calm valley of the sea.
We are hungry too. We must find the Herring People."
And they turned their green tails. Salmon Boy followed.

He saw Shell-Walking-Backwards, Woman-Who-Is-Half-Stone.
He heard the long, high howling of Wolf Whale,
Seal Woman's laughter, the whistling of Sea Snake,
Saw Loon Mother flying through branches of seaweed,
Felt Changer turn over far down in his sleep.

He followed to the edge of the sky where it opens
And closes, where Moon opens and closes forever,
And the Herring People brought feasts of eggs,
As many as stars, and Salmon Boy ate the stars
As if he flew among them, saying Hungry, Hungry.

But the Post of Heaven shook, and the rain fell
Like pieces of Moon, and the Salmon People swam,
Tasting sweet, saltless wind under the water,
Opening their mouths again to the river's mouth,
And Salmon Boy followed, full-bellied, not afraid.

He swam fastest of all. He leaped in the air
And smacked his blue-green silvery side, crying, Eyo!
I jump! again and again. Oh, he was Salmon Boy!
He could breathe everything! He could see everything!
He could eat everything! And then his father speared him.

He lay on the riverbank with his eyes open,
Saying nothing while his father emptied his belly.
He said nothing when his mother opened him wide
To dry in the sun. He was full of the sun.
All day he dried on sticks, staring upriver.



Well, I am glad there is the "feeding the people" communal meaning that we can give to the Salmon Boy's final condition.

Larry Levis’s poem delights me with its marvelous lines, and frustrates me at the same time – and then delights me again when we get to the "fine trembling."

If not for the title, I could see this as an address to God – Kurt Vonnegut's God the Utterly Indifferent. It's possible that this kind of god loves humanity, but not on an individual basis. And perhaps the poem can be perceived as being addressed simultaneously to the speaker's spirit, a detached internal Witness and fearless dancer, and to God the Utterly Indifferent. It's not Teresa of Avila exclaiming, "If only we took care to remember what a Guest we have within  . . . "

But let us remember that the image knows more than the poet, and while the speaker seems dejected not to receive more ego satisfaction, to be only a temporary container, if that much, the images of water, shining, stillness, the "silence just under the water" and finally the "fine trembling" add up to beauty and mystery. Anyone who has had the experience of filling his hands with water from a stream and seeing the fine trembling knows how wonderful that looks and feels, that little bit of water dancing in your hands, shining and alive. I am in awe that Larry Levis identifies this beautiful trembling with his spirit. Even though before that he says, "I come up with nothing," that is eclipsed by the luminosity of the final image and the discovery. And the lyricism seduces me too.

Aside from the ending, the part about the spirit dancing in the diner kitchen while the young man keeps sweeping is also unforgettable. So we have this man doing a menial job, but his spirit – or the Spirit – celebrates himself. Later we get the flies dancing on the rocks – dancing, not just swarming. Come to think of it, the fine trembling could also be seen as a kind of dancing. It's an image combining fragility and a great, invincible vitality.

Alas, there is no human community here, and the greater wisdom that would come from relatedness. This could be read as a portrait of an isolated individual sulking that Something Greater does not deign to speak to him. Inside our mind is a cosmic mind, the Upanishads say. Presumably the cosmic mind is connected with everything, but we have to know how to tune in to it – maybe by losing the preoccupation of the self. Some believe there is an angel inside us, or walking near us – an immigrant who makes us long for another place. Or maybe, on the contrary, it’s an angel of this life, this world, not one of inaccessible angels in Rilke but the Stevensian Angel of Reality, one who says Look! Look now while there is a chance.

Because Levis does this looking at the world – he does not merely contemplate himself – there is a poem behind the poem here, a poem of images wiser than the poet. For me those images align along the lines of an amazing New York Times article called "Happy like God." Let me offer just one sentence of it:

To be like God is to be without time, or rather in time with no concern for time, free of the passions and troubles of the soul, experiencing something like calm in the face of things and of oneself.

And here is Levis:

You have become that silence just under the water

Where the river turns brown, and slows,
And a stillness rides alone
Over that place –

Levis says it better, because he uses the power of images, so he speaks beyond himself, in a larger fashion – even if he doesn't quite know it. He uses archetypal nature images such as water. As Jung said, "He who speaks through archetypes speaks with a thousand voices."


Oriana, an apology for what sounded a bit reactionary. I was very wrapped up with a student of mine – one who I adore, one who is really suffering, and this poem you sent really brought it up for me! This "being a stranger" – lost in the world even to oneself, was just too painful to face this last week. However, I am revisiting this poem, which I do love, and which is so very beautiful. 

This "you have become pure...where the river turns brown," and this ghost of oneself that is irretrievable and was, perhaps, never within grasp anyway, 
this "nothingness" which is the water of life itself –that which makes our body say to itself, 
"Yes, I am here in all of this brilliant wonder."



Your post is lovely, showing your sensitivity both on the human level – the suffering student – and on the cosmic level of union with nature. 

I was indeed somewhat confused by your initial reaction, but no problem. You did make it all the more clear for me that in many poems Larry Levis is indeed this perpetual isolated adolescent, though in his mature work he can write some magical lines, and the self-pity universalizes, transfers onto all of us.

Nevertheless, I think human life has a meaning chiefly within a social network, and very few can sustain communing with nature as a source of meaning. And Levis does have some excellent poems that center on others, be it his father or the Mexican grape pickers. He makes those people enter our psyche. I think one of the central tasks of a poet is to expand our empathy.

Going back to the poem, just the fact that Levis addresses his spirit/Spirit is already amazing. True, there is a poetic tradition of the poet speaking to his soul, but Larry's poem feels quite different.

I would like you to read Szymborska's poem on the soul because I think that it says some of the same things, though it says it very differently. Levis uses the power of the image, risking obscurity; Szymborska is plain and clear, and we admire her mainly because what she says is so unexpected. Both poets appear to say that the soul/spirit has its own agenda.

A Few Words on the Soul

We have a soul at times.
No one’s got it non-stop,
for keeps.

Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.

it will settle for awhile
only in childhood’s fears and raptures.
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off-duty.

It’s picky:
it doesn’t like seeing us in crowds,
our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.

Joy and sorrow
aren’t two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

We can count on it
when we’re sure of nothing
and curious about everything.

Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when no one is looking.

It won’t say where it comes from
or when it’s taking off again,
though it’s clearly expecting such questions.

We need it
but apparently
it needs us
for some reason too.

~ Wisława Szymborska, translated by Stanislaw Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh


After Levis's lush images, we may feel disappointed by this kind of witty, cerebral poem. Tough . . . It takes all kinds. I want to point out the similarities, though. Here too the soul is very elusive, and mostly absent from tasks that bore it. Note:

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

and note also this stanza:

Joy and sorrow
aren’t two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

I also love it that the soul settles

Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

~ or growing older. It's definitely astonishing. Don't we always feel younger -- much younger -- than we are? In dreams, don't we even look younger by far, not to mention that the dead are both dead and alive -- though in a dream, when we look in the mirror, we may see our hair suddenly gone white. Let us sit a while with this astonishment, let's offer it food and drink.

Actually the line that haunts me is the one about the soul's preferring clocks with pendulums. You don't see those very often anymore, and what a loss! There is a meditative quality about the pendulum's going back and forth, back and forth . . .

Even just the round dial and the march of the three hands, each at a different speed, those are evocative as well. Again, the power of the image. What is happening to our world as we go digital? What about that ad for a CD that will preserve your photos for 300 years?


On a more spiritual note . . . or are we always playing one spiritual note 
after another, even as we brush our damn teeth one more time and head 
off to work (smile - hopefully fresh and white), here is a response
to Salmon Boy from one of my music making, Kirtan playing, dear, dear 

Somehow, I think this is all of our fate . . . like the crucifixion... or
the death of the personal self. At some point, life is going to turn
us all back into itself... into God... into love. The Sufis believe
that the true idol to be destroyed is the self; and love, passionate
love, is the Divine's method of awakening us to that which is beyond
our self. Thus the lover may dissolve into love . . .

Kahlil Gibran says about love:

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire, that you may become sacred
bread for God's sacred feast.



My metaphor is giving blood rather than crucifixion. I'm still very uncomfortable with the last image in the Salmon Boy poem. But I do like Gibran's poem, and yes, life does that to us, to women in particular  . . . it teaches us that it's not about our little isolated self. Meaning lies in how we touch the lives of others.

Emily Dickinson put it well:

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,

Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.


Note that kindness to animals certainly counts for Dickinson. Our connection is not limited only to human beings.

I do not remember the source, but somewhere I read the beautiful statement that if you plant a tree, that already means you have not lived in vain.

I love this fusion of mystical insight from all traditions. Anna Kamienska says

I don't believe in the other world
But I don't believe in this one either
unless it's pierced by light

My ideal is to live from greatness, from generosity. For many years, I lived – at least in private – from my wounds. People kept saying, "You have so much to give," but I felt there was no right outlet, no takers. What I had to give was not wanted, I thought. The riches of my psyche were of no interest to others, my poems too difficult, too full of ideas, and my ideas too complex. But about two years ago – better late than never – I saw that the notion that life isn't long enough to recover from one's wounds need not be true. It's not about healing or not healing one’s wounds. It's about transcending them through the daily practice of generosity. 

No comments:

Post a Comment