Sometimes you read a poem that seems so bleak and hopeless about the possibilities of life, love, and generation that you want to say, Wait, stop: It’s all better than that, because no one would bother with it if it wasn’t. I mean, why continue if there is no value to be found anywhere?
But reading a poem like that is also in some ways like listening to the blues. Strange, isn’t it, how you can listen to the blues and laugh and cry at the same time, and pick up your life and go on joyfully refreshed with a self wholly remade by a painful cathartic voyeurism, not yours but someone’s, with and through an art that you can only admire and a voice that sinks into your soul and lets you rise again.
I’ve been reading Larry Levis’ The Darkening Trapeze, a posthumous book of his poetry wonderfully edited by his friend and colleague, the poet David St. John. There are many excellent poems in the book, but the last of them is truly extraordinary, a leap beyond the rest. It’s called “God Is Always Seventeen,” and it may be the last poem that Levis wrote.
That sounds a little too death-bed romantic, doesn’t it, so let me add that it is not what you think: It is not a nice poem, or a consoling one, and it does not say nice things about our situation in this world, or present a pretty picture of the poet, or by extension of any of us, though it does not demand that we also be the speaker. Our identification and judgment (and repulsion) happen in the course of the poem. It’s an option, not insisted upon.
This kind of poem is the blues of poetry, and by that I mean, the deep blues. I like its honesty, admire its intense effort to confront its situations and speaker, and I am frankly awed by its final uncertainty, its refusal to take an easy way out by resolving all the desperate issues that the poem has raised to that point. It feels less like poetry then than like real life.
I also think that this poem, like so many of the poems in Levis’ previous book, Elegy, offers something new in American Poetry, that stylistically and structurally we confront a different kind of voice and different manner of composition. I will say more about this aspect of the poem below, but it is quite amazing. First, though, here is the poem:
GOD IS ALWAYS SEVENTEEN
This is the last poem in the book. In a way, I don’t even want
to finish it.
I’d rather go to bed & jack off under the covers
But I’d probably lose interest in it & begin wondering about God,
And whether He’s tried the methamphetamine I sent Him yet, & if He still
Listens to the Clash & whether the new job He got for Mozart
As a janitorial assistant in Tulsa is working out.
Besides, I can’t imagine a body in the first faint stirrings of arousal
Without feeling sorry for it now, & anyway, I’ve built a fire in the fireplace
And I don’t have a fire screen yet, & have to watch it until it goes out,
Even the last lukewarm ember. It isn’t my house.
It belongs to a bank in St. Louis somewhere & they have four thousand
Different ways to punish me if the place goes up in flames, including the guys
From Medellin who work for them now & specialize in pain.
Besides, it’s still winter everywhere & maybe you want to hear a story
With a fire burning quietly beside it. The story on this night when it
Got really cold, & the darkness of the night spreading
Over the sky seemed larger than it should have been, though
Nobody mentioned it. It was something
You didn’t feel like bringing up if you were sitting in a bar
Among your friends. But all that happened was the night kept getting larger
Then larger still, & then there was a squeal of brakes
Outside the bar, & then what they call in prose the “sickening” crunch
Of metal as two cars collided & in a little while the guy went back to telling
This story in which the warm snow was falling on the yard
Where he & the other prisoners were exercising. I guess the guy
Had evidently done some time, though everyone listening was too polite
To bring it up. And what happened in it was a clerk bleeding to death
In a 7-Eleven, & the guy telling it called 911 for an ambulance, & the police found both
Cash from the till & the gun on him when they arrived. He didn’t think he’d shot
Anyone that night or anyone ever & was surprised & puzzled
When they made a match on the gun, the clerk lived to testify, & they convicted
Him. No one along the bar said anything when he’d finished
Telling it, & the night went on enlarging in the story, & I think our silence
Cut him loose & let him go falling. And one by one, we paid & got up & left
And went out under the stars. I have a child who isn’t doing well in school.
It’s not his grades. It’s that he can’t wake up.
He misses his morning classes & doesn’t answer when I call & doesn’t
Return my calls. The last time I saw him we took the train down from Connecticut
To New York & wandered around Times Square. We went into this record store
And pretended to browse through some albums there
Because we didn’t know what to say to each other. It was night. It was just
Before the Christmas season, & the clerks in the store
Would call out loudly Can I Help Anybody & Can I Help Someone & there was
Some music playing & something inconsolable
And no longer even bitter in the melody & I will never forget
Being there with him & hearing it & wondering what was going to become of us.
A Little on the Source
The last episode in the poem, with the poet and his son at the record store, is apparently about Levis’ son, and may be a real episode. I gather this from information included in David St. John’s Afterward, forwarded from the poet Amy Tudor, who was Levis’ former student and friend. Ms. Tudor helped find many of the poems for The Darkening Trapeze from manuscripts left behind by Levis. About this one she wrote:
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 awhile instead and then going home.
Subsequent to this she located the version of the poem that appears in the book, which was apparently the last poem that Levis ever wrote. The incident with his son has the feeling of something true and real, something that actually happened. Other episodes in the poem seem invented, paradigmatic circumstances necessary for the points made. Not this one. This one is merely — merely! — devastating and a conclusion to all that has gone before.
The first lines of the poem are hard for me to wade through. I have wondered if they are supposed to be comic, or perhaps that they are some form of black comedy, but I don’t think so. Levis was entirely capable of being funny when he wanted to. If these lines are funny at all, they are drearily so, and drag in too many of the situational and philosophic points he needs to make to be real stand-up.
The speaker begins self-consciously, aware of us, reminding us that this thing before us is a made thing, a communication with a place in the world and an intent to its composition, saying that “This is the last poem in the book. In a way, I don’t even want to finish it. / I’d rather go to bed & jack off under the covers…” It’s not an opening designed to endear him to us, or make him likable, especially not if it is supposed to be funny, since it’s merely crude—though I should probably allow that there may be some out there in the world who become more eager listeners on learning that the person speaking considers talking to them one step below self-diddling. I confess to not being among them.
Levis certainly knows about the insult here, so you want to ask, what’s he up to? The answer is, I think, that he setting the bar. After this, is there anything he can’t say or claim to have done? He doesn’t want to be with us, that’s clear, but he will be, even if he has to view our interaction as a form of extreme self-indulgence. But then look what happens: For having raised a kind of sex as an opening (and open-ended) topic, he goes on to say that he’d lose interest in the act of sex alone, to begin instead “wondering about God, / And whether He’s tried the methamphetamine I sent Him yet, & if He still / Listens to the Clash & whether the new job He got for Mozart / As a janitorial assistant in Tulsa is working out.”
To state the obvious: This is not a God we know, He (note that honorific of the capital letter used here) apparently uses or may be interested in speed, or the speaker thinks that He is the kind of God who may be, and He is a God who does listen to rock’n’roll, at least a kind of it, in the form of the 1976 English punk band the Clash, whose memorial FM radio hit continues to be, “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” a mock-up of extreme diffidence complete with fake Spanish lyrics (they are actually in badly pronounced Ecuadorian Spanish). We also learn that this God has a taste for pranks on the famous, such as assigning Mozart to a clean up job in Tulsa.
So if I read this right, the speaker has jettisoned the traditional God of comfort and mercy and justice for the God of bad tricks (Mozart’s new job), drugs, and punk rock’n’roll, i.e., become a fiction and a bad joke, but not yet entirely a non-presence. Sex in this version of the aimless self is reduced to the activity of one, and arousal said to invoke pity, with the sense behind it (seen in due course in the rest of the poem, and one of the conclusions to it) that the cycle of generation is inconclusive and even dangerous when viewed as a virtue or when wished for as a future. As he says, “I can’t imagine a body in the first faint stirrings of arousal / Without feeling sorry for it now.”
This is a fully alienated speaker, alienated from Life, from the cycle of generation, and from God, a speaker who lives in a house not his own, where he is unable even to build a fire for heat or comfort without watching that it not become dangerous to this temporary shelter, and to himself, from “guys / From Medellin who work for” the banker-owners and who “specialize in pain.” Meaning, I take it, that these are enforcers from the cartel. Their exact relationship to the bank and to the speaker is not specified, but the drug market reference is enough to suggest another not-so-casual vice for the speaker. All in all, this is not the most trustworthy or likable of speakers.
But he is also at this point self-conscious enough to want to give us a better or at least a more interesting story, one “With a fire burning quietly beside it” against the spreading darkness and coldness of the night, and so he begins a story about sitting in a bar with friends, with the night getting larger and darker, though no one with him mentions it. Suddenly outside there’s an accident, a collision loud enough to hear even inside the bar, in the middle of someone’s story, and it seems that it is part of the expansion of the night and of the darkness, but no one leaves the bar to go outside and see what happened, or see if they can help.
We then hear the story of the man in the bar that had been interrupted by the accident. He has been jailed for a shooting and a robbery at a 7-Eleven. He doesn’t remember the crime, though “the police found both / Cash from the till & the gun on him when they arrived.” His story, which seems to have taken some time, elicits no response from the others at the bar except silence, and when it is done everyone leaves, and we move on to the next story, about the speaker’s boy, “who isn’t doing well in school. / It’s not his grades. It’s that he can’t wake up. // He misses his morning classes & doesn’t answer when I call & doesn’t / Return my calls.”
So to summarize this part of the poem, life is dialogue inside a bar where accidents happen without cause or explanation from the world outside, and evoke no interest in any case, and where inside we hear about this man who is a witness to a Kafka-type judgment of guilt and punishment, the perpetrator of a proven crime of which he has no memory, only the guilt and only the punishment, the story of which is then received by the silence of his listeners, a silence which does not amount to a judgment or even truly to a response.
And then we immediately slide into a new and final story, a heartbreaker about the speaker’s son, whom he last saw when “we took the train down from Connecticut / To New York & wandered around Times Square. We went into this record store / And pretended to browse through some albums there. / Because we didn’t know what to say to each other. It was night. It was just / Before the Christmas season, & the clerks in the store / Would call out loudly Can I Help Anybody & Can I Help Someone & there was / Some music playing & something inconsolable / And no longer even bitter in the melody & I will never forget / Being there with him & hearing it & wondering what was going to become of us.”
But there is something unsettlingly ad-hoc in this narrative, an addendum to the cycle of generation, of a kid who can’t stay awake in school, for reasons not explained — because he’s bored? because he’s narcoleptic? — but who in any case has little desired interaction with his father, not answering the phone when the father calls, not returning calls from him. Whatever is going on with him doesn’t affect his grades, so we can assume that he’s smart enough and that he works his way through school well. Perhaps we are to understand that his father is the problem. And then we get the final anecdote, the two of them in a record store (records? Not cd’s?) with the clerks willing and wanting to help them and everyone if they would just acknowledge the offer, and the two of them wandering around in the music that is inconsolable without being bitter, and the father now wondering what will become of the two of them.
In a world fraught with the “sickening” crunch of accident and the amnesia of criminal acts and consequent sense of guilt and judgment and punishment, in which the God of care and comfort is reduced to a druggie punk rocker joke — a world in which, in short, all the life-supports and assumptions of a better non-arbitrary future are challenged and removed — the wondering at the end seems almost a small & even an ignorant response, because the future of everyone in this dystopian world is set in cement, and set so badly that no one will survive or connect or be happy, even though they may sometimes say they want to, and there is no way for the speaker not to know it except by avoiding the obvious conclusion, which is what he does. His is a life among the disconnected, without affect.
This speaker is a man who is in but not of this life, that is, he is here because he is here, and for no other reason. Desire is dead in him, and is at best an object of his pity, and the sense of any possible structure in life has been washed away: In his world, one thing follows another with no particular reason, a new story might hinge on a word perhaps, as in the movement from the fire in the house to the metaphor of fire warming in a bar. But the world is full of accident whose outcome we do not know, and guilt for reasons explained and proved but not remembered, a guilt which in that sense is threaded into the life as lived. It is no wonder that this speaker, given his philosophical view, can’t find a way to make his progeny comfortable with him. One of them is a judgment on the other, and neither judgment is a good one.
It is, as I say, a very dark poem. I’m impressed that Ms. Tudor found something not despairing in it; I cannot. And yet—I find myself lifted by the created honesty of this poem, the way its maker, not its protagonist, lifts us above the abject emotional poverty of the things presented. I say it is like the blues, and it is, when the blues are honest: John Lee Hooker or Howling’ Wolf. That level of blues, blues as lived and earned. And note how at the end when it would be possible to offer a transformation, an epiphany, a transcendental change in the speaker, that’s precisely what doesn’t happen. Instead we get the speaker “wondering what was going to become of us.” This speaker cannot know more than he does, and his life as it is lived cannot offer more. Impressive. More — I know of no other poems with this kind of ambition that remain this true to themselves.
As always, I’m impressed by the skill of Levis’ writing, and I have the same sense reading this and other poems in the book that I’ve had about his work starting with Elegy, his previous book: that Levis is a good and skillful poet, but that there is something more going on here than skill and good technical construction. He has brought a new note and a new kind of writing into American poetry. It’s a combination of effects that all come together: the way he uses narrative to give the sense of a sort of uncompressed almost drawling telling, as one event or image follows the next, and the way he exercises an almost invisible laconic control over his lines, many of them extended but all of them flowing into one another, so that you have the sense of great fluidity, even though the poems, as you look at them on the page, seem almost casually composed. The style and the narrative reinforce each other to create this new thing. It is all quite stunning. It is obvious in this poem, but it is present in all the major poems of Elegy and of Trapeze.
As Final, A Personal Note
I knew Larry Levis at Iowa. We weren’t friends but we were acquaintances, and we had many mutual friends. His book The Wrecking Crew came out from Pittsburgh Press in 1972, while we were both students. It was a first book, and there were some fine poems in it, though nothing with the power or ambition that would be so present and overwhelming a few decades later, with Elegy and now with Trapeze. But we were all excited for Larry as we would be for any of us who began a career so auspiciously. A few years later his The Afterlife would win the Lamont Prize, and we would begin to see the shape of a terrific poetry. He was a careful and conscientious craftsman, as I knew him, and aware of his strengths. I liked him a lot.
Funny story: someone asked me what I thought of that first book, and I said it was good, but would have profited from a little more time in the oven. The workshop at Iowa was a wonderful place, but it had its fight-pickers, and one of them took the comment to Levis, perhaps hoping to start a controversy. But Levis said, Well, he’s right, it would have. I respected him enormously for that comment, for his honesty and for his transparency. People say that we lost a great poet whose strengths were increasing with every poem — the kind of easy thing that people say, perhaps, because it costs them nothing to say it; but it is true in this case. “God Is Always Seventeen” is a terrifying, wonderful, honest, unflinching poem from an extraordinary poet who was developing a new kind of poetry. In the Afterward, David St. John talks about Levis’ Elegies as his version of the Duino Elegies. If they are not quite that, they are close, I would say that taken as a whole they are damn close, and constitute a broadening and powerful embrace of so very much of life and death and beauty in an American idiom in an extraordinary voice. They did not need more time in gestation. They were and are real, and wonderful.