There is something oddly inviting about a truly dark vision that brings us in. I’m not sure how that happens, but Jon Anderson’s wonderful poem “In Sepia” suggests a possibility. The poem ends with him looking at photographs of himself as a child, and walking at night, thinking of the past, and of Death. He says,
Would explore these photographs,
These memories, in sepia, of another life.
Their use was tragic,
Evoking a circumstance, the particular fragments
Of an always shattered past.
Death was process then, a release of nostalgia
Leaving you free to change.
Perhaps you were wrong; but walking at night
Each house got personal. Each
Had a father. He was reading a story so hopeless,
So starless, we all belonged.
Death is the bond we all share, it is the end of our story, the end of of our human change and of our possibilities of change, in the way that photographs in capturing a moment suggest an end to change.
Is that what brings us together in the bleak visions? Sometimes I wonder.
I listened to a podcast recently in which someone suggested that it is our self-consciousness about our lives and therefore about our deaths, and the development of our burial rituals that memorialize that knowledge, that differentiate us from animals, and—a wonderful speculative leap here—that may in some way be entangled with the rise of language among humans.
Death and language. Perhaps that is the hopeless, starless story where we all belong.
I think about all that because I continue to be haunted by Larry Levis’ wonderful The Darkening Trapeze, and more specifically by the ending poem, “God Is Always Seventeen.” Levis’ vision in this book is very dark, oddly dynamic given its bleakness, and we might even say sprawling, seeking its level in these extended poems.
What catches me in the poem are two moments that perhaps help to define that vision. Remember the “plot” of the poem: the speaker addresses us, saying that this is the last poem in the book, and that he doesn’t feel like finishing it and probably wouldn’t if he had a choice and could do something else even more onanistic than this poem. It’s an insult meant to free him from any other bonds of notation, from the standard structures of plotting: As I said in a previous post on this poem, after this, he can do and say anything.
One of the “anything” things that happens after this takes place in a bar. He says,
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.
So, the two incidents here that engage me as defining Levis’ vision in this book are the accident outside the bar, and the story of the man inside, and how the listeners (us included) respond to each.
The world outside the bar is one fraught with accidents so expected or so uninteresting that even when this one happens with the “‘sickening’ crunch of mental” to alert everyone to what just happened no one even goes outside to look, to see what took place, or to ask if they can help. By any standard this failure strikes me as a showing of a world utterly disengaged, uncaring, humanity disjointed from itself.
That’s terrifying of course; no one wants to believe that we live in such a world. Perhaps, we assume, the story of the man inside the bar is so consuming that there is a reason no one went out to see what happened.
But no: there inside the bar, we hear the story of a man who discovers his guilt only because of the evidence stacking up, for a robbery and shooting that he does not remember having committed. He remembers calling 911 to report the shooting; but he discovers that it was he who shot the clerk, who identifies him at trial. He remembers none of this. His moral amnesia is complete. He serves time, he doesn’t protest his innocence, only his loss of memory of the events. And he tells the story as not an as actor but as a witness to his own life.
The others—meaning the poet and all of us—listen, and let him finish, saying nothing, and then leave without comment. This is an extraordinary story, Kafka-esque; did the teller expect a response? Did we? I did, or at least, I expected something other than the comment that the telling of the story in some way cut the teller loose to go falling as he and his story are then overtaken by the night that keeps on enlarging.
To summarize: the world beyond what we can see from our four walls of perception is a world of accident without human response, a world that lacks ordinary human engagement; and the world within our vision is one of moral culpability without memory or certainty of the transgressive act, one in which even to tell the story is not to engage in one’s own life or to evoke a response from others beyond silence.
The goal perhaps is freedom, such as it is, a tarnished tainted freedom to go fall as night that comes on all of us continues to enlarge.
The vision is very dark, but also binding, in the way that the quote from Jon Anderson that I used to open this post suggests: And so the lesson may be that at the base, when everything is stripped away, when there is nothing else, we all belong.