The highlight of my AWP 2016 was attending a panel in memory of Larry Levis and in celebration of the posthumous publication of The Darkening Trapeze, a compilation loving assembled by David St. John and Gray Wolf Press. The panel featured marvelously lyric and moving remembrances by David St. John, Linda Gregorson, Carolyn Forche, and Mark Doty, all very close to Larry Levis in his life and in his work. Even ten years after his death, the grief and sense of profound loss these friends held in their bodies was palpable in the room. I felt extremely privileged to be witnessing such an abiding love among the dearest of friends.
During the panel Mark Doty spoke at length about the evolution of the representation of the self in poetry from the Romantics into Contemporary work. When I was a student at the University of Virginia in the 1990’s Deconstructionism and Post-structuralism were all abuzz. Even though I knew I wanted to be a poet, I chose Art History as my major, rather than English, because of the wild foment of possibilities I found in the conversations around the Art History table with regards to these theories. It was a very strange situation, though, because the place where I ended up in my wrestling with Derrida and Barthes and others was very different from that of many of my peers and was heavily influenced by the thinking of my professor and mentor at the time, the extraordinary Picasso scholar, Lydia Gasman.
Clad in her signature fishnet stockings, cigarette dangling from a finger, and the liberal use of the word “fuck” in her Romanian/Israeli/French inflections, her talks and seminars often drew crowds that packed the largest lecture halls and the tiniest conference rooms, with students pressed against the walls and spilling out the door. She was a remarkable scholar who contributed immeasurable gifts to the understanding of Picasso’s work. And she did it through this intuitive approach, befriending Picasso’s lover Marie Therese and learning about the artist’s loves and obsessions, the life of his mind and heart, and these were the signs and wonders she uncovered in his work.
Lydia often began class with some scripture, maybe from the Book of John, In the beginning was the word and the word was God or a bit of Kabbalah. The message she transmitted to me was one of the holiness and sacredness of art and of poetry and writing, and its ecstatic, mystical possibilities as so much of our time was spent in the surrealist poems that Picasso loved and in the texts of Derrida and Bataille and Barthes.
What I learned through that study and reading was a positioning of myself as an artist/writer/human being who could face the problem of meaning and truth and structure, interrogate the assumptions of conventionality and narrative, and yet, speak and testify anyway as an act of resistance, and perhaps even, in some mystical way as an act of faith. What I carried away from those seminars, I find in Levis’ work. That we can never know. That there may not be any truth. That at the end the self will come to disembodiment.
Mark Doty in his tribute at Gray Wolf Press describes it like this, “What then is an “I” but a swirl of snow and a gust of cold air? In this way the poems are both “confessional” (recalling and recasting the difficult hours of a life) and “post-confessional” in that they never forget their doubts about what a self is. The autobiographical “I” is bound in time, but in a Levis poem, it seems to leak out, again and again, into the timeless, into a distance from which it’s possible to look back into the world of particulars and forward into the realm of emptiness.”
And yet, nevertheless, we speak it anyway. We speak the particular. That we choose to speak, and to tell, and to testify, knowing we fall short every time and will in the end dissolve into emptiness. It’s that rebellion in Larry Levis I love so much and want to live by.
To me, this speaking, or testimony, and this form of rebellion is a profound act of grace and of love and Larry Levis is for me, “a lyric and moral example” (to quote Linda Gregerson on the panel). Levis often wrote about the “swoon” or “swirl” in his poetry–those moments when he lost himself to a sweeping current that to my mind and heart feels so much like what I have known of love and falling in love–that ecstatic unraveling of the self and then the surviving remains of the self in the aftermath.