When Helena Mesa wrote to tell me which poem she chose to read for Lyric Essentials, she said, “When I think about formative poets for me, Levis always comes to mind. I still remember reading Winter Stars in my kitchen in Houston, and awakening from the thrall, still in my kitchen, sitting on the floor, my lunch cold in the toaster oven.” Here we’ll look at Larry Levis’s control of the line, and think about how that control gives him more freedom to address loss and regret. We’ll also consider how Levis’s attention to specific moments in the past deepen the emotions he describes as happening now. Thank you for reading.
Jessica Hudgins: It was really moving to me, after learning that you first read this poem in your kitchen, to read the poem myself and see that it takes place in another domestic space—the poet’s backyard. You say that this poem and the book Winter Stars shaped you. Can you say a little more about that? How has Levis’ work influenced you?
Helena Mesa: As a young poet first reading Winter Stars, I was struck by the meditative quality of Levis’ poems. I never knew where he would go, how he would arrive there, and I was awed by the way his poems came together. Take the opening narrative of “My father once broke a man’s hand / Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor.” I never imagined that narrative would move to the statement of misunderstanding to the mind-as-city metaphor to the beautiful, intimate arrival: “Cold enough to reconcile / Even a father, even a son.” As a young female Cuban-American poet, I feared sentimentality, so much so that I buried sentiment under layers of imagery and detachment. Reading Levis was invigorating—he allowed readers to meditate on a small moment with him, and through his meditation, he risked revealing emotion as he discovered meaning.
Levis also challenged me to embrace the free verse line. When writing, I’d hear my teachers repeat, “Think in a 10-syllable line.” It was good advice for me at the time—the syllable count gave me a structure to work within and against as I learned what the line could do. And, while I loved poets whose lines weren’t traditionally shaped by syllabics (poets like Yusef Komunyakaa, Lynda Hull, Lucille Clifton), I didn’t yet understand how they constructed their lines so each possessed integrity, each resonated. In fact, when I first read “Winter Stars,” I foolishly thought the lines weren’t controlled. Look at some of those early lines:
With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held
The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first
Two fingers, so it could slash
Horizontally, & with surprising grace,
Across a throat. It was like a glinting beak in a hand…
The line breaks are super unexpected. The hard enjambments on “held” and “first” push forward, but Levis’s caesuras within the lines—versus the ends of lines—create tension that mirrors the poem’s opening narrative. When I read “first / two fingers” aloud, the internal rhyme and hard stresses emphasize each syllable, which slows the pacing, which lets me further visualize the image before I reach “so it could slash.” The “sharpened fruit knife”—a dangerous object—is being “held,” and the pacing slows down as Levis zooms in on the image of how Rubén Vásquez held that knife “horizontally”—pause—“& with surprising grace”—slightly longer pause—“Across a throat.” So dangerous. The lines tug between speeding forward and pausing with punctuation, musicality, and end-stopped line breaks. And then, Levis balances the most dramatic detail—“Across a throat”—pause—on the same line with “It was like a glinting beak in a hand”—something potentially beautiful that, of course, isn’t beautiful. It’s such a delicate balance between contrasting elements, and Levis’s craft—his control—both evokes sentiment and undercuts sentimentality at the same time.
Helena Mesa reading “Winter Stars”
JH: The extended metaphor that begins, “If you can think of the mind as a place continually/visited…” is particularly striking to me, and of course the way that Levis’s attention keeps coming back to the stars. Can you point to a moment in the poem that you admire and describe what you admire about it?
HM: Yes, exactly! How those stars become a mechanism for meditating on his father and his looming death. There are so many things to admire. The beauty of the turn “I got it all wrong,” stated in plain vernacular speech. Or, the poignant direct address to his father. Or, the sincerity of “where a small wind.…wakes the cold again— / Which may be all that’s left of you & me.” But, today, looking at the poem again, I find myself focusing on Levis’ repetition of “now” in that almost-surreal fourth stanza. Three times he says “now”—it’s insistent. In its most simplistic function, the repetition grounds the reader by locating us in the present time; but more importantly, the repetition of “now” allows Levis to both move through time and pay attention to time. The present moment—in its limitations and imperfection and sorrow—is merely the present moment, and even this moment will be lost, like the California light, the place in their lives, his father’s speech, his father’s life, their relationship.
JH: Do you consider “Winter Stars” an elegy? Like, of course it is, but it also seems less concerned with grief than reconciliation and the way that memory connects us to one another. What do you think?
HM: I’m strangely fascinated by elegies that are non-traditional elegies, which might be another reason why I’m drawn to Larry Levis. When asked about being an elegiac poet, Levis once said, “I often feel that that’s what I am as a human.”
I think of “Winter Stars” as having an elegiac eye or positioning—we see him mourn as his father “is beginning to die”—losing language and, presumably, memory. The grief is present, but it isn’t that raw grief we associate with the death of a loved one. To me, that grief points toward a different kind of loss—Levis mourning the relationship he could have had with his father, and realizing it might be too late. If Levis portrays his father as “ashamed” for “a lost syllable as if it might / Solve everything,” Levis may also feel shame for getting “it all wrong.” And, because the poem focuses so much on the father-son relationship, and even ends on those two clauses, yoked in one line—“Even a father, even a son”—it’s hard for me to detach one from the other. To think of his father’s approaching death means Levis is also aware of his own mortality, without saying so.
True to “Winter Stars” as a whole, however, Levis unites contrasting emotions, or perhaps, turns toward complex emotions. The mourning and elegiac eye end on reconciliation. The sky might be a wide expanse, but within it is starlight, which Levis twice alludes to as something that persists. And, in the final stanza, Levis describes a “pale haze of stars goes on & on.” Starlight endures, in contrast to the temporality of the moment (the meditation), in contrast to the tension between the speaker and his father (the past).
Larry Levis (1946-1996) was an American poet. He published several books for which he received recognition from the International Poetry Forum, The American Academy of Poets, and the National Poetry Series. Levis taught at the University of Missouri and Virginia Commonwealth University and directed the writing program at the University of Utah.
Helena Mesa is the author of Horse Dance Underwater and a co-editor for Mentor & Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in journals such as Beloit Poetry Journal, Cimarron Review, Indiana Review, Pleiades, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, and Sou’wester. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences, and she has attended Squaw Valley Writers’ Workshop and Napa Valley Writers’ Workshop. She teaches creative writing at Albion College and lives in Oakland, California.
A note from Anna Black: It has been my great pleasure to be a part of the trajectory of this series. Through it, I have met many new friends and come to learn about a number of poets that had heretofore been unknown to me. This has been a tremendous pleasure and I am grateful for having had the opportunity. As I am now handling new roles for Sundress, I am handing over the series to the capable and deft hands of Jessica Hudgins, our former intern, and I’m excited to read the new voices that she will bring to the table, too. As for me, you can find me as the host over at Poets in Pajamas, and I’m also now serving as the staff director for Sundress. So I didn’t go far. I hope you’ll welcome Jessica and make her feel at home as you all did me. -Anna
Jessica Hudgins is a writer and teacher currently living in Georgia.