POEMS SO BEAUTIFUL "I ALMOST CAN'T STAND TO READ THEM" ERIKA L. SANCHEZ ON LARRY LEVIS

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A man at a journalism conference recently asked me who my favorite poet was. Such a question typically flusters me because, really, how can one decide? I inhale all sorts of art, greedily so. I don’t have children, but I imagine it feels like picking your favorite child. But, for once, I wasn’t stumped. Lately, the work of Larry Levis has left me dumbfounded.

 

When asked then why I love Levis, I rambled on about the ambition of his vision, his precision, his sincerity. Then, after consideration, I said, “And I love the way he writes about Mexicans.” Here are lines from Levis’s “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope:” “Love’s an immigrant, it shows itself in its work. / It works for almost nothing.” As the daughter of Mexican immigrants, I’m always struck by how Levis allows the workers in his poems a quiet dignity that is so often robbed from them in both life and art. In his characteristically self-conscious style, he makes it clear that these people are not symbols for anything else; he never exploits these images of poverty for the sake of artistic beauty. Take, for instance, Johnny Dominguez in “Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967” or the peasants in “The Worm in the Ear.” As a feminist and a woman of color, it surprises me that a dead white guy is my favorite poet. But the care he takes with his subjects is unlike anything I’ve ever read.

 

These two poems are so beautiful that I almost can’t stand to read them. That’s how I often feel when reading Levis, a sharp ache for something I can’t quite identify. I’m overwhelmed by how he captures the awe of simply being alive. I’ve recently been reading The Darkening Trapeze at a snail’s pace because I don’t ever want it to end. The poems in this last book have taught me so much about vulnerability. In reading this collection, I’ve learned what true ambition and honesty of the imagination look like, and I can only hope to incorporate that kind of vision into my own writing.

 

I wanted something to mark the beginning of my own life as a published writer. I wanted something permanent, something to remind me that literature saves my life over and over again. In my forthcoming novel for young adults, two blue-black horses fall in love with each other. (Someone recently argued with me that horses are incapable of this, but I refuse to live in a world in which that’s true.) These two horses, I realize, manifested themselves in my novel from Levis’s “Anastasia & Sandman,” one of my favorite poems. I marvel at how Levis manages to make horses holy. I chose this tattoo because I want to remember that I choose, like Levis, to dedicate my life to beauty.

 

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Erika L. Sánchez is a poet, essayist, and fiction writer. Her first collection of poetry, Lessons on Expulsion, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in fall 2017, and the title poem can be found here at Guernica. Her young adult novel is forthcoming in fall 2017, and her nonfiction has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. She has received a CantoMundo Fellowship, a “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize, and a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. 

 

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“The Worm in the Ear” can be found in The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems by Larry Levis. (Graywolf Press, January 2016)

 

 

Starting with a piece from Charles Baxter that appeared at LITHUB, and continuing with tributes from Pam Houston and David St. John, we are delighted to celebrate the publication of The Darkening Trapeze by Larry Levis by sharing stories, testimonies, and memories of Larry Levis told by those who knew him best, and by those in a new generation of writers who remain deeply influenced by his life and work.