Two Spells: Buffam and Levis

A Pillow Book
By Suzanne Buffam
(Canarium Books, 93 pp., $14.00)
The Darkening Trapeze
By Larry Levis
(Graywolf, 100 pp., $16.00)

In her first two books, the Canadian poet Suzanne Buffam displayed an already masterful sophistication. Her versets, spare free verse, and prose poems let “the wonderful” glint from polished ironies; the prosaic shards of statement revealed, at moments, the shape of a vanished lyric whole. “The ignorant hills look familiar./ And the darkness shall be made new,” teased “On Nova Scotia,” echoing the Book of Revelation in The Irrationalist (2010). And at times, she gave her imagination permission to play luxuriantly, as in “Fireworks”: “Radiant pitchforks thunder in the now/ Trailing specters of is.” But more often, these early poems relied on mouse-trap wit and a lacquered knowingness. Only in the somewhat longer sequence “Trying” in The Irrationalist did another tone break through; the “I” in these prose fragments is vulnerable, experimenting with fictions of confession. And what is confessed, in flashes, is the desire to conceive a child.

Her new collection, A Pillow Book, has enormously expanded Buffam’s range without compromising her sardonic lucidity. The book is slender and at the same time large, splicing meditations on the Japanese 10th century classic, Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book, with autobiographical scraps from a 21st century insomniac mother. She has adapted her form from Shōnagon, who seems to have invented the genre of oddball lists interspersed with diary notations; Buffam’s medley of lists and prose fragments both echoes the ancient Pillow Book and lines up with a post-modernist esthetic of disjunction and hybrid form.

“Not a memoir. Not an epic. Not a scholarly essay. Not a shopping list. Not a diary. Not an etiquette manual…” starts one of Buffam’s descriptions of Shōnagon’s work, but of course she’s describing her own as well. Four main characters inhabit this new pillow book: Sei Shōnagon, the modern mother who has trouble sleeping, her daughter (who seems to be about four years old), and her husband, who teaches in a university and has no trouble sleeping. Shōnagon was a lady in waiting at the court of the Empress, while Buffam’s young mother serves in a domestic court and refers to her daughter as Her Majesty.

At a ground level of narrative realism, her book could be a memoir or novella: we get to know this cranky, passionate mother through her self-portraits (“Inspector General of Minor Slights”), the little grotesqueries of daily life (dropping her night headlamp into the toilet bowl), her delight in her child’s fantasies, her insecurity around academic colleagues: “I mean, my inquisitor inquires, plucking a paper fan out of the air beside his head and giving it a flick of the wrist, who do you think you are?” At another level, this is a dream book; sleep, when it comes, unrolls its own hyper-real cinema commentary on waking life. At another level still, the book meditates on catastrophe and safety: the mother guards the little world in which her child makes valentines while sirens wail outside, and rumors of horrors in the Democratic Republic of Congo and other far-flung places float through the protected rooms. In yet another stratum of consciousness, these pages translate the world into Shōnagon-inspired lists inflected with Buffam’s humor: “Unpopular perfumes A to Z: Alimony. Buffalo Soldier. Cold Feet. Dada Diva…”

But crowning all these layers, a powerful lyricism extends its atmospheric arc over the whole. The prose patches are not just journal entries and kvetches. They are prose poems, cunningly constructed with the verbal economies and symbolic vibrations of any good poem. “The history of pillows begins in the grave,” opens one section, and as the speaker contemplates a long list of “grave goods,” “otherworldly objects carved from onyx, whale bones, hippopotamus ivory, rose wood” and so forth, she launches into an intricate, nine-line sentence, concluding as she envisions the objects “dug up and displayed for a brief spell behind glass–the same brief spell I inhabit–I feel as though I am the dark residue of someone’s dream.”

It’s no mean feat to have compressed so many worlds into the elegant order enclosed between the covers of Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book. It’s a brief spell, and it casts a spell. A promise she made in The Irrationalist has been fulfilled: the darkness, indeed, has been made new.

Buffam is a young poet, hitting her stride. Larry Levis, by contrast, comes to us now in a terminal maturity. At his death at age forty-nine in 1996, Levis’s five books had marked his distinctive terrain: rough farm work in the California vineyards, migrant labor, American anomie, harsh parables from François Villon, Communist Eastern Europe, the films of Fellini. Since his death, three more books have extended that range. The posthumous Levis is a living force. In Elegy (1997) edited by Philip Levine, The Selected Levis (2000) edited by David St. John, and The Darkening Trapeze (2016) also edited by St. John, Levis breaks into a grand wildness, both in the timbre of his voice and in the bold sprawl and leaps of narrative.

Levine and St. John had no easy task composing Elegy and The Darkening Trapeze. They had to work from multiple drafts and fragments retrieved from the poet’s computer files and papers. Nor is it an easy task for the critic. One is judging a composite, somewhat hypothetical text. Yet the effort is worth it, because Levis was working on an imaginative scale that American poetry needs these days, and when the poems stumble, that too is instructive.

From the get-go, Levis’s images startled with shamanistic insight: “stones that will open at a touch, breathe/ and spread like water like// plain water that is simple and against the law,” he chanted in “For Stones” in his first book, Wrecking Crew (1972). In “Rhododendrons” in The Afterlife (1976), the speaker wants to “remember nothing/ the way a photograph of an excavation/ cannot remember the sun.” But in Winter Stars (1985) and even more in The Widening Spell of the Leaves (1991), Levis turned with painful specificity to the landscape in which he grew up, the Mexican workers sleeping in coops, the poisoned weeds, spiders, old horses, alcohol, violence, and always, the Levis watch-word, emptiness. These were blues, a passionate, rough-edged keening. Obsessive images appeared and would keep the poet company for the rest of his life: horses, spiders and spider webs, stars, and increasingly, fire. Already in “My Story in a Late Style of Fire” in Winter Stars, he projected himself in mythic autobiography, associating that speaker with Billie Holiday, blues, and addiction: “fire, ashes, abandonment, solitude,” which become Levis’s specialty as he made a style for being a late 20th century poète maudit. “…It is so American, fire. So like us./ Its desolation. And its eventual, brief triumph.”

In The Widening Spell of the Leaves, Levis did marvelously widen his spell. The long sequence “The Perfection of Solitude” achieved an equilibrium between the triumph of the fiery imagination and its brevity, an intricate structure meditating on style, a father’s guilt at leaving his son, Auden’s Icarus and Breughel’s, Caravaggio, jazz, a Dostoievskian Christ-like slaughtered horse, Vietnam. It’s a majestic, sacrificial, unsparing poem.

And it set the tone for the elegies that Levine organized into the posthumous book of that title. These sophisticated poems twine narrative brilliantly visualized (“Tractor exhaust so thick it bends the air, bends things seen through it…”) with ironic abstraction( the Black Widow spider, “Expressionless spinster, carrying Time’s signature preserved & signed/ In blood…”) through intricately patterned leitmotifs. The best poem in the book is called, appropriately, “Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern in It.” This volume is haunted by emptiness and failure: “Friends, in the middle of this life, I was embraced/ By failure…” (“The Two Trees”). And it begins to flaunt the subject of drugs, the “tab of blotter acid” (“Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern in It”) or bums trying to score “a little infinity wrapped up in tinfoil” (“Elegy for Poe with the Music of a Carnival Inside It”).

The Darkening Trapeze is a far more uneven collection. For one thing, it covers a wider span of time: the first poem, “Gossip in the Village,” a bitter, wonderfully illogical sonnet, dates from 1982, but many of the longer poems were written in the last two years of Levis’s life. Laxness creeps in here and there, stereotypical phrasing the younger Levis would never have permitted: “Look through us to what? To slums and shopping malls?/ To one suburb joining another?…” (“Ghost Confederacy”). It’s impossible to tell if such rote gestures are the result of an intelligence damaged by the crystal meth sprinkled freely through these pages, or if they survive simply because these are unfinished drafts rescued and printed by someone other than the poet. A similar question arises with the recycled material, lines or whole passages, only slightly altered, slotted into different poems. Levine in his introduction to Elegy argues that Peter Everwine convinced him that these pastings are “motifs or ‘riffs’ to unify the collection.” They seem much more haphazard to me. For example, the eight lines in “The Ghost Confederacy” starting “And we were never the color-blind grasses” are lifted from “Elegy with and Angel at Its gate” in Elegy, and appear also in “If He Came & Diminished Me & Mapped My Way” in Trapeze. These lines, which contain two of Levis’s emptinesses (“We were the empty clarity” and “The moment clear and empty as a heaven// Someone has just swept clear of any meaning”) make no sense in “Ghost Confederacy”. This Civil War poem, which is also a contemporary war poem, works far more effectively without them.

The Darkening Trapeze narrows the focus of the earlier books. Whereas they ranged widely in geography and theme, the late poems turn inward, increasingly seeking a solitude associated with addiction: “Inscrutable vision & brief psychosis that come in the wake/ Of methamphetamine, a beige powder that smelled// Like wheat & was as silent, & was, for years, the only company// I ever had the pleasure of being completely alone with” (“A Singing in the Rocks”). Several of the poems seem to boast about “my dealer” as if daring the reader to disapprove. Baudelaire had his opium, Verlaine his absinthe, Berryman his Scotch. We can’t know if crystal meth helped or hindered Levis’s poetry, though a strain of self-pity, of delectating in desolation, does begin to drown out the wit.

Yet Trapeze is a fruitful and original book. It would be “worth the voyage” in the Michelin Guide for one poem alone, “Twelve Thirty-One Nineteen Ninety-Nine”:

Goodbye, little century.
Goodbye, riderless black horse that trots
From one side of the street to the other,
Trying to find its way
Out of the parade.

Nor is this the only triumph. “La Strada,” “A Singing in the Rocks,” “Anonymous Source,” and “Ocean Park # 17, 1968: Homage to Diebenkorn” all turn memory into noir fable with cut-throat exactitude. And “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire” can hold its own, in the intricacy of its weave, its drama and idiosyncrasy, with the wildest and best of Levis. To spill from one line to another in this poem is to discover a new form of seeing: “This is why money mirrors nothing so accurately it tempts us// To seek our reflections in the passing, leafy idyll// Of a water so toxic by now it would scald you if it were/ Real…” At his best, and his best rivals any poet of his generation, Levis is an artist springing endless surprises, caustic and uncynical, more alive in his language than most of those who have the temporary benefit of still breathing. If he courted Death, he also treated him with imperial contempt. As he said in one of his recycled lines, “And I guess/ Death will blow his little fucking trumpet” (“La Strada” in Trapeze; also in “Boy in Video Arcade” in Elegy). It is Levis who will have the Orphic last laugh.

Rosanna Warren

Rosanna Warren

Rosanna Warren teaches in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Her most recent book of poems are Ghost in a Red Hat (Norton, 2011) and Earth Works: Selected Poems (American Philosophical Society Press, 2016). 
Rosanna Warren

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Author: Rosanna Warren

Rosanna Warren teaches in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Her most recent book of poems are Ghost in a Red Hat (Norton, 2011) and Earth Works: Selected Poems (American Philosophical Society Press, 2016).