Wednesday, July 9, 2008

What I'm Reading: Elegy

Without doubt, Larry Levis died far too young at the age of 49 in 1996. Elegy is the collection he had very nearly completed in the months before his death. Philip Levine edited the collection at the request of Levis' family.

I have read individual poems from this collection in the past, but the cumulative effect of reading poem after poem is that of an almost unbearable sadness. The last nine poems are titled in this vein -- "Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand," "Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage," "Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope," etc. While all the poems in the book explore the fragility of human connections, how easy it is for those connection to become lost and broken, the elegies capture the human condition perfectly. These poems explore the need for relationships juxtaposed against the need for solitude. They illustrate the sad fact that we often destroy what we love, and this is frequently shown through the age-old conflict of humanity versus the natural world.

This is a book that weighs on the reader. What astonishes me now, looking back over the poems, is that Levis confronts his (and our) mortality so straightforwardly. For instance, in "Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern in It" he writes, "We go without a trace, I am thinking," followed by "What are we but what we offer up?" Then, in another tone altogether, in "Boy in Video Arcade" he writes, "So Death blows his little fucking trumpet, Big Deal, says the boy." The defiance of youth in the face of death just sucks the air from my lungs.

I'm sure Levis' death so soon after writing these poems and at such a relatively young age for our times contributes to the weight of these poems; however, the poems are haunting and powerful of their own accord, whether the reader knows the backstory or not.

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