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Larry Levis | At the Grave of My Guardian Angel: St. Louis Cemetery, New Orleans

for Gerald Stern

At sixteen I was so vulnerable to every influence

That the overcast light, making the trash of addicts & sunbathers suddenly clearer

On the paths of the city park, seemed death itself spreading its shade   

Over the leaves, the swan boats, the gum wrappers, and the quarreling ducks.

It took nothing more than a few clouds straying over the sun,

And I would begin falling through myself like an anvil or a girl’s comb or a feather

Dropped, tossed, or spiraling by pure chance down the silent air shaft of a warehouse,

The spiderweb in one fourth-floor window catching, in that moment, the sunset.

For in such a moment, to fall was to be simplified & pure,

With a neck snapped like a stem instead

Of whoever I turned out to be,

Wiping the window glass clear with one cuff

To gaze out at a two-hundred-year-old live oak tethering

The courtyard to its quiet,

The tree so old it has outlived even its life as a cliché,

And has survived, with no apparent effort, every boy who marched, like a wilderness

Himself, past it on his way to enlist in Lee’s army,

And now it swells gently in the mist & the early sunlight.

So who saved me? And for what purpose?

Beneath the small angel cut from cheap stone, there was nothing   

But my name & the years 1947-1949,

And the tense, muggy little quiet of a place where singing ends,

And where there is only the leftover colored chalk & the delusions of voodoo,

The small bones & X’s on stones signifying the practitioner’s absence,   

Entirely voluntary, from the gnat swirl & humming of time;

To which the chalked X on stone is the final theory; it is even illiterate.   

It is not even a lock of hair on a grave. It is not even

The small crowd of roughnecks at Poe’s funeral, nor the blind drunkard   

Laughing there, the white of his eyes the unfurling of a cold surf below a cliff—

Which is the blank wave sprawl of fact receding under the cries of gulls—

Which is not enough.


I should rush out to my office & eat a small, freckled apple leftover   

From 1970 & entirely wizened & rotted by sunlight now,

Then lay my head on my desk & dream again of horses grazing, riderless & still saddled,

Under the smog of the freeway cloverleaf & within earshot of the music waltzing with itself out

Of the topless bars & laundromats of East L.A.


I should go back again & try to talk my friend out of his diet

Of methamphetamine & vodka yogurts & the look of resignation spreading over his face

Like the gray shade of a tree spreading over a sleeper in the park—


For it is all or nothing in this life, for there is no other.

And without beauty, Bakunin will go on making his forlorn & unreliable little bombs in the cold, & Oswald will adjust   

The lenses on the scope of his rifle, the one

Friend he has carried with him all the way out of his childhood,

The silent wood of its stock as musical to him in its grain as any violin.   

This must have been what they meant,

Lincoln & Whitman, joining hands one overcast spring afternoon   

To stroll together through the mud of Washington at the end   

Of the war, the tears welling up in both their eyes,

Neither one of them saying a word, their hands clasped tightly together   

As they walk for block after block past

The bay, sorrel, chestnut, and dapple-gray tail swish of horses,

And waiting carriages, & neither one of them noticing, as they stroll & weave,

The harness gall on the winters of a mare,

Nor the gnats swarming over it, alighting now on the first trickle of blood uncaking from the sore;

And the underfed rib cage showing through its coat each time it inhales   

Like the tines of a rake combing the battleground to overturn   

Something that might identify the dead at Antietam.

The rake keeps flashing in the late autumn light.

And Bakunin, with a face impassive as a barn owl’s & never straying from the one true text of flames?

And Lincoln, absentmindedly trying to brush away the wart on his cheek   

As he dresses for the last time,

As he fumbles for a pair of cuff links in a silk-lined box,

As he anticipates some pure & frivolous pleasure,

As he dreams for a moment, & is a woman for a moment,

And in his floating joy has no idea what is going to happen to him in the next hour?

And Oswald dozing over a pamphlet by Trotsky in the student union?   

Oh live oak, thoughtless beauty in a century of pulpy memoirs,   

Spreading into the early morning sunlight

As if it could never be otherwise, as if it were all a pure proclamation of leaves & a final quiet—


But it’s all or nothing in this life; it’s smallpox, quicklime, & fire.

It’s the extinct whistling of an infantry; it is all the faded rosettes of blood

Turning into this amnesia of billboards & the ceaseless hunh? of traffic.   

It goes on & I go with it; it spreads into the sun & air & throws out a fast shade

That will never sleep, and I go with it; it breaks Lincoln & Poe into small drops of oil spreading

Into endless swirls on the water, & I recognize the pattern:


There there now, Nothing.

Stop your sniveling. Stop sifting dirt through your fingers into your glass of milk,

A milk still white as stone; whiter even. Why don’t you finish it?

We’d better be getting on our way soon, sweet Nothing.

I’ll buy you something pretty from the store.

I’ll let you wear the flower in your hair even though you can only vanish entirely underneath its brown, implacable petals.

Stop your sniveling. I can almost see the all night diner looming   

Up ahead, with its lights & its flashing sign a testimony to failure.

I can almost see our little apartment under the freeway overpass, the cups on the mantle rattling continually—

The Mojave one way; the Pacific the other.

At least we’ll have each other’s company.

And it’s not as if you held your one wing, tattered as it was, in contempt   

For being only one. It’s not as if you were frivolous.

It’s not like that. It’s not like that at all.

Riding beside me, your seat belt around your invisible waist. Sweet Nothing.   

Sweet, sweet Nothing.

From THE SELECTED LEVIS: SELECTED AND WITH AN AFTERWORD BY DAVID ST. JOHN by Larry Levis Copyright © 2000. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Photo: Jay Paul

Larry Levis (1946-1996) was born the son of a grape grower; he grew up driving a tractor, picking grapes, and pruning vines in Selma, California, a small fruit-growing town in the San Joaquin Valley. He is widely regarded as one of the best American poets of his generation.

12 comments on “Larry Levis | At the Grave of My Guardian Angel: St. Louis Cemetery, New Orleans

  1. Lisa Zimmerman
    January 11, 2023

    What a poem, what a poet ❤️💔


  2. Marty Williams
    January 8, 2023

    Perfect Larry, and oh, how Gerald loved him.


  3. Loranneke
    January 8, 2023

    One of my favorites of his — although I can’t think of a poem of his I didn’t like! He is among my five top favorite poets –I never tire of reading his poetry books. Or essays.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Barbara Huntington
    January 8, 2023

    Same era, he and I. Some places same, some different. Clear pictures, muddy mind and a why that lingers and smothers with the heavy fog.


  5. edisonmarshalljenningsgmailcom
    January 8, 2023

    What a poet, what a poem!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. edisonmarshalljenningsgmailcom
    January 8, 2023

    Oh hell yes!

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on January 8, 2023 by in Opinion Leaders, Poetry and tagged , , .

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