Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Larry Levis & the Pepsi Ad Girls

Years ago, I was lucky enough to hear Larry Levis give a reading, when I was an undergraduate in Missouri. I wrote three of his poems down in my notebook (Fall 1976) and have never forgotten them.

1. First, you may remember this one from a previous blog post:
We'll go on as always harvesting walnuts
on our hands and knees,
and die voicelessly
as a sedan full of cigar smoke
sinking under a bridge.
We'll turn slowly, flowers
in the mouths of drowned cattle
In a dawn of burned fields,
the sun disappoints you,
and the blight you begin to remember
is me.
Like an Alp overlooking a corpse
I explain nothing.

2. Next comes the second half of a poem entitled "Rhododendrons." For the entire poem, check out this essay, and this poetry blog which, like mine, strives to make connections.

Levis wishes he could offer a helping hand. Though he would have been only 30 when I heard him read this poem, he thinks back to himself at 20 and longs to connect with that ghostly young man, in need of money and sleep:
As I write this,
some blown rhododendrons are nodding
in the first breezes. I want
to resemble them, and remember nothing,
the way a photograph of an excavation
cannot remember the sun.
The wind rises or stops
and it means nothing.
I want to be circular;
a pond or a column of smoke
revolving, slowly, its ashes.
I want to turn back and go up
to myself at age 20,
and press five dollars into his hand

so he can sleep.
While he stands trembling on a street in Fresno,
suddenly one among many in the crowd
that strolls down Fulton Street,
among the stores that are closing,
and is never heard of again.

3. Finally, in "The Double," Levis evokes "the elderly drunks" and "the girl in the Pepsi ad," all "dead now." Sadly, very sadly, the poet who wrote those words is dead now too, for Larry Levis died young, in 1996 at age 49. In a poem filled with ghosts, the poet says, "This poem so like me / it could be my double":
The Double

Out here, I can say anything.
I can say, for example, that a girl
disappearing tonight
will sleep or stare out
fixedly as the train moves her
into its adulthood of dust
and sidings.

I remember watching wasps
on hot evenings
fly heavily over chandeliers
in hotel lobbies.
They’ve torn them down, too.
And the elderly drunks
who seemed not to mind anything,
who seemed to look for change
in their pockets, as they gazed
at the girl in the Pepsi ad,
and the girl who posed for the ad,
must all be dead now.

I can already tell that this
is no poem to show you,
this love poem. It’s so
flat spoken and ignorable,
like the man chain smoking
who discovers he’s
no longer waiting for anyone,
and goes to the movies
alone each Saturday, and grins,
and likes them.
This poem so like the hour
when the street lights turn
amber and blink, and the calm
professor burns another book,
and the divorcee waters her one
chronically dying plant.

This poem so like me
it could be my double.

I have stood for a long time
in its shadow, the way I stood
in the shadow of a dead roommate
I had to cut down from the ceiling
on Easter break, when
I was young.

That night I put my car
in neutral, and cut the engine
and lights to glide downhill
and hear the wind rush over
the dead metal.
I had to know what it felt
like, and under the moon,
gaining speed, I wanted to slip
out of my body and be
done with it.

A man can give up smoking
and the movies, and live for years
hearing the wind tick over roofs
but never looking up from
his one page, or the tiny
life he keeps carving over and
over upon it. And when everyone
around him dies, he can move
a grand piano into
his house, and sit down
alone, and finally play,
certain that no one will
overhear him, though he plays
as loud as he can,
so that when the dead come
and take his hands off the keys
they are invisible, the way air
and music are not.
[emphasis added]

"Rhododendrons" and "The Double"
can be found in The Selected Levis


For further analysis of these poems
see my recent post

Ghost of the Girl in the Pepsi Ad

@ The Fortnightly Kitti Carriker
A literary blog of connection & coincidence;
custom & ceremony

1910 Pepsi Calendar Girls

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