Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Larry Levis: Passion Matters

This last week as stories on the front pages of newspapers reflected the controversial and competing philosophies on reforms in immigration legislation, I coincidentally found myself returning to read the prose and poetry of Larry Levis. My initial focus concerned his writings reminiscing about those younger years when he worked in the fields of his family’s California farm on the East Side of the San Joaquin Valley, picking fruit in the lines of vineyards and rows of orchards alongside the migrant workers he came to know and admire.

In an autobiographical essay—included in The Gazer Within, a posthumous selection of Larry Levis’s prose—about his experiences during those days, Levis reports: “That land! It was a kind of paradise preserved, held intact, by the toxic perfume of malathion and sulphur, insecticide sprays, fertilizers, and by the people who worked on it, who were Mexican if they were older, Chicano if younger, who spoke Spanish mostly, and who were underpaid. Many of them lived in poverty and the intermittent misery of unemployment . . .. ‘They’ were not a ‘they’ to me. They were men I worked with in orchards and vineyards.”

Levis insisted in both his prose memoirs and his elegiac poetry that he had a need—indeed, an obligation—to offer “their names, which deserve to be mentioned and won’t be unless I do it.” For Levis, elegies were matters of passion. By writing the names of the workers, this poet who excelled at elegy felt he was assuring these people that meant so much to him would not be forgotten. In his essay, he speaks of “John Dominguez, Tea, Ignacio Calderon, Ediesto and Jaime Huerta, Coronado, Fermin,” and others. In the poems, Levis also identifies the workers as sympathetic characters, about whom he cared and who cared for him, rather than as simply symbolic figures. For example, he begins “Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967”: “I’m going to put Johnny Dominguez right here / In front of you on this page so that / You won’t mistake him for something else, / An idea, for example, of how oppressed / He was, rising with his pan of Thompson Seedless / Grapes from a row of vines.”

Although he was aware that his memories of these workers tended toward nostalgia and a romanticizing of the figures, Levis tried to offer honest and more realistic views in his poetry, perhaps as Johnny Dominguez might want to be portrayed: “The band / On his white straw hat darkened by sweat, is, / He would remind you, just a hatband.” In the essay, Levis acknowledges: “I’m sure I idealize them. But oblivion has no right to claim them without my respect, without their names written down, here and elsewhere.”

In fact, in another prose piece Levis lists a few workers he knew: “If your name was Ramon or Coronado or Xavier, or if they simply called you Dead Rat (pronounced Debtrat, y rapido) and if you had just stepped onto the high rung of a ladder to pick early Santa Rosa plums . . ..” Near the end of the prose, Levis informs readers: “although the altering of facts and the justification of any fabrication because it is an ‘art’ is permitted everywhere now, it is not permitted on the East Side of the San Joaquin Valley, not without the restoration of fact.”

In his poems, as graceful as they may seem, Levis usually guarded against sentimental portraits, preferring to present more honest appraisals of the individuals. Within “Picking Grapes in an Abandoned Vineyard” the poet recalls Tea: “An alcoholic giant whom the women loved— / One chilled morning, they found him dead outside / The Rose Café.” Levis also remembers: “Angel Dominguez, / Who came to work for my grandfather in 1910, / And who saved for years to buy / Twenty acres of rotting, Thompson Seedless vines.” Later in life, picking grapes alone under an autumn sun, the poet states: “Today, in honor of them, / I press my thumb against the flat part of this blade, / And steady a bunch of red, Malaga grapes / With one hand, / The way they showed me, and cut— / And close my eyes to hear them laugh . . ..”

By remembering these influential characters from his past and depicting them for readers, Levis keeps them alive and identifiable as distinct individuals, a perception that easily can get lost among current cultural or political discussions of immigrant groups and legislative initiatives governing millions of workers. Also, with the typically conversational tone in his poems, readers might hear the relaxed and credible voice Levis so often displayed on the page and in his readings. In “Winter Stars,” the title poem of his 1985 collection, Levis narrates a tense moment when his father intervened and perhaps risked his own life to save another: “My father once broke a man’s hand / Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor. The man, / Rubén Vásquez , wanted to kill his own father / With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held / The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first / Two fingers, so it could slash / Horizontally, & with surprising grace, / Across a throat.”

As I have written elsewhere, Winter Stars stands as one of the best collections of poetry produced by his generation. The poems in that book represented a turning point for Levis, a shift toward more relaxed and more persuasive poetry. Levis even started to place ampersands within his lines where he had previously written the word “and.” Although minor and idiosyncratic, this small gesture signals a less formal approach to his poetry. As a matter of fact, this nearly casual conversational level of language, yet containing clarity and deceptively complex content, characterizes most of Larry Levis’s best poetry. Indeed, those of us who knew Larry or even were fortunate enough to attend a personal appearance by the poet will recall his casual, confident, and occasionally comical performances.

When I returned to reading his work this week, I found it difficult to believe Larry has been gone more than a decade now, dying suddenly in May of 1996, and I realized many current readers may not even have been fully introduced to his poetry yet. Therefore, I recommend three posthumous books to begin discovery of Levis’s writings: two collections of poetry (The Selected Levis and Elegy, both published by the University of Pittsburgh Press), and a gathering of his prose pieces (The Gazer Within, published by the University of Michigan Press).

In the Fall/Winter 2001-2002 issue (Volume III, Number 1) of Valparaiso Poetry Review I included an extended essay about Levis’s career. A slightly revised version appeared subsequently in a voluminous anthology of articles, A Condition of the Spirit: The Life and Work of Larry Levis (Eastern Washington University Press, 2004), edited by Christopher Buckley and Alexander Long. That version of my essay is also available online at Blackbird, which maintains a marvelous ongoing tribute to Larry in its continuing “Levis Remembered” series, including a number of audio and video presentations by Levis. For instance, at one page readers can find an audio and video of Levis presenting “Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage,” which includes an additional section not part of the published version, and the same page contains text for “The Space,” one of Levis’s unpublished poems.

Replying to a question during an interview when Levis was asked by David Wojahn about what he would like to achieve, Larry responded in a self-effacing manner: “I don’t know. I can’t really say. I would like to write my poems and leave it at that.” However, elsewhere Levis wrote that in a dream he once had been offered advice by William Butler Yeats: “Passion is the only thing that matters in poetry. As a matter of fact, it is the only thing that matters in life.” As I note near the end of my extended essay: “Larry Levis presents in his poetry not only the passion that matters in poetry and life, but a poetry that reveals a life of passion that matters to all who will read his works.” I invite those not familiar with Levis’s poetry to use these words as an introduction to his best work, those matters of passion, and I encourage readers already aware of his work to view these words as an excuse to revisit Larry’s poetry, where passion matters.


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amanda said...

i am reciting larry levis for poetry out loud and this blog post gave me insight into his character. he reminds me of howard roark.