• Stanzas: Larry Levis

    Michael Mlekoday


    For our Stanzas web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite poets by way of a handful of lines. This week, Michael Mlekoday, whose poem “Matryoshka” appears in our Winter 2022 issue, takes a closer look at “There are Two Worlds” by Larry Levis.

    His last name, pronounced correctly, like February wind bothering an almond orchard, can almost bring a shiver when spoken in a Central Valley dive bar or around a kitchen table among poets-turned-Iowans. Levis. A man who reminds you that the earth didn’t mess up too bad when it made us—or if it did, we’re the more beautiful for it. I want to share with you, if you’ll let me, some lines from “There are Two Worlds” by Larry Levis:

    If the ankle of a horse is holy, & if it fails
    In the stretch & the horse goes down, &
    The jockey in the bright shout of his silks
    Is pitched headlong onto
    The track, & maimed, & if, later, the horse is
    Destroyed, & all that is holy

    Is also destroyed: hundreds of bones & muscles that
    Tried their best to be pure flight, a lyric
    Made flesh, then

    I would like to go home, please.

    It’s all here. The hopeless resistance to cause and effect, sustained and delayed and driven forward by the syntax of a three-stanza sentence. The heart-tempering plunge of inevitability. The syllogistic analysis of failure, each premise pulling us deeper into loss. And the weak request for that which cannot quite be called justice. Mercy, maybe. Is there something like existentialism for American pool players and farmhands? I don’t know. But there’s Levis.

    Of course it’s the ankle of the horse that’s holy. What bends and bears weight. What’s tough, but vulnerable. And, of course, the horse’s fate matters more than the jockey’s, the latter’s pain merely a cause in a string of conditionals, sufficient if not necessary, for it’s the horse and only the horse who must pursue this brief and endless beauty, who must break with it.

    And where do we go when all that is holy is destroyed? Whatever semblance of home we can manage.

    This poem, from Levis’s 1985 collection, Winter Stars, is, like some of his best, about an extramarital affair and the wreckage that follows. But here he takes one step closer to the core of it all, so that, even if I care not for horse racing, even if I have never loved twice at once, those particulars bring me to the same fields in my body, the same echoes of loss. Maybe that’s what he means, what we mean, by “a lyric / Made flesh”—that sometime, when we’re lucky, music might lead musculature into the best version of itself. Longing might become, in and as the body, pure presence. The word might somehow grow ripe enough to split.

    Michael Mlekoday lives in the Putah Creek watershed of California, where they serve as Poetry Editor of Ruminatemagazine and teach classes on hip-hop, Gothic literature, and wilderness poetics. They are a National Poetry Slam Champion and the author of two books: All Earthly Bodies (2022) and The Dead Eat Everything (2014).

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