Originally published in Willow Springs 69
From the author
Notes on “Homage for Levis”
It’s hard for me to write about poems I’ve written because my favorite self-written poems are usually the act of something so initially unconscious that it sounds like I’m lying (even to myself) when I describe “what I was trying to do.” This is not to say that my revisions aren’t conscious: by that time, I’m hyper-conscious about what I think the poem is attempting to do, which creates a whole new set of problems. But “Homage” came to me after the incident I describe: a couple who can’t speak English are trying to find the local hospital and I can’t tell them because I don’t speak Spanish. I’m not sure if this particular event made me think of Larry Levis, or if it was simply that, at that time, I was thinking almost constantly of Larry Levis, whose poems I admire more and more each year, and who I think of (probably wrongly) as a ghost-mentor of mine. Levis used to teach where I now work–the University of Utah–and (this sounds really embarrassing now that I’m writing it) is someone I like to imagine having conversations with about the Mormons, my students, my colleagues, the city, the weirdness of teaching something that you essentially believe should be private, etc. And I’m not talking about poetic conversations: I’m talking conversations. In his marvelous book Elegy, Levis begins by saying that, at the worst point of his life here in Utah, he only had two friends left and one of them was a tree. Well, Levis is my tree. And now I sound totally bonkers.
Anyway, the poem is and isn’t a “departure” for me since the poem makes a few gestures I make too often in other poems, and some other gestures that are ones stolen from Levis’ poems: that’s the “homage” part. I don’t know if I’ll keep this poem. I don’t know if would publish it in a book. But I enjoyed writing it, and I really like the end, which is also Levis’: the image is from a poem in Elegy.
Notes on Reading
What books have I read that I think were underrated? Since I primarily read poetry, I think most books are underrated. These past five years I’ve been finding that poets I once despised or was simply indifferent to have become very important to me. I think this is because I wasn’t ready to read them when I first got them, and I also think that I became more sympathetic to them: when I was very young, I had very black and white views about what kind of poetry was acceptable to be read: I only wanted the weird or the experimental or the urban, nothing at all that smacked of the pastoral. And now I’m writing a book called Animal Eye that is almost entirely pastoral. (This is how we end up hating ourselves.) Anyway, right now I’m into James Galvin and Brigit Pegeen Kelley and early Jorie Graham–and only about 2 decades later than everyone else! Other books that I really have enjoyed are Spell by Dan Beachy-Quick and Robyn Schiff’s Worth. I also really like Mark Nowak’s documentary poems, and have been rereading Isolato a lot by Larissa Szporluk. I’m also a huge fan of Marianne Moore, so I’m liking Twigs & Knucklebones by Sarah Lindsay this week. What’s funny is that everyone always tells me how I’m this awful confessional poet, but I almost never read (and when I was young rarely read) the Confessional poets. But three years ago I started turning to Plath and Lowell a lot for this conference on Post-Confessional poetics I was in, and was consistently blown away by them, in particular Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” which I just think is one of the most perfect political poems–and poems!–ever. So I guess this makes me stodgy. But I don’t know. There’s so much poetry it’s almost impossible to keep up with, so I rely on students to help. One recommended Fig by Caroline Bergvall (I think) but I haven’t gotten to it yet. Oh, just read Karla Kelsey’s work recently and really like that, too. These are poets that sound completely different than me–people I can’t imagine imitating but who do things that might help out. Which is why I like them. I don’t usually read people who do something similar to my own aesthetic. I don’t think I actually learn much from reading them. If I do read them, I read them the way I would read a novel: for time-passing entertainment.
About Paisley Rekdal
Paisley Rekdal is the author of a book of essays and three books of poetry, most recently The Invention of the Kaleidoscope.