Poem on Fickle Muses: Sisyphus Ponders Escape

Steps cut into the trail, ever and always upward

My Poem on Fickle Muses “Sisyphus Ponders Escape”

My poem, “Sisyphus Ponders Escape,” went up on Fickle Muses’ site today. Fickle Muses is ending publication soon, and I am honored to have work published there before the site’s long run comes to an end. While I’m sorry to see the site coming to a close, I can appreciate the deep commitment that has sustained Fickle Muses thus far at the same time I as understand the need for one chapter to end so that another can begin.

If You Were Sisyphus

Often we think ourselves trapped — by life, other people, commitments, hopes, challenges…and by forces we can’t even conceptualize. Forces which we could never have imagined would bring themselves to act on our lives.  And we think there is little we can do about our situation.

I’m not sure that’s always true.

There’s plenty of times we can’t control anything except our own actions and reactions.

But many times, we can do more, if we only believe it is possible.

If you were Sisyphus, trapped in unending torment for something you were only a little sorry to have done, what would you think?  Would you think you had any control?  The punishment is intended to take control away, replace control with unending effort and drudgery at someone else’s whim.

Bad enough that the various problems and circumstances of life seem to go on forever.  But what if the punishment for trying to control events beyond your allowed scope doesn’t just seem but actually goes on forever?  That’s the situation Sisyphus is in.

The modern notion of punishment is that it is intended to rehabilitate the one who is punished. In the case of Sisyphus, there is no allowance for the potential of redemption.  No possibility of parole, no time served for good behavior.

Sisyphus rightly knows that, unless he acts on behalf of himself, the endless repetition of punishment will continue. No one is coming to rescue him. If he wants out, he must engineer the escape himself.

That’s what this poem is about.

Is there more?

Some of you probably know that I am working on a collection of Sisyphus-related poems.  The collection is shaping up nicely. While I’d like to say it will be ready for this winter, I’m not completely sure about that.

Thanks to Fickle Muses for the publication!  Enjoy!


Go Look at Issue 8 of Sediments Literary-Arts Journal posted 9/11

yellow rose, dried, and dried up leaves

New Publication:

Issue 8 of Sediments Literary-Arts Journal went up today, 9/11 — take a look!https://sedimentslit.com/

On this 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the first poem of the current issue, “in America we like our heroes dead” by Matthew Bendert, has particular significance.

Where were you on 9/11?

I was at work.  I walked through the basement level of the research building I worked in and saw several people huddled around a television set. Some were crying.  I couldn’t see, at first, what was happening.  I had to push myself to the front of the group.

It was an old-style television, set on a tall, narrow cart, too heavy to move easily on its own.  By today’s standards, it is now ancient.  By the standards of its time, it was a little out of date, but not ancient.

It reminded me of the first moon landings, when I was in kindergarten.  I watched film of those landings from the floor of the gymnasium, staring up at the huge, bulky television with its tiny black and white screen atop the towering audio-visual cart. My friends, silent as I was, watched with me.  We craned our necks up, as if we were looking into the night sky.

But this was no moon landing.

That day, I watched the news on that basement television set as the second of the Twin Towers fell.  I missed the fall of the first.

Whatever sound played, whatever newscaster spoke, I have no memory of.

Just that picture, over and over, being replayed: the first plane hitting the tower. The tower coming down.

Later that day, I had a call from a client in New Jersey.

They had spent most the day on their rooftop, watching what seemed like the world coming apart. They felt we should wait on the next delivery.  I agreed.  I wasn’t sure there would ever be another delivery of anything again.  I wasn’t sure what might happen tomorrow.

Tomorrow is never assured.  We get so used to the sun coming up, so used to the next day being so much like the previous, that we think is has been assured to us.  We think  we can count on the tomorrow we envision.

Of course, there is far less we can count on that we realize. Yet, there is a positive side to this uncertainty.

If we lived with the knowledge of the raw uncertainty of life foremost in our minds, we could accomplish nothing.

The illusion of permanence, the illusion of safety, lets us forge forward into the future. It lets us create, and build.  Invest, educate, sow, reap. Without the expectation of safety, we would accomplish nothing as a people.

9/11 reminded us of the fragility — and preciousness — of living in our illusions just enough to forge a society, a people, a future.

Review Links: Levis’ “The Darkening Trapeze”

cover of The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems, by Larry Levis

What Comes After Elegy?

The appearance of The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems, by Larry Levis, Graywolf Press, 2016, surprised those who expected that Elegy, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997, also published posthumously, was probably the last collection of Larry Levis’ work. Since its publication in January this year, however, The Darkening Trapeze was has been received to high acclaim, and has been widely reviewed and contemplated in print.

Full disclosure: I studied with Levis at the Warren Wilson College MFA for Writers Program in the early ’90’s, so I am absolutely biased. I agree with most of what I see in the press about Levis in general and The Darkening Trapeze in particular.  Rather than re-state what has otherwise been very well said, I will list below various links, grouped into the three categories of reviews, remembrances, and other. Of course this cannot be completely comprehensive. Please feel free to leave any adds or misses in the comments.

Reviews of Levis’ The Darkening Trapeze:

Ploughshares Review of The Darkening Trapeze from February, 2016. A particularly perceptive comment is “If humor offers a way of coping with the self-consciousness of sentiment, one of the great tropes of Levis’ work is that jokes often spiral out of control into tragedy”.

In Tess Taylor’s NPR review of The Darkening Trapeze,. I especially like the description she gives of Larry’s poems as “mournful, quicksilver inhabitations.”

Publisher’s Weekly posted Ada Limon’s review in which she calls The Darkening Trapeze “a book in which hope is only delivered in increments, slowly and under the door”.

In David Biespiel’s review of The Darkening Trapeze for the NY Times, Biespiel says of Larry’s work: “Rarely have life’s joys and bitterness been embraced with such decency.”

Kathleen Graber reviewed The Darkening Trapeze  –and referred back to earlier collections, in her post for the LA Review of Books. She covers a lot of ground in this in-depth consideration, but I like that she’s pointed out “how hypnotic the unfurling of Levis’s sentences can be” — a characteristic which I think intensified over the span of his work.

In a review for Graywolf Press’ blog, Mark Doty describes Levis’ work as confessional and post-confessional, “bound in time” and yet leaking into timelessness. I agree with his assertion that “people will be reading Larry Levis a hundred years from now, should there be readers of poetry, or readers at all.”

Remembrances of Levis:

David St. John–first student, then long-time close friend and colleague of Larry’s–who edited Levis’ Selected Poems, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000, also compiled and edited The Darkening Trapeze. As part of Graywolf Press’ blog series, David St. John muses on an iconic Larry Levis moment.

An impressive Levis moment at a reading, is told by a then-PhD student, Pam Houston, from Graywolf Press’ series of remembrances of Larry.

Charles Baxter’s lithub post — in which he recalls Larry Levis, and calls him a “lizard poet”.

Erika L. Sanchez’ describes what Levis’ work means to her, in particular the feeling his work creates of “a sharp ache for something I can’t quite identify”, in another post for Graywolf Press.

Also available to purchase, in The American Poetry Review’s March/April 2016 issue, is the long piece The Darkening Trapeze: A Conversation which is a conversation between the poets Gregory Donovan, Linda Gergerson, Terrance Hayes, and Tony Hoagland in which they span the range of Levis’ poetry and its development over time.  Also in this issue are three poems from The Darkening Trapeze.

Other Levis Links:

Not a review about the newest book, but a good bio and bibliography of Larry Levis’ work: Poets.org Bio and Bibliography

Want to hear Larry Levis discuss poetry, and, in particular, the elegy?  On the Warren Wilson College MFA site, you can buy a digital copy of Levis’ lecture from January, 1994:  On Elegy: Seamus Heaney’s “Station Island”

Joseph Fasano’s 2015 examination of the theme of banishment running through Levis’ poetics was also published at poets.org.

Also not a review– a documentary film A Late Style of Fire: Larry Levis, American Poet will be released this fall.  I’m looking forward to seeing the film, though of course revisiting the past always brings up so much that is bittersweet–like much of Levis’ work.

My Own Opinion

As I said at the beginning, you have to remember that I am biased.  Hayes talks in the APR article about Larry trying to “expand the edges” of the poem.  Others have written about the long, sometimes recursive, lines that mark his later work. a sort of circling about the subject as a means of eventually containing what cannot be contained. Donovan says they “swirl” and Hoagland and Graber describe the poems as having “unfurled.”

When I think of Larry writing in his later style, all the above seem apt descriptions.  But I am left with an image of the poet as fly fisherman, casting a line out into life’s stream, tugging and reeling it back through the moving water, patiently casting again, tempting and entrancing, until the mesmerized fish strikes and is able to be brought into the light.