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dorenrobbins.com



Doren Robbins, poet, mixed-media artist, and educator
The poet Thomas McGrath has said that Robbins’s work is unified by both anger and love.  Other critics and reviewers have compared him with Francois Villon, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Henry Miller, and Gerald Stern, writers whose work is equally intense.  Indeed, Robbins is an ecstatic poet whose vision is uncompromised, whose poems are rich with extraordinary attention paid to the often undocumented, ordinary lives that deserve it.  His is a deeply rooted devotion, as is evident from his first collection of poems.”

               Andrea Hollander Budy
      
Encyclopedia of Ethnic American Literature
 


dorenrobbins.com

poet, mixed-media artist,
and educator
“The poet Thomas McGrath has said that Robbins’s work is unified by both anger and love.  Other critics and reviewers have compared him with Francois Villon, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Henry Miller, and Gerald Stern, writers whose work is equally intense.  Indeed, Robbins is an ecstatic poet whose vision is uncompromised, whose poems are rich with extraordinary attention paid to the often undocumented, ordinary lives that deserve it.  His is a deeply rooted devotion, as is evident from his first collection of poems.”

                    Andrea Hollander Budy
                           
Encyclopedia of Ethnic American Literature
 

dorenrobbins.com


Doren Robbins poet, mixed-media artist, and educator
"The poet Thomas McGrath has said that Robbins’s work is unified by both anger and love. Other critics and reviewers have compared him with Francois Villon, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Henry Miller, and Gerald Stern, writers whose work is equally intense. Indeed, Robbins is an ecstatic poet whose vision is uncompromised, whose poems are rich with extraordinary attention paid to the often undocumented, ordinary lives that deserve it. His is a deeply rooted devotion, as is evident from his first collection of poems.”

Andrea Hollander,

from the Encyclopedia of Ethnic American Literature

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You can edit text on your website by double clicking on a text box on your website. Alternatively, when you select a text box a settings menu will appear. Selecting 'Edit Text' from this menu will also allow you to edit the text within this text box. Remember to keep your wording friendly, approachable and easy to understand as if you were talking to your customer
Elegy to Elegy, On Larry Levis

The essay appeared in Condition of the Spirit, ed. Buckley and Long.

The jolt of Larry Levis' sudden death at age forty-nine, a poet and teacher I knew and admired, a man who also appeared to have real passion in his experience and to be struggling as a poet to express himself about—and to find some livable balance within—his own demanding appetites, carried in foreboding intimations of what the unlucky or unpredictable realities of middle age can lead to and which I was in and out of the heavy tide of experiencing when I picked up the phone on that night of bad news. I met with Levis regularly for a year or so when I had gone back as an older student to graduate school at the University of Iowa in 1991, after spending one year in the English Program at Portland State University in Oregon.  He was very welcoming to me and we struck up a brotherly but limited friendship, meeting occasionally outside of class for lunch, sometimes at parties, talking about books, personal experience, travel, and the continuing possibilities in poetry of a more inclusive lyrical narrative, which for Larry in his final collections The Widening Spell of Leaves and  Elegy, turned out to be an elegant, meditative, elegiac and ironic language, easily comparable to Kenneth Rexroth's at his best in The Dragon and the Unicorn. The unrepressed and urgent styles of Villon and Rimbaud that pass through the non-sequential-simultaneous technique of Cendrars' "Tran Siberian" poem and Rexroth's The Dragon and the Unicorn, come to life again in Levis' final poems. Moreover, the politics of his ironic, elegiac sensibility could not be absorbed in a more appropriate context than now, in 2003, as the United States corporate-government prepares for its next wars:

            As the summer went on, some were drafted, some enlisted
            In a generation that would not stop falling, a generation
            Of leaves sticking to body bags, & when they turned them
            Over, they floated back to us on television, even then,
            In the Summer of Love, in 1967,
            When riot police waited beyond the doors of perception,
            When the best thing one could do was get arrested.  ("In 1967”)

            Levis had a lively understanding of the theories of Marx, Benjamin, Bahktin, and Barthes, and he referred to them in his informal lectures but, unlike those poets who emphasize alluding to or paraphrasing theoretical texts, Levis politicizes his poems with a highly personal, anecdotal and unsentimental understanding of identity and emotion. His historical context in the above-quote is that of the Vietnam war-experienced-at-home, accompanied by the personal realization that the dominant vision awaiting every acid trip was not a "vision" at all, but the brutish realism of televised body bags.  And it is within the same historical period of a real but hopeless capacity for direct action ("the best thing one could do was get arrested") that Levis would write of "[a] man whose only politics was rage" (The Widening Spell of the Leaves, p. 34).

            As a poet and a teacher Levis had a generous interest in the work of George Oppen, Michael Palmer, Leslie Scalapino, Charles Bernstein, and Charles Wright.  Although Oppen, also a poet with a humane political sensibility, received the 1968 Pulitzer Prize, most poets and critics at that time were still dismissing his poems, especially his longer collage poems. But Oppen's poetics was not a sudden departure into recondite style or subject matter, his work and that of other "experimental" poets, was a renewal of the "language experiments" originally incited by Blake's collage techniques in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Whitman's in "Song of Myself," a tradition which continued through the collage style of Cendrars, H.D., "Wasteland" Eliot, the William Carlos Williams of Spring and All and Kora in Hell, and Pound in certain readable parts of his Cantos. Levis' skill for writing in a straight-ahead American English with an insightful and compassionate historical manner, displays a strong association with his teacher at Cal. State, Fresno, Philip Levine. But such poets as Gerald Stern, Charles Wright, Jerome Rothenberg, and David Antin, each distinct, probably uncomfortable with being placed together, but associated somewhat through technically experimental and fantasist sensibilities strongly influenced by Surrealism and Dadaism with its emphasis on outrageous (however true or imagined) commentary on the inner life and our commonly alienated culture, clearly interested Levis and were referred to in his classes.  Though Levis was sympathetic to their work, I still find “Languagers” such as Palmer, Bernstein, and Hijynian like the Objectivist Zukofsky whom they essentially derive from, to be extreme mentalists uninterestingly planted on their deconstructively combined ars poeticas.' On the other hand, I shared Levis's interest in Language Poetry to the extent that poets working in a more narrative-lyric mode should be attempting to revitalize their work by ridding it of clichéd Imagist and Deep-Image subject matter, as well predictable or trite sleep-ease inducing narration, surreal mysticism and melodrama, or clever absurdity.  In terms of form, it was during a seminar on Oppen that Levis commented that he admired what Oppen had done in his longer poem "Of Being Numerous," and noted that the fragmentary or collage-like quality of shaping that poem was not sapped of possibilities for developing longer works. So it was with the 1991 publication of his The Widening Spell of the Leaves, which included the longer poem "The Perfection of Solitude: A Sequence," that his interest in the longer disjunctive expression was displayed as a form he was beginning to master in his own unique way. For those of us who read the book, it caused quite a stir.

            Levis was searching in his longer expressions for a form that was able to handle the complexity of his ideas, which were a fascinating inter-weaving of introspection, fantasy, and inescapable personal and historical reflection.  Levis was accountable for being a mature poet; and however uncomfortable or ecstatic the material or the experience, there is the feeling of a poet who would not budge from contact with uncontainable feeling as it surfaced, with elegiac, erotic, intensely reflective, or tragic emotion.  Among others, five of the poems that are singular and answerable in relation to personality and to history, are his later poems, "The Two Trees," "In 1967," "Elegy with the Sprawl of a Wave Inside of It," "Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope," (Elegy) and in all but the final section of "The Perfection of Solitude: A Sequence" (The Widening Spell of the Leaves).


     The complexity of "failure" clinging to you "in the middle of this life" (Elegy, 6) and living on, and needing to create, and living at times without creating or being vitally sustained by what creating once planted within him, is what Levis explored, often remarkably, in his last book Elegy. I am thinking specifically of "Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage," because of the poem's selective retelling of Sibyl's story from Ovid's Metamorphosis.  Sibyl, whose wish for eternal life is granted, forgets to ask for youth from Apollo, and so lives an ongoing "life" of eternal decay for which her one wish—if it could only be granted—is, ironically, to die. It is the theme of "failure," the absurdity of poems outlasting the personality, the unlasting reality of what longing ripens into, which is one of the main subjects he personally and philosophically struggles with over his last two books.  And in the last poem in Elegy, "Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope," the sense of disappointment, unfortunately not renewal, is embedded, or en-caged like Sibyl, in what the narrator hears: "the endless,/ Annoying,  unvarying flick of the rope each time/ It touched the street" (81).

            During the time I knew him, Larry was carrying a lot of weight, and smoked and drank at a good pace as well.  I do not know what was driving him to be lopsided in that direction—compared to most of the self-abuse I have witnessed it didn't seem that bad.  Still, after forty-five, my feeling was: I wish he knew better. But I don't know.  If he lived it would not be an issue but an ongoing mystery, or gossipy concern, or forgotten inquiry by those directly involved.  The concerned comments I made in relation to his habits were at first laughed-off, then ignored.  So I stopped. I was no one close.  After one of our lunches I walked back with him to the parking lot where he started to gear up to get on his motorcycle. "Hey, Larry," I said, "how does this thing handle on black ice?" He laughed, tightening the strap on his helmet.  His likeable, at times almost boyish, brooding personality appeared in the aura of daring something he portrayed a muteness about, at least to me.  Now, for the last few years, on and off, I think of his characterization of Sibyl and her request for eternal life, which is, after all, made by a sexually-flattered "virgin," and therefore it is not only a trope for the misery that awaits the sexually repressed, the conceitedly virginal, or the overly cautious, but it is also an image of a person naively horrified that there is no meaning deep enough—or certainly not secure enough—for the personality to allow for even a partial, or common, fulfillment in the average life span. In the poem I am referring to, "Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage," Levis, making inferences to the end of Sybil's life, asks:

            What do you do when nothing calls you anymore?
            When you turn & there is only the light filling the empty windows?
            When the angel fasting inside you has grown so thin it flies
            Out of you a last time without your

Knowing it, & the water dries up in its thimble [...]  (Elegy 51-52)
Sybil is a libidinal trope for the irrationality of uncontainable desire, and its harshly fateful result, a fate without compromise. On the other hand, it is a mean-spirited cautionary tale of unnecessary vengeance. Certainly, there is something ingenuous about her desire, as there is something innocent about all non-violent desire, however impracticable it is to seek unending fulfillment. Levis, by internalizing the mythic figure of the shrinking and disappearing Sybil into that of the fasting angel whose water supply has dried up, forces a self-identification of this vengeance on the narrator. I think there are two meanings here. First, for some temperaments it might be extremely difficult to endure the "fasting" between experiences of timelessness or "immortality" of pleasure, difficult to the point of severe depression: "What do you do when nothing calls you anymore?" Second, there is an attempt to make the invisible speak, as when the narrator declares, "I'm going to stare at the whorled grain of wood in this desk/ I'm bent over until it's infinite/ I'm going to make it talk, I'm going to make it/ Confess everything" (52). The fact that it does not speak, but remains a part of the circumstance in which "nothing calls," begs the question about whether the vitality of meaning associated with pleasure will return. The narrator has faith that the inanimate "whorled grain of wood" will answer, but it is a fantasy and, in the poem at least, it is a neutral fantasy of urgency that is unanswered; even the "letter" that is sent at the end of the poem ends up in the "irretrievable" (52). Silence, the chorus on the stage rim of closure, inhabits the irretrievable. 
 
            The "whorled grain of wood" which does not answer might parallel "the eye of the Black Swan" looking out from a wine bottle label "indifferent as Instinct/ Itself" (43). This particular recognition of instinctual "indifference" accompanied by the drive toward pleasure or contentment is at the raw center of his final two books. In both books there is a poetic-philosophical commentary on instinctual drives and appetites, as well as historical events.  Impossible to know, but I don't believe that Levis was involved in a poetically traditional Romantic battle against the lop-sidedness (and silence) the instinctual life and its demands can press upon the personality. Though—due to temperament—he might have been ineluctably willing to stay in his personal rip tide, I think Levis would rather endure the flick of that rope than make a neat conclusion of it all. Some might say he paid for it.  But that conclusion is frustratingly reductive for the complexity of any poet's life.  If the demons of excess proved stronger, proved dominant, sadly, in Levis' case they were dominant too soon. The partially uncontrollable or unendurably uncontrollable has a lot of faces, a lot of forces.  The struggle against bitter unfulfillment, "some/ indecipherable defeat" (81), whatever the personal-cultural particulars are, can wear you out no matter what you stack against it, and in American culture with a high percentage of males dead from heart attacks at an average age of fifty-two, the core, the center of a man, the figurative organ of passion and vitality, where the Greeks believed the soul resided, goes first. 

            In the Fall of '91, while attending Levis' class in "Modernist and Post-Modernist Poetry in the United States," I was writing an essay on George Oppen and Cubism titled "Light of a Limiting Clarity."  Levis and I had just put away a big Chinese meal, walked and talked most of it off, then decided to go into Prairie Lights Bookstore to look around.  About an hour later we were just coming out and Larry handed me an already crumpled bag and said, "you might want to look at this, keep it as long as you like."  It was a copy of Oppen's just-released letters.  "That's beautiful, that's beautiful, I'll be right back," I said.  Inside I quickly scanned over the racks for a Ford Maddox Ford book he hadn't read and (near the end of our at that point silent and rapid devouring of the Fried Happy Family Mandarin dish) I'd been telling him how that book completely changed my whole flow—that book redirected me—in a crucial down-period I'd come out of five years before.  Then I couldn't remember if it was Parade's End or Provence I'd been talking about so I decided to buy him both. 
     When I came out Larry was gone.