Larry Levis

(1946 - 1996 / California / United States)

Family Romance Poem by Larry Levis

Sister once of weeds & a dark water that held still
In ditches reflecting the odd,
Abstaining clouds that passed, & kept
Their own counsel, we
Were different, we kept our own counsel.
Outside the tool shed in the noon heat, while our father
Ground some piece of metal
That would finally fit, with grease & an hour of pushing,
The needs of the mysterious Ford tractor,
We argued out, in adolescence,
Whole systems of mathematics, ethics,
And finally agreed that altruism,
Whose long vowel sounded like the pigeons,
Roosting stupidly & about to be shot
In the barn, was impossible
If one was born a Catholic. The Swedish
Lutherans, whom the nuns called
“Statue smashers,” the Japanese on
Neighboring farms, were, we guessed,
A little better off ....
When I was twelve, I used to stare at weeds
Along the road, at the way they kept trembling
Long after a car had passed;
Or at gnats in families hovering over
Some rotting peaches, & wonder why it was
I had been born a human.
Why not a weed, or a gnat?
Why not a horse, or a spider? And why an American?
I did not think that anything could choose me
To be a Larry Levis before there even was
A Larry Levis. It was strange, but not strange enough
To warrant some design.
On the outside,
The barn, with flaking paint, was still off-white.
Inside, it was always dark, all the way up
To the rafters where the pigeons moaned,
I later thought, as if in sexual complaint,
Or sexual abandon; I never found out which.
When I walked in with a 12-gauge & started shooting,
They fell, like gray fruit, at my feet—
Fat, thumping things that grew quieter
When their eyelids, a softer gray, closed,
Part of the way, at least,
And their friends or lovers flew out a kind of skylight
Cut for loading hay.
I don’t know, exactly, what happened then.
Except my sister moved to Switzerland.
My brother got a job
With Colgate-Palmolive.
He was selling soap in Lodi, California.
Later, in his car, & dressed
To die, or live again, forever,
I drove to my own, first wedding.
I smelled the stale boutonniere in my lapel,
A deceased young flower.
I wondered how my brother’s Buick
Could go so fast, &,
Still questioning, or catching, a last time,
An old chill from childhood,
I thought: why me, why her, & knew it wouldn’t last.

Submitted: Tuesday, April 20, 2010

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