Last week's poet, Tony Hoagland, wrote of Levis: "his practice is to use image as a form of inquiry, as a kind of tentative, speculating finger poking into the unknown." You'll see this in the way Levis uses the recurring image of starlight in this poem. You get the sense that the speaker (like you) doesn't initially know what the starlight represents, but he keeps pushing it forward, and part of the poem's reward is that you discover at the end, along with the speaker, some solace in it.
That's not to say that Levis himself discovered starlight's meaning as you do: in one brilliant, stream-of-consciousness moment. The poem is far too well crafted for that--notice, for example, how the starlight works against the city lights winking out in the father's mind. They are two visually identical images, but one is transient and one permanent--a carefully considered set of images for a poem in which a speaker faced with transience (death) is wishing for permanence. More likely, Levis "tentatively" explored the meanings of starlight in his poem during the writing process
, which led him to some resolutions, and he preserved parts of this process of discovery for the reader in the poem's final form.
How does one explore and discover while writing a poem? Well, it comes in part from fostering the organic nature of the writing process. The "organic" aspect works like this: an image (in this case starlight) usually comes with shades of meaning the writer hadn't planned on; and it interacts with existing images and ideas in a poem in ways the writer hadn't planned on, thereby pushing the poem in unexpected directions and leading to unexpected discoveries. It's hard to say exactly why, but the spontaneity (and surprise) of this process tends to translate to the reader. Similarly, a reader can often tell when a poem was meticulously planned and outlined before it was written, thereby stifling spontaneity. A poem feels far more organic and immediate when the writer allows images and their interactions to help direct it--when, in effect, the writer allows what he's creating to help finish creating itself.Winter Starsby Larry Levis
My father once broke a man’s hand
Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor. The man,
Ruben Vasquez, wanted to kill his own father
With a sharpened fruit knife, & he held
The curved tip of it, lightly, between his first
Two fingers, so it could slash
Horizontally, and with surprising grace,
Across a throat. It was like a glinting beak in a hand,
And, for a moment, the light held still
On those vines. When it was over,
My father simply went in & ate lunch, & then, as always,
Lay alone in the dark, listening to music.
He never mentioned it.
I never understood how anyone could risk his life,
Then listen to Vivaldi.
Sometimes I go out into this yard at night,
And stare through the wet branches of an oak
In winter, & realize I am looking at the stars
Again. A thin haze of them, shining
It used to make me feel lighter, looking up at them,
In California, that light was closer.
In a California no one will ever see again,
My father is beginning to die. Something
Inside him is slowly taking back
Every word it ever gave him.
Now, if we try to talk, I watch my father
Search for a lost syllable as if it might
Solve everything, & though he can’t remember, now,
The word for it, he is ashamed…
If you can think of the mind as a place continually
Visited, a whole city placed behind
The eyes & shining, I can imagine, now it’s end—
As when the lights go off, one by one,
In a hotel at night, until at last
All of the travelers will be asleep, or until
Even the thin glow from the lobby is a kind
Of sleep; & while the woman behind the desk
Is applying more lacquer to her nails,
You can almost believe that the elevator,
As it ascends, must open upon starlight.
I stand out on the street, & do not go in.
That was our agreement, at my birth.
And for years I believed
That what went unsaid between us became empty,
And pure, like starlight, & that it persisted.
I got it all wrong.
I wound up believing in words the way a scientist
Believes in carbon, after death.
Tonight, I’m talking to you, father, although
It is quiet here in the Midwest, where a small wind,
The size of a wrist, wakes the cold again—
Which may be all that’s left of you & me.
When I left home at seventeen, I left for good.
That pale haze of stars goes on & on,
Like laughter that has found a final, silent shape
On a black sky. It means everything
It cannot say. Look, it’s empty out there, & cold.
Cold enough to reconcile
Even a father, even a son.Larry Levis was born in Fresno, California in 1946. His father was a grape grower, and in his youth Levis drove a tractor, pruned vines, and picked grapes in Selma, California. Levis died of a heart attack in 1996, at the age of 49.