A few days before his death in 1996, Larry Levis mentioned to his friend and former instructor Philip Levine that he had "an all-but-completed manuscript" of poems. The poems were written in the six years following publication of his previous book, The Widening Spell of the Leaves, and continue and extend the jazz improvisations on themes that gave those poems their resonance. There are poems of sudden stops and threats from the wild: an opossum halts traffic and snaps at pedestrians in posh west Los Angeles; a migrant worker falls victim to the bites of two beautiful black widow spiders; horses starve during a Russian famine; a thief, sitting in the rigging of Columbus's ship, contemplates his work in the New World. The collection culminates in the elegies written to a world in which culture fragments; in which the beasts of burden - the horses, the migrant workers - are worked toward death; a world in which "Love's an immigrant, it shows itself in its work./ It works for almost nothing"; a world in which "you were no longer permitted to know, / Or to decide for yourself, /Whether there was an angel inside you, or whether there wasn't."
Larry Levis was an outstanding poet, and a student and colleague of Philip Levine. Levine, who edited this posthumous manuscript, writes that Levis's "early death is a staggering loss for our poetry, but what he left is a major achievement that will enrich our lives for as long as poetry matters." That's high praise, and the poems in Elegy are sturdy enough to carry the weight of those expectations. Especially striking is "The Oldest Living Thing in L.A.," an encounter between urbanites trapped within the prisons of their routines, and an ancient-seeming possum crossing a busy city street: "It would lift its black lips & show them / The reddened gums, the long rows of incisors, / Teeth that went all the way back beyond / The flames of Troy & Carthage..." Levis's writing is marked by memorable imagery that resonates both to the world of our daily lives and our mythic longings for transcendence.