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The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems

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Goodreads Choice Award
Nominee for Best Poetry (2016)
The empty bar that someone was supposed to swing to him
Did not arrive, & so his outstretched flesh itself became

A darkening trapeze. The two other acrobats were thieves.
--from "Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze Inside It"

The Darkening Trapeze collects the last poems by Larry Levis, written during the extraordinary blaze of his final years when his poetry expanded into the ambitious operatic masterpieces he is known for. Edited and with an afterword by David St. John and published twenty years after Levis's death, this collection contains major unpublished works, including final elegies, brief lyrics, and a coda believed to be the last poem Levis wrote, a heart-wrenching poem about his son. The Darkening Trapeze is an astonishing collection by a poet many consider to be among the greatest of late-twentieth-century American poetry.

96 pages, Paperback

First published January 5, 2016

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About the author

Larry Levis

19 books48 followers
Larry Patrick Levis was born in Fresno, California, on September 30, 1946. His father was a grape grower, and in his youth Levis drove a tractor, pruned vines, and picked grapes in Selma, California. He earned a bachelor's degree from Fresno State College (now California State University, Fresno) in 1968, a master's degree from Syracuse University in 1970, and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1974.

Among his honors were a YM-YWHA Discovery Award, three fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Levis died of a heart attack in 1996, at the age of 49.

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5 stars
123 (46%)
4 stars
95 (35%)
3 stars
37 (13%)
2 stars
7 (2%)
1 star
4 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 37 reviews
Profile Image for Ellie.
1,475 reviews372 followers
December 28, 2016
Wonderful, powerful poems. In truth, I know this is only a first, a preliminary reading of these poems (which I've already two or three times with each reading). Very rich work.

A wonderful Christmas present!
Profile Image for Gerry LaFemina.
Author 38 books57 followers
December 22, 2015
To get a glimpse into the work Larry never published (some of these never finished) , is to get a glimpse of the poet's mind at work--spanning approximately the last 15 years of his writing (some of these poems were dropped from the original version of Winter Stars, others were finished before his death), these poems represent Levis's work from when he was working at his highest level--long, almost rambling meditations that engage the self and other, life and art, love and loss. There are some weaker moments along the way, but David St. John has done a great job in editing this collection with both a lot of love for the work and a tough critic's eye.
Profile Image for Simeon Berry.
Author 4 books160 followers
July 9, 2017
Larry Levis is one of my favorite poets, but I waited a year to read this after purchasing it, partly because after I read it, there would be no more Levis, and partly because I was afraid to read lesser poems of his after the stylistic and technical crescendo of The Widening Spell of the Leaves (perhaps my favorite book of poetry) and Elegy.

If this were the only Levis I had ever read, I certainly would have given it four stars, but I've read his books many times, and I can't help comparing The Darkening Trapeze to what I know he was capable of. Many of the poems in the fist half of the book are forgettable and frustrating in that they kept reminding me of other poems of his where his explanations of metaphysical theory (placelessness, the mutability of thing and no-thing, the conditional nihilism of narrative and meaning, the authenticity of suffering and its artificiality) were embedded in more subtle and elegant ways.

What I loved about Levis was his ability to craft a landscape or a tableau and slyly deconstruct it as he moved through it, replacing objects and people with ideas and intentions without diminishing either. His moral quandaries were the light of his looking, but not the end of his emotional intelligence, which was fearsome, and the final arbiter. Narrative, rhetoric, image, and sentiment were all braided together into a theory of selfhood--a doomed one that was nevertheless comforting.

Too many of the early poems in the book simply have less ambition and complexity than the ones in his last three books, and his syllogisms about Nothingness are too openly deployed. The poems seem to stop too short, or swerve from their course in a frustrating rather than surprising manner. The amplitude of both the poems and the images are not perfectly modulated as the final versions of latter books, and many of the perfectly fine poems in this book pale in comparison to his other work.

The danger of publishing uncollected work is like the danger of actors doing commercials. Inferior work risks revealing the speaker's method of generating meaning separately from content, and once a reader/viewer becomes too aware of the artist's methods (indeed, that there is a method at all), this knowledge can contaminate the experience of the artist's other work.

I still go back to Levis because of the unsparing intimacy of his quarrels with himself, and that's more about spending time with the man, rather than untangling his poems. Sadly, reading this book only highlighted his absence for me, because that argument often seemed to be missing or murmured, just off-stage in that dark space where nothing (or everything) has already happened before it began.
Profile Image for C. Varn.
Author 3 books273 followers
May 6, 2016
(Originally published at the Hong Kong Review of Books) Released this year, The Darkening Trapeze consists of the final unpublished poems after Levis’s death 20 years ago. David St. John, a personal friend of Levis and an accomplished poet in his own right, has edited this posthumous collection and added the necessary context in his notes, forward and afterward. As a result, this collection is more tonally and stylistically consistent than most posthumous volumes of poetry. Levis’s work here seems to move into the more and more elegiac and lyric but continually pairs these styles with the commonplace, the banal, and the shocking. This weaving in and out of lyric to the everyday often juxtaposes moods and tones in ways that feel almost completely original to Levis.

There is a Whitman-esque quality to Levis. While not directly influenced by Whitman’s style in the way that poets such as Carl Sandberg and Allen Ginsberg were, Levis tries to condense characters and situations in more and more breathlessly ambitious poems in a Whitman-like way. Like the longer Whitman poems, the length of these poems tends to be several pages. Even in the 80s and 90s when they were written, poems were trending downward in length, making this unusual. This, paired with sometimes rapid seeming shifts in images and tone, can be dizzying.

Yet this is also joined with a tone and an eye that, for me, is almost dialectically unlike Whitman. Levis doesn’t allow for transcendence to sneak in or the orgiastic multitudes to make everything already. Indeed, Levis is characterized by dark honesty. In, ‘Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire,’ Levis is unblinking when he ends the poem, ‘And that / Is what it has become: / Having to imagine, having to imagine everything, / In detail, & without end.’ The details make it real, but they don’t redeem anything. As David St. John indicates, these juxtaposed emotions are deliberate and are consistent throughout the poems. Oranges and reds dominate, but in the middle of the collection, Levis devotes a poem to Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park which is dominated by cool blues. Levis continues to move in and out, from broad vistas with many characters coming into and out a fugue, moving from burning hotels to the writer’s trembling hands. What at first seems meandering builds into both polish and friction, so that there is a sharp clarity to Levis’s work.

This book seems to be continuously going up in flames. Arson is a key image, showing up in two poems, the aforementioned ‘Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire’ as well as ‘Elegy For The Infinite Wrapped In Tinfoil,’ both of which make the scene of burning bleak and bittersweet. In ‘Elegy For The Infinite Wrapped In Tinfoil,’ the arsonist notices ‘There alone past eaves & lawns that flowed /
 Beside him then as if he’d loosened them /
 From every mooring but brimming moonlight’ paired with an opening image of white flame. It is both sentimental and borderline nihilistic, particularly in the context of the arsonist, who is a boy on a prison farm.

As well as the theme of the burning archive, Levis seems to be dealing constantly with guilt: survivor’s guilt, sexual guilt, and the guilt of history itself. This is felt the most in Levis’s ‘Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze Inside It,’ where the poem’s narrator manages to convey the weight of history paired with humor:

The only surviving son of Jesus Christ was Karl Marx.

You can tell by the last letter of his name,


The only surviving son of Jesus Christ survives now

Mostly in English departments & untended graves.

Such self-conscious humor as this both undercuts and emphases the weight of the personal and historical scenes depicted in the elegy, and the same can be found elsewhere in Levis’s collection.

At first, the early poems in the collection, from the period around the writing of Winter Stars, seem disjointed in theme from the later work. However, the reader later feels that they are infected with the same double melancholy. From ‘Gossip in the Village,’ the first poem of The Darkening Trapeze, we read: ‘From now on I will wake alone. My Fate, I will think, / Will be to have no fate. I will feel suddenly hungry, / The morning will be bright & wrong.’ Again, here is the juxtaposition we see in later poems: snow drifts and hints of fire, beauty with dead-eyed stares. The entire collection does seem ‘bright & wrong,’ and apparently this burnt like white flame between Levis’s work from that period in the 1980s to end of his life.

The final poem in Coda, ‘God Is Always 17,’ announces itself as a ‘the last poem in the book’ and is an uncertain reflection on Levis’s son. The darkness, another motif that reoccurs, moves in, and poem ends with ‘wondering what was going to become of us.’ More painful because we know what did become of Levis, this collection, in all its chiaroscuro, ends with both grace and trepidation.
Profile Image for C.
1,754 reviews44 followers
September 27, 2016
It took me months to get through this one: Primarily because I wanted to prolong my ability to read new poems by Levis.

All in all, I loved it as I love everything that the man wrote in his lifetime. Overall, though, it was a little more uneven than his other collections, due of course to being less of a cohesively planned volume. While I would much rather have access to these poems in this fashion than to never have the ability to read them, it felt a little less satisfying than his earlier collections.

Still, there are moments in here that just twist your gut and cover you with goosebumps. No one can write like Levis could. I just wish there could be even more unpublished work found.
Profile Image for Brian.
Author 3 books34 followers
March 14, 2017
This is such a profoundly inspiring collection, one that I could never have predicted I so much needed to read. After almost every poem I wanted to stop and write my own. There are few 20th-century poets who have elicited this immediate reaction from me. I'm going to be seeking out more of his work.
58 reviews1 follower
June 19, 2021
My cousin was a very talented poet. Wish I had a chance now to sit and talk with him.
493 reviews16 followers
January 4, 2017
The Darkening Trapeze was beautiful and fluid and rapidly joined Atlantis and The Woman I Kept to Myself as one of my favorite collections of poems. Levis's poems in this book are another example (like Song, which I read right before the new year) of mystical surreal construction, dense and toothy and full of feeling. They had a rich emotional texture, growing and sprawling into sometimes massive song-cries. The poems were serious and humorous in turns, dark and glowing; they dealt with loss and spiritual existence and the absurd unfinishedness of life. I had already read "Elegy With a Darkening Trapeze Inside It" and I loved it here as much as I did the first time I encountered it. Some of my other favorites among these gems were "La Strada", "Carte De L'Assassin A M. Andre Breton" (which should have diacritics, but I can't get Goodreads to put them in), "A Singing In the Rocks", "Make A Law So That The Spine Remembers Wings", "The Necessary Angel", "Poem Ending With a Hotel On Fire", "Threshold of the Oblivious Blossoming," and "God is Always Seventeen". It hurts to insinuate that the rest of the collection was not as stellar as these selections, but I think these were the poems I enjoyed the most, by whatever tiny margin that is by.
As a sample, here is some of "Poem Ending With a Hotel on Fire":
Poor means knowing the trees couldn't care less

Whether you carve the initials of your enemies
All over the trunk's white bark,

Or whether this sleep beneath them is your last.

In the contorted figures meant to represent their sleep,
The statistics never show the deep shade in the park,

The mother appearing in the dark of someone within whose
Sprawled arms clear gin & black tar mingle
To compose the blood's unwritable psalm,

The blackening church bells sat the poor are wrong,
So does the traffic stalling on the bridge; so does the lazy swirl
Of current underneath it all, a smile fading in the dark.
and of "A Singing in the Rocks":
They will say he is the saying & the finishing of the saying,
And that even the unsaying restores the beginning.

It isn't so, & the hawk caught in the boy's net

That I watched, later that day, had no sophistry about it, no guile.
Its choice was the tearing of itself to shreds.

So that, in an hour of so, it bled to death, And therefore, no.
And therefore

He is the moment the trap springs give & something is snagged
For a last time in the cross-stitched mesh of the net.


So say that on a hill of twisted mesquite & a scattered outcropping
Of rocks gray in that first light,

He was the singing & the no one there,

Dobro & slid guitar & the pinched, nasal twang of a country tenor.
Levis's final poems come alive in this collection, drawing you into their theater of sound, equal parts tragedy and comedy.
86 reviews1 follower
July 12, 2016
Posthumous collection eerily detailing the self at its most alone, its most contemplative, and its most persistent. Rich in body/soul dichotomies and the ephemerality of existence, a read that, while it wasn't my usual aesthetic, was pleasing philosophically and as a whole.

"When I knew I wanted them to mean nothing / And suggest everything, desire rushed back into things, / But not into the blossoms & not into the air."
Profile Image for Susan.
Author 6 books17 followers
October 23, 2016
Levis was a wicked wonder with words, with his angle of vision. This book will destroy you in a good way. I read it very slowly to savor it. If you love poetry, you need this book.

"Gaze out at the rain & listen to the hushed clatter."

"And wait until the objects in the room take back/Their shapes in the dawn."

"...And I will never forget/Being there with him & hearing it & wondering what was going to become of us."
761 reviews8 followers
November 13, 2016
The poet Larry Levis died in 1996 at the age of 49. These poems were
lovingly collected and published this year. Many of them are long
conversations or collages of various scenes of poverty, rough living,
desolation, seeking, and love. We meet other poets, vagabonds, Andre
Breton, Francois Villon, Richard Diebenkorn, and drunks or addicts.
His work is a keening. Always searching for what life's purpose could
be and how to achieve that. Recommend.
Profile Image for Danielle.
66 reviews
February 24, 2016
I rather enjoyed reading through the poems. Some I didn't completely understand, others gave me a nice mental image of what was happening. Overall, I enjoyed them.

This book was received free through goodreads giveway
2,088 reviews25 followers
July 24, 2016
This is the first book of poems by Levis that I've read. They kept my attention and I may read more of him. Levis died unexpectedly in 1996 at the age of 49 from a heart attack and is described on the cover of this book as "Our Whitman for the late twentieth century."
3 reviews
February 7, 2016
This was well done, I enjoyed the way this was put together.
Profile Image for Ashley Booth.
120 reviews1 follower
February 28, 2016
Somehow more accessible than Elegy in certain ways, although I'd recommend reading in tandem with Elegy as this is essentially an extension of that book.
Profile Image for John.
497 reviews3 followers
June 13, 2016
A must Read Poetry for 2016--Brilliant writer Larry Levis A posthumous release of his last writings, compiled recently--
Profile Image for Jacob.
68 reviews9 followers
May 10, 2017
"Whose childhood is no more than a blackened rafter,/Something left after fire has swept through it?"
Profile Image for Michael Mingo.
81 reviews3 followers
June 19, 2017
I went into this collection admittedly skeptical, expecting this posthumous collection would be more "interesting" than "good." And truth be told, some of my enjoyment here comes from seeing the poems as part of Levis's overall body of work (e.g., immediately hearing "Boy in Video Arcade" from Elegy in the last line of "La Strada here," reading about certain poems' roles in the development of the Winter Stars manuscript, etc.).

But on the whole, the poems presented in The Darkening Trapeze are consistently sharp and moving. "Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire" has found a sure place among my favorite Levis poems, and how could I read the concluding lines from "New Year's Eve at the Santa Fe Hotel, Fresno, California" without a wistful sigh?
...I miss that talk, although I think
I'm right to be alone, in the gift of my
One life, listening to songs not made
For me, invented by no one I know, for luck,
For a winter night, for two friends who,
Some nights, some days, gave me everything.
I will certainly want to re-read Elegy now: I wasn't as taken with it as I was with Levis's other collections, but given my thoughts on this book, perhaps I misjudged that one.
Profile Image for Gabriel Morgan.
37 reviews
November 18, 2022
I am not a browser of literary supplements and magazines. i find these things, like Levis' poems, by fortunate accident. Thank you, fortunate accident. Worm in the ear is a pleasure to read out loud. Sometimes he reminds me of that Chilean poet, or "anti-poet", Niconar Parra. Not quite sure why they called him an "anti poet" but it sounds even more distinguished than a poet, somehow. That was a good little anthology, with those Niconar Parra poems or "anti poems" and some by Pessoa were in there. These Levis poems are subversive and funny in that sstyle however they are in fact very lyrical at the same time. Pretty tricky.
Profile Image for Zarah.
252 reviews70 followers
December 19, 2018
Though there were a few poems I didn't love, overall I was engrossed by Larry Levis's style. It's truthful and blunt. And a lot of other synonyms that go along with those.
Profile Image for Susan.
44 reviews2 followers
January 7, 2019
Larry has an interesting and engaging sense when introducing controversial subjects. You are aware before you realize it.
Profile Image for Jamie Gogocha.
297 reviews17 followers
March 6, 2019
There were a few poems in this book that stood out to me, but almost every poem had a line or section that made me "wow" out loud.
Profile Image for Shannon.
275 reviews16 followers
July 7, 2019
Just under 4 stars. A few poems didn't reach the level of the rest.
Profile Image for Megan.
41 reviews1 follower
May 12, 2020
The best poems knocked me off my feet. The rest were admirable but not poems I would return to with much eagerness.
Profile Image for Jeff Hoffman.
Author 1 book1 follower
July 23, 2020
Like I’m going to give the book that contains the last poems Levis ever finished less than five stars. Are you cray-cray? Not a chance.
Profile Image for The Cholo.
44 reviews5 followers
June 5, 2022
Definitely worth the read, but this is a posthumous collection and many poems feel wordy. There are certainly moments of revelatory images.
Profile Image for Kaylee.
67 reviews3 followers
December 15, 2022
ive spent the past two years slowly reading this collection and i’ve read every poem now although i’m certain i’ll never be done as it keeps becoming new every time i open it
Profile Image for Prince Jhonny.
125 reviews6 followers
April 3, 2019
An inevitably uneven collection, but thrilling in the risks it takes (its low points are more enticing in their ambition than the highlights of your average poetry collection) and the best poems here (usually the ones where LL lets himself stretch out to the max, like "Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze Inside It" and "Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire") scrape the stratosphere.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 37 reviews

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