A chaste way of saying things

Contemporary North American poetry is deeply particularistic. In a complete about-face from the high fashion of a thousand years ago, when allegory reigned supreme and “creatures” were scorned as fit objects only for the lowest levels of contemplation, today the vast majority of poets seek “no ideas but in beings,” to quote Lawrence Ferlingetti’s slight deformation (in a recent interview) of the famous dictum of William Carlos Williams. I could quote virtually anyone from my private pantheon to bear this out: Mary Oliver, Lucille Clifton, Ai, Chris Llewellyn, etc. The narrative poet Larry Levis makes this praxis explicit in one of the briefest components of his masterwork, Elegy.

As with the Warlpiri dreaming just quoted, particularities from outside the boundaries of the poem itself help advance the reader’s comprehension. For this book, context is everything since the whole forms an almost-unity, with many motifs and images reoccurring throughout. It also helps to know that the author grew up on a large vineyard in California in the 50s and 60s, and thus presumably worked with the man in the photo/poem or with men like him; that he died suddenly and without apparent warning or foreknowledge during the final assembly of the manuscript that became, by some mysterious, tragicomic or theurgic process, his own elegy; and that the book was put in its final form by his great friend Philip Levine, who is known primarily as a poet of the working class. Finally, note that there is both an ironic and literal displacement at work. Are we at a gallery exhibition, in the presence of Johnny Dominguez — or simply staring at the page? Or all three? Self-reflexivity rarely gets more suggestive than this.

Risking charges of copyright infringement as usual, I’ll quote this piece in full. But I strongly recommend the whole book to any and all readers. Buy it, because you’ll want to read it again and again.

Photograph: Migrant Worker, Parlier, California, 1967

I’m going to put Johnny Dominguez right here
In front of you on this page so that
You won’t mistake him for something else,
An idea, for example, of how oppressed
He was, rising with his pan of Thompson Seedless
Grapes from a row of vines. The band
On his white straw hat darkened by sweat, is,
He would remind you, just a hatband.
His hatband. He would remind you of that.
As for the other use, this unforeseen
Labor you have subjected him to, the little
Snacks and white wine of the opening he must
Bear witness to, he would remind you
That he was not put on this earth
To be an example of something else,
Johnny Dominguez, he would hasten to
Remind you, in his chaste way of saying things,
Is not to be used as an example of anything
At all, not even, he would add after
A second or so, that greatest of all
Impossibilities, that unfinishable agenda
Of the stars, that fact, Johnny Dominguez.

– Larry Levis, Elegy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), 12.

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