Originally published by E.P Dutton, 1981.
Currently available from Carnegie Mellon University Press ($13.95)
by Michele Battiste
Larry Levis begins The Dollmaker’s Ghost with an epigram from Rilke about fear that states, among other thoughts, “perhaps I would have been able to do it even so: to make things out of fear. . .” Here, Levis tackles the fear motherlode: death and all its accoutrements. But instead of writing poems from fear, using fear as a source and wellspring, Levis writes to fear, at fear, confronting it aggressively. In “To My Ghost Reflected in the Auxvasse River,” he tackles his dead self directly:
And then, if you did not speak to me,
As a fish did once, in a dream,
I would slice you up to the stomach and slap
Your head against stone,
And make you flesh. . .
Ghosts haunt this collection. In addition to several direct addresses to ghosts, Levis resurrects family members, strangers he encountered, artists he never encountered, and even the woman from Edward Hopper’s 1931 painting Hotel Room. In this poem, Levis merges the woman in the painting (“And her face, in shadow, / Is more silent than this painting” with the woman he is addressing (“You’ve kept on sitting here for forty years—alone / Almost left out of the picture, half undressed”). The “you” of this poem becomes as inanimate as the painting and as bereft of life as the painting’s subject.
These poems seem deeply personal, but Levis avoids the confessional. Instead, he uses a memory, a place, or a story as a jumping off point to explore the tragic flaws of others. Often these flaws are what lead to dissolution and indicate mortality. In some cases, Levis himself is the “other,” setting up a dialogic relationship with his ghost, spirit, or the writer-self. In “For Zbigniew Herbert, Summer, 1971, Los Angeles,” Levis introduces a story he heard:
Once a poet told me of his friend who was torn apart
By two pigs in Poland. The man
Was a prisoner of the Nazis, and they watched. . .
As the writer, Levis takes responsibility for the words he has committed to paper, stating, “Maybe I have raised a dead man into this air, / And now I will have to bury him inside my body.” He then disassociates himself from his writer-self and considers it as the other, proposing “But some things are not possible on the earth. / That is why people make poems about the dead.”
Throughout the collection the poems interlock, reusing the same tropes over and over again to build significance in single words. Grass, sky, wind, rivers, stones, and sun appear repeatedly, to the point where a reader will come to expect the pattern. But after overcoming any resistance, the reader will appreciate how carefully Levis crafts his own lexicon in The Dollmaker’s Ghost. In almost every instance, grass symbolizes a counter-agent to death. In “To a Wall of Flame in a Steel Mill, Syracuse, New York, 1969,” Levis writes of his father,
And he was seized, suddenly, by his own shyness,
By his desire to be grass,
This “desire to be grass” is sandwiched between thoughts that “moved like the shadow of a cloud” and “the road, the snow, or the sky / With nothing in it.” To be grass is to be relieved of dark fears of death, of dealing with a seemingly meaningless world. In each subsequent poem, grass carries with it the connotations from this poem, and then from the next poem, and the next—until we reach the last poem in the book, where the Spirit addresses “you” directly:
You think you can rise up, as I can,
Without a body,
And go unseen over the still heads of grasses,
And enter the house
Where your wife will not look up from the letter
She is writing,
And your son goes on sleeping—
A thimble of light spilling into the darkness.
The “grasses” are so imbued with life that to travel over them instantly enables the Spirit to leave the ghost-world it inhabits and “enter the house” where the details of life hold sway.
Richard Hugo, in his essay “The Triggering Town,” proposes that the vocabulary of private poets is limited by their obsessions and cites his own repeated use of the words “gray,” “wind,” and “stone.” He goes on to state that most poets write the same poem over and over. Levis could be accused of that in The Dollmaker’s Ghost, but a careful reader will think otherwise. Though the poems all concern Levis’ fear of death, they are as different from each other as the ghosts that each one conjures.
While these poems have beautiful, tender moments, they are never hopeful; the best that they can offer is acceptance. They do not surrender to death, however. In the end, the Spirit needs the person, the body. In the end, the Spirit says,
You were nothing,
You were snow falling through the ribs
Of the dead.
You were all I had.