In the Dark: Meeting Larry Levis

by Christopher Buckley

In Memoriam: Larry Levis

Waking in the dark, Daylight Savings gone, I’m remembering the Biltmore hotel in L.A., killing the afternoon at the MLA in 1981, the hopeful with their haircuts upstairs being grilled like fish. I knew better then than to hope. I’m remembering that dark empty bar there Larry and I had all to ourselves; the pal I had tagged along with was long gone doing several interviews. The bartender poured us a hard, green Chablis from a jug at $3.19 a glass which unscrambled my nerves enough so I could ask about his work.  Yes, I said “work,” trying to sound as if I’d packed some scholarly resources in the inner pocket of my only sport coat, trying to sound objective, although I had committed at least a hundred of his lines to heart. I had met and talked with Larry a few times in Fresno when he was visiting Phil and Franny Levine: we’d exchanged notes through the mail and he had taken a couple of poems for The Missouri Review, but we were not close friends.  Larry had already talked with the people from the University of Utah, his only interest there, and was sitting back in the shadows as the rush to job interviews sucked the air out of the foyer.  I had no interviews at all so we were the only ones not scrambling between floors all afternoon, smiling for all we were worth at members of the search committees.

Larry looked up to the one blade of afternoon light slicing through a transom and said, in answer to one of my questions about his poems, that he was “trying to stop time,” casually, the way he’d say “Fresno” when asked where he was from . . . and that, to me, rang as true as a tree, or a shoe, made sense as clearly as a star burning through to this one blue dot in the outer precincts of the Milky Way.

I was treading water.  Thirty, I think, orbiting in the outer provinces of community colleges. What I understood about poetry would have fit on the back of a beer mat, space left over for a quote from Machado whom I had yet to read, who would later show me all that could be lost before the sea. Larry lit a Marlboro—we weren’t going anywhere—and, as indifferently as he tossed a match into the ashtray, told me I was a “good poet,” as if it were just a fact—that off-handed comment from him kept me going for years.

Job interviews ending, we met up with my friend just out from a full day of university interviews and one cocktail reception. The three of us headed up the street despite the procession of tweed coats walking back saying the nearby Ristorante was booked.  It was an old post office made swank with pastel couches and kidney shaped glass tables, a place I’d recognize twenty years later in a film. The maitre d’ stopped us at the door for reservations—a friend of a guy who’d married one of Larry’s sisters, who wasn’t sure he remembered Larry, and asked about his father, not hearing he’d died. When Larry told him, he raised his hand and we had a table before we could see we were in way over our heads. My other friend, fresh from what he felt was a very successful interview and given to moods of expansiveness, pronounced he was taking Larry and me to dinner; he was paying.  Nevertheless, I was ordering cautiously, and when I said I would have the ravioli I was told it was an appetizer, four pieces in a thin sauce at fourteen dollars, significant money then.  We each had a tiny veal chop to go with our few bits of ravioli, shared a bottle of the cheapest Multipuciano and when the bill came, my friend lingered over it like someone trying to translate a foreign language. Larry pulled out his wallet and started taking out what cash he had; I did the same, and together we pulled every dollar bill from our collective pockets to pay the check—that long ago, not one of us with a VISA card. 45¢ for a tip, we waved and stepped out quickly, still hungry, to the street, grinning with our impoverished escape.  Back to the hotel after 10:00, nothing to do, Larry asked us up to his room and I think we had a small glass of red wine while he called his wife Marcia on the phone.  We all were in good spirits and took turns saying hello before we headed off to our own rooms.

What do we ever know?  All I had, I thought, was time. Fifteen years since Larry’s heart stopped, and no simile for that.  I have some letters, notes in the loop and ligatures of his hand.  Phil has his Parker 51, Bruce Boston says he still shows up in dreams. And even in Fresno now, everyone sits out at tables in the Tower District with over-priced coffees and cigarettes.  Now, I can put everything on a credit card—the aroma of Parmigiano-Reggiano and pecorino, logs of salami, rising from Piemonte’s Deli over Olive Street, anchoring me in the world.

Day after All Saints Day, I’m awake in the dark, thinking of Larry—irony moves right along . . . I’m too old to be a Romantic, too hard-boiled about the heart, but soft around the edges nonetheless.  He’d shrug his shoulders and laugh to hear me advising my cats about the most prudent courses for their immediate lives. Today, I half way know who we were all that time ago at the Biltmore in L.A.—the miserable job conference where I did not even apply, where I went just to see people like Larry, to wear my one acceptable sport coat and blend in along the edges of those apparently on their way. I felt like a utility infielder lucky to be called up to the major leagues, briefly, as they say, “for a cup of coffee”—lucky to have an afternoon to sift through some of what I didn’t know, lucky to spend a few hours with Larry who could care less for the posturing and unvarnished pretense of it all.

I’m still talking about dust—I can look back and see it swimming there where the sun cut in above the bar. Near the end, Larry was reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, wondering if our lives were enough, if they ever measured up?  What would we change if we could?  I can always single something out, but have little to complain about at this point—just time, and the variables of dust floating off toward the predictable dark.   I’m here near the sea with all the air I can breathe.  Almost 65, every long-lasting provocation of the spheres spinning above my head—and you, Larry, my friend, out there somewhere, still ahead of us in the light.