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Poetry On Wednesday: Winter Stars

My father once broke a man’s hand
Over the exhaust pipe of a John Deere tractor.

That’s how Larry Levis opens up the poem “Winter Stars”.  One of the more gripping opening lines of a poem, it’s also maybe not what you’d expect from a poem so entitled.  Perhaps “Winter Stars” called to your mind a meditation on the quiet stillness of nature, as in Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.  While Levis doesn’t talk, as Frost does, of “the sweep / Of easy wind and downy flake”, he does explore some of his own conceptions of having “miles to go” before he sleeps.  “Winter Stars”, after all, about Levis’s father, and specifically his father’s dying.

Welcome to Poetry on Wednesday!

The memory that happens in “Winter Stars” takes place in California, another blow to the wintry preconceptions to which the title might lead you, and it explores a memory Levis has of his father.  Levis often writes about California and his conflicted relationship with his dad (another powerhouse of a poem on the same subject in the same collection is “Though His Name is Infinite, My Father is Asleep”). These were subjects that Levis often wrote about – for a good overview of his themes, the Poetry Foundation has something here.

But there is winter in this poem, and not just literal winter.

There’s the winter of death, as when Levis notes that: ” Something  / Inside him is slowly taking back / Every word it ever gave him” and then describes for us the shutting-down city of the mind in night-quiet, lonely detail.

And there’s the forever winter of starlight, some it reaching us after the stars have already, themselves died, “Like laughter that has found a final, silent shape / On a black sky. It means everything / It cannot say. Look, it’s empty out there, & cold. ”

To me, it’s a poem about how useless words can feel in life when dealing with a someone whose actions you don’t understand, and how differently useless words can feel in the face of death.  Beautiful and depressing, right?  On the other hand, poetry–words–are what can help us console ourselves when we have to get through grief, and poems are a wonderful way to write about the people who have been important to us (living or dead).  Is this too depressing a poem for the dark days of the year?  I will tell you that the last line turns it around a little bit. But I won’t spoil it for you — go read it for yourself.  And check out more of Larry Levis from the library. You can even hear him read some of his own work thanks to the Academy of American Poets Audio Archive.

-Tessa, CLP – East Liberty

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