Issue 11: Jeffrey Thomson
Elegy with Larry Levis & a Vineyard in it
I need to rewrite a story. I need to unweave
the whole war, raise up the burning tower,
shuttle heroes back across the sea through the warp
of the waves. I must pull the wind back
into its gold sack.
To tell it all, I need to bring up Dionysus,
god of the smashed grape, unraveler, my friend in the night
as the suitors grumble & fuss & ride each other in their sleep,
legs thrown about like logs.
I need to tell you how it all began:
in a short slant of sunlight on a table in the kitchen
a man works his poems in the slow arithmetic of days
rotating towards winter, in a room above life accumulating
in the rooms below. Below him, below me,
the suitors gather like goats, the harvest assembles
in the woven silos to feed them all, the fire smudges
itself in the afternoon before it is built again for the evening
meal—in all this it began. In the sweep of my weaving I arrived
at Ajax in a courtyard laid out across the enormous carpet
of his shadow. Outside are those walls the soldiers writhe
over, fires spark in the temples like woven stars
I cannot wait to unravel. Earth all around tamped down
by the ruckus of feet, earth tamped down like brown
sugar tamped down, flame stroking the spoon.
In the sweep of my weaving I arrived
at Ajax and could go no further,
and here’s the other half of the story: Dionysus tilts out
from among the olives & offers a farmer something new,
something the world has been waiting for without knowing it.
He augers holes in a dried riverbed, plants vines wiry
as old men. He blesses the earth with a spray of piss.
Dionysus dances his little ox-foot dance and he hoes some weeds.
The farmer watches with one-eye on his daughter,
one eye on the shaggy androgyny rambling through his fields
as the vineyard thickens into old men gripping each others’ shoulders &
the grapes gather in the crush. They break & juice
like small burst suns. Not long after, this man with his poems,
this Larry Levis reads to a small crowd in an abandoned dormitory.
His baggy jacket and Ned Flanders mustache, the upturned
chin & slouch at the podium as he bends into the page.
Floor lighting paints a colossal shadow on the wall behind him.
He offers his poems like glasses of wine, deep swallows
of crimson, in each poem the moment held perpetually
aloft like those same glasses before they touch,
which is the image of our trust in one another,
which is the way Dionysus and the farmer get drunk together:
dust, olives & the long light of the setting sun,
the two of them around the fire. They tip the small hearts
of the wine pouches to their mouths and drain them. Then
the farmer’s daughter arrives & wonders just what her dad
is up to now. They get her drunk & no one has any idea
what that means yet, just as no one knows I am now dismantling
the scene of Ajax’s madness in the garden, unthreading
the slaughtering of the sheep as the suitors sleep on
in the hush of the great hall. The three of them clatter beneath the stars
& bang through the orchard
wearing cooling jars as hats—slaves barktheir fear into the night—
all of them drunk & stumbling. Now
Larry Levis is shaking my hand & the hand
of everyone in the dormitory with all its empty rooms
sleeping overhead. He is saying something kind
I want to say more about this moment,
but there is nothing more to say as I slipped out from the line
& let the next one hear something kind & elemental, imperfect
as words are imperfect, as the threads of this story
spill in imperfect piles at my feet.
No one said anything about the farmer and his daughter,
no one said anything about the goat that was eating the leaves
of the vines as we opened the doors and wandered into the broad quiet
of a Midwestern night. The farmer will skin the goat that dared
to eat his vines with a long-veined knife.
He will open the animal & let the entrails spool around his feet.
He will wear its moist pelt, dance the first tragedy with his goat feet
& as he does something vast begins.
He dances his feet into hooves & his head into horns.
he dances his pride & his age, the small field of white
he’s cultivating at his temples. He dances his life &
he dances his death that is arriving without a sound in the flexing leaves.
He dances & the dance around the goat becomes the dance of the goats,
& slowly what was the goat began to be replaced by what was not the goat;
thus the poem is made from what is not poetic, the song
from what is not worth singing. Now he stalks past the Blue Note,
a little drunk, the crowd spreading into the broad quiet of a Midwestern night.
Now he smells the vinegar & lines up the needle
as Ajax in his shame lines up his sword to dive on it.
I am just now banishing that moment from the fabric.
The farmer takes his ox cart & trundles around, showing off his vine,
pouring wine skins dark as hearts for shepherds
who drink & feel for the first time fuzzy around the eyes,
tongues sloshing in their mouths. They have been waiting
for this looseness, this easy laughter around the fire.
They have been waiting without knowing it,
which is a kind of waiting, but they don’t know that either. So
when the moment comes they bring to it suspicion, the lightest of emotions, &
an anger which weighs them down. In the image of rumor, of how we cannot, finally, trust each other, all the shepherds take a turn dividing him:
one with a rock, one with a sickle, one with an axe, one with a hoe.
They circle him, & their ululations ring off the clouds
as their arms drop out of the dark above the fire,
his dance becomes their dance, his blood
becomes their wine.
It’s his body the daughter finds in a trench below
the orchard after Dionysus has punted off to other fields.
It’s his body she climbs as she rungs up into the tree
made of grief where she’ll be found in the morning swinging
back and forth, back and forth between the axis
of what is meant and what is said,
between the two hearts beating inside the body of this story—the soft iambic
of pulsing blood that becomes thread spooling on the floor.
I can remove rumor and fact from the cabinets
where they are stored, stacked like spools,
stacked like bottles of green glass chalked with
their small white numerals, but something of the story
remains in the threads even as they runnel down around my feet:
Ajax back in his health standing colossal before
all the Trojan spearmen, his shadow thrown against
the great wall & all the threads are tangled;
now he is reading from “Caravaggio: Swirl and Vortex,”
now he is planting vines. The fire sliding into sky is nothing
next to the delight that would follow, the sword rising through him
more than a needle in the arm, & his blood
more than the juice from a burst grape.
Jeffrey Thomson is the author of four books of poems, including Birdwatching in Wartime, winner of both the 2010 Maine Book Award and the 2011 ASLE Award in Environmental Creative Writing, and Renovation. Birdwatching in Wartime is currently being translated into Spanish and Russian. His translations of the Roman poet, Catullus, are forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. In 2012 he was the Fulbright Distinguished Scholar in Creative Writing at the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre at Queen’s University Belfast. Currently, an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Maine Farmington, his website is www.jeffreythomson.com