The Last Poem I Loved: “Sleeping Lioness” by Larry Levis


As a fiction writer, and as a reader, I gravitate toward stories from the perspective of a specific, imperfect and alert, outward-and-inward-looking consciousness, a transparent eyeball with legs and, at least occasionally, uncomfortable shoes. The danger of a story centered around the drama of attention and understanding—of a character trying to see and not only act but also understand the world—is the ever present pull toward (even temptation of) a resolving moment of insight, an epiphany, that may not be necessary, earned, correctly scaled. I think poetry offers a way through this dilemma.

Larry Levis’s poems are about the drama of attention and understanding, but they avoid overblown moments of realization because, first, and most simply, poems aren’t confined by plot. Since a plot thinks in terms of time, in cause and effect (Mark sees his boss being mean to a cashier at the grocery store, so Mark quits his job, so Mark gets into a fight with his wife because he quit his job), it can seem natural for a storyteller to simply apply that logic of cause and effect to the internal drama of understanding (Mark quits his job and fights with his wife so Mark suddenly sees that making an important choice because of an immediate emotional reaction is a selfish luxury, and also maybe he should have forgiven his father). On the other hand, a poem can exist outside of time, in an endless moment—causes and effects are simultaneous with observations, reflections, conversations about those causes and effects. So in certain intensely attentive and thoughtful poems, the structure of the struggle for understanding is not a series of events leading to a resolving moment of realization, it’s an accumulation of moments of being.

“Sleeping Lioness” works this way. The poem moves not like a story or an argument but associatively, unpredictably as driftwood in a current’s eddies.

The poem’s first section begins by observing burning trees:

“Even when we finally had to burn them, the gray, stately
Trunks of malagas, the tough, already yellowing limbs
Of muscats—acres of them in those years, hacked, stacked
In piles, then doused with kerosene….”

Rather than interrogate the scene for its meaning, the poem pulls back to a wide shot of the city “dressed in distant light.” The poem then drifts to an illustration of the Virgin Mary, to a pattern in a Formica countertop, to a memory of a solitary reader. The described people, places and things are deeply seen, but rarely explained. Before implications are fully grasped, the poem is drifting on. Levis’s poems are charged with the energy of a crowded room in which a question has been asked and is not yet answered.

The poem’s two middle sections both begin by worrying over an image of deep, animal isolation of the self in the world (an enigmatic figure wrapped in bandages and the sleeping lioness of the title) and both sections drift from the image to an observing, isolated “I,” desperate to see out through the bandages, through the bars of the cage, to the real, larger world-outside-the-self that is present in a book, in the memory, in a reflection, outside a window. The true world is there, but, like the sleeping lioness, it is enigmatic, fundamentally and frustratingly unknowable, always “turning away from you.”

Still, the poem does not feel defeated. The last section returns to the first section’s motion of drifting among moments of intense attention—the isolated soul looking desperately out of any available window. The repetitions of “I watched” and “I saw” pound this desperation home:

“I watched the autumn light fall across a photograph.
I watched the world take off its dress;
I saw the world’s gooseflesh.
Later I saw you laughing with the others in the garden….”

The poem closes with a group of ecstatic moments of vision, moments of being that, tellingly, are remembered rather than experienced directly. The possibility for true ecstatic moments of the observing self connecting to the world are acknowledged, but those moments are memories, impossible to hold:

“But remember in that apartment twenty years ago how–just by looking at it
It took nothing more than a scuffed shoe to get you high,
Or a dry leaf blown into a bedroom where you sat reading late at night,
Or the remembered, twisted shape of a yellowing vine you once threw—
steaming suddenly in the first, warm sunlight—
Onto a pile for burning.
And later, staring into those fires, how the sleepless shape of each flame
Held your attention like someone’s nakedness, a nakedness
The world clothes in light until it’s a city. This city.”

The poem ends with a return to the present, to unburned “trees & hedges” and with tellingly conditional encouragement: “You could step out now in wonder.” Not, “You will,” and not, “Go,” but “You could.”

Levis’s poems are about the big existential questions–beauty and death, loneliness and connection, meaning and memory and loss—but they aren’t philosophical, exactly; they are expressive. The effect is of a sense of order that is felt and lived rather than analyzed.

For me, reading Levis’s long wandering first-person poems is not like reading other poems, not like reading the compulsive unburdening of the confessionals, though there is a shared desperate analysis of the past; and it’s not like reading a transcendental meditation on what larger truths we can discover by close observation of the workings of the world, as in the poems of A.R. Ammons, though there is a shared unpredictable yet also ocean-wave rhythmic movement of thought. The most useful comparison to Levis, for me, are the essay-novels of W.G. Sebald and, more recently, Teju Cole, where the uncannily detailed, both urgent and aloof observation of the world stands in for (and so becomes) an exploration of the self. Sebald and Cole’s narrators’ obsessive attention to history and the world, together with the cyclical motion of the thinking on the page, gives their prose both an almost physical texture and a noticeable looping rhythm, a sound–a presence.

Really what I treasure most in reading Levis, and in Cole and Sebald, is what I value most in writing, what I find above all in reading Virginia Woolf: the feeling of being deeply alive. The feeling is not in the part of mind that processes plot and character, and it’s not in the guts either, exactly. It’s like being disconnected from time yet somehow deeply within a body, feeling the words against my skin, like running a finger along a seam in the world.

You can read ‘Sleeping Lioness’ in its entirety in the Gettysburg Review.

Rob Roensch's collection of stories, The Wildflowers of Baltimore, won the International Scott Prize for Short Stories from Salt Publishing and was longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. He teaches at Oklahoma City University. His website is More from this author →