Family Romance

By Larry Levis 1946–1996 Larry Levis

“Dressed to die ... ”
—Dylan Thomas

Sister once of weeds & a dark water that held still   
In ditches reflecting the odd,
Abstaining clouds that passed, & kept   
Their own counsel, we
Were different, we kept our own counsel.
Outside the tool shed in the noon heat, while our father   
Ground some piece of metal
That would finally fit, with grease & an hour of pushing,   
The needs of the mysterious Ford tractor,   
We argued out, in adolescence,
Whole systems of mathematics, ethics,   
And finally agreed that altruism,
Whose long vowel sounded like the pigeons,   
Roosting stupidly & about to be shot
In the barn, was impossible
If one was born a Catholic. The Swedish   
Lutherans, whom the nuns called
“Statue smashers,” the Japanese on
Neighboring farms, were, we guessed,   
A little better off ....
When I was twelve, I used to stare at weeds   
Along the road, at the way they kept trembling   
Long after a car had passed;
Or at gnats in families hovering over
Some rotting peaches, & wonder why it was   
I had been born a human.
Why not a weed, or a gnat?
Why not a horse, or a spider? And why an American?   
I did not think that anything could choose me   
To be a Larry Levis before there even was
A Larry Levis. It was strange, but not strange enough   
To warrant some design.
                                  On the outside,
The barn, with flaking paint, was still off-white.   
Inside, it was always dark, all the way up   
To the rafters where the pigeons moaned,   
I later thought, as if in sexual complaint,   
Or sexual abandon; I never found out which.
When I walked in with a 12-gauge & started shooting,   
They fell, like gray fruit, at my feet—
Fat, thumping things that grew quieter   
When their eyelids, a softer gray, closed,   
Part of the way, at least,
And their friends or lovers flew out a kind of skylight   
Cut for loading hay.
I don’t know, exactly, what happened then.   
Except my sister moved to Switzerland.   
My brother got a job
With Colgate-Palmolive.
He was selling soap in Lodi, California.   
Later, in his car, & dressed
To die, or live again, forever,
I drove to my own, first wedding.
I smelled the stale boutonniere in my lapel,   
A deceased young flower.
I wondered how my brother’s Buick   
Could go so fast, &,
Still questioning, or catching, a last time,   
An old chill from childhood,
I thought: why me, why her, & knew it wouldn’t last.

Larry Levis, “Family Romance” from Winter Stars. Copyright © 1985 by Larry Levis. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press,

Source: Winter Stars (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985)

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Poet Larry Levis 1946–1996

Subjects Family & Ancestors, Home Life, Relationships, Living, Disappointment & Failure

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Larry  Levis


Poet Larry Levis, whose collection The Afterlife won the Lamont Poetry Prize, often employed an imagist or surrealist approach in his work. As Diane Wakoski wrote in Contemporary Poets, Levis's "work is best when the poems are short and are shaped by his imagist instincts or his gestures towards surrealism. He is a master of the brief moment of recognition where the personal is embedded in the generic . . . and the least . . .

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SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, Home Life, Relationships, Living, Disappointment & Failure

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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