Childhood Ideogram

By Larry Levis 1946–1996 Larry Levis
I lay my head sideways on the desk,
My fingers interlocked under my cheekbones,   
My eyes closed. It was a three-room schoolhouse,   
White, with a small bell tower, an oak tree.   
From where I sat, on still days, I’d watch   
The oak, the prisoner of that sky, or read   
The desk carved with adults’ names: Marietta   
Martin, Truman Finnell, Marjorie Elm;   
The wood hacked or lovingly hollowed, the flies   
Settling on the obsolete & built-in inkwells.   
I remember, tonight, only details, how   
Mrs. Avery, now gone, was standing then   
In her beige dress, its quiet, gazelle print   
Still dark with lines of perspiration from   
The day before; how Gracie Chin had just   
Shown me how to draw, with chalk, a Chinese   
Ideogram. Where did she go, white thigh   
With one still freckle, lost in silk?
No one would say for sure, so that I’d know,   
So that all shapes, for days after, seemed   
Brushstrokes in Chinese: countries on maps   
That shifted, changed colors, or disappeared:   
Lithuania, Prussia, Bessarabia;
The numbers four & seven; the question mark.   
That year, I ate almost nothing.
I thought my parents weren’t my real parents,   
I thought there’d been some terrible mistake.   
At recess I would sit alone, seeing
In the print of each leaf shadow, an ideogram—
Still, indecipherable, beneath the green sound   
The bell still made, even after it had faded,   
When the dust-covered leaves of the oak tree   
Quivered, slightly, if I looked up in time.
And my father, so distant in those days,
Where did he go, that autumn, when he chose   
The chaste, faint ideogram of ash, & I had
To leave him there, white bones in a puzzle   
By a plum tree, the sun rising over
The Sierras? It is not Chinese, but English—
When the past tense, when you first learn to use it   
As a child, throws all the verbs in the language   
Into the long, flat shade of houses you
Ride past, & into town. Your father’s driving.
On winter evenings, the lights would come on earlier.   
People would be shopping for Christmas. Each hand,   
With the one whorl of its fingerprints, with twenty   
Delicate bones inside it, reaching up
To touch some bolt of cloth, or choose a gift,   
A little different from any other hand.
You know how the past tense turns a sentence dark,   
But leaves names, lovers, places showing through:   
Gracie Chin, my father, Lithuania;
A beige dress where dark gazelles hold still?   
Outside, it’s snowing, cold, & a New Year.   
The trees & streets are turning white.
I always thought he would come back like this.   
I always thought he wouldn’t dare be seen.

Larry Levis, “Childhood Ideogram” 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, www.upress.pitt.edu.

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

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Poet Larry Levis 1946–1996

Subjects Family & Ancestors, Relationships, Living, School & Learning, Youth, Activities

Holidays Father's Day

Poetic Terms Free Verse

 Larry  Levis

Biography

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, Relationships, Living, School & Learning, Youth, Activities

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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