Elegy with a Chimneysweep Falling Inside It

By Larry Levis 1946–1996 Larry Levis
Those twenty-six letters filling the blackboard   
Compose the dark, compose
The illiterate summer sky & its stars as they appear   

One by one, above the schoolyard.

If the soul had a written history, nothing would have happened:   
A bird would still be riding the back of a horse,   

And the horse would go on grazing in a field, & the gleaners,

At one with the land, the wind, the sun examining   
Their faces, would go on working,

Each moment forgotten in the swipe of a scythe.   

But the walls of the labyrinth have already acquired   
Their rose tint from the blood of slaves
Crushed into the stone used to build them, & the windows   

Of stained glass are held in place by the shriek   

And sighing body of a falling chimneysweep through
The baked & blackened air. This ash was once a village,   

That snowflake, time itself.

But until the day it is permitted to curl up in a doorway,   
And try to sleep, the snow falling just beyond it,   

There’s nothing for it to do:

The soul rests its head in its hands & stares out
From its desk at the trash-littered schoolyard,

It stays where it was left.
When the window fills with pain, the soul bears witness,   
But it doesn’t write. Nor does it write home

Having no need to, having no home.   
In this way, & in no other

Was the soul gradually replaced by the tens of thousands   
Of things meant to represent it—

All of which proclaimed, or else lamented, its absence.

Until, in the drone of auditoriums & lecture halls, it became   
No more than the scraping of a branch   
Against the side of a house, no more than the wincing

Of a patient on a couch, or the pinched, nasal tenor   
Of the strung-out addict’s voice,

While this sound of scratching, this tapping all night,   
Enlarging the quiet instead of making a music within it,

Is just a way of joining one thing to another,

Myself to whoever it is—sitting there in the schoolroom,

Sitting there while also being led through the schoolyard   
Where prisoners are exercising in the cold light—

A way of joining or trying to join one thing to another,   
So that the stillness of the clouds & the sky

Opening beneath the blindfold of the prisoner, & the cop   
Who leads him toward it, toward the blank

Sail of the sky at the end of the world, are bewildered

So that everything, in this moment, bewilders

Them: the odd gentleness each feels in the hand
Of the other, & how they don’t stop walking, not now

Not for anything.

Larry Levis, “Elegy with a Chimneysweep Falling Inside It” from Elegy. Copyright © 1997 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: Poetry (April 1997).


This poem originally appeared in the April 1997 issue of Poetry magazine

April 1997
 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 . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Time & Brevity, Living, Sorrow & Grieving

Poetic Terms Free Verse, Elegy

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