On a Line from Larry Levis’s “Threshold of
the Oblivious Blossoming”
The fourth stanza in Larry Levis’ poem “Threshold of the Oblivious Blossoming” is a single line: “And finish my coffee” (Levis 83, line 9). The first three stanzas show the speaker sitting in a café on a rainy day. He notes: “Beyond the doorsill the café tables // Were empty because it was raining. / The rain was empty as well, & there was no poignancy” (lines 3-5). The use of ‘empty’—making its second appearance in the poem in as many lines—to describe the rain could strike readers as underwhelming or lazy, if not for its opening repetition: “When I said one blossom desired the air,/ Another the shadows, I was free/ Of desires” (lines 1-3). Such unqualified emptiness of the desires is intriguing, not because of a blossom’s purported attraction to either the air or the shadows, but instead because of the desires the speaker claims he was free of when speaking of the blossoms. To be “free of desires”—and not from desires, which would suggest instead that these arise from somewhere outside of the speaker—is another way of saying that he was empty, or had been emptied, of them. Now the tables, the rain, and the speaker are all empty, “& there was no poignancy.” (line 4) This is the beautifully executed scene, despite all the abstraction Levis employs.
But at this point (the end of the second stanza), the poet must make a decision regarding the direction of the poem: will it turn back to the blossoms, or the shadows, or will it insist on the rain falling on the empty café tables? Levis opts for an unforeseeable option. He writes: “Sitting inside & waiting for my dealer to show up so I could buy/ Two grams of crystal methedrine from her, talk for a moment, // And finish my coffee” (lines 7-9). The emptiness the speaker had observed becomes specific. It is the emptiness, perhaps, of anticipating two grams of crystal meth. And the emptiness, yes, of having to wait for the dealer with no choice but to focus on the rain and the tables and remembering all that talk about blossoms. It is an emptiness that is no longer, for in this waiting, the speaker is no longer empty of desires. Nor is he, in any way free, I don’t think. He is now emptied out for one particular desire to take hold of him and be fulfilled. Emptiness and desire at first seem spiritual, but Levis’s sleight of hand shows us that they are overwhelmingly spiritual and physical.
And so, I finish reading that one-line stanza about finishing his coffee and I feel the stress of my readerly question: what will the poet do now with the poem in danger of becoming something more akin to a piece of memoir of junky journalism. What does one do in a poem that starts as a discourse about blossoms only to reveal itself as prelude to a drug transaction? Levis has the poem turn again, compounding physical desire. This time it does turn back to the beginning, but with the specificity, urgency and perhaps—poignancy—of the two grams of crystal meth, that were missing from the opening:
When I thought of the petals of the magnolia blossom
Flattened by passing traffic to the pavement & the gradual
Discoloration of them, their white like that of communion dresses…
When I knew I wanted them to mean nothing
And suggest everything, desire rushed back into things,
But not into the blossoms & not into the air (lines 10-16).
You might figure his dealer arrived. You figure they talked for a bit, and he finished his coffee. And took the drugs from her and got high. You figure the things desire rushed into (and out of) include him. You figure that a poem such as this is extremely difficult to make work, journey-wise, on the page: from blossoms to meth, “[b]ecoming gray & a darker gray,” (line 13) and back to blossoms again. And in the middle of the poem there’s this one-line stanza where the poem pivots. And it’s a stanza so unassuming, so emptyof descriptive meaning-making power that its efficacy is hard to pinpoint. Why make this one four word line—“And finish my coffee”—stand alone? (line 9)
My best reading of it is that there is neither strength nor urgency in the line, nor any beauty to be found in it. The line is made to stand alone and works as a stand-alone line because it slows the poem’s desires down, thus allowing remarks on blossoms to begin again, transformed. Otherwise, the pace of the reading would be too frantic, coming off the heels of the big reveal regarding the speaker’s reason for sitting in a café on a rainy day. “And finish my coffee” is the way a poet teaches his readers to read him; it’s the subtle and sublime way in which a writer coaxes his readers into patience, leaving us as if we too were empty (of desires) like the rain. Furthermore, it is how the poet brings us into the poem—how we suddenly become unfree of it.
Larry Levis. The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2016.