Death Will Come and She Will Have Your Eyes:
the poetry of d.a.levy

by John Oliver Simon


After graduating in 1960 from Rhodes High School in Cleveland, Ohio, whose yearbook lists as his only achievement the phrase "Hey You," Darryl Allan Levy discarded the notion of attending college and joined the Navy. Levy, pronounced as in "levee," who signed himself with initials and lower-case, got himself discharged six months later as manic depressive, and returned to Cleveland intending to commit suicide, but "changed [his] mind at the last minute and started to read everything and write poems."

SOMETIMES CITY i walk at dawn
past the trucks parked
on the cold mornings edge
of the old viaduct to look at
the sore mouth of the Cuyahoga
eating and eaten by the dawn
and the city and i
in the east a new sun is rising
and the grass is growing
on the ashes of the city
where once i was born

                                   —Cleveland Undercovers

Russell Salamon remembers, "It seemed a great outrage that Cleveland had no great poets. It was a fervent necessity to give Cleveland great poets and great poetry. [Levy] didn't bother to check with Cleveland if it wanted them, he knew it needed them." Levy's early poetry is full of a childlike innocence and sensuous vision which would harden, through the brief years of his poetic maturity, into vast loss:

I and i skipped in fields of dandelions
sneezing — with pockets full
of wet handkerchiefs and dreamt
of white poppy seed rolls

i opened hearts
and watched from the crawling doors
but nothing angel

                                   —"this weekend of smiling navels"
                                   Variations on Flip

In February, 1963, levy bought a 6x9 letterpress and started setting type by hand. Later his technology moved on to mimeo. In five years of whirlwind activity, he published a minimum of 64 chapbooks of poetry. Some of his own titles included Cleveland Undercovers, The North American Book of the Dead, Rectal Eye Visions, Suburban Monastery Death Poem and Kibbutz in the Sky. He published young Cleveland poets and other legends including Ed Sanders, Margaret Randall, Judson Crews, B.P. Nichol, Geoffrey Cook and D.r. Wagner. He also brought out dozens of numbers of a monthly underground newsletter entitled the Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle.

Sometime on or about the evening of Saturday, November 23 or the morning of Sunday November 24, 1968, the weekend before Thanksgiving, five years and a day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, less than a month after the election of Richard M. Nixon, and nearly forty years ago now, a .22 rifle bullet entered levy's third eye as he sat in full lotus position in his East Cleveland apartment, as he reached, it is thought, to pull the trigger with his big toe.

Ed Sanders writes that levy "was like Jeremiah. He had the potential to be a great religious writer — a prophet. No doubt, he could have developed... The weight of all his different hats crushed him before he even reached Shelley's age." Who was this prophet, this poet, this martyr, d.a.levy? What did he have to say, and with what brilliance did he say it?

Poetry, as levy was living it in the Sixties, implied an extremely radical criticism of reality. There were Eastern religions, devoured wholesale:

HERE I AM (this is not peyote, LSD or booze)
            VISION I/ the toilet bowl has an aura
the aura is blue
the toilet bowl is the buddha
            Vision II/ the bathroom is yellow light
a scarab is walking under the sink
blue-green rays emanating from his back—

                                   —The North American Book of the Dead

How serious was levy's Buddhism? D.r. Wagner insists that "d.a.levy was the most well-read person I have ever met. He was well versed in eastern religions. He was intimate with the literature of Zen Buddhism from Huang Po to Alan Watts. He had read and could make exacting distinctions among Hindu tantras as translated by John Woodruff. . . [he was] extremely conversant with the life and teachings of the great Tibetan saint, Milarepa..." On the other hand, Allen Ginsberg concluded that levy hadn't done the serious sitting to put the ground beneath his intellectual understanding.

When levy and Wagner sat down to improvise The Egyptian Stroboscope, they said they were "relaxing the language to acquaint it with various annihilation techniques." By the later Tibetan Stroboscope, a sense of the helplessness of communication propels the text into illegibility. As Ingrid Swanberg describes it, "embedded images seem to gain the character of the obliterated typography, and to sink into its obscurity. There is a mood of annihilation, a subtle reference to censorship." However, levy was not content to sink into the kind of irrelevant post–structuralism which would have led him safely back toward academia. His reality was political, and his politics were local.

The Parma Police are still waiting for
Pancho Villa/ are still waiting for
the confederate army to plant
rebel flags on the southern front
and experimenting with the I Ching as
a means of criminal detection confuses
Do the whores on the 7th floor of the
county jail see this?

                                   —Cleveland Undercovers

Gary Snyder, in a short essay entitled "The Dharma Eye of d.a.levy," is the only prominent American poet who has ever given levy any particular ink. Snyder puts his finger on levy's fatal commitment to place, "his hometown, Cleveland, that he wouldn't move from. Like the Sioux warriors who tied themselves to a spear and stuck it in the ground, never to retreat. Why? An almost irrational act of love — to give a measure of self-awareness to the people of Cleveland through poesy."

cleveland i gave you
a kind of love that you
will not understand
for the centuries you collect
museums full of dead things—

                                   —"letter to Cleveland"
                                   Kibbutz in the Sky

Snyder continues, "You'd think a hard–working young printer and poet would incur no particular wrath and blame. Or would you. The problem goes deeper than the celebrated American anti–intellectualism or guilt–filled prurient repressive over–permissive sexual attitudes — or the compulsive accumulation of X —"

On January 9, 1967, the Cleveland Plain Dealer carried a headline reading GRAND JURY NAMED BEATNIK POET IN SECRET INDICTMENT ON FILTH. Levy's crime was to read a poem containing the words "motherfucker" and "black cock" at a coffeehouse reading attended by a fifteen-year-old girl with a tape-recorder. "This is a very, very serious charge," commented Assistant D.A. George Moscarino. "Our office has been interested in having a decent community for our children."

At large and dangerous, sought in Cleveland's many beatnik hangouts by the bumbling vice squad, levy was interviewed by a sympathetic Plain Dealer reporter who noted that "at a scrawny 5-7, 117 pounds. . . Levy has to be one of the most harmless–looking characters ever indicted by any grand jury anywhere." The poet finally surrendered and was tossed in jail in lieu of $2,500 bond by Municipal Court Judge Frank D. Celebrezze, nephew of a five–term Cleveland mayor. Levy explained that he made 89 cents a day selling his poetry and Hizzoner replied that "Bail of $2,500 is not excessive for a great poet. Maybe he should charge more than 89 cents."

The Plain Dealer editorialized LET THE POET BE, and soon the letters column was full of controversy on the subject. Responding to a letter favoring levy, Mrs. Eugene D. Garan of Parnia wrote, "If Mrs. Philip Constantine has never read the poetry of the abused poet (?) [sic] she defends, how can she possibly say that he should not be jailed?" Harlin Karchin noted that "Levy is alleged to have read poetry to juveniles. That being the case, the police have the right to arrest him."

On May 14, 1967, six hundred people attended a Happening headlined by Allen Ginsberg and the Fugs at Case Institute to benefit the defense fund for levy and bookseller James Lowell. "Mu Gu Chicky Mu," chanted Ginsberg, as transcribed by the Plain Dealer. The case hung fire for months while stress and paranoia ate away at levy. He wrote a poem entitled "One Death in the Life of Julie" to the girl who fingered him: "i don't have the time/ to spend/ in jail/ for disillusioning/ madonnas...poor child/ to naively look into the minds/ of the state executioners."

cleveland i gave you
most of my words & my time
and you laughed
told me to get a job
– like washing dishes?
for $40 a week? –
because my highschool diploma
wasn't worth a good shit
and the sun never rose
in this empty town
and the daylight breaking
rainbows on the wet oriental
manhole covers
wasn't worth time or money
to write about
except on Sundays
when you couldn't get a drink
& wipe-out the wasted days
piling up like dead flowers

                                   —"letter to Cleveland"
                                   Kibbutz in the Sky

Levy and friends, especially T.L. Kryss and Robert J. Sigmund, who signed himself rjs, assembled a magnum opus entitled ukanhavyrfuckinciti bak, 278 mimeo pages plus silkscreens by Kryss, in an edition of 1000 copies, levy's poetry plus testimony from poets all over the country and state-of-the-art vinyltronic reproduction of newpaper articles and concrete poems, with The North American Book of the Dead in the very center on yellow sunflower paper, and on the cover the skinny poet with his hands in his jacket pockets between a gutter with remains of dirty snow and a huge billboard stating "It takes a lot of hard work to be a good American. . . but it's worth it!" [emphasis in original].

lady you have to be realistic
sending all your poets to the looney bin
ain't helping the profession very much
your blue hair in the wind
& yr eyes full of diamonds

                                   — Suburban Monastery Death Poem

D.r. Wagner had already moved to California and was pleading with levy as a matter of life or death to come to the coast, but levy replied scornfully: "california, don't send/ your myths to us/ your dream mecca/ is a whorehouse/ painted with phony psychedelic adver-/ tisements/ we have a different game." There was no way out of Cleveland; finally, the bullet charted its pathway through d.a.levy's brain.

turn away

i have nothing to say
in all this darkness
everyone runs from
words that carry light
from the closed doors
of the mind

i have nothing to say
why don't you just sit there
and die
a little
waiting for some naive
child carrying the
crippled bird of yr love
to say the things you are
afraid to say & perhaps
in a millennium or two
you will begin to understand
that naive child
was you
and you murdered him
in the darkness

                                   —Tomb Stone as a Lonely Charm

Forty years after his death, d.a.levy is practically forgotten. The poets laureate of his, and my generation, the Bobs, Hass and Pinsky, and wonderful poets they are, were safely esconsed in graduate school while levy was creating a poetry revolution in Cleveland on 89 cents a day. On the other hand, Yusef Komunyakaa and John Balaban were in Vietnam at the same time; and after all, not one of these guys I have just mentioned is a woman. Let us not create a false monopoly of victimization.

What about d.a.levy where he matters most, as a poet? Ed Sanders has it nailed, I believe, with his reference to Shelley. The sentence about the Sixties that continues to make the most sense for me was Wordsworth, writing in or shortly after 1789, on the French Revolution:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven!

The greatest poets of our neo-Romantic Sixties movement of which levy was an almost anonymous part became electric troubadours, because the revelation of our revolution was too exalted and grandiose to be contained on the page: John Lennon and Bob Dylan. Our Keats got shot by a fan carrying Catcher in the Rye; our Wordsworth lived on into old age, growling over his guitar. Like Shelley, levy was essentially lyric, highly political, and darkly narcissistic.

Levy had a prophetic growl, an eye for detail, a bar-room piano poetic ear, and a sophisticated distrust of the text. If he had lived, would he be opting for early retirement from Middle American U.? Would his voice have deepened and gotten wider, attained some grown–up sense of irony and limitations? Probably. Shoulda coulda woulda. His gift came at the price of his martyrdom. I don't know if he left us an Adonais, but The North American Book of the Dead has an epic reach and visionary grasp, and levy always undercuts his own angelic pretensions with street humor. His most attained poems are lyric. They are all essentially elegies to himself. What else should a poet dying at twenty-six aim to write?

the falling stars
are dead angels
drinking wine
in boarded-up garages
& i
like a roll of names
written in the sky
& all poets
the songs for dead children
& the dead dreams
of children

                                   —"songs for dead children"

It's high time for levy to reappear, to inform the children of our new milennium of their right to remain silent and their responsibility to sing. It's time to include d.a.levy in the anthologies of twentieth century North American poetry, where he belongs.

Further, levy must be given his rightful place — along with Frank Stanford, his most comparable contemporary — in all forthcoming anthologies of suicide poets. Luis La Hoz edited such a collection in 1989 in Lima, Perú, entitled Vendrá la muerte y tendrá tus ojos: Death will come and she will have your eyes. That's a line from Paul Celán, and of course we are en casa here with Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, John Berryman, Hart Crane and Attila Jozsef, as well as Alfonsina Storni, Alejandra Pisarnik, Luis Hernández and other great Spanish-language suicides. Before the book was out two years, it had been pirated under the same title in Spain and Colombia, which is what you get, I guess, when you're not around to protect your rights.


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