Larry Levis, “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope,” from Elegy, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997†
Larry Levis’s “Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope,” the last poem in Elegy, his posthumous collection, closes with a turn so perfect that at first I hesitated to write about it—as though I could actually ruin its effect by doing so (a silly thought). What makes the poem so perfect is the way it wraps around on itself, its recursive motifs like the sequined scaled skin of an eel, alive and moving. Few poems achieve such voltage.
A tour de force of 336 lines divided into three sections (each with their own subsections), the poem moves through episodes that take us in and out of memory: from the speaker’s wanderings in Belgrade at the threshold of the fall of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to meditations on the symbols printed on the now-defunct currency of the State. The power of the volta depends upon the ways that the concept of currency as symbol is emptied out repeatedly throughout the current of the imagination that drives these lines.
The poem begins with a speaker who examines the last index of the country he knew, the money that it had put into circulation:
All I have left of this country is this torn scrap
Of engraved lunacy, worth less now
Than it was then, for then it was worth nothing,
Or nothing more than
The dust a wren bathes in. (1-5)
The sound of the feathers of the bird (here one cannot help but think about Keats’s nightingale or Whitman’s hermit thrush) is itself compared to the sound “Of cards being shuffled, as repetitive / And as pointless” (14-15) as the bird shakes off the dust that collects on its wings. Cards themselves, as symbolic objects, go in and out of the circulation of a game—the rules of which change according to the agreement of its participants. Comparing the sound of the wings to the sound of playing cards being mixed and re-mixed for their next context of play demonstrates the way that the currency’s worth has been as abstracted of value.
The poem is gorgeous in the way it handles these moves from symbolic to the literal, and from the literal to the imagination. The speaker tries to think about what the actual symbols on the “engraved lunacy” of the money might mean: “To illustrate its money, the State put lovers on the money, / Peasants or factory workers staring off at something / You couldn’t see, something beyond them” (21-23). He imagines he can find the lovers in Belgrade: “The lovers must have stepped out of their money / A few days after the State stepped out / Of its thousand offices” (99-101).
The speaker repeatedly tries to think about what the past might mean—outside of the imagined State—now that it is crumbling. Instead, he keeps finding that the landscape and its history are indifferent to the people that mark it with their work:
Then someone told me what the money meant,
What they kept looking at:
They were watching the state wither away.
When I tried to imagine it, all I could see
Was a past
Where the ancient goat paths began reappearing,
Crisscrossing a straighter footpath,
Nothing else there except three pedestals lost in moss,
And a man washing a cart horse with soap & tepid
So why do I think “Elegy Ending with the Sound of a Skipping Rope” has a perfect ending, set up by a perfect turn?
After all of the pasts that cannot be imagined, after all of the streets of Belgrade that “are forgetting they are streets” (167), we reach a moment in the poem where the speaker imagines that the figures on the money, the lovers, are real citizens finally unfixed from their symbolic context:
Those nights when I couldn’t sleep in Belgrade,
When I could no longer read,
When there was no point in going out because everything
Was closed, I’d glance at the two of them
On their worthless currency, as if I might catch them
Doing something else, & once,
I turned from their portrait to the empty street
Beneath the window, the thick trees like a stillness
Itself in the night,
And … I saw them there. This time they were
Fucking in the rain, their clothes strewn beneath them
On the street like flags. (300-311)
The clothes are even “like flags” in the street: we are given another symbol of the State that the lovers have also seemed to step out of. But the lovers “fucking each other / While standing up, standing still in the rain & the rain falling / In sheets as if there were no tomorrow left” (312-314) is not redemptive. It reminds the speaker (in one of Levis’s classic subtle shifts in narrative imagination) “Of leaves plastered to the back of a horse / Trotting past another storm” (316-317), which again takes us back to the symbol printed on the “torn scrap” of money that had begun the speaker’s meditation.
And then, we are given a description of the language printed on the money—another code—and all of its symbolic potential: we are almost promised with an epiphanic image, one that is so loaded with purity that it could in itself fill any empty logic with its sentiment:
Under the exhausted-looking mulberry trees, under the leaves
And the haunted scripture—
Some of its characters shaped like blossoms, others
Like a family of crows taking flight, others like farm tools,
Some of them moving in circles like swirls in a current—
All of it written in the cracked, weathered Cyrillic of some
Indecipherable defeat, though once its shapes had been
Perfect for showing one things, clear as a girl’s face,
The girl who skipped rope in her communion dress,
Dry & white as a petal—
Jedan. Cesto?, Nema, Za ne?
Chase & thoughtless as the thing she chanted
And then lost interest in… (322-333)
The poem’s volta occurs here, as the girl loses interest in the chant, as she skips and skips the rope; what we are left with is the language as empty signifier—as is the money itself—and its pure repetitive sound:
until I could hear only the endless,
Annoying, unvarying flick of the rope each time
It touched the street. (334-336)
Levis ends this poem here, with the rope that he had promised us in his title—after the promise of the idealized “chaste” girl (not only in a “white” dress, but in a “communion” dress) that the language on the money could “show” us. Again and again, the rope hits the street, the street existing in a city that doesn’t mean what it was, the entire image cued by empty language on devalued currency: that sound itself caught in an “unvarying” cycle of a rhythm that circulates but is outside of circulation, reduced to the arbitrary marks assigned to keeping time.
Tyler Mills is the author of Tongue Lyre, winner of the 2011 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award (SIU Press 2013). A poet and essayist, her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Blackbird, the Believer, and the Boston Review, and her prose has appeared in the Robert Frost Review and the Writer’s Chronicle. Her poems have received awards from the Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, and Third Coast, and she has been the recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Vermont Studio Center. A graduate of the University of Maryland (MFA, Poetry), she is Editor-in-Chief of The Account: A Journal of Poetry, Prose, and Thought. She lives in Chicago, where she is currently working toward a PhD in creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
†As we were unable to attain reprint permissions or find a link to an accurate online version of the poem, we offer a citation in lieu of the poem itself. We encourage interested readers to consult the print version.