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August 17, 2010 / johnoliversimon

Neglected poets 2 — d.a. levy

“Who killed d.a. levy?” is the sentence with which Mike Golden begins The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle (Seven Stories Press, New York, Toronto, London, 1999), a generous selection of the art and poetry of a prophetic bard whose mission was to bring Cleveland, Ohio the great poem it deserved, and whose death under mysterious circumstances at the age of twenty-six has left him practically forgotten today.
What is known about the death of Darryl Allan Levy, pronounced as in “levee,” and who always presented himself with initials and lower-case, is that a .22 rifle bullet entered his third eye in his East Cleveland apartment sometime on or about the evening of Friday, November 23, 1968, less than a month after the election of Richard M. Nixon. Reconstruction of levy’s body posture leads to the conclusion that he was sitting in full lotus; every muscle in his body was relaxed. The Cuyahoga County Coroner called it suicide. The D.A. who had d.a. arrested for tending to corrupt the morals of minors by reading his poetry in coffee houses doesn’t want to remember the particulars. Levy’s friends have been pointing blameful fingers at each other for forty years. Did levy pull the trigger himself? Was he alone in the apartment when it happened?

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? Who wanted him dead, and why should we care?

After graduating in 1960 from Rhodes High, whose yearbook lists as his only achievement the phrase “Hey You,” levy discarded the idea of college and joined the Navy, but got himself discharged six months later as manic depressive. He 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
KNOWING
in the east a new sun is rising
and the grass is growing
on the ashes of the city
where once i was born

His roommate 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. He showed me Cleveland, the actual Cleveland… he showed me lost places, pools of stopped time where hoboes lived, drinking their cheap wine by fire from a fifty gallon drum, warming their faces on a chilly November night. Cleveland fell out of the gloomy steel mill smog of daily bread and suffering into some other stream of jewels, something lovely and familiarly strange; the rips in the excursion boat up the polluted Cuyahoga were ascents to an Acropolis of daylight, a fine fire of playful minds; not just dirty isness, but what could be and probably is…”

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 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
nothing

In February, 1963, levy bought a 6×9 letterpress and started setting type by hand. Later the 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.
Poetry, as levy was living it in the Sixties, implied an extremely radical criticism of reality. “For levy,” writes Ingrid Swanberg, “the poetic is in essence change, disruption, destruction, ruin.” There were drugs, although his friend Steve Ferguson emphasizes that “as for drugs, [levy] was a wimp. He couldn’t drink more than a beer, beer and a half—couldn’t do more than a couple of tokes.” 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—

How serious was levy’s Buddhism? His friend 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…” I’m snipping many cited authors here, but “clearly,” as Wagner concludes, “his knowledge was immense.”

When levy and Wagner sat down together 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, “words and lines slip, cloud, grow, bend, change, appear, disappear and decompose on the page. Fragments of Buddhist scripture, photo images from contemporary ‘skin magazines,’ images from sacred (erotic) Tibetan and Indian art, and ironic typewritten captions are sometimes embedded into the syntax formed by the saturated fields of darkened text. These 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 essentially political, and his politics were highly 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
them.
Do the whores on the 7th floor of the
county jail see this?

The subtitle of a poem entitled “Reality Jew” is “or what its [sic] really like to be the angel/ of death in cleveland.” Levy was half Jewish, father’s side, wrong side, and he was an avenging angel baffled by the failure of love. Ed Sanders named levy as Jeremiah. If no one listens to the prophet, he will begin to scream. If the sons and daughters of the village elders are listening to the prophet, so much the worse for him.

YOU ARE DYING in yr suburban homes
YOU ARE DYING—the 11:20 NEWS is a lie
the 7:30 news is a lie
huntley & brinkley are lies
the weather report is a cartoon
YOU ARE THE LATE MOVIE

BLOOD GUTS DEATH MURDER LAW CRASH WAR
the angel of death is not news

Gary Snyder, in a short essay in The Old Ways 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—

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. The prose of Hilbert Black, Chief Police Reporter, is too well–-rafted not to quote in full:

Darryl A. Levy, poet and leading figure of the beatnik community in the University Circle area, was named in a secret indictment which was returned by the Grand Jury last November and filed yesterday. Levy, 23, whose last known address was the Asphodel Book Store, 306 W. Superior Ave., was indicted for possession and distribution of allegedly obscene literature last year. Store owner James R. Lowell, 34, was also indicted in November under the same charge but police failed to disclose Levy’s name while they sought the bearded poet. Police said Levy wrote much of the material sold in the store. Lowell, 34, of 11411 Miles Ave., is now free on bond awaiting trial.
Two months of searching coffee houses and other known beatnik hangouts by police have failed to find Levy. The indictments followed three weeks’ investigation by narcotics detectives. Involved were poetry readings sessions [sic] in coffee houses attended by young people of high school and college age. Sgt. Burt Miller described some of the readings as “obscene, wierd and way out.” He compared them to foul language of the kind seen on lavatory walls. Much of the mimeographed material read at these sessions were [sic] read by Levy. He signs them “d.a. levy.” Levy admitted to reporters last summer that he “cranked out” his reams of poetry and took them to the Asphodel Book Shop.

Sought in all known beatnik hangouts by the bumbling Keystone Kops of the vice squad, levy remained at large and dangerous for another week, 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,” and then surrendered and was promptly tossed in jail in lieu of $2,500 bond by Municipal Court Judge Frank D. Celebrezze, nephew of a five-term mayor of Cleveland. The poet 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.”

Levy sat in jail for a week before his bail was posted by Jack Ullman, a physicist from New York working on a research project at Case Institute of Technology. But Assistant D.A. George Moscarino soon sent detectives out to levy’s apartment to pick him up again, charging him with having accepted and published a political poem by a seventeen-year-old boy praising the previous summer’s riots in Cleveland’s Hough ghetto which contained the words “motherfucker” and black cock,” as well as using language of similar caliber himself in a poetry reading at The Gate coffeehouse in the basement of Trinity Cathedral, which had been attended by a fifteen-year-old girl named Julie carrying a police tape recorder. “This is a very, very serious charge,” commented Moscarino. “Our office has been interested in having a decent community for our children.”

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 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.”

On September 4, 1967, the Plain Dealer ran an article accusing levy and poet Kent Taylor of being “boo hoos” of the Neo-American Church, which held LSD to be a sacrament and called for psychedelic assassination by dosing politicians with acid. Taylor explains that “the whole thing was unreal! It was one of those hoaxes where you send away a dollar in the mail and become the ordained head of your own church. It was a joke, and they took it seriously! I called levy and told him we had to go down to the Plain Dealer and tell them the whole thing wasn’t real. But he didn’t have the energy and told me to do it without him.”

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

Levy and friends, especially T.L. Kryss and Robert J. Sigmund, who signed himself rjs, assembled a magnum opus entitled ukanhavyrfuckincitibak, 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 Gestetner reproduction of newpaper articles and concrete poems, with The North American Book of the Dead in the very center of the book 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

You Can Have Your Fucking City Back. Levy was seriously ready to give Cleveland back to the Native Americans. “Cherokee, Delaware, Huron/ We will return your land to you.” 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.” Ed Sanders wanted levy to come to the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago but levy explained, in a letter to Wagner, “i said ‘no’ i wanted to go but inside i said ‘no.’” But in the September 1968 Morris Edelson had better luck when he invited levy to be Poet in Residence at the Free University of Wisconsin. Levy agreed to teach a class on Telepathic Communication. Edelson remembers:

His class was a tremendous success, though not because of his lecturing on telepathy. The first night he was supposed to teach it, we all walked with him to the student union building. The room was on the first floor and was packed with people sitting quietly, intently, as though waiting for Jim Jones to pass the Kool–Aid. Either it was that or something else, something false levy picked up on, and he simply walked on by the door and out the side. I thought for a moment of going in and telling them it was another no-show, but what the hell. We all walked over to the 602 Club and then thought no more about it, until Ann Krooth told me that levy’s class was one of the most successful in all the Free University. People there assumed he was trying to reach them telepathically, and many of them heard him as they sat there meditating in the classroom. That class went on for several months after levy had returned to Cleveland — months after levy was no longer alive.

After levy returned from Madison, his behavior became extremely difficult to interpret. There was a mood of annihilation. The rumor persisted that he was headed for California. According to Mike Golden, “he gave a reading at Antioch, came back, deliberately picked a fight with Dagmar [also known as Mara, levy’s common-law wife] to drive her out, then after she was gone, went and got her, brought her back to the apartment, asked her to stay with him, and told her he realized his ‘poetry wasn’t where it was at — it’s just another game,’ and threw all his unpublished manuscripts in the incinerator.’” Dagmar freaked out and left. Levy called his brother and asked to borrow a suitcase. He called his parents, but his father wasn’t home. He turned the flats of the next issue of the Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle over to rjs and Ferguson, who printed it.

Sunday evening, November 25, rjs called Ferguson, saying he was worried about levy, and asked him to come with him over to levy’s apartment. The door was locked—levy, although extremely paranoid, always kept his door unlocked—and the cleaning lady helped them open it. Levy’s body was there in the front room; he had been dead for two or three days.

“I reconstructed the lotus theory myself,” Ferguson explains. “One foot was back under the bend behind the other knee, the other one had dropped down to the floor. The knees were both forward, it was a full lotus that had broken as the body fell backwards. The rifle was still propped up in between the legs. One of the unusual things [the police] noted was that there was no tension in the muscles. In a suicide case there is always tension in the muscles anticipating the impact of the bullet. The other thing was the angle of the entry of the bullet, which came from above.”

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
everyday
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

The coroner’s report of autopsy, as reproduced in Mike Golden’s book, gives Darryl Allan Levy’s occupation as Poet, notes an entrance-type gunshot wound in the glabella, 1/4” to the right of midline, and concludes with the cause of death in all caps: GUNSHOT WOUND WITH PERFORATION OF SKULL AND BRAIN, new line, tab right, one word, also caps, SUICIDE, signed S.R. Gerber, M.D., Cuyahoga County Coroner. It’s official.

Erstwhile Assistant D.A. George Moscarino, questioned by Mike Golden twenty years later, “had a hard time remembering the facts in the case, and questioned why the story was at all ‘newsworthy’” at that late date. Moscarino, who now defends big criminal cases for one of the largest law firms in the country, reiterated, “I don’t know what the story is, but I do remember he was a poet. And I do remember it was a cult time and a time of a lot of drugs. Whether he was involved in other things or not I don’t know, although the court records don’t show that. So the man’s dead, may he rest in peace. I believe he’s dead, isn’t he? I remember there were people who liked his poetry, and I did not judge his poetry. I’m a literate person and—”

Who killed d.a. levy? levy himself had motive and opportunity. He was thinking about suicide after he left the Navy in 1961, and his poems had been muttering about suicide ever since the bust. It was certainly clear to levy that he would never get out of Cleveland alive. The lions and buddhas of the Tibetan Stroboscope, peering out from around their scribbled–illegible verses, seem to be daring him to take that one last logical step.

On the other hand, as Delmore Schwartz remarked, even paranoids have enemies. Levy admonished himself, or whoever might be reading over his shoulder, “listen/ don’t be afraid of death/ they intend to murder you anyway.” D.A. Moscarino was frankly out to get levy. Could there have been a police stool among the poets? Some of levy’s friends are not afraid to say so. Would such a person have had an interest in carrying out levy’s assisted suicide?

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. Let me explain before a thousand professors descend on me. In those days, when I was a highly elite dropout grad student from English Lit, the sentence about the Sixties that made the most sense for me was Wordsworth on the French Revolution:

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

The greater poets of the neo-Romantic movement which levy was part of were troubadours, because the revelation of the 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 would live on, growling over his guitar, becoming the father of the pop star. Like Shelley, levy was essentially lyric, highly political, and youthfully narcissistic. And thus our mute inglorious Shelley drowned himself in a candle-flame.

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. But 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
unravel
like a roll of names
written in the sky
& all poets
sing
the songs for dead children
& the dead dreams
of children
keep
re-appearing

There is a d.a. levy home page where the curious can find poems, critical articles, and even a little of levy’s visual art. It’s time for levy to reappear, even virtually, and inform the children of the new century of their right to remain silent and their responsibility to sing. I say it’s high time to include d.a. levy in the anthologies of Twentieth Century North American poetry, where he belongs.

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3 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. geaugailluminati / Nov 25 2010 2:42 pm

    hi john, hope you’re doing well…

    joanne cornelius recently redesigned the levy collection website @ ClevelandStateU:

    http://www.clevelandmemory.org/levy/

  2. literalpoet / Sep 8 2013 8:28 am

    My grandfather was Levy’s Lawyer. I had heard of Levy before but was never introduced to his style until I had started slamming and my dad told be more about him. I think I will try his style. Its odd and yet empowering.

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