Using the Polyptych in Poetry—Levis’ Winter Stars

A book of poetry I enjoy so much and go back to often is Larry LevisWinter Stars. From the first moment I read it, I was drawn into the beauty of the poems and into their honesty. There is a candidness in discovery and exposure, as the poems in Winter Stars explore topics of loss, wonderment, spirituality, coming of age, the search for the soul, and others, that spin around the complexities of being human. It is a book I refuse to overly examine with a critic’s eye and one that I will always look at first, as a lover of poetry and as a human being.

One of my favorite poems from the collection is “The Cry.” I found another review of Winter Stars by poet, Robert Peake who also talked of this poem, and of the book in general as containing poems that “. . . describe  “what is not.” This nicely summarizes what I sense, not so much as loss, but rather, as feeling lost. It is the sense of staring the feeling squarely in the face—no answers, no directives, no self-help. I remember reading these lines from “The Cry” for the first time, and, as sometimes happens when I read beautiful lines (33-40), I gasped aloud:

I went downstairs, then, to the room

Where my mother & father slept with nothing on, & the pale light

Shone through the window on the candor

Of their bodies strewn over the sheets, & those bodies

Were not beautiful, like distant cities.

They were real bodies

With bruises & lattices of fatigue over their white stomachs,

And over their faces.

The stark beauty of this language is nothing short of incredible to me. However, what I am concerned with in this post is not the language, per se, but rather, Levis’ elegant craft; again, not as a critic, but as an ever-student. I always find so much to learn from, and to help inform my own work, in this book. Take for example, “There Are Two Worlds,” another of the poems in Winter Stars that I especially like. In this poem Levis braids totally disparate images together brilliantly in what one might think of as a polyptych approach.

During my MFA program at Ashland University, I was privileged to get to hear a lecture by Robert Root, one of the creative nonfiction professors, at which he talked about the notion of the polyptych in “story-telling.” As I was reading Levis during the following semester, I realized that Levis used, throughout his book, Winter Stars, the very approach of which Root had lectured.  The poem, “There Are Two Worlds”  illustrates just one example of this kind of image-fracturing and reconstruction, that adds depth and interest to the work.

Here is what Robert Root says about this process related to creative nonfiction (I added in the words relating to poetry for clarity.):

“From Robert Root, The Nonfictionist’s Guide:  On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction (Lanham:  Rowman & Littlefield, 2007)

The segmented essay [poem] is like a medieval altarpiece, composed of discrete panels that create a series of balances and juxtapositions rather than one continuous, unified image.  Think of a triptych like Hieronymus Borsch’s three part masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights, with its large central section displaying “The World before Noah,” one side panel depicting “The Marriage of Adam and Eve,” the other depicting “Hell.”  Think of a polyptych like Jan Van Eyck’s twenty-part masterpiece, the Ghent Altarpiece, which can be displayed opened or closed, its pairs of parallel panels widely separated, each front panel framed and bordered, all set off starkly from one another.  Sometimes the segments of prose [lines] in an essay [poem] can be figure studies, landscapes, allegories, separated pairs of portraits, images of context and consequence thematically linked to a central scene.

This is what the spaces say:  Stand up close and ponder each image on its own; stand further back and connect each panel to another panel that completes it as a pair or contrasts with it as an opposite; encompass all of it, remaining always aware of the borders and the individual panels but inviting an impression of the whole through its parts.  Like a polyptych panting, nonfiction [poetry] need not be one self-contained and harmonious picture but can also be an arrangement of separate images, a retablos or reredos of scenes and portraits collectively viewed but separated by borders and frames.  That is what the spaces say.”

Levis begins the poem with a single line stanza: Perhaps the ankle of a horse is holy. I’ll call this, Idea 1. Here Levis is introducing the image of a horse, i.e. a horse’s ankle. Later we learn that this is a race horse specifically. Next he begins to discuss Clemens, the Mississippi River, and Huck Finn. This is Idea 2.  He plays with the idea that Clemens might have thought up a sequel to Huck Finn as being an old man, a hermit and insane. Levis intertwines the horse with the Huck Finn/Twain, back and forth—braiding them into the overarching theme of his polyptych—what is holy?

Perhaps the ankle of a horse is holy.

Crossing the Mississippi at dusk, Clemens thought

Of a sequel in which Huck Finn, in old age, became

A hermit, & insane. And never wrote it.

And perhaps all that he left out is holy.

In line 22, Levis introduces another strand as the final adjustment of the microscope’s lens that brings even more into focus the question:  What is holy?

I used to make love to a woman, who,

When I left, would kiss the door she held open for me. . .

This is the third part of the picture (Idea 3):  the lover or, rather the affair and the impact of the affair. At line 31, Levis writes:

If the ankle of a horse is holy, & if it fails

In the stretch & the horse goes down, &

The jockey in the bright shout of his silks

Is pitched headlong onto

The track, & maimed, & if, later, the horse is

Destroyed, & all that is holy

Is also destroyed: hundreds of bones & muscles that

Tried their best to be pure flight, a lyric

Made flesh, then

I would like to go home, please.

Even though I betrayed it, & left, even though

I might be, at such a time as I am permitted

To go back to my wife, my son—no one, or

No more than a stone in a pasture full

Of stones, full of the indifferent grasses,

(& Huck Finn insane by then & living alone)

It will be, it might be still,

A place where what can only remain holy grazes, &

Where men might, also, approach with soft halters,

And, having no alternatives, lead that fast world


We all know it is risky to introduce too many disparate ideas or images in a poem. It can result in a jumble of disconnected thoughts; but, done well, as the case in many of the poems in Winter Stars, and beautifully illustrated in “There are Two Worlds” with its reredos of scenes and portraits, a well-crafted polyptych approach serves to create luscious depth, contrast, shadowing, intellectual stimulation, harmony, and simultaneously, dissonance that leaves the reader—or at least, me as the reader, wanting to read more.

© 2010-2012 Grace Curtis

This entry was posted in Books of poetry you should read, Craft in Poetry, Poetry, Poets I Really Like and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Using the Polyptych in Poetry—Levis’ Winter Stars

  1. leslie says:

    Awesome, Grace! I’ve long admired Jorie Graham’s work for the way she twines disparate things together into one effect, but will return to her work with this idea. It seems like one she might have thought of!

    • Grace Curtis says:

      Leslie, Thank you for your comments and support of my site!

      I think you are right about Graham. She does this also, masterfully. IMO, she is much more coded than Levis and lets see. . . I might describe reading her like picking through a tangled-up silver chain necklace with a needle on the bathroom counter to untangle it–difficult, mesmerizing and ultimately satisfying. Can you think of a praticular poem we might look at to test this out? It might be fun to look specifically at one of hers as well.

  2. Thank you Grace for this wonderful look at Levis and Root. One of the things I admire so about the MFA at Ashland was the combination of Non-Fiction and Poetry and how not only do the different genres inform one another – but so too the intermingling of the writers creates opportunity galore. I was thinking about the work of Mary Ann Samyn as I was reading your piece. She does so much with juxtaposition, white space and her own special cadance. All equal an epiphany: Here’s an example from Inside The Yellow Dress:
    Then my need became a beautiful force.

    Life gravity.

    Or the sweep of Christ’s cheekbones,

    their sorrowful x =

    Which is why I went around ruining things:

    in order to suffer better.

    Check out her book Beauty Breaks In – wow
    Joy Gaines-Friedler

    • Grace Curtis says:

      Joy, Thank you for your comment. I too agree that the combination of creative nonfiction with poetry is a great match. I am so fortunate to have had exposure to all of the wonderful creative nonfiction professors at Ashland, Robert Root, Bob Cowser, Sonya Huber, Steve Harvey, Dan Lehman, Jill Christman. How fortunate I feel. It did create a broader perspective for me I am sure.

      I have not experienced Mary Ann Samyn. I will certainly do so. What little you shared seems wonderful!

  3. Marci Vogel says:

    Terrific post, Grace! Robert Peake read here in Los Angeles last year–he’s since moved with his family to England, but he’s super nice, and I’m sure he’d love to know about n2poetry if you’re not already in touch with him.

  4. This was fascinating! Thank you. And I am also here to say congrats on your poems just up in Hobble Creek Review.

  5. bentchang says:

    Good stuff, I liked the poem. It’s a good idea you’ve outlined here. Often as a beginner I’ve heard to focus on one central image/emotion and that’s true, but the polyptych approach in poetry seems to create great, well-rounded poetry. It just takes more practice to pull off well.

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