Falling and Rising

I started reading California poet Larry Levis during Lent.

I started reading California poet Larry Levis during Lent. It is a season dedicated to taking a long hard look at oneself—practicing a rigorous moral inventory. Levis is good at this. He is not an explicitly Christian writer, but he’s deft at describing our post-Edenic state. "I may not believe in the myth of the Fall," writes Levis, "but it is still possible for me to feel fallen."

Levis’ poetry forces hard questions. In the poem "Winter Stars," he describes his father breaking a man’s hand to stop a knife fight. "I never understood how anyone could risk his life," says Levis, "then listen to Vivaldi." How does one hold violence and beauty in the same breath? We are only human after all.

This is what being fallen feels like—pushed with great groaning out of the garden. In our fallenness, we have a hunger for life, yet few chances for eating our fill. In our fallenness, we not only watch our children die, but see our families kill one another. "With a sharpened fruit knife," Levis describes the fight, "he held the curved tip of it, lightly between his first two fingers, so it could slash horizontally, and with surprising grace across a throat." In our fallenness, we become an elegy. Part of us is always weeping for what’s lost, what might have been, what will never be. "East of the garden of Eden" time exists. There is narrative. There is memory.

"If we endure our Edens, and that is what we must do," writes Levis, "all easy jubilation ends." Adam and Eve were not condemned to death—to senselessness. They were sentenced to life—to continue breathing.

LENT CONCLUDED. Easter arrived. I was still reading Levis. Resurrection is not his thing. And yet, in his poem "In the City of Light," I was pushed toward it. "Because there are faces I might never see again, there are two things I want to remember: about light and what it does to us."

To enter Easter and the qualities of light, I needed a reminder that Jesus was not "cured of death," as theologian James Alison puts it; instead Jesus kept fidelity with life. This is why the post-resurrection nail holes and knife wound in Jesus’ side are so important. The resurrection doesn’t undo the incarnation.

I needed a reminder that Jesus did not rise from the dead in order to retaliate, but to reconcile. "Someone who is attacked, may attack back," continues Alison. "But by killing someone we are in fact terminating the possibility of reciprocity on their part." This is the axiom of fallenness—the result of a consciousness formed in violence. But Jesus’ resurrection upsets time and consequence. He pushes us toward beauty and spontaneous joy. This is what light does to us. It transforms our habits of fallenness into the creativity of freedom.

"If only we could have held hands, as the straitjacketed mad appear to do!" says Levis, still caught in his elegy. But Jesus does not rise to preserve our regrets. He reaches toward us. He holds our hands. He puts our hands in the hands of the other—that warm, slightly damp, human touch.

Resurrection radically shifts the narrative perspective. Before it occurs, the disciples can see only from their point of view. Half of what Jesus said to them didn’t make sense. Half the stage was dark. After it, the disciples see fully. Now they view life from Jesus’ point of view. The victim—who has taken the world’s fist in the face, been dragged through the street at the end of a rope, left for dead in alleys, ditches, and street corners—gives the disciples not only his eyes, but his heart.

In Eden, having one’s eyes opened revealed nakedness. God’s response, according to Genesis, is to stitch "tunics of skin" to cover Adam and Eve. With Jesus, it is the interior quality of his heart that stuns the disciples into believing, into breathing new life, into becoming Christians. His heart, though shattered, is whole. This is what the light does to us.

I closed Larry Levis’ collection of poems during the season of post-Easter appearances. "I leave you here," writes Levis, "with the next world already beginning to stir; and you wide awake in this one."

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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