Essay: The Library in Each Line by Andrés Cerpa

We’re honored to share with you all this new essay by the wonderful poet Andrés Cerpa. His reflections on the way we all influence each other are decidedly apt for our community today, our remixes, our crowd-sourced poetry—and he couldn’t have chosen two better poets beside Larry Levis and Zbigniew Herbert as examples to illuminate the point.


Each poem is comprised of all the poems that came before it.

We work within our context and time through other poems, the way jazz standards are played with new interpretations and flourishes, voices and instruments, to arrive at a pattern wholly intricate with the work of the myriad voices. Poems necessitate and inspire their own revision.

One line, an image, a system, or form can move a writer toward the articulation of the vast depth of their­–and therefore our–humanity. Through this lens, each poem becomes a composite translation, whose ultimate aim is to birth another work.

“We are sung into singing”.[1]

To search for the poems that move in other poems may seem like an academic exercise, but in fact, it is one of the most essential components of the creative process. My poems are smarter than me. They are certainly more articulate, passionate and are pulling all-nighters in my bibliography to research, excavate and revise. They are small, annotating thieves, searching for connections while I lose all sense of myself at my desk.

By acknowledging that in the moment of writing, whether consciously or not, that other poems live within our work, we can become more open to the resonant notes that strengthen and ultimately challenge us to become more fully ourselves as writers. Poetry continually expands, and we cannot know in what ways we might impact it, except, that each poem we write is participating in its fullness.

Let my poem be a piece of the whole.

The connection between the poems of Larry Levis & Zbigniew Herbert is a vehicle to encourage us to revel in our participation by loving other poets and becoming near to them in our work.

In the early 1970’s Larry Levis was “honored to drive, more or less regularly, the poet Zbigniew Herbert just about anywhere he needed to go.”[2] From then on, Levis continually wrote to and about Herbert in both poetry and prose.

In “War as Parable and War as Fact: Herbert and Forché,” Levis uses Herbert’s poem, “The Rain” to discuss the formal possibilities in the transfer of experience and/or witness into verse. Herbert, according to Levis, often works through parable, and he cites the poem “The Rain” when he asserts that Herbert tends “to abstract laws from experience rather than make narratives from his experience.”[3]

Here are the first six lines of “The Rain,” which can be read in full here: ( )

When my older brother
came back from war
he had on his forehead a little silver star
and under the star
an abyss
a splinter of shrapnel

Myth is the world of names. It is genealogical in nature, while parable or tale relies on the absence of names, or on placeholder names, composite figures, in order to be representative and instructive. Parable disperses and lasts in a different manner than myth, and for Levis, this poem functions as a parable of the intimately human consequences of war.

The brother returns, changed, and by the last lines, it is revealed that the change is more elemental than we first imagined:

and he recites to me
improbable tales
touching my face
with blind fingers of rain

Of this stanza Levis writes, “At the poem’s end, when the brother is the rain itself, it is apparent, that the poet must now, recurringly, live as a witness and recorder of the brother’s experience…it is the poet who is condemned, always, to be a listener.”

In his second book of poems, The Afterlife, Levis was deeply influenced by “The Rain” and repurposes the parable as an entrance into his context and time, as he witnesses the American war against nature through an atrocity of strip malls, lack of thought, and vacant office buildings.

The final sequence, “Linnets” begins as “The Rain” begins, and can be read in full here: ( )

ONE morning with a 12 gauge my brother shot
what he said was a linnet. He did this at close range
where it sang on a flowering almond branch. Any-
one could have done the same and shrugged it off,
but my brother joked about it for days, describing
how nothing remained of it, how he watched for
feathers and counted only two gold ones which he
slipped behind his ear. He grew uneasy and care-
less; nothing remained. He wore loud ties and two
tone shoes. He sold shoes, he sold soap. Nothing
remained. He drove on the roads with a little hole
in the air behind him.

The brother is a nameless figure that moves toward what Levis calls the “original frequencies.” The gun, the death, the war and return of a brother present in the opening of “Linnets” are reminiscent of the conflict that begins Herbert’s poem. In The Afterlife’s original table of contents, “Linnets” is titled, “The Rain’s Witness: Linnets.”[4]

The hole behind the brother in Levis’ poem results from the murder of the bird, a system that he steals from Herbert, whose figure returns from war, from the act of killing, with a similar emptiness and disassociation from a true or former self. The “abyss,” like the “little hole” is small, it is the shrapnel in the sixth line, associatively connected through the lack of punctuation that builds cohesion across the first two stanzas and makes the abyss the splinter.

Shrapnel. Two feathers. Nothing. Though these remnants are not always visible, they live and induce more pain, flicker out into the stories and actions of the bearers and the bearers of those stories.

Further, changes in uniform in both characters mark an internal change. For Herbert, this manifests in military versus civilian garb, while the brother in “Linnets” moves to “loud ties and two / tone shoes,” a uniform of capitalism, strip malls, and the loudness that obliterates our relationship with the natural world.

The system of marking change both externally, through clothing, and internally and spiritually, through a hint of soft surrealism (abstraction is often the artistic reaction to atrocity and in Herbert’s case, censorship), becomes Levis’ code: a system of associations to articulate his subject that is built upon Herbert’s system, which Herbert, in turn, inherited from other poets.

The colon that connects the section title, “The Rain’s Witness” to the poem’s more particular title, “Linnets,” frames the poem with Herbert’s. It is homage, a conversation, and a way with which to understand the work. Levis revises “The Rain,” adds to the fullness of its possibility, and brings its parable forward by allowing it to live, although changed, within the work.

The full title asserts that at some point between the moment of conception and the publishing of The Afterlife Levis consciously embraced Herbert’s important role within the poem and, therefore, also embraced the whole of Herbert’s bibliography, context and attentions that led to the construction of “The Rain.”

“The Rain’s Witness: Linnets” embodies a newness in history. The parts are old. The ways in which it has stolen and used the imagination to build a composite are strikingly new. The connections–thoughts and sections that widen, that move beyond and within the frame of the parable and serve to connect, double back, and contradict, that create a bestiary–must also have the energy of other poems and poets.

Here are a few lines that Levis, later in his history, addressed to Herbert,

Maybe I have raised a dead man into this air,
And now I will have to bury him inside my body,
And breathe him in, and do nothing but listen –
Until I hear the black blood rushing over
The stone of my skull, and believe it is music.[5]

We find poems when we find them, and they build within us. Some fragments of the whole become so precious to us that we move them, in our task of writing, to the fore, place them on our desks, turn toward them the way a house-plant in a light-polluted city turns toward its only visible star, while the other stars, more distant and hidden, remain and feed the universe in some way we don’t yet or will never know.

The poems that build outside of our concentration are no less a part of the mesmerizing whole. They lead us to our love. All the poems are within our poems, and our poems are within the future when we share them.

Sometimes, at my best, with Larry and you, I write in this faith.


[1] Mr. Rogers – quoted from the motion picture, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

[2] “Strange Days: Zbigniew Herbert in Los Angeles” by Larry Levis. Reprinted by University of Michigan Press – Poets on Poetry Series –The Gazer Within

[3] “War as Parable and War as Fact: Herbert and Forché” by Larry Levis – Reprinted by Eastern Washington University Press in A Condition of the Spirit: The Life and Work of Larry Levis Edited by Christopher Buckley and Alexander Long

[4] The Afterlife by Larry Levis – University of Iowa Press

[5] “For Zbigniew Herbert, Summer, 1971, Los Angeles

Andrés Cerpa

Andrés Cerpa is the author of Elegy with a Bicycle in a Ransacked City, forthcoming from Alice James Books (January 2019). A recipient of a fellowship from the McDowell Colony, Canto Mundo, and a scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The Bellevue Literary Review, Gulf Coast, Third Coast, Perigee, Radar Poetry, The Shallow Ends, TriQuarterly, Horsethief, West Branch, and RHINO, which selected his poem, "At the Tree Line" for their 2017 Editors' Prize.

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