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Recently I spent part of an evening reading “Suburban Monastery Death Poem,” written by the American poet and visual artist d. a. levy in August 1968. He killed himself a few months later, in November of that year. I read the poem silently at first and then it seemed I should be reading aloud. As I declaimed these thirty-two pages, a range of emotions and tones crept into my voice—mainly anger, desperation and disillusionment, relieved by irony and a whole topography of local, political, and sexual references.
It was familiar territory. From late 1971 through 1973 I lived in that part of East Cleveland levy describes, listening to Aretha Franklin and Bill Withers on the juke box in the greasy spoon where his “mistress/wife” Dagmar worked, and seeing Warhol films at the “art” cinema down the street. I knew about levy himself even earlier, said hello to him at bookstores when I was a high school student, as his persecution by the Cleveland police was breaking in newspapers and in the halls of Cleveland Heights High School. When I finished reading “Suburban Monastery Death Poem” the poem continued to smolder in the back of my mind. I was unsettled, and moved. On another level I was impressed by levy’s clarity, by his canniness and his immunity to the fanaticism and delusion surrounding him; it was amidst the craziness of the Glenwood riots that he wrote “Suburban Monastery” which begins: only ten blocks away /buildings burned – perhaps burning now / the august night broken by sniper fire / police men bleeding in the streets.
On the strength of this poem, it could be argued that the twenty-six year old poet was really on the side of life, however much he talked about death. His title references the surefooted, oddly cynical innocence of the Japanese Zen poets who wrote the “original,” much shorter, often haiku length “death poems”—but those weren’t usually suicide poems, and neither was this longer, discursive version; not exactly.
Still, it remains the case that levy very probably shot and killed himself in his apartment in East Cleveland with his boyhood .22 caliber rifle. That shooting iron had been prominently displayed in different residences for years, and levy was often heard saying he would use it to kill himself. The limber poet was practiced in yogic traditions of Buddhist meditation. More than once he demonstrated how he would place the gun between his feet, press the muzzle against the center of his forehead, right against his third eye, and pull the trigger. Click. The Zen monk Hokushi wrote as he lay dying of natural causes, “I write, erase, rewrite / erase again, and then / a poppy blooms.”
Very few people who knew levy well have ever doubted that he killed himself—it was just one more enlightened deed, the most concrete of his poems. But it’s also true that he’d been hounded by the police and courts on vacuous charges of obscenity and drug use for two years preceding; he was all but run out of this town. It wasn’t only depression that caused him to write: “don’t be afraid of death / they intend to murder you anyway.” It was, after all, the year that Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were shot. Death was in the air.
Friends found his body the next day and it was cremated later that week. A law student named Tony Walsh, another member of levy’s circle who lived in the same Page Avenue neighborhood, came up with two hundred dollars to pay Cleveland Cremation. There was a service at a little church in East Cleveland, and half his ashes found their way to a plot in Whitehaven Memorial Park, far on the east side along S.O.M. Center Road. A plaque bearing the name Darryl A. Levy sits in the grass near the road in the far northwest corner of that peaceful place.
As it happens, only a part of levy’s ashes are interred there. Walsh entrusted the rest to levy’s friend, the artist George Fitzpatrick, who intended to make some memorial drawings using the ashes as a drawing medium. At that time and during the years leading up to levy’s death the young Fitzpatrick was manager of the Continental Theater (mentioned by name in “Suburban Monastery”), one of the few places to view alternative cinema in Cleveland. Warhol’s ironic dramas—Lonesome Cowboys, Trash—were screened there soon after they came out, along with other infamous films like I am Curious, Yellow.
When Fitzpatrick wasn’t making his own art (Franz Kline-influenced paintings and large plexiglass sculptures, in his earlier artistic evolution) or volunteering his services at a nearby art gallery, he worked long hours at the theater. Fitzpatrick and levy met as early as 1963 at coffee houses and bars where levy read: The Well, The Brick, The Gate, or Adele’s. Eventually, on weekends levy began distributing his incredible compendium of homegrown poetry and collages called the “Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle” in the Continental’s lobby. The Oracle was printed a few doors down the street, at the venerable African-American newspaper The Call and Post. Among artists found in the pages of BTCJO was the young R. Crumb, who like levy had more than one foot in the deeply alienated waters of Beat culture, and Charles Bukowski, who levy had met during a trip to California. levy’s friends on the national scene included Allan Ginsberg, who appeared at the theater one day. Fitzpatrick switched off the projector and the author of Howl conducted a Buddhist chant. Ginsberg and the Fugs, among other countercultural luminaries, gave a concert to finance legal support for levy and his publisher, Jim Lowell, who printed many of levy’s books at his bookstore The Asphodel, located downtown in the Arcade.
After levy’s death George Fitzpatrick continued to manage theaters for another decade. He also refined his own extraordinary visual art, which by 1992 was exhibited in a major New York gallery, earning critical praise in The New York Times and elsewhere (in 1996 MOCA Cleveland mounted a major retrospective of his work). Typically Fitzpatrick’s often mural-size word drawings consist of multiple streams of delicate marks. These slightly curving, dancing line fragments seem like the shards of an aboriginal tongue. Reiterations of actual texts, they translate their material letter by letter, back toward more fundamental expression. Fitzpatrick composes on the finest hand-made paper available, from places like Dieu Donné on 36th Street in New York. Using inks of various delicate hues, sometimes recapitulating the palette of Sienese painters like Duccio and Giotto, Fitzpatrick seems to unwind the ages. Often running for many feet on successive sheets of paper, blocks of abstract text unspool like the dictations of a norn.
Today Fitzpatrick has a small studio on the third floor of his Cleveland Heights home where he showed me levy’s coarse, gray-white ashes, half-filling a small square cardboard box. After Fitzpatrick grinds it into a fine powder by hand using a mortar, the ash is ideal for the portrayal of a ghost. His portraits of levy begin with stencils made from photos of the poet familiar from posters and news sources, taken in the last years of his life—literally iconic pictures, in that levy’s heavy lidded eyes, his beard and long, oval face have the look of a Byzantine saint. At first the image on the gray or brown tinted papers is a little hard to see in these works, hovering just at the edge of visibility. The veil dissipates gradually, between life and death, between the 1960’s and now, between the organic delicacy of the paper’s surface and the hallucinatory image of the man.
Fitzpatrick plans to make forty-two levy drawings altogether (he will transcribe “Suburban Monastery Death Poem” in its entirety, among other projects), corresponding to the year 1942 when both he and levy were born. So far he has completed about twelve. One of them is a diptych, showing levy’s head on the right, more like an apparition than a drawing, made by pressing fine ash through the stencil with a makeup powder pad. In the original photo levy smokes a cigarette or more likely a joint, but here the smoke becomes a complex skein of proto-symbols, the syllables of a secret self. These pictures reproduce the text of levy’s 1968 poem “New Year’s Day,” a Rosh Hashanah meditation about his childhood and his father: When I was / six years old / we dipped / apple slices / & bread / in honey / touched small glasses / of wine / & sed ‘to life’ / ‘to life ‘ / that was the only time / my father ever hit me.
Maybe levy’s father actually hit him, but these lines are also consistent with the traditional meanings of the Jewish New Year’s celebration, which commemorates the creation of Adam and Eve and marks the ambivalence of humanity’s relations with God. On this day God the Father sets out to judge mankind, but in the end, reveals a hidden, forgiving nature. Later in Genesis, He orders Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, but relents. levy’s poem, on the other hand, is about a son remembering and forgiving his father, and in it he forgives the hardness of life, from the standpoint of his earned identity as a poet. Again, this is hardly a suicide note, yet one could take it that way—a suicide note, and a kind of backwards love letter.
On a day in early June this year Fitzpatrick and I drove to Whitehaven Memorial Park and talked to a woman in the gatehouse. She directed us toward a plot in the northwest corner of the cemetery. We could barely see any graves or markers from the narrow road, but when we parked and walked to the west we saw the rectangular bronze plaques affixed to stone and set snugly against the earth. We soon found levy’s, with his name and dates and the word “son.” That’s one place where a residue of the poet stays, of course, but levy has other, larger dwellings, like Fitzpatrick’s drawings, or his own poems, and the hidden mind of the city that tried to push him away.
Douglas Max Utter is an exhibiting painter and arts writer based in Cleveland, Ohio. He received the Cleveland Arts Prize, Lifetime Achievement in 2013. He lives on the East Side near an abandoned observatory, with his cat Spanky and a lot of unsold paintings. View more articles by Douglas Max Utter.