Originally published in PressureLife Magazine; Issue 10
Following a 1967 police raid on his East Cleveland apartment, poet, d.a. levy (who exclusively used lowercase), wrote to a friend, “we give books to the libraries, we give candy to children, we don’t murder people, we’re trying to stop people from taking Bad Trips, we don’t deal with narcotics, we are trying to help Cleveland grow up by giving the city a literary tradition and bang ARRESTS.” His frustrations and paranoia proved well warranted. As the troubled writer intimated in the same letter, “we all expect to be in jail again soon and it’s not the police who are doing it, it’s somebody higher up. The subversive squad? Of course the narcotics dept, but I can’t find who is giving them orders. FBI? It doesn’t make sense.” By the time of the raid the dam had already burst. It was the beginning of the end for the troubled writer, but in only a handful of years prior, d.a. levy single-handedly created an alternative Cleveland literary scene- a life’s work that cost him exactly that.
d.a. levy held court amid University Circle. Haunting the corner of 117th and Euclid Avenue, often found in the corner booth at Adele’s, drinking cheap cups of coffee and scribbling in notebooks. Lines like, “lakefront rats race rock to rock like medieval monks”, “The Parma police are still waiting for Pancho Villa” and “a pigmy fleet drops anchor at the East Ninth Street Pier and the lake nights are haunted by visions of fresh water Flying Dutchmen”, fused the impersonal steel and concrete downtown with an inherent spirituality levy saw in everything. As he explained in “Cleveland Undercovers”, “the city tries to impress me with its / mass, it struggles to encompass me with / shadows, but i know it exists / ONLY because i perceive it…” His roommate at the time, Russ Salmon, recounts in The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle: The Art and Poetry of d. a. levy, levy’s singular focus, “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.”
The passion driving levy’s literary pursuits were rivaled only by his search for spiritual enlightenment. Balancing the Jewish mysticism of his heritage with his love of Buddhism, the two halves of his focus were expertly married in his “North American Book of the Dead”, which blurs ephemeral transcendence with the blue-collar reality of day-to-day life in Cleveland. In it, he details his spiritual struggle within the city, “last time i took acid / i wanted to get liberated / immediately / almost dropped dead / decided i didn’t want to get liberated / that way / too clinical … working out problems of the universe / thinking weird thoughts / writing paranoid poems about the police / nothing to do except / change the kitty litter, empty the garbage / nothing to do except go to Adeles bar / the last religious frontier / & watch it be destroyed by the University property-mongers … Everyone Sez, / write a poem about east cleveland / yah man, wouldn’t that be cute!”
Working out of his dingy apartment overlooking the Flats, levy’s wiry frame was in constant motion. An unsung godfather of the indie ‘zine movement, Levy produced several infamous hand-run prints including The Seven Flowers Press, The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle, Renegade Press, and The Marrahwanna Quarterly that were prized and traded throughout the underground literary scene. The eccentric printings were an indispensible outlet for an enclave of brilliant locals. Paired with rare pieces by Beat luminaries such as Charles Bukowski, R. Crumb, Ed Sanders, Tuli Kupferberg and Allan Ginsberg, levy’s publications hosted some of the most daring thoughts in America at the time.
While other contemporaries of the 1960’s were dreaming of idyllic West Coast sunsets or hustling to reach the authenticity found in New York’s East Village, levy knew no riper terrain than his hometown to chronicle such daily triumphs and tragedies. The infamous Hough Riots of 1966 saw Cleveland streets besieged with firebombings, looting, arson and multiple deaths. Naturally, levy sought the center of the chaos. Featured in his “Suburban Monastery Death Poem” levy reported, “Only ten blocks away / buildings burned- perhaps burning now / the august night broken by sniper fire / police men bleeding in the streets / a sniper surrenders (perhaps out of ammunition) / gun jammed? / someone sed he was framed in a doorway / like a picture- his hands in the air / when they shot him … Only ten blocks away / from my total helplessness / from my boredom enforced by the state / they are looting stores / trying to get televisions / so they can watch the riots / on the 11 pm news.”
A poignant account of the racially charged riots, levy added in the same piece, “I cld try to tell you / about the hopeless despair / ingrained in ghetto walls / & police brutality or police stupidity / or police reality is more than just words / to define situation by / students looking for a cause / the situations exist and continue / quietly in the dark while the / protest goes on in daylight- both unheard / Really the police try to protect / the banks- and everything else / is secondary / during the riots … I just saw wondering about all / the living room revolutionaries / safe in the suburbs / who cheered everytime someone / was shot or a building went up / in smoke / ten blocks away / it was real.”
Levy’s most socially-focused writings worked to expose an expansive East Cleveland housing scam that sought to drive out low-income housing in favor for new developments around University Circle; one of the many inciting elements that fed into the Hough Riots. Playing recurrent foils for the poet, levy often criticized what he considered a heavy-handed police force and Cleveland’s mayor at the time, Ralph Locher. Featured in his seminal Cleveland: The Rectal Eye Visions, levy accuses the mayor of fostering a fetish for Nazism as well as moonlighting as an airport police dog, foaming at the mouth for a fresh bust. He ends the poem with no room for subtlety, “Ole wise man of cleveland / you’re just like prez johnson / who plays / musical electric chairs / With The People. … Mayor Locher / you ain’t even smart enough to be the bad guy / & the parade of parades of death / whisper in the marching marching / of the 4th Reich America / UBER ALLES” Whether spoken or mimeographed, people were beginning to listen to the poet. As his influence grew, so too did the frustration of local authorities; who increasingly became the focus of his wrath. What happened in the coming months would see d.a. levy the target of a orchestrated series of arrests, stings, surveillance and harassment courtesy of the Cleveland Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office- hounding the writer until a trigger is pulled…
It was only when d. a. levy read the morning paper that November morning in 1966, that the Cleveland poet realized a grand jury had decided to indict him on trumped up obscenity charges. levy had disappeared before brunch, choosing to hide out at a friend’s Collinwood apartment rather than turn himself in. Two weeks later, the head of the CPD Narcotic Bureau burst through the front doors of Asphodel Bookshop under the pretense of a drug tip (one that was never substantiated). Crates of books, magazine, newsletters and cartoon strips created or printed by the poet were bagged and tagged, never to be returned. It was no coincidence that Asphodel’s was the sole outlet for levy’s publications at the time. Even less of a coincidence was the seizing of levy’s mimeo machine and printing press. d. a. levy was now an outlaw and the Powers That Be were fixed on turning the screws, silencing one of Cleveland’s most influential voices forever.
In a comprehensive and painfully candid missive, “Kibbutz in the Sky”, levy chronicled his repeated ordeals with the judicial system. He opens with the brief prologue, “to prevent the police further harassment, I have decided to turn myself in.” The prosecutor, George Mascarino, motioned to deny levy a personal bond, arguing the malnourished writer was something on scale with John Dillinger. When judge, Frank Celebreeze, asked if he sold any of the poetry he had written, levy answered glibly, “I sell poetry for 89 cents a day.”
Celebreeze sneered as he slammed the gavel down, “Bail of $2,500 is not excessive for a great poet. Maybe you should charge more than 89 cents.”
levy wrote about the ordeal, “…so now my freedom of expression is being stomped on by the local psychotics, who in their stupidity, think I am a leader, and in their own personal blind hallucinations have visualized me as having a following. With their cooperation I have been turned into a symbol, and I sincerely hope that in their incompetence they do not attempt to turn me into a martyr. … The city is working overtime to turn me into a myth, I haven’t been able to reach them yet, perhaps you can- think nice thoughts about them, perhaps they will grow into civilized human beings.”
It would be less than two months later that levy would be arrested as a criminal for nothing more than speaking. levy had read at the Gate, a coffeehouse in the basement of the Trinity Cathedral before, in fact, it was public knowledge. On March 28th of 1967, police would use that to their advantage. As levy, himself, explained it in “Kibbutz…”, “You don’t understand what it really means / when a ‘lonely’ ‘bored’ 17 yr old high / school student is seduced into carrying / a taperecorder & other equipment provided / by the narkos to set up his old friends.” The fact that the two minors the police leveraged against the poet were regulars at the Gate, young writers whom levy had previously talked shop with, broke his heart. He wrote of the other in the eponymous, “One Death in the Life of Julie”, “the police / questioning her / about the Great / CLEVELAND HEIGHTS / MARIJUANA HOAX / left their mark / & at a western reserve poetry reading / she was afraid to talk to me / she looked so tired / i almost did not recognize her / the darkness of doubt / after a day in court / poor child / to naively look into the minds / of the state executioners / i weep for you Julie”
With fresh delinquency of minors charges to go along with his pre-existing obscenity indictment, the pressure was mounting on levy, but so too was the spotlight. It was not long after his delinquency charges that the Plain Dealer offered an editorial on his behalf, “This is a nonsensical situation. If the police believe that Levy is engaging in some serious crime, they should come up with some evidence or let the man alone. Harassing him for writing words that are uttered from stage and screen and scrawled on fences and walls all over town is making Cleveland look more like a province than it really is.”
That May, Allan Ginsberg and the Fugs took the stage of the Cleveland Masonic Auditorium for a benefit show to raise money for levy’s non-existent legal defense fund. During which Beat legend, Ginsberg, recited the same passages that saw levy arrested, daring a similar prosecution which never came. Mike Golden’s absolutely indispensible, Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle: The Art and Poetry of d. a. levy, Ginsberg was quoted of the evening, “[levy] seemed to be very much affected by the put down and jailing or arrest and trial. It was obviously a trumped up charge. Cleveland was a very heavy police state in a very literal way. The Cleveland police were notorious for their outrageousness and for their storm trooper tactics.”
What had begun as a relentless pursuit of levy was quickly spinning into the absurd. A September 4th, 1967 Plain Dealer headline read: “2 Area Poets Tagged as Psychedelic Churchmen”. The bizarre article began, “Poets Daryll Allen Levy and Kent Taylor have been named as area leaders here of a national ‘religious’ organization that believes in psychedelic warfare and political assassinations to further its movement.” The charge was leveled by none other than the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Dr. James Goddard during a testimony to a House subcommittee on organized crime.
What Commissioner Goddard failed to realize that the Neo-American Church came from the same satirical pastures that the Onion would graze from decades later. The threat Goddard alleged levy and his friend, Kent Taylor, of possessing would make Lex Luthor blush. Without a trace of irony, the FDA commissioner somberly quoted the gag on the floor of the House of Representatives, fearing, “clouds of dust sprayed over cities and LSD in the water supply.” He went on to claim the Neo faithful were capable of “Psychedelic assassinations, perhaps with a spray of DMSO and LSD, could be carried out against those politicians or military figures responsible for overthrowing the Bill of Rights.”
Cleveland and d. a. levy were pulling away from one another. The poet felt betrayed. His scathing, post-arrest work, “letter to cleveland” proved a bittersweet coda to the city. Reading in part, “cleveland i gave you / most of my energy / pieces of my flesh & bone / & you laughed … cleveland i gave you / a kind of love that you / will not understand / for the centuries you collect / muscums full of dead things / things with their inner-meanings / subtly covered / to protect your children? to keep america free? / (perhaps) free from thought … & even the small dreams of cleveland / are slowly murdered by the / narrow reality that surrounds / & devours them / a City of Trees / cut down by reality” He ends the piece with either a warning or a promise, “Cleveland / you will move / or be plowed over- / eaten by vultures / like a corpse / digested / & slowly / change…”
Desperate for a change in scenery, levy accepted an invitation to serve as Poet in Residence at a newly created Free University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the Fall of 1968. While his tenure proved some small measure of respite, with The Madison Poems composed during his stay, it was short lived and before long, levy was back home. There are considerable discrepancies for the timeline following levy’s return to Cleveland. A postcard, dated November 18th, was sent to a friend in California, which read in part, “cutting through the illusions I find I need the illusions to live, grow or is that another illusion? HELP- reply necessary- short.” His close friends remembered levy spending the period immediately following his return disposing of his possessions and severing relationships, and burning unpublished manuscripts. Ultimately, on November 25th, Robert Sigmund and Steve Ferguson entered levy’s East Cleveland apartment to find the poet dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the center of his forehead. As his body was found in the lotus position with the .22 rifle propped between his feet, the apocrypha that followed had levy dead from an attempt to open his third eye.
Some of levy’s peers, however, were less than convinced to his cause of death. “That rjs [Robert Sigmund] was a police informer is indisputable,” this, according to friend of levy, Frank Oskinski, when interviewed by Golden. “That rjs murdered d.a. is certain in my mind and heart. … He came extremely close to admitted that he killed d.a.- his words were something along the line of ‘we do what we have to do.’” Ferguson remained uncertain on Sigmund’s involvement in levy’s death but references a strained relationship between the two during the same series of interviews. “There have been dark rumors,” he recalled, “speculations about the egocentric game playing, back and forth, that they did. I never witnessed them but I heard some pretty graphic stories; holding knives to one another’s throats, stuff like that.”
An announcement of levy’s death spread as wildfire throughout the underground literary scene after an obituary was placed in Jim Soric’s Gunrunner Press. It read in part, “i keep trying to find out what it all means/ what I’m supposed to do. & like maybe it wasn’t the police chief briers & richard nixon that killed d.a. maybe it was you & i who pushed him in to dying. maybe if we had just left him alone/ stopped pushing him & writing him/ telling him its all worth it/ all the shit is really worth it in the end/ maybe if we had just gotten off his fucking back for once & given him room to live HE DIED BECAUSE HE WAS TIRED. … stay well, motherfucker, law & order is back in Cleveland. & d.a. levy is dead.”
Famous writer and loose friend, Charles Bukowski reflected in past interviews on levy’s passing, “What killed him is the same thing which keeps us awake at nights, is the same thing that grips our guts when we pass face after face upon the streets; what killed him is the same thing we love and hate, the same thing we eat, the same we fear. What killed him was life and lack of life; what killed him were cops, friends, poetry, Cleveland, belief and betrayal. … I get angry and sad when a good man dies or is killed, and that isn’t reasonable because we’re born to die, and maybe that helps make poetry and anger and sadness.”