“Men reject their prophets and slay them, but they love their martyrs and honor those whom they have slain.”
In the previous issue, we featured local poet and activist d. a. levy’s meteoric rise as the city’s voice and conscience. After making enemies of City Hall and the Cleveland Police Department, levy’s dominoes were tipping, proving the inescapable axiom that everything which rises must fall.
When local poet, d. a. levy, awoke in his drafty East Cleveland apartment in November 1966 to read the morning paper, he was shocked to see it included a grand jury indictment against him on trumped up obscenity charges. Needless to say, an already paranoid levy was panicked. He was gone before brunch, choosing to hide out at a friend’s Collinwood apartment. After two weeks on the lam, the head of the CPD Narcotic Bureau burst through the front doors of Asphodel Bookshop under the pretense of a drug tip—one that remains unsubstantiated. 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.
levy eventually turned himself in and wrote about the ordeal in the painfully candid missive titled “Kibbutz in the Sky”: “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.” He went on to write, “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.”
Eventually, a friend bailed out levy, but he would not be free for long. Less than two months later, levy was arrested for obscenity and delinquency of minors. In “Kibbutz in the Sky” levy explained, “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 wired and used as leverage against the poet were young writers whom levy had previously mentored broke his heart. He wrote of one 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.”
The pressure was mounting on levy, but so too was the spotlight. The Plain Dealer offered an editorial on his behalf stating, “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.”
What had begun as a relentless pursuit of levy was quickly spinning into the absurd. A later Plain Dealer article on Sept. 4, 1967 ran the headline: “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 was 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, posed would make Lex Luthor blush. Without a trace of irony, the FDA commissioner somberly quoted from the fake church’s own literature 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” that 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 his love affair with 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—levy composed The Madison Poems 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 Nov. 18, 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, severing relationships, and burning unpublished manuscripts.
Ultimately, on Nov. 25, 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,” said levy’s friend Frank Oskinski when interviewed by Mike Golden for The Buddhist Third-Class Junkmail Oracle: The Art and Poetry of d.a. levy. “That rjs murdered d.a. is certain in my mind and heart. … He came extremely close to admitting 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 referenced 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 like 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 BECA– USE HE WAS TIRED … stay well, motherfucker, law & order is back in Cleveland. & d.a. levy is dead.”
Famous writer and peer, 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.” Bukowski closed with a final poignant thought, “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.”