“Ashes” is a free-verse, single-stanza poem that is forty-one lines long. The title points to what a life comes to upon death, and it immediately establishes a mood of fatalism. Ashes are the result of fire, and fire in this poem is a metaphor for life’s toil and labor. The poem is written in the first person, and the poet addresses the reader as early as the fourteenth line, telling the reader that “You can howl your name,” but the wind will turn it to dust. The direct address links the poet to his reader.
“Ashes” begins at dusk with the poet musing, the classic pose for lyric poetry. Philip Levine sees smoke rising from a field of cotton, from which the workers have already returned several hours earlier. The image of the smoke is the point of departure in the poem—and will become the point of closure as well—as is the bus that passes by the poet and carries the blue-collar laborers home.
While the poet watches the bus pass, he wonders about the workers’ fate, the fate of the poor who make their living in the only back-breaking jobs they can get. He wonders about the children who die every day, about the women who curse the very hours of their lives, and about the men who “bow/ to earn our scraps.” By saying “our,” Levine links himself to the men, suggesting that he, too, in writing the poem, is a laborer, a recorder of their experience, and thus, vicariously at least, experiences their suffering. Yet he only...
(The entire section is 523 words.)