Ashes: Poems New and Old

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Ashes surpasses anything Philip Levine has done before, confirming both the craft and commitment of his previous seven books. Critics who have cited his “horror poems” in previous books and sometimes found his recitation of “the barbarities of our time” little more than old-fashioned will be startled at Levine’s use of horror in Ashes. Muting his voice, varying his forms, and building upon repeated words and images, Levine takes the reader through a series of increasingly painful tensions to sum up a significant part of what it means to be sensitive to life in the final quarter of the twentieth century. Consistently tough and precise, the poems in Ashes mean what they say, but they suggest far more than they say. In the poems, the reader finds a poet both real and palpable.

The poet of Ashes avoids the exhibitionism of the confessional writers, but he does not hesitate to reveal a person and a personality. His total craft gives us the theme of his book and the person of the poet. Never does the reader feel that he should respond because the poet has bared himself; instead, the reader is likely to respond because the poet has struck the reader’s nerve. At the same time, Levine’s book avoids the merely skillful. The effect is cumulative, and the reader may have difficulty accounting for his emotional response. One critic, speaking of this quality of Levine’s work, observed that analysis seems beside the point—one wants to quote whole poems. So sensitively and adroitly do these poems cohere that one wishes to quote an entire collection.

Levine has ordered older poems from a private press book, Red Dust (1971), to play against new poems which provide a personal, but not confessional, story line of a man moving from fatherlessness to fathered, from lost to found. The personal gains are hard-won; they do not represent the poet’s cheering himself up. The book’s conclusion is poignantly tentative, but amounts to a small victory—what the late Robert Frost would call a “momentary stay against confusion.” Ashes reaches, and earns, a place to begin from.

In 1963, American novelist John Hawkes defined the avant-garde and specified its quality of “coldness, detachment, ruthless determination to face up to the enormities of ugliness and potential failure within ourselves and the world around us.” Hawkes added that the avant-garde writer brings to this exposure “a savage or saving comic spirit and the saving beauties of language.” Hawkes describes perfectly what Philip Levine’s poems accomplish.

Ashes arises from an age of displacement and rootlessness. The poet’s sensibility has been shaped by the fact of the destructive power of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and, unlike writers who came after him, he has not yet come to live comfortably in an age of apocalypse. Levine has no ideology to offer, no formal elaborations intended to comfort; he has only the awareness of “enormities of ugliness” and the possibility of beauty, both natural and verbal. What Levine offers is adequate.

Ashes summons up much of the malaise of the present, but the book’s central consciousness, the poet, is working toward understanding. He is not content with vague complaints or with heroic stances. The “I” of these thirty-two poems scarcely resembles the professionally neurotic confessional poet anxious to announce his or her personal ontological anguish. In crafting the individual poems and the larger poem of the total book, the author of Ashes obviously learned about himself and his world and can therefore teach. This teaching takes the form of shared experience; the poet resists didacticism as well as confessionalism. One must be grateful when craft leads to even partial resolution.

Thirteen of the poems in Ashes come from Red Dust; the rest are new, but the totality does not appear contrived. Levine has not “padded out” a book with either new or old poems. The old and the new function together, for Levine has created new poems to provide a context for the sense of loss and anger apparent in the older poems. He weds the whole through persistent but subtle reiteration of words and images. The result is a landscape and mindscape both familiar and strange. The older poems generalize; the new ones particularize and make personal.

The lack of a father and the search for a father unify the story line of Ashes, and recurring words and images underline that unity. The opening poem, appropriately called “Fathers,” states the theme. It also introduces images important throughout. The setting is Michigan, famed for its cars; the earth is “sick on used oils.” Rain brings both fear and hope. The poet—a child at forty-three—finds his father beside “a mason jar of dried zinnias,” but he turns away from what he has found. The poem ends with an imperative—“Don’t come back.” The last poem, “Lost and Found,” resolves this conflict.

“Clouds,” an older poem, follows “Fathers” and opens with an...

(The entire section is 2094 words.)