(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Philip Levine’s “The Mercy” consists of one thirty-eight-line stanza written in primarily five-beat free-verse lines. The poem takes its title from the ship that brought the poet’s mother to Ellis Island in the 1910’s. As in many of Levine’s poems, the grandeur and splendor of mercy is found in small and everyday events that offer only glimpses of the sublime, of redemption, and of joy. Such is the case in “The Mercy,” a narrative elegy that depicts the journey of his mother, at the age of nine, from one home to another. “The Mercy” is the ship she travels on, where she encounters a Scottish sailor who offers her a slice of an orange, the first she has ever seen. The sailor attempts to teach her the word “orange” in English, “saying it patiently over and over.” Thus, by line 8 readers learn that “The Mercy” is concerned not merely with journeying from Europe to America but also with metaphorical journeys, such as from innocence to experience, from confusion to clarity, and from isolation to acclimation.

This idea of journeying, of “A long autumn voyage,” travels from its immediate context of the poet’s mother’s journey into the turbulent realm of language, as readers learn that “She prayed in Russian and Yiddish/ to find her family in New York.” The Scottish sailor, too, supports this dimension of the poem, as he is at once intimately isolated from, yet ineffably in communion with, the poet’s mother. Her prayers,...

(The entire section is 499 words.)