The front cover of A WALK WITH TOM JEFFERSON features a striking Charles Sheeler photograph of a now-demolished Ford Motor Company plant. In its cavernous interior a giant hook is suspended next to a giant ladle, dwarfing the two human figures who are silhouetted in the shadows. The photograph is a fitting emblem not only for this volume but also for Levine’s entire body of work. Levine, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was born in Detroit, and as a young man he worked in various auto plants. Much of his poetry, elegiac in tone, centers on the lives of laborers, celebrating their dignity and strength and angrily documenting their degradation and disenfranchisement.
The long title poem of A WALK WITH TOM JEFFERSON is very much in this vein. Levine’s Tom Jefferson is not the sage of Monticello but rather “an unsung living man who shares . . . much of the fierce spirit of independence and originality of his namesake.” This Tom Jefferson is a black man living in a ravaged area of Detroit, “miles/ of mostly vacant lots, once/ a neighborhood of small/ two-storey houses.” It is hard to make this subject fresh, hard to avoid cliches about urban blight, but Levine brings his friend Tom Jefferson to life. With its short, driving lines, sentence piling on sentence in a prose-like declarative style, yet with something of Walt Whitman’s lyrical sweep, incantatory, and rich with gritty detail, the poem builds up emotion as it goes, finally powerful enough to move a reader to tears.
The shame is that some readers might not make it that far: “A Walk with Tom Jefferson” comes last in the book, and there is much in what precedes it to discourage further interest. Too often Levine’s lines are not merely prose-like; they are leaden, “prosaic” in the worst sense of the word. This tendency goes hand-in-hand with an effort to get too much mileage from his working-class credentials. In the title poem Levine is no less earnest, but there his elegiac music persuades by the force of art, avoiding the slackness and sentimentality that mar the collection as a whole.