Animals Are Passing from Our Lives

by Philip Levine

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The Poem

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Philip Levine’s often anthologized “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives” consists of six stanzas of four lines each. The first stanza is a discrete statement of self-description, followed by five stanzas that express the thoughts of the speaker in anticipation of the termination of the speaker’s existence. A mood of mordant irony is established from the start as the reader learns from the speaker’s self-portrait that the poem is an expression of the flow of consciousness in the mind of a pig destined for slaughter. “It’s wonderful how I jog/ on four honed-down ivory toes,” the pig proclaims, both contradicting the common perception of a pig as merely gross and clumsy, while introducing an element of reflective awareness that challenges the concept of animals as dumb beasts that lack, as William Shakespeare called it, “discourse of reason.” The tension between the standard image of a pig and the sensitive, socially attuned speaker creates an intense kind of energy that illuminates the pig’s predicament and introduces a strain of poignancy that evokes a degree of sympathy beyond the natural sadness of an animal’s death.

After the personal introduction, the pig tersely asserts its situation in a blunt factual statement—“I’m to market”—and then anticipates a fateful inevitability by projecting with a sensory vividness the smell of the “sour, grooved block,” the “blade” and the “pudgy white fingers” that constitute the instruments of death. This vision is expanded by a recollection of dreams in which the pig has a horrifying and recurring experience of “snouts” drooling on a marble slab, somehow still aware and “suffering” after death the uneasy gaze of consumers “who won’t meet their steady eyes/ for fear they could see.”

Then the poem shifts back to the immediate present as the pig describes “the boy” who is responsible for conveying the animal to the place of slaughter. The boy is oblivious to the pig’s appealing qualities—the “massive buttocks slipping/ like oiled parts with each light step”—and expects the pig to succumb to panic and collapse into a hysterical tremor of terror, to “fall/ on my side and drum my toes/ like a typewriter.” The boy, who is a generic representation of ignorance and received information, can see nothing beyond the clichéd, standard dismissal of a subspecies bereft of any attributes that correspond to appealing human traits.

The unforgettable conclusion of the poem expresses the pig’s resolute refusal in the face of death to completely give in to the desperate fear engendered by the terrible circumstances of the situation. Instead of reverting totally to an instinctive, animalistic physicality in which the pig will “turn like a beast,/ cleverly to hook his teeth/ with my teeth,” the last line is a powerful declaration of dignity. With nothing left in the way of resistance other than the will to maintain some vestige of self-respect, the pig summons a kind of innate strength to proclaim, in the face of familiar social expectations that smugly assume a feeble compliance, “No. Not this pig.”

Forms and Devices

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During an interview in 1999, Levine commented that “if you’re going to say something difficult or hard about the nature of our experience, the reader will resist, and so you have to involve the reader shrewdly.” Levine said that one of the techniques he used to do this was to “catch readers off balance, entangle them.” In “Animals Are Passing from Our Lives,” by placing the poem literally and directly within the perceptual and reflective consciousness of a pig—albeit one whose capacity to feel and speak corresponds...

(This entire section contains 552 words.)

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to that of a human being—Levine has devised a method that is extremely effective in entangling the reader so that resistance to the unconventional can be overcome.

The confessional address to the reader that starts the poem, with its self-mocking reference to the pig’s means of motion, not only establishes a recognizable and appealing voice but also offers the first in a series of vivid images that leave an indelible impression on the reader’s mind. As the poem proceeds, these images continue to accumulate, alternating between the senses of sight and smell in terms of the pig’s appearance prior to and after its arrival at the market. Levine draws the reader further into the action of the poem here as the pig envisions the uneasy interaction between product (pig) and consumer (reader) in terms of a reciprocal avoidance and baleful confrontation.

Levine also mentioned in an interview how important it is for him to carry “throughout the whole poem” that voice “that is most alive in the poem.” The pig speaks first in an informally conversational mode, then shifts abruptly to a graphically devastating description of the processes of slaughter, then extends this unsettling vision further in the depiction of the marketplace, where the word “suffering” occurs three times to concentrate the psychological mood. Following this section, the vocal perspective shifts again toward the final assertion of the poem.

In the last stanzas, the pig seems to step back from the immediacy of the moment, or to begin to develop a kind of double consciousness in which the events of the present are seen as if from the consequences of their occurrence. This tends to make the pig’s final act of defiance more plausible. The separation between the pig and “The boy/ who drives me along” suggests that there is a kind of courage inherent in the choice to defy the limited expectations of the mundane. The exuberant anger of the pig’s contemptuous dismissal of a dumb beast’s mindless hysteria—expressed as the boy’s belief that the pig will “fall/ on my side and drum my toes/ like a typewriter or squeal” and conveyed by the image of instinctive retribution where the pig turns “like a beast/ cleverly to hook his teeth/ with my teeth”—leads to the radical change in tone of the pig’s claim for individual identity. The word “No,” standing alone, has the force of a gavel struck on the bar of justice. This is an echo of Herman Melville’s insistence, in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, that the artist must say “No! in thunder” when a society asks for easy affirmation. The final statement, “Not this pig,” comes as an ultimate proclamation of singularity against the pressures of mindless conformity.