The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

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.

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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.”

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552

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 to that...

(The entire section contains 1065 words.)

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