Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523
“Ashes” is a free-verse, single-stanza poem that is forty-one lines long. The title points to what a life comes to upon death, and it immediately establishes a mood of fatalism. Ashes are the result of fire, and fire in this poem is a metaphor for life’s toil and labor. The poem is written in the first person, and the poet addresses the reader as early as the fourteenth line, telling the reader that “You can howl your name,” but the wind will turn it to dust. The direct address links the poet to his reader.
“Ashes” begins at dusk with the poet musing, the classic pose for lyric poetry. Philip Levine sees smoke rising from a field of cotton, from which the workers have already returned several hours earlier. The image of the smoke is the point of departure in the poem—and will become the point of closure as well—as is the bus that passes by the poet and carries the blue-collar laborers home.
While the poet watches the bus pass, he wonders about the workers’ fate, the fate of the poor who make their living in the only back-breaking jobs they can get. He wonders about the children who die every day, about the women who curse the very hours of their lives, and about the men who “bow/ to earn our scraps.” By saying “our,” Levine links himself to the men, suggesting that he, too, in writing the poem, is a laborer, a recorder of their experience, and thus, vicariously at least, experiences their suffering. Yet he only wonders about these people, and in that pose he exposes the differences between the poet and those who inspire him. The answer he provides about their life, which provides the poem’s title, is cryptic only in the sense that it is metaphoric: “with fire there is smoke, and after, ashes.” That, Levine suggests, is the fate of all people.
Next the poem imagines the darkness coming down for the night, but it is a night representative of all nights. The people go to sleep tired, and when they sleep they dream “of sleep/ without end.” That state is fleeting, however, as morning comes in the next line like a blood stain on the sky; the workers are up dressing in clothes that are still warm, though damp, from the day before.
Meanwhile, as the workers head back to the fields, the poet is sleeping. This is a more dramatic difference between them, causing Levine to ask of the reader, “Do you want the earth to be heaven?” The answer given is a call to pray for “all you’ll/ never be.” Here the poem returns to the imagery of its beginning. In a list of options of what one may never be—“a drop of sea water” or a “small hurtling flame”—is the poem’s final image of a “fine flake of dust that moves/ at evening like smoke at great height/ above the earth and sees it all.” The image of smoke here represents the vision of the poet as well as the inspiration for poetic vision.
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