Ashes Summary (Philip Levine)

Philip Levine

The Poem

“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...

(The entire section is 523 words.)

Forms and Devices

Levine has always been attracted to images of fire and smoke, and this poem typifies that interest. His concern, ultimately, is a consideration of living and dying, with which poetry finally must deal. In this sense, the poem’s imagery is imbued with an elegiac tone as well as a defiant one.

Levine connects these tones by linking violent and tranquil images—that is to say, he finds an image’s internal sense of paradox. For example, fields of cotton are often thought of as a quiet, almost pastoral image. Cotton-picking is hard, back-breaking work, but here the work is made harder because the fields are burning, an image that signifies the life of the laborer. Second, the earth is often thought of as Mother Earth, but it is anything but motherly in this poem. The poet is affected by this contrast. He questions why the earth would let children die and women curse and why it will eat lives the way people “eat/ an apple, meat, skin, core, seeds.” He questions why people must tear a living “from the silent earth.” The traditional image of the earth as benign and generous has been transformed into an image of affliction and distress.

In addition, Levine finds a paradox in the light. Traditionally, first light is a romantic image, going back to the Greek poet Homer’s epithet of “rosy-fingered dawn.” Dawn is a beginning, a new start. Yet in “Ashes,” the first light “bloodies the sky,” and beneath it the cotton-pickers are...

(The entire section is 501 words.)