Ashes: Poems New and Old

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2094

Ashes surpasses anything Philip Levine has done before, confirming both the craft and commitment of his previous seven books. Critics who have cited his “horror poems” in previous books and sometimes found his recitation of “the barbarities of our time” little more than old-fashioned will be startled at Levine’s use of horror in Ashes. Muting his voice, varying his forms, and building upon repeated words and images, Levine takes the reader through a series of increasingly painful tensions to sum up a significant part of what it means to be sensitive to life in the final quarter of the twentieth century. Consistently tough and precise, the poems in Ashes mean what they say, but they suggest far more than they say. In the poems, the reader finds a poet both real and palpable.

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The poet of Ashes avoids the exhibitionism of the confessional writers, but he does not hesitate to reveal a person and a personality. His total craft gives us the theme of his book and the person of the poet. Never does the reader feel that he should respond because the poet has bared himself; instead, the reader is likely to respond because the poet has struck the reader’s nerve. At the same time, Levine’s book avoids the merely skillful. The effect is cumulative, and the reader may have difficulty accounting for his emotional response. One critic, speaking of this quality of Levine’s work, observed that analysis seems beside the point—one wants to quote whole poems. So sensitively and adroitly do these poems cohere that one wishes to quote an entire collection.

Levine has ordered older poems from a private press book, Red Dust (1971), to play against new poems which provide a personal, but not confessional, story line of a man moving from fatherlessness to fathered, from lost to found. The personal gains are hard-won; they do not represent the poet’s cheering himself up. The book’s conclusion is poignantly tentative, but amounts to a small victory—what the late Robert Frost would call a “momentary stay against confusion.” Ashes reaches, and earns, a place to begin from.

In 1963, American novelist John Hawkes defined the avant-garde and specified its quality of “coldness, detachment, ruthless determination to face up to the enormities of ugliness and potential failure within ourselves and the world around us.” Hawkes added that the avant-garde writer brings to this exposure “a savage or saving comic spirit and the saving beauties of language.” Hawkes describes perfectly what Philip Levine’s poems accomplish.

Ashes arises from an age of displacement and rootlessness. The poet’s sensibility has been shaped by the fact of the destructive power of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and, unlike writers who came after him, he has not yet come to live comfortably in an age of apocalypse. Levine has no ideology to offer, no formal elaborations intended to comfort; he has only the awareness of “enormities of ugliness” and the possibility of beauty, both natural and verbal. What Levine offers is adequate.

Ashes summons up much of the malaise of the present, but the book’s central consciousness, the poet, is working toward understanding. He is not content with vague complaints or with heroic stances. The “I” of these thirty-two poems scarcely resembles the professionally neurotic confessional poet anxious to announce his or her personal ontological anguish. In crafting the individual poems and the larger poem of the total book, the author of Ashes obviously learned about himself and his world and can therefore teach. This teaching takes the form of shared experience; the poet resists didacticism as well as confessionalism. One must be grateful when craft leads to even partial resolution.

Thirteen of the poems in Ashes come from Red Dust; the rest are new, but the totality does not appear contrived. Levine has not “padded out” a book with either new or old poems. The old and the new function together, for Levine has created new poems to provide a context for the sense of loss and anger apparent in the older poems. He weds the whole through persistent but subtle reiteration of words and images. The result is a landscape and mindscape both familiar and strange. The older poems generalize; the new ones particularize and make personal.

The lack of a father and the search for a father unify the story line of Ashes, and recurring words and images underline that unity. The opening poem, appropriately called “Fathers,” states the theme. It also introduces images important throughout. The setting is Michigan, famed for its cars; the earth is “sick on used oils.” Rain brings both fear and hope. The poet—a child at forty-three—finds his father beside “a mason jar of dried zinnias,” but he turns away from what he has found. The poem ends with an imperative—“Don’t come back.” The last poem, “Lost and Found,” resolves this conflict.

“Clouds,” an older poem, follows “Fathers” and opens with an allusion to zinnias and includes images of oil and rain. With his opening poems, Levine establishes themes which the rest of the book will develop. Few of the poems in Part I are new, but all serve the book’s total scheme. “The Miracle,” for example, gives impetus to the yellow and golden imagery which recurs throughout the book; the poem treats a mother’s acceptance of a son’s death and the impact of that acceptance upon another son, who at the end looks out on the world he “always sees” and thinks “it’s a miracle.” Ashes is full of such miracles, all made real.

The middle poem in Part I, “The Rains,” brings back the fear of loss, death, and abandonment established in the opening poem, but it also looks forward to the gains of the final poem, “Lost and Found.” Further, “The Rains” balances against “The Water’s Chant,” a poem which begins the buildup of Part II. These interrelationships are intricate but effective; they are what we have come to expect of Philip Levine’s books.

In “The Rains,” a child fears flood and is comforted because Papa has said it will not flood. Still, the child wonders how he will get home from school, and, once home, alone “. . . calling/out the names/of those I lived with,” he thinks the cold empty house is all he has—until he hears a brother stamping his boots on the mat. Later in the poem, the poet and his wife walk in silence among the pines in a world they cannot see and which they have “soured” by not giving enough love. The world, dark “with oils and fire,” remains one they could “have come to call home.” This is not the only poem in which Levine calls attention to possibilities. The final poem in Part I, “Any Night,” ends with the statement about a child “far from home, lost” that “he could be happy.”

At the end of “The Rains,” husband and wife are hand in hand (as father and child will be in the book’s final poem); they move toward identity—the joy or sadness they have no name for. At the moment of transcendence, their faces stream with “the sweet waters/of heaven.” Later, in “The Water’s Chant,” the poet’s prayer for death concludes with an act of communion and with acceptance of the mundane. Resonance of imagery, the insistence of golden color, the swaying eucalyptus tree, a cumulative effect of many poems, prepares for the final triumph and intensifies its rightness.

Two new poems conclude Part I and extend the book’s plot line. The penultimate poem (“I Won, You Lost”) gives us a “yellow parlor,” “an old man’s room,” to which the poet returns realizing “Something is missing.” What is lacking is “the music a boy would laugh/at until it went out.” This poem prepares for the finality of childhood’s loss, and of death—both stated in the book’s climactic poem, “Lost and Found.”

The last poem in Part I (“Any Night”) imagines a time when the birds “learned/to fly backwards” and thus ended the “chorus of love.” Again, Levine speaks of loss—the absence of song, which drives the poet to sing and to think of a boy who “could be happy.” That boy is perhaps the poet, who prays now—not for death, as in “The Water’s Chant,” but that “in time/we find our lives.”

Ashes moves toward a time in which all of us can find our lives, and by doing so be able to give enough love that the world will not be soured. Part II opens with a poem called “Starlight,” which returns the reader to the father-son theme. The poet, age four, is with his father on a warm evening. The child does not understand his father’s question “Are you happy,” but smells tiredness on his father’s breath. “Starlight” transports the reader to a magical “as though” state. At the poem’s end, the father holds the child as though the stars “might find a tall, gaunt child/holding his child against the promises/of autumn, until the boy slept/ never to waken in that world again.” The father and child are one under the stars, but neither can wake to the world’s potential.

In “Lost and Found,” the final poem in Ashes, the poet has “come home from being lost,” and the father, “the one I searched for,” is home too. We, “father and child/hand in hand, the living and/the dead, are entering the world.” The entire volume has worked toward the acceptance expressed in the final poem. To prepare for that poem, Levine began to intensify with a tersely surreal poem called “The Red Shirt,” the epigraph of which speaks of unread poems as “dust, wind, nothing, ’like the insolent colored shirt he bought to die in.’” The epigraph is from Vargas Llosa. A shirt to die in, Levine’s red shirt, is also one to live in while waiting to die. The poem is a wonderful blend of logic and illogic, of the carefully perceived and the irrationally imagined. The final lines of “The Red Shirt” return the reader to Levine’s preoccupation with stones and other mute things—a field of “great rocks weeping,/and no one to see/me alone, day after/day in my red shirt.”

The creation may be insensible, as Levine clearly imagines it, but our dying takes place in the world with no one to see. Perhaps we should not call it dying, but living. Levine seeks no easy affirmation, and the next several poems challenge the reader to endure the reality necessary for both living and dying. The poem, “On a Drawing by Flavio,” refers to, but does not depend upon, the cover illustration for Ashes, by Flavio Costantini, which obliges the poet and reader to identify with the Rabbi of Auschwitz. The horrors of the twentieth century return, but again the poet insists on acceptance of the body even as it is “closing on/death.” The poet realizes that the Rabbi’s face is his own and that the Rabbi’s “tapering fingers” reach for “our father’s hand/long gone to dirt.” The Rabbi’s fingers hold “hand to forearm,/forearm to hand because/that is all that God/gave us to hold.”

The point is clear; we may and must hold to the things of this world, for that is what God gave us. We cannot whimper to God. The poet manifests his concern. In “The Water’s Chant,” he felt for his brother thickened and aged by meaningless work. In “Ashes,” he felt for migrant workers, but, at final analysis, Levine tells us that the Self must accept identity and enter the world. That entry occurs in “Lost and Found,” and the book ends triumphantly.

What has Levine accomplished? He has personalized, without trivializing, his general awareness of loss and displacement. He has tied together thirtý-two poems with personal diction and syntax. He has made real a world of zinnias, eucalyptus trees, oil, a world of yellow and yellowing, of gold and golden. He has linked a bruised river with people bruised by the sun. He has revitalized the quest for a father and the meaning of life which accepts the world, but does not compromise.

In Ashes, Philip Levine has ritualized loss and has made being found a profound human experience. Levine has made a book which speaks to today.

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