Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499
Philip Levine’s “The Mercy” consists of one thirty-eight-line stanza written in primarily five-beat free-verse lines. The poem takes its title from the ship that brought the poet’s mother to Ellis Island in the 1910’s. As in many of Levine’s poems, the grandeur and splendor of mercy is found in small...
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Philip Levine’s “The Mercy” consists of one thirty-eight-line stanza written in primarily five-beat free-verse lines. The poem takes its title from the ship that brought the poet’s mother to Ellis Island in the 1910’s. As in many of Levine’s poems, the grandeur and splendor of mercy is found in small and everyday events that offer only glimpses of the sublime, of redemption, and of joy. Such is the case in “The Mercy,” a narrative elegy that depicts the journey of his mother, at the age of nine, from one home to another. “The Mercy” is the ship she travels on, where she encounters a Scottish sailor who offers her a slice of an orange, the first she has ever seen. The sailor attempts to teach her the word “orange” in English, “saying it patiently over and over.” Thus, by line 8 readers learn that “The Mercy” is concerned not merely with journeying from Europe to America but also with metaphorical journeys, such as from innocence to experience, from confusion to clarity, and from isolation to acclimation.
This idea of journeying, of “A long autumn voyage,” travels from its immediate context of the poet’s mother’s journey into the turbulent realm of language, as readers learn that “She prayed in Russian and Yiddish/ to find her family in New York.” The Scottish sailor, too, supports this dimension of the poem, as he is at once intimately isolated from, yet ineffably in communion with, the poet’s mother. Her prayers, speculates the speaker of the poem, go “unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored/ by all the powers that swept the waves of darkness.” The considerable barriers of language, and by extension experience, are nullified by the literal and symbolic sweetness of the orange. The orange embodies a physical form of mercy by the poem’s conclusion, as
She learns that mercy is something you can eatagain and again while the juice spills overyour chin, you can wipe it away with the backof your hands and you can never get enough.
This is a lesson also learned by the speaker of the poem. He, too, travels into his imagination, researching the voyage of the ship that brought his mother to America and, in turn, afforded the speaker the opportunity for a better life. He learns of the hardships endured by his mother and others on board:
‘The Mercy,’ I read on the yellowing pages of a bookI located in a windowless room of the libraryon 42nd Street, sat thirty-one daysoffshore in quarantine before the passengersdisembarked. There a story ends.
The hardships found in this story, of traveling across the dark waves of the North Atlantic in late autumn/early winter, enduring an epidemic of smallpox, only to arrive and be refused to go ashore for a month longer, paradoxically reinforce the degree of mercy the poet, the poet’s mother, and reader feel by the poem’s conclusion. Ultimately, this is the telling moment of a life’s transformation.