These poems glisten and gleam. It is hard to imagine a working- class consciousness with its sense of injustice and the general hardness of life combined with nostalgia. Levine has produced such a combination. His is the best kind of nostalgia: a wistful examination of lives past or passing, through lenses of love, without a lot of romanticizing. The working-class concern is vintage Levine. The tone of the book is well reflected by the carefully chosen cover, which is Alfred Stieglitz’s 1907 photograph “The Steerage.” The picture shows the privation and possibility of people of all ages jammed together on the boat, looking oppressed, dingy, exhausted, yet expectant.
The photograph was carefully chosen for its appropriate subject. Esther Levine, the poet’s mother who lived from 1904 to 1998, is a dominant presence in the book, and she came to the United States on a ship named The Mercy that would have looked much like Stieglitz’s photograph. Moreover, the black-and- white tones, the implication of hardship—hard times behind and before these voyagers—and the sense of American myth and history projected by the photograph are very much in tune with the poems in the collection.
Philip Levine was born in 1928 to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Detroit; the lives of the immigrant community and their hardships just scraping together a living are the staples of his work. As a young man, he worked in factories. Although he left Detroit while still young and held many prestigious positions and garnered international honors after his hardscrabble childhood and the industrial jobs of his early youth, the city of Detroit and the problems of the working class there loom large in his poems. His return to Detroit did not show it to have progressed toward fairness and justice. One of his most popular and most widely anthologized poems, “They Feed They Lion,” was written after he saw the results of the 1967 riots in Detroit.
Levine first attended the University of Iowa, where he was taught by Robert Lowell, and then Stanford University. Almost from the beginning, his poetry has been widely recognized and honored. Levine won the National Book Award in 1991 for What Work Is and the Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for The Simple Truth. He taught for many years at California State University at Fresno.
Of The Simple Truth, literary critic Harold Bloom said, “I wonder if any American poet since Walt Whitman himself has written elegies this consistently magnificent. The controlled pathos of every poem in the volume is immense. . . . ” Other critics as well have commented on Levine’s work in the context of Whitman’s, because Levine too sings the worker’s songs. However, Levine’s characteristic voice produces complete, complex narratives, not epic catalogues. From the beginning, Levine created memorable individual working-class portraits that function both as realistic description and at the level of myth. He carried his concern for the common people into other countries and areas, and he wrote about the Spanish Civil War as confidently as about the uprisings in Detroit. Incidents that to most are names and statistics are personalized through his poems.
A poet who has received such great recognition has found a winning formula and may not be likely to branch off in new directions. Indeed, in style and tone The Mercy is similar to much of Levine’s earlier work. The burnished luminosity of these poems can be found in his earlier collections as well, and his characteristic technique of combining realistic detail with an elegiac distancing—combining instances of experience with a whole life seen in retrospect—is evident throughout his work. Always Levine dares to express feeling directly, and the poems are saved by their emotional and physical precision from any charges of sentimentality. Levine’s favored forms in most work are free verse, flexible blank verse, unmetered tercets, and quatrains. These relatively free forms suit the content and allow for exactness of language.
Yet language itself is found wanting in this collection. The Mercy places new emphasis on the written language and on questioning its value. Several poems speculate on whether words last, and in what...
(The entire section is 1740 words.)