Critical Analysis

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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...

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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 form. “Joe Gould’s Pen” examines whether a writer’s words are permanent or even real. Gould, a bohemian denizen of Greenwich Village in the 1940’s, appealed to other writers as well; e. e. cummings wrote poetry about him, and Joseph Mitchell, a writer for The New Yorker, chronicled his life. Gould, a Harvard graduate and a dropout from a wealthy family, was a street person who claimed to be writing “An Oral History of Our Times,” a nine- million-word work scrawled in hundreds of school notebooks. When Gould died, however, nothing of this opus was found. (Some of Gould’s words and sayings have been published by those he intrigued and inspired, however.)

“Joe Gould’s Pen” describes the poet writing with the famous eccentric’s pen after Gould’s death; it is an elegy for Gould and for language itself. It mourns and celebrates

. . . Pee Wee Joe,
who loved to dance, who talked
to seagulls in their language,
his pen tried to find him in
words and failed because it had
no word for what rises in
your esophagus when night
starts over at 4 a.m., . . .

The poem catalogs the things at the center of human existence for which the language has no words. Identifying with Gould, who wrote nine million words that vanished into air, the poet wonders about the permanence of any arrangement of words. Describing how Gould always carried his “swollen books” around in a cardboard folder, Levine concludes

Perhaps he knew that when
he gave back the last hard breath
each earned word would disappear
the way the golden halo
goes when the dawn shreds the rose
into dust, the way a voice fades
in an empty room, the way
the pomegranate fallen from
the tree scatters the seeds of
its resurrection, the way
these lines are vanishing now.

Yet the one image is positive—the pomegranate, which promises that something fruitful is to come of the vanished words, despite their dissolution. This same kind of query is carried on in “These Words,” which describes the assembly of “scraps of odd letters.” The poet, assembling fragments of old letters and trying to make them mean something, contrasts the present attempt with the more innocent past, when

. . . we believed in the comfort words
could bring, . . . 
though spring was late, the rain beat on the glass,
beat down on the mounded snow until the streets
ran with the clear ink of its meaning.

This preoccupation with words and meaning, permanence and poetry, is a major thematic strain in this collection. His elegies for lived lives and lost places are joined by reflections on the dissolving of language itself.

More broadly, the meaning of art and the relationship between artist and work are explored in a number of narrative poems based on the lives and work of musicians, artists, and novelists. Levine is committed to narrative as his genre; as such, his statements about art and artists tend to take the form of stories. He is particularly interested in musicians’ struggles to put their world into music. (Useful footnotes are provided to identify some of these people and their lives; unfortunately, the page numbers for the notes are wrong.) “The Unknowable” is musical itself in its tribute to Sonny Rollins, the great jazz saxophonist.

The book and the title poem, “The Mercy,” are dedicated to the poet’s mother, Esther Levine, who crossed the sea on The Mercy in the 1920’s at the age of nine. The trip must have been a nightmare—the horror of her particular journey is not reflected in the Stieglitz photograph, for all its vivid representation of the harshness of the crossing. The name of the ship turned ironic when the crew and passengers were held offshore for thirty-one days in a smallpox quarantine. The nine-year-old Esther waited out these long days in fear and incomprehension “while smallpox raged among the passengers/ and crew until the dead were buried at sea/ with strange prayers in a tongue she could not fathom.”

The child, who does not know any English, appears to be traveling alone; she prays “in Russian and Yiddish” to find her family in New York. She has never seen a banana before and tries to eat it without peeling it. A young Scot gives her a bite of orange and teaches her the word. Finally the quarantine is over and she can continue on her journey, the long one of her life, with her new knowledge:

. . . A nine-year-old girl travels
all night with one suitcase and an orange.
She learns that mercy is something you can eat
again and again while the juice spills over
your chin, you can wipe it away with the back
of your hands and you can never get enough.

The terror held by this long-ago sea journey is memorably described. The knowledge that the child survived, bore children, and lived into her nineties changes the perspective. The reader is reminded of the many immigrants in the United States’ past, the Ellis and Angel Island injustices, and the roles played by these immigrants in the making of the country. The poem is also a paean to simple human persistence. Esther Levine acquires the force of myth, and the reader would like to know more about her. She is also a reproach, in the same way some of the speakers in Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1915) reproach the reader: We have it too soft, we have forgotten what it once took merely to survive. If we take it further, the lesson adds: We should stop complaining about trivial inconveniences, and we should take action against those serious inequities that still exist.

These are poems to come back to, and what brings the reader back is the fascination of the tales they tell. Everyone has a story, Levine believes, and the stories most worth listening to are those of people who cannot or will not tell them, because they are too busy living them. Levine tells these stories in translucent narrative poems that recall the United States’ past and remind everyone, as he says in the title of his earlier award- winning book, “what work is.”

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic Monthly 283 (April, 1999): 108.

Booklist 95 (March 15, 1999): 1278.

Library Journal 124 (March 15, 1999): 83.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (April 18, 1999): 26.

The Progressive 6 (August, 1999): 44.

Publishers Weekly 246 (January 25, 1999): 90.

Forms and Devices

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The straightforward declarative tone of “The Mercy” serves to simultaneously underscore and reinforce the import of the poem’s story, as Levine writes in the poem that this, by all accounts, is a “true” story based on substantiated historical fact. The opening two lines set the tonal stage for the poem; “The Mercy” is a poem to be understood as one borne not only from truth but also from fact: “The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island/ eighty-three years ago was named ‘The Mercy.’” This is a strategy Levine employs to preserve the people he holds dear, not only in the realm of art but also in the realm of indisputable, objective fact.

The tone also possesses a certain almost Frostian conversational ease as it moves from one moment or aspect of the story to the next. It is a voice intended to be heard by the common person. It is a voice one can trust; therefore, when the story begins to digress, readers are willing to follow it on its many tangential, but ultimately crucial, excursions. In line 9, Levine begins to journey toward what is at the heart of this poem:

A long autumn voyage, the days darkeningwith the black waters calming as night came on,then nothing as far as her eyes could see and spacewithout limit rushing off to the cornersof creation.

This lyrical flourish breathes new life into Levine’s deceased mother, recapturing her in a form when the Wordsworthian youth has just been lost. The glory and the dreams of such youth are overshadowed by the fear of the initial witnessing of the indifferent violence of nature, which in this poem is analogous with the unknown.

Perhaps the greatest technical achievement of “The Mercy,” however, is how Levine vacillates between past and present tense and between first-, second-, and third-person pronouns. “The Mercy” begins in the past tense, and in line 3 it shifts to the present: “She remembers trying to eat a banana.” A sense of immediacy reinforces the necessity of memory; in order to experience mercy, Levine says, people must exercise their memories so they might remember themselves and those for whom they care.

The poem’s concluding fourteen lines contain another similar shift in time: “There a story ends. Other ships/ arrived,. the list goes on for pages, November gives/ way to winter, the sea pounds this alien shore.” The story of other immigrants continues until Levine reintroduces his mother, showing her eating the orange. It is a scene from a memory so acute that it has the facade of existing in the present: “She learns that mercy is something you can eat/.you can wipe it away with the back/ of your hands and you can never get enough.”

Throughout the poem, Levine addresses his mother, his audience, and himself. Hence, the point of “The Mercy” possesses a universal application. Levine avoids solipsism and egocentrism; instead, “The Mercy” works on the level of symbol, and is reluctant, in fact, to function on that level as well, as the insertion of historical facts in the poem testify. “The Mercy” is a poem with a utilitarian purpose. It is meant, through its techniques and strategies, to illuminate the consciousness of the reader, to urge the reader to examine memory in order to receive mercy from whatever higher powers that be.