Philip Levine

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Ricard Hugo (review date May-June 1977)

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SOURCE: "Philip Levine: Naming the Lost," in American Poetry Review, May-June, 1977, pp. 27-8.

[In the following review, Hugo lauds Levine's poetry collection, The Names of the Lost, stressing in particular the poems' emotional depth.]

Philip Levine knows a few things so well that he cannot forget them when he writes a poem, no matter what compositional problems might arise. He seldom tells us anything we don't already know but what he tells us is basic to the maintenance of our humanity, and fundamental to perpetuating our capacity for compassion. If I were dictator of the world long enough to pass a few laws, two of those laws would be: (1) at least once a year, everyone must view the films taken at Hiroshima immediately after the bombing; (2) at least once every six months, everyone must read a book of Philip Levine's poems aloud. That wouldn't necessarily make us better people, but it might make us hope we won't get any worse, and want to be the best we can be….

Here are a few things Levine knows well: to the heart, in time relationships transcend values ("On the Birth of Good and Evil During the Long Winter of '28." Levine's world is at least as old as religion. The professional is outlawed. It is the amateur who discovers "7000 miles from home" that she who "bruised his wakings" can, on this cold day after her death, be forgiven for the wool cap she knitted long ago, whose very color once seemed despicable.

We did not return love when it was needed. When we realize that failure it is too late and we must live with the resultant regret. We did not accept the essential relationships that provided our sense of self. When we understand that, it is too late and self-acceptance remains painfully difficult ("The Secret of Their Voices").

People hurt each other in lasting ways. The ways we help each other seem trivial and transitory in contrast. Time and memory and accumulated experience make the helpful acts as permanent as the hurtful ones ("No One Remembers").

Levine's poems seldom fail to remind us of important things about ourselves we should not forget. The Names of the Lost is the third powerful book Levine has given us in the past five years. Give him a saliva test. The title might be so-so for some poets, but it is ideal for Levine. He has been naming the lost for a long time. Not just lost people but lost associations and feelings.

Levine's method of writing depends to some extent on the ear of the reader to get into the poems. Few of his first lines are grippers: "Nine years ago, early winter," "Beyond that stand of firs," "In a coffee house at 3 a.m.," "It is Friday, a usual day," but they are immediate enough that we faintly sense something is going on, and we faintly sense that feelings are involved in the terse sounds of the words even when the words seem to be only narrating, conveying information or setting the scene. In a lesser poet this would be starting too far upstream, at the beginning of things rather than in the middle. For the reader it seems like getting a running start, then becoming aware that the race has already begun, long ago. The feeling seems to precede its source.

In a way, Levine's technique corresponds with his vision of the world in which grief is presumed the perpetual condition of humanity, there long before the individual has experienced anything to grieve. When...

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something happens that causes us grief, we are already in good grieving condition because we have been practising a long time.

Since Levine can write as if feeling precedes experience, he can command a wider range of subjects than many poets. By wider range, I mean his subjects can vary in the intensity of their relationship to him. (In their natures, his subjects are similar). He can invest as much feeling in poems about the poets of Chile or a man killed in Spain when Levine was eight years old in Detroit, as he can in poems involving relatives, friends and personal experience.

No poem in this fine collection is disappointing and almost every poem seems to be the best when reading it. My favorite, "And the Trains Go On," is a poem of great faith and it immediately precedes the final poem, "To My God in His Sickness," a somewhat grim parody of John Donne's "Hymne to God my God in my sicknesse." If Levine is solely responsible for the arrangement of the book, he may still consider the faith he has found in the power of words, in the power of naming, secondary to the religious faith he has lost in the face of an unjust world. If that is necessary to keep poems of such emotive force coming, let's not try to set him straight.

"And the Trains Go On" is a sort of microscopic Odyssey. The speaker is on the run from a self and a situation he could not bear, "The run from a war no one can win," and finds himself in a bizarre, cruel and despairing world. At first he and a companion are "at the back door / of the shop" and a "line of box cars / or soured wheat and pop bottles / uncoupled and was sent creaking down our spur…." Already what is given ("was sent") is a world used, empty ("pop bottles") and spoiled ("soured wheat"). The old man who steps from the box car certifies the negative heritage with mock gentility—"… and tipped his hat. 'It's all yours, boys!'" The speaker wonders "whose father / he was and how long he kept / moving until the police / found him, ticketless, sleeping in a 2nd class waiting room / and tore the card-board box / out of his hands and beat him / until the ink of his birth smudged / and surrendered its separate vowels." So the speaker has no doubt about the outcome. In this brutal world we lose not only our meagre possessions but our beginnings and our names to civilization's authority. Though the speaker never sees the man again, his vision is so relentless and fixed that the man's fate is determined in detail.

With the mention of "2nd class" the scene has shifted to Europe. Levine senses in the more immediate heritage, the historical heritage. He writes in some historical depth anyway, despite the immediacy of emotions and images. What civilized authority can do to the mind is revealed in the next event in the poem. A dog is wandering in the Milan railyard. A boy makes a perfectly reasonable explanation: the dog is "searching for his master." But the boy's grandfather "said, 'No. He was sent by God / to test the Italian railroads.'" The boy can still believe in the desirability and need for affectionate and supportive relationships. The grandfather has cynically accepted a bizarre explanation, involving phony religiosity, the deity's direct interest in the state, and a presumed unimportance of humanity.

This unimportance of humanity on the scale of civilization's values is reinforced by the next image. The speaker sleeps in a "box car of coffins bound / for the villages climbing north" and wonders if he will waken when "women have come to claim" dead husbands, sons, lovers, "what is left of glory." Or will he sleep through that and not waken again until he is back in the States, crossing the Mystic River, which is in Massachusetts?

Levine takes the poem out beautifully, "back the long / tangled road that leads us home," but now his companion is you, and me, and it is also him, the self he ran from, "in a dirty work-shirt that says "Phil," (the only person named in the poem). And if we, you, I, Levine, can "lean way out / and shout out the holy names / of the lost neither of us is scared / and our tears mean nothing." We can go home (accept the self we ran from) with the certainty, the poet's certainty, that our words (their names and ours) are all we can give, and if we can share in that, then we have transcended our grief and redeemed our loss.

This is one of the most moving poems I've seen. In its capacity to touch and affect. I believe it rivals Yeats' "Easter, 1916," and like "Easter, 1916," we find ourselves in a world where 'motley is worn' or if not motley, then its industrial work-shirt counterpart. It is a world that doesn't hear and doesn't care. Levine's poems are important because in them we hear and we care. They call us back to the basic sources of despair: the dispossession, the destitution, the inadequacy of our love for each other. And they call back again that we can triumph over our sad psychic heritage through language and song.

Given the emotional depth of Levine's poems, one is inclined to avoid prolonged explorative analysis. Not that it would be ruinous, the poems are too tough for that, but that it would seem secondary, if not trivial—like program notes to a splendid concert. But at least one poem in this collection lends itself to discussion because it is somewhat revelatory of Levine's psychic process involved in the act of writing. More than most of his poems, it shows how his writing grows out of ways he feels about himself and his relations with the world.

                       Let It Begin

     Snow before dawn, the trees asleep.
     In one window a yellow light—someone
     is rising to wash and make coffee
     and doze at the table remembering
     how a child sleeps late and wakens
     drenched in sunlight. If he thinks
     of a street, he knows it has gone,
     a dog has died, a tulip burned
     for an hour and joined the wind.
     With the others I drift, useless,
     in the parking lot while the day-shift
     comes on, or I stand at the corner
     as the sun wakens on a gray crust.
     The children pass by in silent knots
     on the way home from the burial
     of the birds. The day has begun.
     I can put it away, a white shirt,
     unworn, at the back of a drawer,
     but my hands are someone else's—
     stained, they shine like old wood
     and burn in the cold. They have joined
     each other in the fellowship
     of the shovel. I stood in the temple
     of junk where the engine blocks
     turned and the nickle-plated grills
     dripped on hooks, and though
     steel rang on the lip of the furnace
     and fire rose out of black earth
     and rained down, in the end
     I knelt to cinders and ice. I stared
     into the needle's dark eye
     so the peddler could mend his elbow
     and gasp under his sack of rags.
     Now the cat pulls on his skullcap
     of bones and bows before the mouse.
     Light that will spread the morning glory
     burns on my tongue and spills
     into the small valleys of our living,
     the branches creak, and I let it begin.

Levine feels that loss, like the imagination, is the final equalizer. The man "thinks of a street" and knows three losses, the street, a dog and a tulip, equal in value now they are gone, equal because they are gone. In a world where loss predominates, the yellow light in the window is as good a beginning as dawn which comes now, not to waken the child but to wake itself on the gray industrial crust of the city. The speaker is "useless" (dawn does not need him), one of the many third shift workers who "drift in the parking lot." The aimlessness of their existence is as gratuitous as the snow that starts this poem, this day. You come off shift and it's just there: "Snow before dawn, the trees asleep."

The workers are "children" bound together in "knots" of an innocence they've inherited. The innocence of an existence that dims the senses, minimizes experience and limits possibilities. They are silent as the birds who are buried in silence once dawn is complete and their song is ended. When childhood is over and they could no longer wait for sunlight to drench them awake, but had to obey the call of the alarm clock, their impulse to song (poetry?) drained away.

The speaker can't be part of the middle class and knows it. His white shirt can be put away, unworn, for good. In Levine's case, very much for good, his and ours. But neither is he part of the working class. His hands are worker's hands, but they are not his, even though "they have joined each other in the fellowship of the shovel," a union (labor union?) of dubious worth. The sentimentality seemingly built into certain "of" constructions is ideal for nailing down a sarcastic phrase—my garden book of memories.

He is not of the working class because he cannot identify with accomplishment; the engine blocks, the grills, the steel and fire of the plant, that "temple of junk." Given the deterioration of religious values by industrial values that in turn are inadequate substitutes, the poet kneels not to abandoned Gods of the past, nor to the gods of the present, progress, civilization, the end products of manufacturing. He kneels to the end products of the whole process, cinders and ice, the two ways it can end, according to Frost. Levine will not break off his love affair with the finality of loss.

He stares into the "needle's dark eye" not for mystical purposes, the try for "inscape," but to prolong and perpetuate the suffering of the forlorn, the deprivation of humanity, the quotidian despair. The eye of the needle could be the gate of the biblical city, "dark" suggesting what cities have become, but the word "mend" suggests that whatever its metaphorical past it is now just a needle.

If that were all Levine was saying in this passage, he would be guilty of no more phoniness than is normal to a poet. He would be saying, I'll keep you patched together, your elbow mended, so you can gasp under your sack of rags and I can write "and gasp under his sack of rags." In a way that is what he is saying. But of course he is also trying to save the rag man (and you, and me) from oblivion. By prolonging our suffering, Levine is giving himself a chance to finish the poem, but he is also prolonging us.

The cat bows to the mouse because the cat needs the mouse just as the poet needs the rag man. The "skullcap of bones" suggests the death of religion and the act of kneeling is not a religious act, but an aesthetic one. Because the poet has insight, he is not part of what he sees and realizes a certain powerful advantage, the advantage of the cat over the mouse. He gives up the advantage to write the poem.

Levine has remained a child and kept alive his impulse to sing. The dawn that drenched him awake, still burns in him, on his tongue, in his words. The "it" he lets begin is the dawn, the life that belongs to all of us and is all we have, the poem itself. He not only shouts out the holy names of the lost, he shouts out the holy names of the living. And we are not lost. That's a big beautiful cat at our mousy feet.

Levine may very well believe that imagination and loss are not just close allies or forces that mutually trigger each other, but one and the same. One of our able critics should enlighten us on this in the years ahead. Those of us who are not critics should read Levine not for whatever literary advance he could be making but because he reminds us of what we are in a time it is important that we don't forget. And whatever we are, hopeful hurt, angry, sad, happy, we should forget least of all Philip Levine's poems. They attend us and our lives in profound, durable ways. I believe he is deservedly destined to be one of the most celebrated poets of the time.


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Philip Levine 1928–

American poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Levine's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 4, 5, 9, 14, and 33.

Philip Levine has published poetry collections regularly since On the Edge was published in 1961. One of the most respected contemporary American poets, he has received numerous grants and prizes and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for The Simple Truth (1994) in 1995. His primary poetic device is that of narration. Employing the idioms and cadences of normal speech, Levine seeks to write about the ordinary people and events of everyday life. Often called a working-class poet, he writes with particular intensity of the socially and economically deprived, and champions those who have little voice in the social hierarchy. One of the most dominant features of his poetry is the pervasive feeling of human dignity and justice. Though a keen and often bitter observer of class and economic wrongs and inequities, his working-class subjects are generally brave, spirited, and willful. Suffused with the dream of freedom, they do not quit. Richard Hugo has observed that Levine's themes revolve around what is most fundamental to humanity and that his poetry heightens compassion and understanding in readers.

Biographical Information

Levine was born in Detroit, Michigan, in January, 1928, the child of Russian-Jewish emigrants. His father died when he was young, and Levine was reared in an impoverished household. He attended Wayne State University from which he graduated with a B.A. and an M.A., in 1950 and in 1954 respectively. During the early 1950s Levine also worked at a number of factory jobs, an experience that strengthened his interest in working-class issues. Many of these issues figure prominently in his poetry. In 1954 he married Frances Artley, a marriage that produced three sons, Mark, John, and Theodore. Having refused to serve in the Korean War, Levine attended the University of Iowa where John Berryman and Robert Lowell were among his teachers. Levine graduated with a M.F.A. in 1957. He then spent time at Stanford University on a fellowship where he came into contact with Yvor Winters. In 1958 Levine became a professor at California State University, Fresno. He has also taught and lectured at numerous universities both at home and abroad. He has lived for extended periods in Spain, a country that has influenced some of his political and social beliefs as well as provided themes for a number of poems. In particular, he has identified very strongly with the antifascist and anarchist factions in the Spanish Civil War. Levine has received grants from such agencies as the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Among the honors he has received are the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award for Poetry, and the Pulitzer Prize.

Major Works

The major themes of Levine's poems, from his first collection On the Edge through his subsequent volumes, have remained largely unchanged. Much of his poetry reveals his frustration and anger with the manifold problems of contemporary society. Themes of defiance, indignation, and anger are especially frequent in such early collections as Not This Pig (1968) and They Feed They Lion (1972). He is particularly concerned with social, political, and ethnic topics. Also called an "urban" poet, Levine sets many of his poems in the working-class environment of such cities as Detroit and Fresno, and he writes feelingly of the problems and abuses of American society and of the strong spirit of American urban dwellers. His subjects are invariably ordinary working folk. He writes, in the words of David St. John, "of the universal struggle of individuals ignored and unheard by their societies." Levine identifies with those in dead-end jobs and was influenced by the menial, mainly industrial jobs at which he worked during the early fifties in Detroit. Richard Chess sees Levine's sympathy for the unsung workers and the victims of a materialistic and commercial world as stemming in part from experiences growing up as a Jew in Detroit. However, though there are clearly many autobiographical elements in Levine's poetry, it is also important to recognize that he enjoys a consummate ability to employ, as Carol Frost puts it, "artistic reality." Levine is praised for his strength at imagining and empathizing "with invented characters to the point that readers assume they are acquaintances or relatives." Yet much of his work is realistic, and his poems are liberally sprinkled with dates, times, people's and places' names. While this is natural in poems dealing with such specific historical topics as Hiroshima, the Holocaust and the Spanish Civil War, he is also careful to supply many of his other poems with realistic detail. The Spanish people, history, and countryside are also frequent themes in his poetry. Particularly prominent is his strong regard for the anti-Franco faction in the Spanish Civil War, which reflects his resolute leftist leanings. For example, the 1930s Spanish anarchist movement is well treated in his 1976 collection The Names of the Lost. Levine's later collections of poetry continue to chronicle the lives of ordinary working class citizens, and to champion the cause of the underprivileged and downtrodden.

Critical Reception

Levine is a prolific writer who has published regularly since 1961. The quality of this large oeuvre has been deemed somewhat inconsistent. Some have seen his distinctly proletarian image as responsible for producing calculated, studied poetry. Nevertheless, critical assessment of his poetry over the decades has been overwhelmingly positive. In 1977 Richard Hugo asserted that Levine "is deservedly destined to be one of the most celebrated poets of the time," and many critics agree that Levine has emerged as one of America's preeminent poets. Fred Marchant wrote that Levine has produced "a rich and important body of work." David St. John considered that Levine's early work "remains some of the most highly-crafted and imaginatively powerful poetry of the time." Critics have noted a mellowing of Levine's anger in his later poems. Though remaining a keen chronicler of the wrongs inflicted on society's marginalized, his poetry becomes more tender and optimistic. While rage and sadness are still evident, there is also hope and celebration. Edward Hirsch has observed, "What starts as anger slowly deepens into grief and finally rises into joy." A much greater acceptance of what cannot be changed is evidenced in Levine's later poems. Hirsch has compared Levine's poetry to that of William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, and Theodore Roethke.

Emily Grosholz (review date Summer 1982)

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SOURCE: A review of One for the Rose, in Hudson Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Summer, 1982, pp. 331-33.

[In the following excerpt, Grosholz discusses Levine's focus on and praise of the ordinary.]

… Philip Levine's poems in One for the Rose often begin in the midst of the ordinary: "This is an ordinary gray Friday after work / and before dark in a city of the known world." Not just anything, however, can count as ordinary, for it is an honorific term which Levine uses to bless things. Bus stations in Ohio are one of his paradigms, and so are small shops, bars and hotels in midwestern cities crossed off with rows of small, shoddy trees and polluted rivers. His people are working people, his times of day the gray mornings before we go to work and the gray dusk we come back home in. The ordinary is what social and literary convention passes over as transient and meaningless; Levine criticizes these norms through a poetic act of redemption which remembers certain lost places and people, exhibits their significance, calls them by name.

His strategy of redemption is to move back and away from his specific ordinary, viewing it from a great height as someone lifting off in an airplane would, or from the distanced perspective of memory. Thus "Salt" begins with a woman weeping alone in an airport late at night, between a porter mopping the floor and an old cleaning lady emptying the ashtrays. Then up and out: we follow the airplane of the man who has left her, flying from Cleveland to Chicago over cloud banks and the Lakes, as he returns to his wife and children through a light drizzle, and dreams of "the rain that hangs / above the city swollen with red particles / of burned air" or of tears:

           tears which must always fall
      because water and salt were given us
      at birth to make what we could of them,
      and being what we are we chose love
      and having found it we lost it over and over.

Or, again, from a room in the back of Peerless Cleaners, where a little pants presser is telling a child about revolution and the dignity of labor, Levine draws back thirty-eight years, over the conflagration of World War II, the theaters of Europe and the Pacific, and addresses his old instructor.

      Come back, Cipriano Mera, step
      out of the wind and dressed in the robe
      of your pain tell me again that this
      world will be ours. Enter my dreams
      or my life, Cipriano, come back
      out of the wind.

Encompassing his ordinary creatures in a wider vision, Levine shows them riding upon the thousands of days of history, the breast of earth which itself rides on the dark abyss of space. This vision might lead to the wisdom of Silenus, for such expanses engulf and dwarf the pinpoints of light. But Levine, looking back on our small illuminated places, observes that we have nothing except (of course, what else?) each other.

When Levine is moving out in a poem, so that we can see the gold edges of our local cloud, the signs of this transformation are usually wind or water. For someone who believes that the center of creation would like to listen to our music, but can't, that god will not rise from the stone of his cathedrals, wind is a natural replacement for spirit. Wind animates the forlorn geometry of earth, and lifts even the impacted deadliness of our cities. And the sea is threshold and freedom for a city kid brought up landlocked in the heart of America, "the sea / rocking the deep cradle of all / of us and water and salt without end …" The sea is the tide in our veins, our blood which is mostly salt water, and our tears. When the wind is tangled in the small, shoddy trees of Ohio, it sounds like the sea.

Principal Works

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On the Edge (poems) 1961
Silent in America: Vivas for Those Who Failed (poems) 1965
Not This Pig (poems) 1968
5 Detroits (poems) 1970
Thistles (poems) 1970
Pili's Wall (poems) 1971
Red Dust (poems) 1971
They Feed They Lion (poems) 1972
1933 (poems) 1974
The Names of the Lost (poems) 1976
On the Edge & Over (poems) 1976
Ashes: Poems New and Old (poems) 1979
Don't Ask (collection of interviews with Levine) 1979
7 Years from Somewhere (poems) 1979
One for the Rose (poems) 1981
Selected Poems(poems) 1984
Sweet Will (poems) 1985
A Walk with Tom Jefferson (poems) 1988
New Selected Poems (poems) 1991
What Work Is (poems) 1991
The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (essays) 1994
The Simple Truth (poems) 1994
Unselected Poems (poems) 1997

Richard Tillinghast (review date 12 September 1982)

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SOURCE: "Working the Night Shift," in New York Times Book Review, September 12, 1982, Sec. 7, p. 42.

[In the following review, Tillinghast applauds the poetry in One for the Rose for its readability and declares that "Belief" is one of the age's outstanding poems.]

"A good poet," according to Randall Jarrell, "is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times." Among the poems in One for the Rose, the latest of Philip Levine's 10 books of poetry, the lightning strike is unmistakable in "Belief." This poem asserts by denying—using the recurring motif, "No one believes," to capture the ambivalent attitude we take toward things we somehow believe while "knowing" they cannot be true. While insisting upon denial, the poem creates a detailed, compelling vision:

    No one believes that to die
    is beautiful, that after the hard pain
    of the last unsaid word I am swept
    in a calm out from shore
    and hang in the silence of millions
    for the first time among all my family.

If no other single poem in the book quite matches the achievement of "Belief"—one of the outstanding poems of our time—there is much to like in One for the Rose. Philip Levine's poems have the rare and laudable virtue of readability; they carry the charm and vitality of the poet's distinctive speaking voice, which is by turns assertive and tough or humorously self-deprecatory.

Mr. Levine has been called a blue-collar poet, and it is true that he typically presents himself as a young man from the poor streets of Detroit, working the night shift at some place like "Detroit Transmission." But even among scenes like "the oily floors / of filling stations where our cars / surrendered their lives and we called / it quits and went on foot," the speaker is never a bluecollar caricature, but someone with brains, feelings and a freewheeling imagination that constantly fights to free him from his prosaic environment, as in these first lines from "I Was Born in Lucerne":

      Everyone says otherwise. They take me
      to a flat on Pingree in Detroit
      and say, up there, the second floor. I say,
      No, in a small Italian hotel overlooking
      the lake.

Levine's poems are notable for his quick eye and deft turn of phrase, as when he notices "the dew that won't wait long enough / to stand my little gray wren a drink."

The other side of this poet's accessibility is a frequent flatness of diction and an overreliance on the line break for emphasis, but those are practically generic faults in contemporary American poetry. The repetitive rhetorical device that is so effective in "Belief" is unconvincing in some other poems. Another weakness is his reliance on easy rhetorical clinchers such as "Somewhere I am a God. / Somewhere I am a holy / object. Somewhere I am." But even his least successful efforts have their appeal. No reader of poetry would want to do without these gritty, funny, deeply engaged poems that take on the world as it comes. As Philip Levine describes the events of his life, "each one smells like an overblown rose, / yellow, American, beautiful, and true."

Further Reading

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Disch, Thomas M. "The Occasion of the Poem." Poetry CLX, No. 2 (May 1992): 94-107.

Praises What Work Is as a tight and consistent work.

Jackson, Richard. "The Long Embrace: Philip Levine's Longer Poems." Kenyon Review XI. No. 4 (Fall 1989): 160-69.

Explores the resurgence of long poems by examining some of Levine's longer poems.

Mariani, Paul. "Keeping the Covenant." Kenyon Review XI, No. 4 (Fall 1989): 170-77.

In depth review of A Walk with Tom Jefferson.

Saner, Reg. "Studying Interior Architecture by Keyhole: Four Poets." Denver Quarterly 20, No. 1 (Summer 1985): 107-17.

Describes Selected Poems as a "book one must have."

Fred Marchant (essay date Winter 1984)

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SOURCE: "Cipriano Mera and the Lion: A Reading of Philip Levine," in Imagine, Vol. 1, No. 2, Winter, 1984, pp. 148-54.

[In the following essay, Marchant discusses the spirit of anarchism in Levine's poetry.]

Not many people in the United States would call themselves anarchists, but the poet Philip Levine does. In so doing he does not mean to invoke the image of a terrorist, a bomb in hand. Instead, he wants to acknowledge his passionate opposition to any soul-destroying forces in our social relations. His anarchism means that he does not believe in "the validity of governments, laws, charters" because they "hide us from our essential oneness." Levine has also said that his anarchism is "an extraordinarily generous, bountiful way to look at the universe," and that it has to do with "the end of ownership, the end of competitiveness, the end of a great deal of things that are ugly." And while one can debate the practicality of these ideas, it is clear that they have been enormously valuable to Philip Levine's poetry. In eleven books over the past twenty years he has made a rich and important body of work, all rooted in the generous, radical faith that human beings are essentially one.

One early benefit of this faith was an intuitive sympathy with the victims of a predatory, commercial society. Take, for example, "Animals Are Passing from Our Lives," in Not This Pig (1968). The ostensible speaker of this poem is a pig on its way to market. Excited, his senses heightened with fear, the pig smells the blade and block, and can picture the flies and consumers landing on his re-arranged parts. Not only does this pig have a lively imagination, he also has a profound sense of his own dignity. The pig thinks that the boy driving him along expects:

     that any moment I'll fall
     on my side and drum my toes
     like a typewriter or squeal
     and shit like a new housewife

     discovering television
     or that I'll turn like a beast
     cleverly to hook his teeth
     with my teeth. No. Not this pig.

Levine himself has explained that the poem celebrates the quality of digging in one's heels, and that this fastidious pig has resolved to act with more dignity than the human beings he will feed. But as fine as pigs are, they are not the subject of this poem. This pig represents a type of human being, those who have sacrificed their bodies in the marketplace. In "No. Not this pig," one hears the echo of every person who has ever resolved to be as dignified as possible as he or she marched into an office, factory, mine, or war. In this vein it seems right to recall that this poem was composed in the mid-1960's, when non-violent resisters as well as dutiful soldiers were passing from our lives.

And if it seems right to recall that era in relation to "Animals," it seems necessary to do so in regard to "They Feed They Lion." Levine has said that this poem is his response to the black "insurrection" in Detroit in 1967, calling it a "celebration of anger." But it is also an explanation of the causes and the legitimacy of a fury that has found its expression:

                   From the sweet glues of the trotters
     Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower
     Of the hams the thorax of caves,
     From "Bow Down" come "Rise Up,"
     Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
     The grained arm that pulls the hands,
     They Lion grow.

Given "Animals," it is not surprising that pigs have nourished this lion, or that labor has hardened its muscles. What is surprising is the way that this lion of anger has swept up all before it, black and white alike. The last stanza suggests that the speaker is a white man:

                   From my five arms and all my hands
      From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
      From my car passing under the stars,
      They Lion, from my children inherit,
      From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
      From they sack and they belly opened
      And all that was hidden on the oil-stained earth
      They feed they Lion and he comes.

In fear and exhilaration, the speaker has imaginatively embraced "They," and done it in defiant Black English grammatical constructions. And along with its African connotation, the lion suggests a literary antecedent: probably it is descended from Yeats' rough beast slouching toward another city to be born.

One might naturally wonder how a poet whose vision is based on our essential oneness could turn and celebrate the anger of an insurrection. Levine's response to such a question would be to point out that the world of his poetry is not a pastoral setting. Many of his poems are set in the factory world of Detroit, where Levine grew up, and all are grounded in a realist's commitment to depict our actual lives. As such, he is a poet of conflict, whose vision always has a hard edge, and whose poems always stand in some degree of opposition to the dominating powers that be. For example, in One for the Rose (1981), in a poem he titled "The Fox," Levine says that he thinks he must have been a fox in a prior life. This, he says, would explain a lot: his nose, the hair at the base of his spine, the loathing he feels whenever he sees ladies and gents mounted on horseback. He sees himself standing in the middle of a horsepath in Central Park, rock in hand, shouting and refusing to budge, "feeling the dignity / of the small creature menaced / by the many and larger."

But such anger and defiance have their limitations, and one of the great pleasures of reading Levine's recent Selected Poems comes in watching his lyric expressions of anger lead him to new emotional terrain. In 1974 he opened up that new terrain in his sixth book, titled 1933. The title refers to the year when Levine's father died, when Levine himself was barely six years old. Most of the poems in the book are elegiac, and the book as a whole seems an exploration of sorrow and the poet's memories of the dead. It is not as if either memory or sorrow had been absent prior to 1933, but now these became at least as important as his anger and defiance.

"Hold Me" is the best example of the new tone and material in 1933. What follows are the first four stanzas of that seven stanza poem:

     The table is cleared of my place
     and cannot remember. The bed sags
     where I turned to death, the earth fills
     my first footsteps, the sun drowns my sight.

     A woman turns from the basket
     of dried white laundry and sees the room
     flooding with the rays of my eyes,
     the burning of my hair and tongue.
     I enter your bedroom, you look up
     in the dark from tying your shoes
     and see nothing, your boney shoulders
     stiffen and hold, your fingers stop.

     Was I dust that I should fall?
     Was I silence that the cat heard?
     Was I anger the jay swallowed?
     The black elm choking on leaves?

As with "Animals Are Passing from Our Lives," and with "They Feed They Lion," the first thing one notes about this poem is the disconcerting, ambiguous nature of the persona. Who is this speaker? He may be a dead man, or at the very least a man imagining himself dead. He seems to have come back to haunt a familiar place, possibly a familiar "woman," and what is certainly a familiar "you." Although he can see them, they don't quite register his specific presence, and they are clearly going about the business of their lives without thinking of him. The rhetorical questions of stanza four sound frustrated, annoyed, and maybe angry. We get the sense that he is disappointed that no connections are made. These are about as many inferences as one can reasonably make from the opening stanzas, and the reader, like the speaker, feels frustrated, on the outside of the situation and in need of some connection.

When we turn to the last three stanzas, we become delighted to discover the crystalline imagery of a clearly formulated memory:

    In May, like this May, long ago
    my tiny Russian Grandpa—the bottle king—
    cupped a stained hand under my chin
    and ran his comb through my golden hair.

    Sweat, black shag, horse turds on the wind,
    the last wooden cart rattling down
    the alley, the clop of his great gray mare,
    green glass flashing in the December sun …

    I am the eye filled with salt,
    his child climbing on the rain, we are
    all the moon, the one planet, the hand
    of five stars on the night river.

The images of stanzas five and six are models of memory and love. As the grand father held the boy's face in his hands, so too the speaker holds the image of the grandfather in his mind's eye. When the table did not remember the speaker's place, and when the "you" looked up into the darkness and saw nothing, the spirit of the speaker withered into those querulous questions. Now, with the memory of the grandfather and his kinship alive in his mind, the speaker soars into the images of the last stanza. As the tears well up, the hand that had been recalled, that stained hand of the grandfather, now becomes an image which spans the universe. In another age it might have been called the hand of God holding these lights of life as they drift on the dark river. Without the memory of that stained hand, the speaker would have nothing to hold onto, and no one to hold onto him.

Levine had always had an elevated sense of memory, but in and after 1933, its precious connection with the beloved dead made it a matter of primary importance in his poetry. This did not mean he lulled his vivid, anarchist's conscience to sleep. Instead, memory and its attendant sorrows and joys deepened his poetry. It made his speakers more complex, vulnerable, and in the end, more believable. If in "Animals Are Passing from Our Lives" one hears a voice utterly and justly confident in its moral perspective, one hears a more tentative voice in the first stanzas of "Hold Me." If in "They Feed They Lion," one hears a voice reminiscent of Biblical prophecy, one hears in the last stanzas of "Hold Me" a voice aware of what can be and has been lost. And although there are exceptions, it seems generally true that the speakers in Levine's poetry in and after 1933 seem more vulnerable because they know a great deal more about loss.

A very moving example of this is "To Cipriano, in the Wind," a poem from One for the Rose (1981). It begins:

    Where did your words go,
    Cipriano, spoken to me 38 years
    ago in the back of Peerless Cleaners,
    where raised on a little wooden platform
    you bowed to the hissing press
    and under the glaring bulb the scars
    across your shoulders—"a gift
    of my country"—gleamed like old wood.
    "Dignidad," you said into my boy's
    wide eyes, "without is no riches."
    And Ferrente, the dapper Sicilian
    coatmaker, laughed: What could
    a pants presser know of dignity?
    That was the winter of '41, it
    would take my brother off to war,
    where you had come from, it would
    bring great snowfalls, graying
    in the streets, and news of death
    racing through the halls of my school.

The lessons in idealism and death continued on into the spring, when wild phlox leaped in the field, the Germans rolled into Russia, and some cousins died, presumably in battle. The speaker recalls that he

      walked alone in the warm spring winds
      of evening and said, "Dignity." I said
      your words, Cipriano, into the winds.
      I said, "Someday this will all be ours."
      Come back, Cipriano Mera, step out
      of the wind and dressed in the robe
      of your pain tell me again that this
      world will be ours. Enter my dreams
      or my life, Cipriano, come back
      out of the wind.

The last lines of this poem are a song of experience. One feels how hard it is to sustain a decent faith in the possibilities of mankind. One hears how hard it is to sustain even the little bit of innocence that this faith implies.

Who was Cipriano Mera? When an interviewer asked Levine about the origins of his anarchism, he recalled that when he was growing up in Detroit there were "two Italians who ran a cleaning and dyeing operation down on my corner who were anarchists, and whom I used to talk to all the time." Naturally one thinks that this must have been Cipriano Mera. But, reading on in the interview, one learns of Levine's boyhood interest in the Spanish Civil War, an interest that has lasted all his life and no doubt introduced him to the tradition of political poetry in Spanish. His fascination with the Spanish Civil War could also have been the source of the name, for there was a Cipriano Mera commanding an anarchist militia in Barcelona in 1936. Probably Levine has merged these people under one name, and such a merger is not so much poetic license as it is an example of that innocent, anarchist faith. The militia commander and the pants presser were but two faces of the same volatile spirit.

As with most of Philip Levine's poetry, "To Cipriano, in the Wind" enacts and embodies the spirit of anarchism's ability to survive in this world. Cipriano Mera does step out of the wind and into the words of the poem. So too in "They Feed They Lion." The white speaker and the black rage merge into a chant that implies a sense of oneness could exist at least in some hearts. The prayer to Cipriano is a more complicated and less confident assertion, but despite the difference in mood and meaning, the spirit of both poems is the same. Cipriano Mera and the Lion are one.

David St. John (essay date Spring 1986)

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SOURCE: "Where the Angels Come Toward Us: The Poetry of Philip Levine," in Antioch Review, Vol. 44, No. 2, Spring, 1986, pp. 176-91.

[In the following essay, St. John considers Levine's career and asserts that his poetry "has become both the pulse and conscience of American poetry."]

The publication of Philip Levine's most recent collection of poetry, Sweet Will, following by only a year his superbly edited Selected Poems, presents an excellent opportunity to consider the twenty years of work these two volumes represent.

Throughout his career, Philip Levine has looked for an American voice, a voice that could stand comfortably in the tradition of Whitman and William Carlos Williams. Levine's primary impulse is narrative, and his poems are often narratives of human struggle—of the particularly American struggle of the immigrant, and of the universal struggle of individuals ignored and unheard by their societies. Levine's poetry gives voice to these "voiceless" men and women who he feels have been too rarely recognized and honored in our literature.

Philip Levine's poetry, known for being urban and "angry," is also filled with great naturalistic beauty and great tenderness. His poems present a poetic voice that is both as colloquial and unliterary as daily speech and as American as jazz. Levine has always desired a relatively "invisible" and unadorned style, one that could allow the voices of his speakers and the details of their stories to fully command the reader's attention. Yet the technical achievements and the formal underpinning of his poetry are too often neglected. The Selected Poems makes clear that the metrical and rhymed poetry of Levine's early books, as well as his superb syllabic verse, remains some of the most highly-crafted and imaginatively powerful poetry of the time.

For Levine, poetry is almost always the powerful poetry of witness. Here is his requiem for the silent fifties, and the title poem of his first collection, "On The Edge":

    My name is Edgar Poe and I was born
    In 1928 in Michigan.
    Nobody gave a damn. The gruel I ate
    Kept me alive, nothing kept me warm,
    But I grew up, almost to five foot ten,
    And nothing in the world can change my weight.

    I have been watching you these many years,
    There in the office, pencil poised and ready,
    Or on the highway when you went ahead.
    I did not write; I watched you watch the stars
    Believing that the wheel of fate was steady;
    I saw you rise from love and go to bed;
    I heard you lie, even to your daughter.
    I did not write, for I am Edgar Poe,
    Edgar the mad one, silly, drunk, unwise,
    But Edgar waiting on the edge of laughter,
    And there is nothing that he does not know
    Whose page is blanker than the raining skies.

The poem's speaker, with his refrain, "I did not write," was born—like Levine—in 1928, in Michigan. His name recalls, with a wry wit, one of America's more famous outsiders. Here are the elements of what will remain at the core of many of Levine's poems: a disenfranchised voice, often American, solitary yet resilient, self-ironic, accusing, compassionate, steadily proclaiming his or her role as observer from the harsh recesses of the working world. Since any real "power" to this voice, even in a democracy that promises the equal importance of all of its citizens' voices, has been neutralized, the speaker has seized instead the voice of this poem. In this way, in spite of the speaker's insistence upon his own silence, we find, in fact, that this silence has been spoken. That is, it has been written, and it is a silence that becomes both testimony and inscription.

"The Horse," another of the poems drawn from On The Edge, illustrates the moral outrage that will steadily inform Levine's work. This poem, dedicated to a survivor of Hiroshima, establishes two of Levine's recurring concerns—the earth's constant ravishing and destruction by man, and the capacity of the natural world to regenerate and renew itself. It is this same power of resurrection, earthly resurrection, that Levine finds and champions in the oppressed men and women who people many of his poems, one of the most memorable of these victorious losers being the boxer of the poem "A New Day":

    The headlights fading out at dawn,
    A stranger at the shore, the shore
    Not wakening to the great sea
    Out of sleep, and night, and no sun
    Rising where it rose before.

    The old champion in a sweat suit
    Tells me this is Chicago, this—
    He does not say—is not the sea
    But the chopped grey lake you get to
    After travelling all night

    From Dubuque, Cairo, or Wyandotte.
    He takes off at a slow trot
    And the fat slides under his shirt.
    I recall the Friday night
    In a beer garden in Detroit

    I saw him flatten Ezzard Charles
    On TV, and weep, and raise
    Both gloved hands in a slow salute
    To a God. I could tell him that.
    I could tell him that those good days

    Were no more and no less than these.
    I could tell him that I thought
    By now I must have reached the sea
    We read about, or that last night
    I saw a man break down and cry

    Out of luck and out of gas
    In Bruce's Crossing. We collect
    Here at the shore, the two of us,
    To make a pact, a people come
    For a new world and a new home

    And what we get is what we bring:
    A grey light coming on at dawn,
    No fresh start and no bird song
    And no sea and no shore
    That someone hasn't seen before.

The delicate and powerful syllabics of "The Horse" and the iambic tetrameter lines (with gorgeous variations) of "A New Day" provide supple examples of Levine's technical grace and of the coupling of formal exactitude with unfamiliar subjects that is one of his many gifts. Even with its wink at Keats, "A New Day" remains unforced and unliterary.

It was in his second book, Not This Pig, that Levine first brought to maturity the line that would serve as the basis for his narrative ambitions in the poems to come. One of the several poems of seven-syllable lines in this volume, "The Cemetery at Academy, California," best represents this solidifying of voice in Levine's poetry. Here is the central stanza of that poem:

     I came here with a young girl
     once who perched barefoot on her
     family marker. "I will go
     there," she said, "next to my sister."
     It was early morning and
     cold, and I wandered over
     the pale clodded ground looking
     for something rich or touching.
     "It's all wildflowers in the spring,"
     she had said, but in July
     there were only the curled cut
     flowers and the headstones blanked out
     on the sun side, and the long
     shadows deep as oil. I walked
     to the sagging wire fence
     that marked the margin of the
     place and saw where the same ground,
     festered here and there with reedy
     grass, rose to a small knoll
     and beyond where a windmill
     held itself against the breeze.
     I could hear her singing on
     the stone under the great oak,
     but when I got there she was
     silent and I wasn't sure
     and was ashamed to ask her,
     ashamed that I had come here
     where her people turned the earth.

Levine loves to braid strands of narrative, visual, and meditative detail into a unified poetic whole. He often uses details of the present to stitch together fragments of memory, pieces of the past (both public and private histories), to give texture and relief to the surface fabric of a poem. This technique, which helps lend narrative unity and historical resonance to his poems, is one Levine will echo and refine throughout his career.

"Not This Pig," with its superb air of defiance, is often seen as the poem most clearly embodying the strengths of Levine's work of this period; yet I think a far more representative poem, one more indicative of the directions he would take, is the delicate and moving "Heaven." The poem reflects Levine's ever-present questioning of individual and society, of the relationship between conscience and law. The poem has a basis in Levine's own refusal to serve in the Korean War, but its central figure is not Levine; he is anyone with beliefs:

     If you were twenty-seven
     and had done time for beating
     your ex-wife and had
     no dreams you remembered
     in the morning, you might
     lie on your bed and listen
     to a mad canary sing
     and think it all right to be
     there every Saturday
     ignoring your neighbors, the streets,
     the signs that said join,
     and the need to be helping.
     You might build, as he did,
     a network of golden ladders
     so that the bird could roam
     on all levels of the room;
     you might paint the ceiling blue,
     the floor green, and shade
     the place you called the sun
     so that things came softly to order
     when the light came on.
     He and the bird lived
     in the fine weather of heaven;
     they never aged, they
     never tired or wanted
     all through that war,
     but when it was over
     and the nation had been saved,
     he knew they'd be hunted.
     He knew, as you would too,
     that he'd be laid off
     for not being braver,
     and it would do no good
     to show how he had taken
     clothespins and cardboard
     and made each step safe.
     It would do no good
     to have been one of the few
     that climbed higher and higher
     even in time of war,
     for now there would be the poor
     asking for their share,
     and hurt men in uniforms,
     and no one to believe
     that heaven was really here.

One of the valid conventional wisdoms about Philip Levine is that he is one of the few urban—as opposed to suburban—American poets. He is, certainly, our most gripping poet of the city. Perhaps this is because he sees the used and abused city, the working city, not the city of galleries, museums, and restaurants. He sees and records the workings of the ravaged and exhausted city; he witnesses the blood and courage of those who live and work within it.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Levine's poetry is the place that anger is granted in his work. One of the few sources of power left to many of his speakers is to touch their own frustration and rage, and it is that current that electrifies their presence in these poems. The daily injustices that build into a larger sense of outrage accrue in Levine's poems much as they do in his speakers' lives—slowly and inexorably. It is an especially clarifying anger that we find at work throughout Levine's poetry, an anger that grants us the perspective of the real, and not a literary, world. It is an anger that we experience as a relief, the same relief we feel when the lens of a movie projector finally comes into focus; it is the clarity of truth that provides our sense of relief. No other American poet so clearly acknowledges the place and necessity of anger—in our lives and in our country—and it gives Levine's poetry an energy and an unkempt integrity that is unique.

In Levine's search for an authentic American voice, we can see the influence of daily speech, as well as the echo of black speech. It's not simply Levine's empathy with the oppressed and victimized that gives rise to a poem like "They Feed They Lion." It is also his desire to unleash the full power that he sees latent in American speech, in all of America's voices. We can hear it crashing forward in this poem, along with echoes of Whitman, Yeats, and Christopher Smart:

     Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
     Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
     Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
     Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
     They Lion grow.
               Out of the gray hills
     Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
     West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
     Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
     Out of the bones' need to sharpen and the muscles' to stretch,
     They Lion grow.

One facet of Levine's special genius is that those "literary" influences are always an internal fuel for his poems, never an exterior decoration. "They Feed They Lion" concludes with this extraordinary verbal surge:

                    From the sweet glues of the trotters
     Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower
     Of the hams the thorax of caves,
     From "Bow Down" come "Rise Up,"
     Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
     The grained arm that pulls the hands,
     They Lion grow.
               From my five arms and all my hands,
     From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
     From my car passing under the stars,
     They Lion, from my children inherit,
     From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
     From they sack and they belly opened
     And alt that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
     They feed they Lion and he comes.

Just as Philip Levine chooses to give voice to those who have no power to do so themselves, he likewise looks in his poems for the chance to give voice to the natural world, taking—like Francis Ponge—the side of things, the side of nature and its elements. And Levine is in many ways an old-fashioned troubadour, a singer of tales of love and heroism. Though it comes colored by the music of his world, what Levine has to offer is as elemental as breath. It is the simple insistence of breath, of the will to live—and the force of all living things in nature—that Levine exalts again and again. At the conclusion of his exquisite love poem, "Breath," he says:

     in this high clear room
     of the world, I squat
     to the life of rocks
     jewelled in the stream
     or whispering
     like shards. What fears
     are still held locked
     in the veins till the last
     fire, and who will calm
     us then under a gold sky
     that will be all of earth?
     Two miles below on the burning
     summer plains, you go
     about your life one
     more day. I give you
     almond blossoms
     for your hair, your hair
     that will be white, I give
     the world my worn-out breath
     on an old tune, I give
     it all I have
     and take it back again.

The startling and memorable poems of They Feed They Lion first brought Levine to national prominence, yet it's his next book, 1933, that most clearly reflects the realm of loss that touches all of his work. The title refers to a year of great personal loss (the death of his father) as well as to a world on the verge of radical change. It is a world seen from the perspective of innocence, the perspective of a child. The poems form a loose family album of portraits of people and events culled from memory and given a unified shape. The spirit—the emblem of the sparrow that inhabits these and other of Levine's poems—bears witness to these losses and to this changing world of industrial explosion, an ending depression, and a growing war. Each day brings only the barest hope, but hope exists. It is in this book that Levine, in confronting the vanished past and his father's death, first confronts the image of his own mortality. And it is, he says in one of his interviews, his "urge to memorialize details" that helps him to stay the loss of places and people.

In the poem "Goodbye," about the funeral of a child (seemingly a relative, perhaps a cousin, of Levine's), the poet sees in his own reckoning with this death (a feared, mirror-death for the child-speaker) that it is this occasion that enacts a shift from childhood to young adulthood. The sparrow—both messenger and angel—is seen here as the embodied spirit of the lost child. Notice the double meaning of the conclusion of "Goodbye":

     In the first light
     a sparrow settled outside
     my window, and a breeze woke
     from the breathing river,
     I opened my eyes
     and the gauze curtains
     were streaming.
     "Come here," the sparrow said.
     I went. In the alley below
     a horse cart piled with bags,
     bundles, great tubs of fat,
     brass lamps the children broke.
     I saw the sheenie-man pissing
     into a little paper fire
     in the snow, and laughed.
     The bird smiled. When I unlatched
     the window the bird looked back
     three times over each shoulder
     then shook his head.
     He was never coming back inside,
     and rose in a shower
     of white dust above
     the blazing roofs
     and telephone poles.

     It meant a child
     would have to leave the world.

Almost all of the poems of this volume become entries and notations of homecoming and return. The title poem, "1933," seems to me one of Levine's finest. Surreal, gnarled, emotionally charged, and—in some ways—collapsing under the pressure of its own intensity, the poem rises to an elegiac beauty that allows the poet an essential recovery of his childhood. It is also a profound declaration of loss. The poem brings together again the son and the lost father (as will the later poems "Starlight" and "The Face") in the most elemental of meetings. The voiceless father, whose voice arises in his son, the poet, and the details of their mutual loss will continue to thread their way through other of Levine's poems. It is the poem "1933" that freed Levine to write two of his most astonishing poems, also poems of sons and fathers, "New Season" and "My Son and I."

The poem "New Season" represents the culmination of Levine's work to this stage. It is personal and yet public; it concerns both the private matters of his life (the daily events in the life of one of his sons and the occasion of his mother's seventieth birthday) and the public past (the Detroit race riots that occurred when Levine was fifteen). In spite of its length, let me quote in full "New Season" in order to show the "braided" narrative movement the poem employs, a movement that occurs in many of Levine's best poems:

    My son and I go walking in the garden.
    It is April 12, Friday, 1974.
    Teddy points to the slender trunk
    of the plum and recalls the digging
    last fall through three feet
    of hard pan and opens his palms
    in the brute light of noon, the heels
    glazed with callus, the long fingers
    thicker than mine and studded with
    silver rings. My mother is 70 today.
    He flicks two snails off a leaf
    and smashes them underfoot
    on the red brick path. Saturday,
    my wife stood here, her cheek cut
    by a scar of dirt, dirt on her bare
    shoulders, on the brown belly,
    damp and sour in the creases
    of her elbows. She held up a parsnip
    squat, misshapen, a tooth pulled
    from the earth, and laughed
    her great white laugh. Teddy talks
    of the wars of the young, Larry V.
    and Ricky's brother in the movies,
    on Belmont, at McDonald's,
    ready to fight for nothing, hard,
    redded or on air, "low riders,
    grease, what'd you say about my mama!"
    Home late, one in the back seat,
    his fingers broken, eyes welling
    with pain, the eyes and jawbones
    swollen and rough. 70 today, the woman
    who took my hand and walked me
    past the corridor of willows
    to the dark pond where the one swan
    drifted. I start to tell him
    and stop, the story of my 15th spring.
    That a sailor had thrown a black baby
    off the Belle Isle Bridge was
    the first lie we heard, and the city
    was at war for real. We would waken
    the next morning to find Sherman tanks
    at the curb and soldiers camped
    on the lawns. Damato said he was
    "goin downtown bury a hatchet
    in a nigger's head." Women
    took coffee and milk to the soldiers
    and it was one long block party
    till the trucks and tanks loaded up
    and stumbled off. No one saw
    Damato for a week, and when I did
    he was slow, head down, his right arm
    blooming in a great white bandage.
    He said nothing. On mornings I rise
    early, I watch my son in the bathroom,
    shirtless, thick-armed and hard,
    working with brush and comb
    at his full blond head that suddenly
    curled like mine and won't
    come straight. 7 years passed
    before Delia Daubien told me
    how three white girls from the shop
    sat on her on the Woodward streetcar
    so the gangs couldn't find her
    and pull her off like they did
    the black janitor and beat
    an eye blind. She would never
    forget, she said, and her old face
    glows before me in shame
    and terror. Tonight, after dinner,
    after the long, halting call
    to my mother, I'll come out here
    to the yard rinsed in moonlight
    that blurs it all. She will not
    become the small openings
    in my brain again through which the wind
    rages, though she was the ocean
    that ebbed in my blood, the storm clouds
    that battered my lungs, though I hide
    in the crotch of the orange tree
    and weep where the future grows
    like a scar, she will not come again
    in the brilliant day. My cat Nellie,
    15 now, follows me, safe
    in the dark from mockingbird
    and jay, her fur frost tipped
    in the pure air, and together we hear
    the wounding of the rose, the willow
    on fire—to the dark pond
    where the one swan drifted, the woman
    is 70 now—the willow is burning,
    the rhododendrons shrivel
    like paper under water, all
    the small secret mouths are feeding
    on the green heart of the plum.

This melding of the narrative line with present and recollective detail is a crucial feature of Levine's later poetry. The narrative voice, with its measured intelligence and quiet confidence, shares a kinship with the voice of "The Cemetery at Academy, California" and other earlier poems. It has been a natural progression from the seven-syllable syllabic line to the primarily three-beat "free verse" line that characterizes these later poems. The conversational ease of this voice is always remarkable, and Levine seems closest here to one of his ambitions—to bring forward a body of poetry that is accessible to all readers. It's instructive to look again at what Levine himself has to say about the development of this aspect of his poetry, in particular about his use of the three-beat line. In a passage from an interview with David Remnick, he says:

I think I developed that line from my favorite line, which is Yeats's trimeter line. I think it comes from an attempt to find a free verse equivalent. He can use it in a song-like way or mold it into long paragraphs of terrific rhythmic power. I was very early awed by the way he could keep the form and let the syntax fall across it in constantly varying ways, the way certain sixteenth-century poets could with pentameter. The short line appeals to me because I think it's easier to make long statements that accumulate great power in short lines. You can flow line after line, and the breaks become less significant because there are so many of them, and they build to great power.

It is equally important to consider the issue of Philip Levine's political beliefs, which he calls "anarchist" and which are, in fact, quite simple: he believes an individual human being is of more value than any government; he believes human freedom and dignity are the world's most precious resources (as opposed to say, gold and oil); he believes that faith in the individual and the truthful (poetic) use of language are both political acts. In the preface to his book of interviews, Don't Ask, Levine writes:

When I refer to myself as an anarchist I do not mean to invoke the image of a terrorist or even a man who would burn the deed to his house because "property is theft," which I happen to believe is true. I don't believe in the validity of governments, laws, charters, all that hide us from our essential oneness. "We are put on earth a little space," Blake wrote, "That we may learn to bear the beams of love." And so in my poems I memorialize those men and women who struggled to bear that love. I don't believe in victory in my lifetime, I'm not sure I believe in victory at all, but I do believe in the struggle and preserving the names and natures of those who fought, for their sakes, for my sake, and for those who come after.

And in an interview with Arthur Smith, he adds: "I think the writing of a poem is a political act. We now exist in the kind of a world that Orwell was predicting, and the simple insistence upon accurate language has become a political act. Nothing is more obvious than what our politicians are doing to our language, so that if poets insist on the truth, or on an accurate rendition, or on a faithful use of language, if they for instance insist on an accurate depiction of people's lives as they are actually lived—this is a political act."

Philip Levine has always written poetry that is also more overtly political, and much of the best of it in his Selected Poems is drawn from the volumes The Names of the Lost and 7 Years from Somewhere: "Gift for a Believer"; "On the Murder of Lieutenant Jose Del Castillo by the Falangist Bravo Martinez, July 12, 1936"; "On a Drawing by Flavio"; "Francisco, I'll Bring You Red Carnations"; and two exceptionally powerful poems of domestic politics, "Ask the Roses" and "To My God in His Sickness." In these poems, as always in his work, Levine is giving voice to those without, as he returns "names" and presence to those whose names have been taken from them or erased by history. There is often a barely restrained passion in these poems; for those who prize decorum above all else in their poetry, Levine's poems will seem ill-mannered in their fierce convictions and desires. Like few other American poets, Levine forces us to consider our own moral values and, more generally, the place of moral values in any body of poetry. Levine's ethics are often the true refrain of his poems.

Levine managed, in his book One for the Rose, to disconcert some of his readers and to delight the rest with the kaleidoscope of voices and the fragments of self given full stage there. There is an imaginative range to these poems that remains pleasing and surprising even after many readings, and a mad, rakish quality that is invigorating. Levine's humor is at its most relaxed and open; the characters in these poems are full of extravagant and playful gestures, impossible histories, and biting commentaries. A sampling of these exuberant speakers includes: the world's first pilot; "The Conductor of Nothing," who rides trains endlessly back and forth across the country; a man who believes he once lived as a fox (and behaves accordingly); and a foundling who may well be the embodiment of the Second Coming! They are the most appealing gallery of rogues and impostors and saints of any book of American poetry in recent years. Still, perhaps the most powerful works of this period are the more typically, "Levine" poems, "Having Been Asked 'What Is a Man?' I Answer" and "To Cipriano, in the Wind." Both of these poems address the nature of human dignity. The former considers courage in the face of serious illness; the latter celebrates the fierce beliefs of man from Levine's past:

      Where did your words go,
      Cipriano, spoken to me 38 years
      ago in the back of Peerless Cleaners,
      where raised on a little wooden platform
      you bowed to the hissing press
      and under the glaring bulb the scars
      across your shoulders—"a gift
      of my country"—gleamed like old wood.
      "Dignidad," you said into my boy's
      wide eyes, "without is no riches."
      And Ferrente, the dapper Sicilian
      coatmaker, laughed. What could
      a pants presser know of dignity?

In Levine's most recent collection, Sweet Will, he uses as an epigraph to the book a passage from Wordsworth that concludes, "Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! / The river glideth at his own sweet will…." Sweet Will has been seen by some reviewers as a transitional volume, a book that takes up past concerns of Levine's poetry. Yet Sweet Will strikes me as an especially autobiographical collection, more nakedly so than any other of Levine's books. Like the river in the passage from Wordsworth, Levine glides ever forward, carrying with him his own past. The poems here carry with them the great freedom of voice won by the work of One for the Rose. It's my own feeling that Sweet Will is both a reckoning with past themes and concerns and also a sequence of highly personal and revealing annotations to those Selected Poems. Levine addresses his own past in the most direct manner of his career. Once again, he examines the current of politics in his poetry as it's expressed in the context of the crushing American workplace and in the history of European anarchism. But he announces most explicitly what he considers the real continuity of purpose in all of his poetic works—that he is, first and foremost, a storyteller, a moral storyteller. The poem that serves as a centerpiece for Sweet Will, "A Poem with No Ending," begins, "So many poems begin where they / should end, and never end. / Mine never end, they run on / book after book, complaining / to the moon that heaven is wrong / or dull, no place at all to be. / I believe all this." And it's true that all of Levine's work can be seen as being of a piece; like "To Cipriano, in the Wind," all of his poetry seems, whether public or private, to revolve around the questions of human freedom and human dignity. A poem that exhibits this force in Levine's poetry as dramatically as any is the title poem of this volume, "Sweet Will." A paradigm of the complex braiding of concerns that occurs in all of Levine's work, this poem is another of the defiant celebrations of the individual that distinguish his poetry. "Sweet Will":

      The man who stood beside me
      34 years ago this night fell
      on to the concrete, oily floor
      of Detroit Transmission, and we
      stepped carefully over him until
      he wakened and went back to his press.

      It was Friday night, and the others
      told me that every Friday he drank
      more than he could hold and fell
      and he wasn't any dumber for it
      so just let him get up at his
      own sweel will or he'll hit you.

      "At his own sweet will," was just
      what the old black man said to me,
      and he smiled the smile of one
      who is still surprised that dawn
      graying the cracked and broken windows
      could start us all to singing in the cold.

      Stash rose and wiped the back of his head
      with a crumpled handkerchief and looked
      at his own blood as though it were
      dirt and puzzled as to how
      it got there and then wiped the ends
      of his fingers carefully one at a time
      the way the mother wipes the fingers
      of a sleeping child, and climbed back
      on his wooden soda-pop case to
      his punch press and hollered at all
      of us over the oceanic roar of work,
      addressing us by our names and nations—

      "Nigger, Kike, Hunky, River Rat,"
      but he gave it a tune, an old tune,
      like "America the Beautiful." And he danced
      a little two-step and smiled showing
      the four stained teeth left in the front
      and took another suck of cherry brandy.

      In truth it was no longer Friday,
      for night had turned to day as it
      often does for those who are patient,
      so it was Saturday in the year of '48
      in the very heart of the city of man
      where your Cadillac cars get manufactured.

      In truth all those people are dead,
      they have gone up to heaven singing
      "Time on My Hands" or "Begin the Beguine,"
      and the Cadillacs have all gone back
      to earth, and nothing that we made
      that night is worth more than me.

      And in truth I'm not worth a thing
      what with my feet and my two bad eyes
      and my one long nose and my breath
      of old lies and my sad tales of men
      who let the earth break them back,
      each one, to dirty blood or bloody dirt.

      Not worth a thing! Just like it was said
      at my magic birth when the stars
      collided and fire fell from great space
      into great space, and people rose one
      by one from cold beds to tend a world
      that runs on and on at its own sweet will.

This poem, like the body of Philip Levine's poetry, makes one simple demand of us—that we read it by the light of human compassion. Quietly, dramatically, with growing power and beauty, the poetry of Philip Levine has become both the pulse and conscience of American poetry. He is one of our few essential poets, and in his eloquent voice he reminds us of the courage required to sing the most worthy songs.

Frederick J. Marchant (review date June 1988)

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SOURCE: A review of A Walk with Tom Jefferson, in Boston Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, June, 1988, pp. 28-9.

[In the following review, Marchant considers Levine's humanistic faith and the nature of spirituality in his poetry.]

In a dozen books over the last twenty-five years, one of Philip Levine's most significant achievements has been to extend the province of the lyric to include the world of the blue-collar laborer. In Levine's poetry the smell of garlicky lunchboxes and greasy machinery have always had a place. There has also been a place for the description of mind-numbing work, and most important of all, his poetry has given voice to the angers that so easily well up after such labor has taken its toll. Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and came of age working in a number of automotive factories there. He has been a full-lime poet for many years now, but his poetry still holds an imaginative landscape centered on this working-class experience. As with Robert Frost's relation to his Derry farm, Philip Levine's imagination has never totally abandoned his youthful workplace, and it has in many ways become Levine's root metaphor for life in our time and place.

One of the most important and revealing blue-collar incidents in Levine's new book, A Walk with Tom Jefferson, comes toward the end of the long poem from which the book takes its title. The poem concludes with a speaker reminiscing about a time in his youth when he "worked nights" on a milling machine in a factory which turned out Cadillac transmissions. He recalls that

        another kid just up
     from West Virginia asked me
        what was we making
     and I answered, I'm making
        2.25 an hour,
     don't know what you're
        making, and he had
     to correct me, gently, what was
        we making out of
     this here metal, and I didn't know.

An epiphany for the speaker of the poem, the recollection here is like fingering an old scar, and it forcefully brings to the speaker's mind the real cost of living and working as an appendage to a machine. His consciousness had been shrunk to the size of his hourly wage, and the important questions had somehow been banished by the din and clatter.

What are we making here? That is the question which haunts both the title poem and the book as a whole. In some poems in this volume it prompts Levine to sound like a Biblical prophet damning a nation which would allow its cities to become "block after block / of dumping grounds" with the streets littered with everything from "old couches and settees / burst open, the white innards / gone gray" to "whole market counters / that once contained the red meats / we couldn't get enough of" The prophet's tone, however, more often gives way to the elegiac note which characterizes Levine's best work. In "Buying and Selling," for instance, Levine recalls a time in his youth when he worked as a purchasing agent for buyers ("my waiting masters" he calls them) of Army surplus automotive parts. He remembers once going into "the wilderness of warehouses" and cutting into the crates which held driveshafts and universal joints packed in preservative cosmoline. The parts were perfect, the bids made, the deal consummated. As the truck pulled away from the warehouse, however, the speaker found himself in the grip of a profound sadness:

                 The great metal doors
     of the loading dock crashed down, and in
     the sudden aftermath I inhaled a sadness
     stronger than my Lucky Strike, stronger
     than the sadness of these hills and valleys
     with their secret ponds and streams unknown
     even to children, or the sadness of children
     themselves, who having been abandoned believe
     their parents will return before dark.

These lines have the characteristic Levine rhythms. The mostly enjambed lines cascade down the page and give the ending an aura of arrival and inevitability. The sadness of these lines also seems inevitable. It is part of the product of the poem's slowly accumulating anger at the meaningless-ness of buying and selling. The speaker of this poem feels like an abandoned child precisely because in the wilderness of warehouses he is bereft of any transcendent meaning. No God the Father here to lay down the laws, just the commerce in the so-called "goods" and services. Such commerce, the poem seems to want to say, might well be our daily glimpse into a small corner of the abyss.

There is, however, another side to Levine's imagination. His darker thoughts and intuitions are balanced at times by a genuinely humanistic faith. The character Tom Jefferson can be thought of as this book's most obvious representative of the more affirmative streak in Levins's work. Tom has "the same name as the other one," but this Jefferson is a black man surviving in the urban wasteland of Detroit. Having emigrated from Alabama prior to World War II, Tom Jefferson owns and lives in one of the few houses left standing amid the vacant lots and debris. It is late autumn in the poem, and he is tidying up what's left of his summer vegetable garden. Stoic, tenacious, and resolved, he is planning what he will plant next year. He will not quit the place. What he represents is a life-affirming spirit of rootedness, commitment, and nurture. He knows precisely what he is making with his work. He is making something decent and useful out of what the city of automobile manufacture has offered and given him.

Levine calls him a "believer," and there are other believers in this book. For instance, the speaker of one poem imagines his dead father as preceding him into the darkness, "burning the little candle / of his breath, making light of it all." In another poem, "For the Country," Levine imagines an elderly woman living alone, nearing her death, filled with memories that seem more real than anything else around her. In her last moments, death becomes for her a "dark sister" with whom she stays up late, playing with her in bed, as if both were little girls again. Imaginings such as these are all acts of faith in the spirit that Tom Jefferson represents. Probably the most affirmative poem in the collection is called "The Whole Soul." Here the speaker wonders if the soul is like an onion, the same as one moves toward the core. "That would be suitable," he says, for the soul is "the human core and the rest / meant either to keep it / warm or cold depending / on the season." The whole soul, however, is more than just the individual. It is, in this poem, the larger, perhaps impersonal interconnectedness between self and creation. The poem ends with the speaker on the seashore, taking a few handfuls of water in his hands and thinking:

     I speak in a tongue hungering
     for salt and water without salt,
     I give a shape to the air going
     out and the air coming in,
     and the sea winds scatter it
     like so many burning crystals
     settling on the evening ocean.

That is Levine's idea of the "whole soul," transpersonal, transcendent, ultimately absorptive in death. For this poet whose work is so rooted in working-class American life, it is perhaps ironic to think that he so firmly believes that there is a spiritual component to life on earth. But there is another truth about the human soul which Levine's poetry dramatizes. It is the sense that our souls can pass away long before our bodies. Human consciousness can shrink down to practically nothing, and without nurture, the soul will wither away. Like Keats, Levine would say that the world we live in, like it or not, is a vale of soul-making. Or, to be more accurate, that is what our world ought to be, even as we tie ourselves to our machines and the wages we get paid for so doing.

Edward Hirsch (essay date Spring 1989)

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SOURCE: "Naming the Lost: The Poetry of Philip Levine," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, Spring, 1989, pp. 258-66.

[In the following essay, Hirsch considers the evolution of Levine's poetry and its gradual change in themes and attitudes. He declares it begins in rage, grows into elegy, and culminates in celebration. He stresses Levine's growing belief in human acceptance and possibility.]

           I force myself
         to remember
       who I am, what I am, and
         why I am here.
           Silent in America"

In his seminal postmodern meditation, "Thinking Against Oneself," the philosopher E. M. Cioran argues that "We measure an individual's value by the sum of his disagreements with things, by his incapacity to be indifferent, by his refusal as a subject to tend toward the object." Philip Levine's poetry is characterized by just such a profound disagreement with things as they are, by an incapacity for indifference and a rage against objectification. Throughout his work his first and most powerful commitment has been to the failed and lost, the marginal, the unloved, the unwanted. His primary impulse has been to memorialize the details and remember the exploitations. The dedicatory seventh section of his poem, "Silent in America"—his largest and most summary early poem—is explicit:

        For a black man whose
      name I have forgotten who danced
        all night at Chevy
         Gear & Axle,
        for that great stunned Pole
      who laughed when he called me Jew
        Boy, for the ugly
         who had no chance,
        the beautiful in
      body, the used and the unused,
        those who had courage
         and those who quit—
        Rousek and Ficklin
      numbed by their own self-praise
        who ate their own shit
         in their own rage;
         for these and myself
      whom I loved and hated, I
         had presumed to speak
        in measure.

Levine is a poet of the night shift, a late ironic Whitman of our industrial heartland, a Romantic anarchist who repeatedly proclaims, "Vivas for those who have failed…." His life's work is a long assault on isolation, an ongoing struggle against the enclosures of suffering, the private, hermetic, sealed-off nature of our lives; indeed, he is a poet of radical immanence who has increasingly asserted a Keatsian faith in the boundlessness of human possibility. One might say that his work begins in rage, ripens towards elegy, and flourishes in celebration. All three moods—rage, sorrow, and a kind of wry hopefulness—appear and reappear in his work, sometimes in complex tonal combinations. One lyric points forwards, another backwards, and yet the overall drift and progress of the poems is clear. What starts as anger slowly deepens into grief and finally rises into joy.

Levine's early work follows a stylistic and thematic arc from On the Edge (1963) to They Feed They Lion (1972). These poems are written under the sign of the thistle and the fist, what one poem invokes as the "bud of anger, kinked tendril of my life" ("Fist"). Levine has always written with a special concentrated fury about the so-called "stupid jobs" of his youth and his first books established and developed his working-class loyalties and themes. They evoke three distinct but related cities: Detroit, Fresno, and Barcelona, all of which are defined as landscapes of desolation, rugged cities of the enraged, the exhausted, the exploited. Levine began as a relentlessly urban writer and one of the motivating premises of his early work was his determination to center that work around the city, to create a poetry of the urban landscape. In this regard, the poem which reverberates through all of his work is Wordsworth's sonnet, "Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802," which eventually provided the title for his book, Sweet Will. Wordsworth's last line—"And all that mighty heart is lying still!"—has a special resonance in Levine's case because his work begins in silence and failure: indeed, one of the persistent themes of the early books is voicelessness, the desperate silence of "Silent in America," the failure of poets who don't write in "My Poets." He increasingly insists on the defiant transformation of blankness into speech, and refuses to be quieted. This theme of the necessity of violently breaking silence peaks in the furious incantatory rhythms of "They Feed They Lion," a poem which celebrates the communal insurrection of the Detroit riots of 1967. All that mighty heart is no longer lying still.

Levine's first volume, On the Edge, published when he was thirty-five years old, was a book of free-floating despair, hampered by its own formalism, alienated even from itself. Levine himself has said that these were the poems of someone on the verge of despair and breakdown, on the edge of his own culture, even of his own life. One of the formal problems of the poems is that they are too tightly-controlled; they are rhyming iambic pentameter lyrics whose underlying subject matter is mostly suppressed and in conflict with the tradition of "pure poetry" out of which they emerge. The sole exception is "The Horse"—a devastating poem about the survivors of Hiroshima—which anticipates the idiomatic and controlled free verse style of Levine's later work. The title poem is a skillful eighteen-line lyric which sounds a brooding note of defiance from the poet's alter ego: "My name is Edgar Poe and I was born / In 1928 in Michigan. / Nobody gave a damn." The poem projects a certain hip bravado but also suggests the depth of the writer's alienation: "I did not write, for I was Edgar Poe, / Edgar the mad one, silly, drunk, unwise…." On the Edge was a striking debut stymied by its own pent-up rage: it is about being on the margins, close to breakdown, hedged in by despair.

Levine's second book, Not This Pig (1968), exchanged despair for determination, furiously digging in its heels. It is a volume of well-wrought lyrics where the urban furies reign. In this world no one wants to remember who he is, happiness and despair are a "twinight doubleheader," the eight o'clock factory whistle comes "blasting from heaven," and there are no fresh starts. Edgar Poe has been replaced by "Baby Villon," an underdog who is everywhere victimized but continues to fight back, a version of the poet as outlaw. But the book's key figure is a self-conscious pig being driven to market who staunchly refuses to squeal or break down. The pig in "Animals are Passing from our Lives," a Bartleby of the animal world, can already smell "the sour, grooved block," the blade "that opens the hole / and the pudgy white fingers / that shake out the intestines / like a hankie," but he refuses to fall down in terror, to turn futilely "like a beast" against the boy who drives him along, resolutely keeping his dignity, proclaiming "No. Not this pig." In a way, the pig is a tough, metaphorical stand-in for his human counterpart, the worker who refuses to give up his dignity or to be objectified.

The bud of anger blossoms into full flower in They Feed They Lion, the culminating book of Levine's early work. In his two previous small-press books, Red Dust and Pili's Wall (both published in 1971), Levine began to abandon his early formalism, developing an increasingly narrative and supple free verse style, a more open and self-questioning approach to the dramatic lyric. He linked a Spanish surrealist imagery to a street-wise American idiom. "Clouds" is representative:

      Morning is exhaustion, tranquilizers, gasoline,
      the screaming of frozen bearings,
      the failures of will, the tv talking to itself.
      The clouds go on eating oil, cigars,
      housewives, sighing letters,
      the breath of lies. In their great silent pockets
      they carry off all our dead.

In these poems Levine has turned from a descendant of Poe into a grandson of Whitman. Thereafter his poems seem to have grown directly from the gritty soil of William Carlos Williams. They became larger and more inclusive, representing the rugged, impure, democratic side of our poetry.

They Feed They Lion reaps the fruit of that labor. It is Levine's most eloquent book of industrial Detroit, evoking the world of Dodge Main and Wyandotte Chemical, grease shops and foundries, the city "pouring fire." The poems remember the "unburned" Detroit of 1952 ("Saturday Sweeping") as well as the "charred faces" of Detroit in 1968 ("Coming Home, Detroit, 1968"). Some are set in California ("Renaming the Kings"), some in Spain ("Salami," "To P. L., 1916–1937"), but all record a nightmare of suffering, what "To a Fish Head Found on the Beach near Málaga" calls "the burned essential oil / seeping out of death." Yet their author is also capable of thorny affirmations, of celebrating his own angels of Detroit. The magisterial title poem—with its fierce diction and driving rhythms influenced by Biblical language, Dylan Thomas's poetry, and colloquial Black speech—is Levine's hymn to communal rage, to acting in unison. The poem has a sweeping musical and rhetorical authority, a burning sense of "the acids of rage, the candors of tar," a psychological understanding of what drives people to move from "Bow Down" to "Rise Up," and it builds to an apocalyptic conclusion:

                 From my five arms and all my hands,
     From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
     From my car passing under the stars,
     They Lion, from my children inherit,
     From the oak turned to a wall, they Liown,
     From they sack and they belly opened
     And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
     They feed they Lion and he comes.

Both in stylistic and in thematic terms, Levine's next two books, 1933 (1974) and The Names of the Lost (1976) are a single unit, a major turning point in his work, the books where he becomes a poet absorbed by memory and preoccupied by the deep past. 1933 is first and foremost a book haunted by the death of the father, ritualizing its suffering, asking the question, "Where did my father go in my fifth autumn?" ("Zaydee") The fundamental psychological shock at the heart of Levine's work—its first reverberating loss—is the death of the father: indeed, the dead father stands as the authoritative absence at the heart of all his poetry. Thus the year 1933 is not—as so many have assumed—the date of his own birth, but the year of his father's death, his true baptism into the world. The title poem is simultaneously a letter to a man who died long ago ("Father, the world is so different in many places" and "you would not know me now") and a Roethkean elegy to a man who "entered the kingdom of roots / his head still as a stone" when the poet was only a child. The poem typifies much of Levine's most recent work in the way it alternates between the present tense ("I go in afraid of the death you are") and an irretrievable past ("I would be a boy in worn shoes splashing through rain"). As a book, 1933 powerfully evokes what is for the speaker "the blind night of Detroit" in the 1930s. It enlarges the first loss of the father to include a series of family elegies: "Zaydee," "Grandmother in Heaven," "Goodbye," "Uncle," and the centerpiece, "Letters for the Dead." Thereafter Levine will always be a poet who relies heavily on long-term memory. His poems become less protected and defended, more open and exposed, emotionally riskier.

As Levine's work has progressed, a predominant tone of ferocious anger has slowly evolved into a more vulnerable and elegiac tenderness. His poems have developed a softer edge while maintaining their brooding intensity. Almost everything he has written has been characterized by a determination to witness and remember, to memorialize people who would otherwise be forgotten. His middle work begins neither with outrage nor with an Adamic impulse to name the swarming fullness of things; it begins not with presence but with absence, with a furious determination to remember what is already lost. These are books more concerned with memory than with imagination, defining the poet as someone who names and recovers, who recalls the victimized, the disenfranchised, the fallen. Nowhere is this sense of the writer's task more clearly defined than in his book The Names of the Lost. In these poems, Levine explicitly links the people of his childhood whom "no one remembers" with his doomed heroes from the Spanish Civil War. As a lyric like "Gift for a Believer" makes clear, the poems originate with a personal oath to remember ("When old Nathan Pine / gave two hands to a drop-forge / at Chevy, my spit turned to gall / and I swore I'd never forget"), but they also take up the anarchist dream of freedom and justice, the chant of "We shall inherit," the world that Durrutti said "is growing here / in my heart this minute." The anarchist struggle for a new world as well as the romantic sense that "the human is boundless" provided Levine with a political as well as a personal way to understand the past.

Levine's next book, Ashes: Poems New and Old (1979), is in some ways a transitional volume that looks back toward the two previous books of death as well as forward to the new poems of regeneration. It begins by addressing the dead father, "a black tooth planted in the earth / of Michigan," asking him not to return ("Father"). The whole book is animated by the simple factual recognition that certain losses are final, death and childhood. And yet the book ends on the resolutely optimistic note that "for now / the lost are found" and that father and son, the living and the dead, can enter the world together ("Lost and Found"). Thus what began with the death of the father has been converted into a dream of possibility. The silence and failure of people turning away from each other has been transformed into an idea of communal inheritance. Out of the ashes, the names are given back to the lost.

The motif of regeneration and rebirth resounds through Levine's next three books: there is a plaintiveness in 7 Years from Somewhere (1979) that turns into a dark optimism and even hopefulness in One for the Rose (1981) and a bittersweet acceptance in Sweet Will (1985). These books begin with the playful assertion, "I could come to believe / almost anything" ("I Could Believe") and conclude on the image of the late sunlight "promising nothing" and overflowing "the luminous thorns of the roses," catching fire "for a moment on the young leaves" ("Jewish Graveyards, Italy"). In these books Levine becomes a Wordsworthian poet of humanistic naturalism, a poet of joy as well as of suffering.

Many of the poems in 7 Years from Somewhere have the intimate character of prayers half-addressed to the interior self, half to the darkness. Poems such as "I Could Believe," "Hear Me," "Let Me Begin Again," "Words," and "Let Me Be," have the tone of a man talking—in his own words—either "to no one or myself," disavowing wisdom, asking unanswerable questions. The old angers burn and crackle in "You Can Have It," perhaps the book's single greatest poem, but most of the poems turn away from the hard fury of such a renunciation, in actuality accepting the flawed earth as it is, returning to the here and now, celebrating a world "drowning / in oil, second by second" ("The Life Ahead"). The speaker in "Francisco, I'll Bring You Red Carnations" returns to the grave of a fallen Spanish Civil War hero not only to remember the dream of a city "where every man and every woman gives / and receives the gift of work / and care," but also to affirm that the dream "goes on in spite of all / that mocks it" and to celebrate "the unbroken / promise of your life that / once was frail and flesh."

This more celebratory mood of acceptance—self-questioning, darkened by doubts—continues to animate many of the more playful and narrative poems of One for the Rose and Sweet Will. In these books Levine weaves fuller and larger stories, mixing imagination and memory, creating alternative lives for himself, phantasmagorias of the past. He announces with wry irony, "I was born in Lucerne," and "I think I must have lived / once before, not as a man or woman / but as a small, quick fox pursued / through fields of grass and grain / by ladies and gentlemen on horseback" ("The Fox"). We may say that this sly, quick fox is a metonymic cousin not only to the courageous pig of Not This Pig and the lion of They Feed They Lion, but also a metaphoric relative of the anarchists, Francisco Ascara and Cipriano Mera, the emblematic Spanish immigrant in the poem, "To Cipriano, in the Wind." Cipriano worked in the back of Peerless Cleaners and enunciated the word "Dignidad" for the young poet. He told him, "Some day the world / is ours" and "Spring, spring, it always comes after." Levine's politics are utopian and the final hardwon affirmation of his work is a Keatsian faith that the poet's breath can be passed on "to anyone who can / believe that life comes back / again and again without end /and always with the same face …" ("Belief"). His vision is humanistic; he concludes by embracing the earth as his own home ("The Voice").

Levine's recent work struggles against the incapacities of the word, the gulfs of language and experience. This is one of the reasons that it has increasingly tended toward rhetorical narrative, toward the healing coherence of story. His work is neither logocentric nor disjunctive, but asserts a semi-objectivist, semi-visionary faith in the radical capacity of language to render up our world. His thirteenth collection to date, A Walk with Tom Jefferson (1988), is a book of radiant memories that ramify outward to tell a recurrent story of buying and selling, of how we work (and don't) in America. "I am in my element," he tells us in one poem, "urging the past / out of its pockets of silence," recalling with a certain comic relish his depressing early jobs (in the book's first poem he remembers selling copper kitchenware, Fuller brushes, American encyclopedias), ferociously condemning the brutality of so much of our working lives, speaking out with genuine indignation and moral authority against what is most corrupting and exploitative in American life. He also celebrates the gritty heroism of people who manage to survive against the odds.

The long title poem is the book's narrative centerpiece, the memory of an emblematic walk through Detroit with an unsung black man, a retired factory worker who shares, in Levine's words, "the fierce spirit of independence and originality of his namesake." Tom Jefferson acts as the poet's Virgilian guide—tough, unbowed, faithful, humane—leading him through a neighborhood that had been devastated in the late sixties. In the aftermath of the destruction, amidst the vacant lots and condemned property, the poet discovers that people are leading quasi-rural lives—keeping gardens and animals, mustering their resources, rooting in, making do, cultivating new life. Their triumphs are small but real: they have the courage of survivors. As Levine said in a recent interview in The Paris Review, "The poem is a tribute to all these people who survived in the face of so much discouragement. They survived everything America can dish out." Here, as elsewhere in his work, Levine's great subject is the sustaining dream of freedom, the stubborn will of the dispossessed to dig in and endure.

Philip Levine's work is still evolving, still growing and changing. And yet it has already earned a rightful place in an American Romantic lineage that includes Hart Crane's The Bridge, William Carlos Williams's "Asphodel, that Greeny Flower," Theodore Roethke's "North American Sequence," Robert Hayden's "Middle Passage," and Galway Kinnell's "The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ into the New World." Levine's life's work sounds what Wallace Stevens called "the No that precedes the final Yes," and for all its furious renunciations it ends by being a poetry of praise "for a world that runs on and on at its own sweet will."

Linda Gregerson (review date December 1989)

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SOURCE: A review of A Walk with Tom Jefferson, in Poetry, Vol. CLV, No. 3, December, 1989, pp. 236-39.

[In the following review, Gregerson considers some of the major themes in Levine's poetry, both in this collection and elsewhere.]

New York, Detroit, Fresno, Medford: from a shifting home front, the poet at sixty files his report on "God's Concern / for America." The evidence is not such as to make the poet sanguine. The walls that keep the darkness out are everywhere paper-thin. The news from above is mostly of ourselves: the autumnal sunset brilliant with pollutants, "all the earth we've pumped / into the sky," makes a pageant of doom from the by-products of human hope and industry ("A Walk with Tom Jefferson"). In Fresno, just this side of the fault line, the poet dreams the end of the world ("Waking in March"). The news arrives, bad joke that it is, from the glow above Los Angeles, and the poet can do no more than "go from bed / to bed bowing to the small damp heads / of my sons…." Outside the dream, the children have long since left home, but every parent knows those rounds by heart, knows the fault line panic opens beside the beds and their sweet burdens. The children have fallen asleep imagining that it is safe to do so; the parent, standing for safety, knows that safety is illusion. Who's in charge here? "If I told you that the old woman / named Ida Bellow was shot to death / for no more than $5 and that a baby / of eighteen months saw it all from / where she wakened on the same bed / but can't tell because she can't speak / you'd say I was making it up" ("These Streets").

While America goes to the dogs, the poet with America stuck in his throat rehearses the lessons of his American masters, of Stevens and Whitman ("I Sing the Body Electric"), of Williams ("A Theory of Prosody"), of the carping Yvor Winters ("28"). Levine writes, as the good ones do, to save his life. He also writes a revisionist esthetic of Decline and Fall, retrieving poetry from frontier bravado ("Rexroth / reminiscing on a Berkeley FM station in the voice / God uses to lecture Jesus Christ"). To Whitman's triumphant corporal embrace, to Stevens's pungent oranges and extended wings, Levine replies with the echoing actuarials of Hartford on a Sunday morning ("In my black rain coat I go back / out into the gray morning and dare / the cars on North Indemnity Boulevard / to hit me, but no one wants trouble / at this hour"). To Williams's manifesto on the modernist poetic line ("As the cat / climbed over / the top of // the jamcloset …"), Levine replies with feline Nellie, who "would sit behind me / as I wrote" and paw at the hand that extended a line too far. "The first / time she drew blood I learned / it was poetic to end / a line anywhere to keep her / quiet." To Winters, for whom meter was morality and syntax a hedge against chaos, Levine replies with loopy numerology: the poet at 56 traces the numbered highways of America, the enumerated rehearsals of oblivion (14 hours of fevered sleep, 3 close encounters with death), and the domestic plenum (2 opposing families of 5) back to himself at 28, just half the age of the century, half the age of his newfound mentor (Winters in Los Altos), half the age of the older self who writes this poem. Winters titled his collected prose In Defense of Reason. Levine's bittersweet critique of reason records the patent incapacity of form to structure meaning, all the while making meaning of vaporous coincidence.

Escaping the dead end of swing-shift Detroit for sumptuous California, the artist as a young man delivered himself into the hands of one who, all but forgotten among younger writers now, was a name to conjure with in the middle decades of this century: a poet who came to believe that free verse led to madness, a critic who represented the far right fringe of the canon police, a teacher, bless him, who fostered most passionately those protégés most certain to defect. While Winters presided in the hills of Los Altos and the gentlemen's club of Stanford, the young Levine kept house with two kids and a pregnant wife in East Palo Alto, Stanford's shadow ghetto, an unincorporated stretch of cinderblock and prefab for the un- and the underemployed. For the apprentice poet, California's royal way—El Camino Real—was a divider strip between the good life and real life, a place for poaching lilacs. The poaching has stood him in good stead, evolving a poetry whose range of consciousness and conscience, whose capacity for anger and debunking and sweet recuperation lends heart to the embattled republic, or to those of its citizens with leisure to read.

In the title poem of his new book, Levine takes a mentor of another sort. Brought up from Alabama on the dream of $5 a day, Tom Jefferson, grown old now, tends a garden in the gutted Promised Land, "Between the freeway / and the gray conning towers / of the ballpark" in post-industrial Detroit. Having lost his youth to the auto plant and his son to Korea, Tom Jefferson quotes scripture and pushes a shopping cart through abandoned lots. Tom Jefferson "is a believer. / You can't plant winter vegetables / if you aren't…." Tom Jefferson takes his name from the slave-holding theorist of liberty and "property," revised to the pursuit of happiness. Walking with Tom Jefferson, Levine recalls his own first part in capitalism's long last coma:

      when I worked nights
        on the milling machines
      at Cadillac transmission,
        another kid just up
      from West Virginia asked me
        what was we making,
      and I answered, I'm making
        2.25 an hour,
      don't know what you're
      making, and he had
      to correct me, gently, what was
        we making out of
      this here metal, and I didn't know.

What he ultimately made, of course, was work of another sort. The thirteen bound volumes of that work to date, remarkable intersections of private memory and political fable, will not, unaided, cure what ails us. But in an age more notable for overflowing landfills than for neighborhood renewal, it is much to make poems that heal the breach between ignorance and understanding, labor and wage.

Richard Chess (essay date Fall 1990)

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SOURCE: "In the Tradition of American Jewish Poetry: Philip Levine's Turning," in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Vol. 9, No. 2, Fall, 1990, pp. 197-214.

[In the following essay, Chess discusses the Jewishness of Levine's poetry. He contends that when Levine tackles an explicitly Jewish topic, the result is often cliché. However, when he writes sincerely of general social and political justice, a genuine Jewish voice emerges.]

The discussion of American Jewish poetry has remained limited at best. On one hand, occasional book reviews have drawn attention to the treatment of Jewish subjects by this poet or that. On the other, there has been a virtual dismissal of the subject as one worthy of extensive investigation by critics like Harold Bloom and Herbert Levine, both of whom criticize the work of American Jewish poets on the grounds of their religious shortcomings.

But the fact is that this century's American poetry includes, and has been deeply influenced by, the work of dozens of American Jewish poets, most of whom have little or no interest in the Jewish religious experience. This is not to say they have no interest in the Jewish cultural experience. Indeed, sensitive reading of the poetry, especially those poems that on the surface appear to have little to do with the Jewish experience, often reveals how profound the influence of Jewish experience has been on a poet's vision and aesthetic. This essay will examine the work of Philip Levine, one of the better living American poets, identifying the particular ways Jewish experience shapes his poetry, as well as the ways he translates that experience in the poems.

Philip Levine's poetry is famous for its portraits of working-class and political heroes, victimized survivors of a brutal world, rendered in short-lined free verse. The characteristic rhythmic intensity of his poems comes from long sentences of parallel phrases, composed of a blend of colloquial and biblical diction, that build toward dramatic climaxes. This style in part reflects the universalization of Levine's experience as an American-Jewish working-class male from Detroit.

Levine is no stranger to work, as he insistently reminds us in the biographical note to many of his books: "After a succession of stupid jobs he [Levine] left the city for good … "(7 Years from Somewhere). This terse biographical note implicitly warns readers against regarding Levine's poems about workers as a liberal's sentimental portait of the proletariat. For a significant portion of his youth Levine suffered the same life as the workers about whom he regularly writes. The black man "who danced all night at Chevy Gear & Axle" of "Silent in America" (Not This Pig 1968); the angel Bernard, a factory worker, "The Angels of Detroit" (They Feed They Lion 1972); Eddie of "Making Soda Pop" (One for the Rose 1981); Stash, the punch-press operator of "Sweet Will" (Sweet Will 1985)—these and other unsung workers are the realistic heroes of Levine's poems. Even when not portraying men at work, Levine is conscious of man laboring without relief. "[E]ach man has one brother … and … together they are only one man sharing a heart that always labors," Levine writes in "You Can Have It" (Years).

In section VII of the powerful early poem "Silent in America," Levine dedicates his work, his poetry, to the workers and other victims he met at one or another of his "stupid jobs":

           For a black man whose
     name I have forgotten who danced
           all night at Chevy
               Gear & Axle,
           for that great stunned Pole
     who laughed when he called me Jew
           Boy, for the ugly
               who had no chance

His sympathy for the underdog originates, in part, in his experiences as a Jew growing up in Detroit:

We were a people scattered all over the world who knew what it was to be scattered all over the world. We knew what it was to be underdogs and to survive in the face of enmity and disrespect of others. We knew we were a noble people no matter what anyone told us to the contrary. Our great cultural heritage was that we could feel the suffering of any people and know that any people was as good as any other.

                                   (Don't Ask)

Levine's particular experience of Jewish suffering enables him to act compassionately toward anyone who suffers; it also helped him discover in the Jew a universal symbol of suffering, of exile. Consequently, Levine's portraits of the Jew and other underdogs share realistic as well as mythological characteristics.

"Baby Villon" (Pig) for instance, depicts an encounter between the poet and an imaginary other—an outcast, marginal figure who survives the cruelty of the world by fighting back:

      He tells me in Bangkok he's robbed
      Because he's white; in London because he's black
      In Barcelona, Jew; in Paris, Arab;
      Everywhere and at all times, and he fights back.

This protean creature is never transformed into a member of the dominant race; he's the international suspect, the mythological alien who refuses to give in, who in fact is strengthened by his pain. Though he could be angry at the world that despises him, there is "no anger / In the flat brown eyes flecked with blood"; though he could be enraged by his lowly status, "he's rated seventh in the world, / And there's no passion in his voice."

There is a marked resemblance between the poet and his imaginary brother:

     And he points down at his black head ridged
     With black kinks of hair. He touches my hair,
     Tells me I should never disparage
     The stiff bristles that guard the head of the fighter.

There are also characteristics that distinguish the two men from each other; the poet is graced with an untroubled fair and smooth face; Baby Villon, hardened by his travails, is "stiff, 116 pounds, five feet two, no bigger than a girl." The encounter concludes as Baby Villon "holds my shoulders, / Kisses my lips, his eyes still open, / My imaginary brother, my cousin, / Myself made otherwise by all his pain."

The hero of this excellent poem, Baby Villon, is presented in terms that assure we will sympathize with his predicament. He is unjustly victimized, yet he remains level headed while defending his dignity. He is a fighter, but not a ruthless fighter; he is sensitive, loving, and kind. He is a family man, saddened by the loss of his father, his brother, to the war or worse. Not only does he defend his own human rights, but because of his composite nature he defends the rights of all marginal men and women. In particular he struggles for the right to his past, his uncensored past: "He [Baby Villon] asks me to tell all I can remember / Of my father, his uncle."

Of course, this poem is as much about the poet as it is about Baby Villon. Through the encounter with his "imaginary brother," an encounter made more dramatic by its uniqueness—"We stand to end this first and last visit"—the poet undergoes a profound transformation; he is "made otherwise by all his [Villon's] pain." In fact, Baby Villon is a reflected image of the poet, the victimized Jew as well as the fatherless son. In addition to the vulnerability they share as Jews, Baby Villon's desire, his need to know all he can of his dead father, is Levine's need, reflected in poem after poem, to know all he can of his own father who died when Levine was five.

The poem "Baby Villon," then, records a moment in which life and myth converge—the life of the poet, the myth of Baby Villon—a moment in which Levine intuitively perceives the universality of his particular experiences as a Jew. I say intuitively because it was only some time after publication, upon questioning by Abraham Chapman, editor of Jewish-American Literature: An Anthology, that Levine consciously recognized the essentially Jewish nature of the poem:

To him [Chapman] "Baby Villon" was a Jewish poem. I saw what he meant: it was a celebration of courage and integrity and the difficulty of life wherever it takes place.

                                              (Don't Ask)

Aside from Levine's belated recognition of "Baby Villon" as a Jewish poem, we can identify traces of a biblical story that contribute further to the Jewish nature of the poem: the enigmatic, transformative encounter on the bank of the Jabbok river between Jacob and a man, an angel, or God (the text is ambiguous). Though Levine certainly did not have this story in mind when composing "Baby Villon," there are several poignant parallels between the two texts. Levine describes Baby Villon, his "imaginary brother," as a "stiff," rugged fighter. Esau, Jacob's brother—a hunter, a sportsman, a fighter—is also characterized by his ruggedness. And Jacob, like the speaker of "Baby Villon," is shy and fair skinned.

Furthermore, both Jacob and Levine are profoundly changed by their respective encounters. Though the identity of the figure with whom Jacob wrestled is ambiguous, some rabbinical interpreters have argued convincingly that the struggle occurs between two aspects of Jacob's personality, the heroic (a characteristic that prior to this event had only asserted itself in Jacob's dreams) and the mediocre, the unassuming. At Peniel, Jacob's day-time personality defends itself victoriously; Jacob discovers the strength to behave heroically in his waking life. In "Baby Villon" Levine, too, undergoes a transformation; his fair, sheltered side is toughened through his encounter with the fighter-for-justice Villon, a representative of the heroic side of Levine's personality.

In this case, the correspondence between the two texts is probably no more than coincidental—coincidence, however, grounded in Levine's familiarity with Hebrew scriptures. Indeed, on many other occasions Levine deliberately draws on biblical characters and episodes to lend mythological weight to his subjects. On the Edge, Levine's first book, is full of biblical allusions, even if the contemporary world depicted seems at odds with the biblical world. "Berenda Slough" (Edge), for instance, is an anti-Genesis poem: "Earth and water without form, / change, or pause: as if the third / day had not come, this calm norm / of chaos denies the Word." Thus the poem begins with a vision that seems to deny creation. But, as the poem instructs and warns us, the viewer who "denies this is creation … shall find nothing he can comprehend." The warning stated, the poem concludes with its apocalyptic vision: "Here the mind beholds the mind / as it shall be in the end." This vision of creation and the end of time is a particularly metaphysical one, characteristic of Levine's earliest work. Looking out on the landscape, the viewer witnesses not "stumps," "clumps," and "rushes," but a vision of his own mind.

In its use of biblical allusions to intensify a rejected lover's despair, "Green Thumb," another poem from the first book, becomes unintentionally comic. "Shake out my pockets! Harken to the call / Of that calm voice that makes no sound at all!" the poem begins, imitating the form of a prayer (Edge). But to whom is this bereaved lover calling? God? No, to the great, mysterious "Green Thumb." The poem goes on to describe the love affair at the height of its passion.

      My blood was bubbling like a ten-day stew;
      It kept on telling me the thing to do.
      I asked, she acquiesced, and then we fell
      To private Edens in the midst of hell.
      For forty days temptation was our meal,
      The night our guide, and what we could not feel
      We could not trust.

In bed the couple is in Eden, though they are surrounded by hell. The affair endures, apparently, for 40 days, the length of time the Israelites wandered the desert on their Exodus from Egypt, led by a pillar of fire and clouds to Mount Sinai and the divine revelation. But this couple will not survive until the revelation, for at the start of the next stanza we are informed, "At last we parted, she to East Moline, / I to the service of the great unseen." The speaker wanders about, lost, trying to interpret the "great unseen's" portents, until he learns, by mail, that his departed beloved is pregnant. Guilt ridden, "heartsick and tired," the poet begs for relief:

      … to you, Green Thumb, I prayed
      For her reprieve and that our debt be paid
      By my remorse. "Give me a sign," I said,
      "Give me my burning bush." You squeaked the bed.
      I hid my face like Moses on the hill,
      But unlike Moses did not feel my will
      Swell with new strength; I put my choice to sleep.
      That night we cowered, choice and I, like sheep.

This failed Moses can attain no comfort from the traditional religious order of experience. The biblical motif, used in this way, overwhelms the poem. The gap between the sacred and the profane is too great, creating one comic effect after another. If Levine wants to mythologize his experience, he must find a way other than overlaying the mundane with the biblical.

The presence of the biblical remains strong even in Levine's most recent work. In "A Walk with Tom Jefferson," Tom, a black man whose family moved from Alabama to Detroit, where he lives in a burned-out neighborhood growing vegetables in the least likely squares of earth, sees life around him as if it were biblical:

     A father puts down a spade, his son
          picks it up,
     "That's Biblical," he [Tom] says,
          "The son goes off,
     the father takes up the spade
          again, that's Biblical." (57)

Jefferson is so persistent in perceiving the biblical resonance in the life about him that the speaker too begins to share this perception, until finally he asks, "What commandment / was broken to bring God's / wrath down on these streets, / what did we do wrong, going / about our daily lives." Here Levine speaks within a covenantal framework as if he believes that God's wrath was brought on by some human violation of one of the commandments. He then goes on to sum up the season in nature, the season in American life. "It's Biblical, this season / of color coming to its end," Levine writes, referring at once to autumn and the dominant racial theme of the poem. Levine has absorbed the Hebrew Bible. In the Tom Jefferson poem, the title poem of his most recent book, Levine seems to be proclaiming that his work is biblical, a point that most critics and reviewers of Levine have either ignored or overlooked.

The biblical character and moment that figure most often in Levine's work is Adam and his banishment from the garden of Eden. "For Fran," one of the best poems in On the Edge, describes Levine's wife, a gardener, working "on the hard ground where Adam strayed, / where nothing but his wants remain…." While Fran gardens, Levine strays on the hard ground, book after book, suffering the frustration of his and his heroes's unfulfilled desires.

In "In a Vacant House," a less-successful poem in which the poet in his privacy attempts to distinguish between the facts and illusions of his existence, Levine comes to the realization that "No one can begin anew / naming by turn beast, fowl, / and bush with the exact word" (Edge). Adam, the first poet, experienced the unique freedom to name the things of the world. All poets since Adam have had to face the challenging prospect of writing about a world in which everything has already been named. Adam was cursed with exile, the poets after Adam have been cursed with the diminished possibilities of language.

Adam is a natural character for Levine to select as his biblical other. As Adam was cursed with toiling the earth all the days of his life, so too Levine has suffered the curse of hard labor. As Adam wandered forever in exile, so too Levine suffers the homelessness of exile. And as Adam named things with exact words, so too Levine strives, though sometimes unsuccessfully, to find the exact words to describe his world. In "The Face," Levine, "[t]ired and useless," resigns himself to silence (a deadly gesture for a poet). Instead of speaking, he listens to the street cries of Barcelona "as though one word mattered more / than another in this world, / in this city, broken and stained, / which is the home of no one, / though it shouts out all / our names" (Years). Levine the poet must bring himself to believe that "one word matter[s] more than another" if he is to continue writing. Levine the son of Adam knows that the post-Edenic world is not his home, despite the fact that his name is among those shouted out during roll call. When Levine does go home, as in "Coming Home, Detroit 1968," he finds his home "charred" and "boarded up" and "dirtied with words" (Lion). It is not that Eden, guarded by an angel with a flaming sword, is off limits. Eden is burned, destroyed, written.

Perhaps the most startling and revealing use of the figure of Adam appears in "The Turning" from On the Edge:

     Unknown faces in the street
     And winter coming on. I
    Stand in the last moments of
     The city, no more a child,
     Only a man,—one who has
     Looked upon his own nakedness
     Without shame, and in defeat
     Has seen nothing to bless.
     Touched once, like a plum, I turned
     Rotten in the meat, or like
     The plum blossom I never
     Saw, hard at the edges, burned
     At the first entrance of life,
     And so endured, unreckoned,
     Untaken, with nothing to give.
     The first Jew was God; the second
     Denied him; I am alive.

Here the embodiment of the exiled Adam is complete. The shameless, defeated poet stands alone at the edge of a dying world: the city behind him is dying, fall is collapsing into winter, the promise of childhood has been replaced with the depletion of manhood.

The poem concludes by tracing the poet's lineage, a common device in the Bible (a begot b, b begot c, c begot d, and so on): "The first Jew was God; the second denied him; I am alive." It is the concluding two lines that startle. Traditionally, one does not think of the God of the Hebrew Bible as a Jew, but as the God of all humankind. Abraham is customarily considered the father of Judaism. Nor does one regard Adam as a Jew. Adam is the mythological father of all humankind. By identifying Adam as a Jew, Levine particularizes a universal character, the obverse of his customary universalization of Jewish experience. Furthermore, in aligning himself with Adam the second Jew (according to Levine), a Jew who denied God, Levine expresses a sharply ambivalent relation to his Jewish heritage: he is a Jew, but he rejects the central tenet of Judaism, belief in God. Through Adam, Levine locates himself within and without the Jewish tradition.

Not only does "The Turning" articulate Levine's divided Jewish identity, it also characterizes a poet who is in part defined by what he rejects, whose very life originates in an act of opposition: the first Jew was God, the second denied him; I am alive. To the extent that Levine stands in opposition to Judaism, he is defined by Judaism.

As he is empowered by the Judaism he rejects, Levine paradoxically is sustained by a Bible he simultaneously embraces and rejects. This is clearly evident in "My Son and I," a poem in which Levine masterfully intertwines the biblical with the mundane in a strikingly personal and mythological manner. "In a coffee house at 3 am / and he believes / I'm dying," the poem begins (The Names of the Lost). Levine's poems are almost never set in the middle of the day. Usually they are set at dawn, a time of hope—often false hope—or at twilight, the hour of despair. This poem, however, is set during the dead and hopeless hours of the night. The location is New York City, where "the wind / moves along the streets / … picking up / abandoned scraps of newspapers / and tiny messages of hope / no one hears." The efficacy of prayer is lost; written communication is cheap and readily discarded. His son is the same laborer Levine once was. The son is "dressed / in worn corduroy pants / and shirts over shirts, / and his hands are stained / as mine once were / with glue, ink, paint."

Seated in the coffee house, with the fallen world about them, the son is deeply saddened by the belief that his father is dying: "Tor forty / minutes he's tried not / to cry." Had we not already uncovered some of the biblical motifs underlying many of Levine's poems, we might simply dismiss the "forty minutes" as an ordinary report of factual information. Indeed, there is pathos suggested in the detail; forty minutes is a long time to hold back tears. But the number forty, as we have seen elsewhere in Levine, is biblically resonant: forty days the Jews wandered the desert until they reached Sinai and were blessed with divine revelation. Levine draws on this legend later in the poem.

Faced with the loss of his father, the son is concerned with the condition of the rest of his family:

      … How are his brothers?
      I tell him I don't know,
      they have grown away
      from me. We are Americans
      and never touch on this
      stunned earth where a boy
      sees his life fly past
      through a car window.

The sociological phenomenon of contemporary American life registered, the American myth of the automobile invoked, Levine again echoes a biblical theme: "stunned earth": "cursed be the ground because of you," God tells Adam in Genesis 3:17.

And Levine continues in the biblical spirit, telling his son about his mother.

      She is deaf and works
      in the earth for days, hearing
      the dirt pray and guiding
      the worm to its feasts.

Finally the son asks the question he has been wanting to ask all along.

      … Why
      do I have to die? Why
      do I have to sit before him
      no longer his father, only
      a man? Because the given
      must be taken, because
      we hunger before we eat,
      because each small spark
      must turn to darkness.
      As we said when we were kids
      and knew the names of everything
      … just because.

As Levine changes in his son's eyes from father to man, he changes in his own eyes. He seems to have outgrown Adam. "When we were kids" we "knew the names of everything." When we were kids, Levine suggests, we were all like Adam, acquiring language and naming the world anew with each word acquired. But now Levine has entered a new stage of life, the Mosaic stage, as it were, a stage in which language fails to say what needs to be said, a stage in which he helplessly replies "just because" to his son's question. Just as Levine finally fails to find the language to give his son a satisfactory answer, he also fails to find a blessing for his son:

      … I reach
      across the table and take
      his left hand in mine.
      I have no blessing.

Levine would like to be able to reenact the biblical scenes, the blessing of Isaac by Abraham, and Jacob by Isaac. But try as he might, he cannot find the words. He has absorbed the biblical vision only to realize the bankruptcy of that vision. He has learned to speak the language of the Bible only to learn that he cannot say what must be said, and so, here, as in other poems, Levine careens toward silence.

      … I can
      tell him how I found
      the plum blossom before
      I was thirty, how once
      in a rooming house in Alicante
      a man younger than I,
      an Argentine I barely understood,
      sat by me through the night
      while my boy Teddy cried out
      for help, and how when he slept
      at last, my friend wept
      with thanks in the cold light.
      I can tell him that his hand
      sweating in mine can raise
      the Lord God of Stones,
      bring down the Republic of Lies,
      and hold a spoon. Instead
      I say it's late, and he pays

I can tell him this, I can tell him that, I can tell him the other thing, Levine tells us, as he considers moments in his personal as well as collective history that he believes might be of some importance to his son. But, defeated, the father, the poet opts for silence:

     … Instead
     I say it's late and he pays
     and leads me back
     through the empty streets
     to the Earl Hotel, where
     the room sours with the mould
     of old Bibles dumped down
     the air shaft.

Aha, we might say, Levine has finally freed himself from the influence of the Bible. And, in part, we would be right, since Levine spends much of his time in poems in which the Bible figures, however subtly, denying its relevance. But Levine is not yet through with the Bible:

      … In my coat
      I stand alone in the dark
      waiting for something,
      a flash of light, a song,
      a remembered sweetness
      from all the lives I've lost.
      Next door the TV babbles
      on and on, and I give up
      and sway toward the bed
      in a last chant before dawn.

Despite his failure to find sustenance in the Bible, Levine has arrived at Sinai, awaiting revelation. The revelation, of course, does not come, and he despairs. Is his final gesture one of a man who has dumped the Bible down the air shaft for the last time? Absolutely not. It's the traditional gesture of a praying Jew: "I … sway toward the bed in a last chant." At the same time he gives up, he prays, he chants his prayer, he chants his poem. This is Levine, within and without the Hebrew biblical culture, the Jewish culture, at his best.

It is through the integration of biblical archetypes and language with the colloquial speech patterns of an American man from Detroit that Levine transforms his personal lyric into a communal form of address. But despite his success in integrating the biblical with the colloquial, the historical with the contemporary, the past with the present, the communal with the private, the extent of Levine's Jewish vision remains limited.

Explicit references to Jews or Jewish life can be found throughout Levine's work. In "Saturday Sweeping" (Lion) Levine alludes to the legend of "the great talking dogs that saved the Jews," a legend, he informs us in an interview, he learned from his grandfather (Ask); in "Uncle" (1933) he writes of an uncle who "argued the Talmud under his nails": in "Letters for the Dead" (1933) he mentions going off to work "with bloodless [kosher] sandwiches"; "My Name" (One for the Rose) concludes with an irreverent boy smoking a cigarette or picking his nose "just when the cantor soars before him into a heaven of meaningless words;" in "Salts and Oils" (Sweet Will) Levine alludes to the imaginary "final, unread book of the Midrash." In short, Levine's work is salted with casual references to essentially American-Jewish cultural experience. But in proportion to the totality of Levine's work, these kinds of specific Jewish references appear only infrequently and feel almost incidental to the heart of the work, as if the references themselves were thoroughly assimilated into the larger world of Levine's poetry. The image that occurs with the greatest frequency is that of the Jew as victim, the Jew as an object of discrimination. "Making Soda Pop" begins. "The big driver said / he only fucked Jews" (Rose). The poem "Sweet Will" celebrated Stash, a Polish-American punch-press operator who

      hollered at all
      of us over the oceanic roar of work,
      addressing us by our names and nations—
      "Nigger, Kike, Hunky, River Rat,"
      but he gave it a tune, an old tune,
      like "America the Beautiful."

As he set out to do in "Silent in America," Levine continues to celebrate the outcast, the overlooked, the discriminated against, the ignored—and without dramatizing that he includes himself as a member of that group.

Of course, growing up as a Jew in Detroit Levine had the unfortunate opportunity to experience anti-Semitism firsthand:

… Detroit was an extraordinarily anti-Semitic city. I don't know if you're aware of a man named Father Coughlin, who was on the radio every Sunday from Royal Oak, which is a suburb of Detroit. He had a huge church out there and he preached Hitler every Sunday. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence fighting with people who, you know, wanted to beat me up because I was Jewish. I didn't enjoy it at all. Even winning wasn't very satisfying, you weren't winning anything.


Clearly, these childhood and adolescent experiences had a profound impact on Levine, inspiring him to take up the cause of the "failed and lost, the marginal, the unloved, the unwanted," the black, the worker, the Spanish anarchist—and occasionally even the Jew, which he does either in passing references or in more extended form, as in his poems on the Holocaust.

His two poems on the Holocaust are "The Survivor," an elegy for a cousin; and "On a Drawing by Flavio," a poem on a drawing of the Rabbi of Auschwitz. In the latter, Levine comes to the startling recognition that he and the rabbi portrayed in the drawing hanging over his desk are the same man. This is the second character from Jewish life with whom Levine strongly identifies.

"Above my desk / the Rabbi of Auschwitz / bows his head and prays / for us all," the poem begins (Ashes). It is both personal and communal: Levine confronts the image of the rabbi in the privacy of his study; at the same time he recognizes profoundly that the image he sits before is one of a man whose concern is for all humankind. Not surprisingly, God does not play a leading role in the poem. If there is a mysterious force in the world, it is centered in nature: "… the earth / which long ago inhaled / his last flames turns / its face toward the light."

The arrival of dawn and the "first gray shapes" of the day cause Levine to question, as he sits before the drawing and the window:

      At the cost of such
      death must I enter
      this body again,
      this body which is
      itself closing on
      death? (Ashes)

Again, the answer to his question comes not from God but from nature:

     … Now the sun
     rises above a stunning
     valley, and the orchards
     thrust their burning
     branches into the day.
     Do as you please, says
     the sun without uttering
     a word.

Nature speaks, though not with a verbal language. A man divided against himself, a man torn between his moral allegiance to the Rabbi of Auschwitz and his own physical nature, Levine confesses his dilemma—he cannot do as he pleases:

      … But I can't.
     I am this hand that
     would raise itself
     against the earth
     and I am the earth too.

It is as if Levine has identified the earth as the rabbi's enemy, not other men. Perhaps his failure to direct his rage at the true enemies of the rabbi and the Jews is an indication of Levine's utter despair over the moral condition of the human race; certainly the rage Levine might have directed at a God who could allow such horrors as the Holocaust to occur has been ineffectually directed toward the earth. This leads Levine to a state of paralysis, moral and physical:

      I look again and closer
      at the Rabbi and at last
      see he has my face
      that opened its eyes
      so many years ago
      to death. He has these
      long tapering fingers
      that long ago reached
      for our father's hand
      long gone to dirt, these
      fingers that hold
      hand to forearm,
      forearm to hand because
      that is all that God
      gave us to hold.

This closing passage moves from the communal vision with which the poem opens to a wholly private, personal perspective. Looking at the rabbi, Levine is reminded of his own father and the death of his father. Whereas for Levine the tragedy of his life centers around the death of his father, the tragedy in the rabbi's life is the death or failure of God, father of us all. Finally, having personalized the rabbi and sunk to the depth of his own misery, Levine redirects his anger away from earth toward God, a God who in His cruelty has given man nothing on which to depend, onto which to hold.

Considering its subject matter, this poem remains remarkably quiet, lacking the kind of moral outrage and energy of a poem such as "They Feed They Lion" or any of Levine's poems for the fallen Spanish anarchists he loves to heroize. "On a Drawing by Flavio" fails to sustain any real sense of moral conviction and urgency. It wavers between the personal (and at times, perhaps, selfish) and the communal and works itself into a state of moral paralysis, a problem that does not arise in other poems on political and moral subjects. Levine's recognition of himself in the Rabbi of Auschwitz is, finally, willed and not sincere. The rabbi is nothing if not a man of God; Levine, a man of the earth—in this poem and others—cannot possibly have the kind of sincere identification with him that he does with Adam (a Hebrew word meaning "earthy"), the character who denied God.

This poem provides us a sharp image of the limitations of the Jewishness of Levine's poems. In particular, Levine cannot adequately engage the central belief of Judaism as a religion, the belief in one God. Of course, as a secular American Jew, Levine cannot be expected to write passionately about God. But when he does tackle a subject, such as the Rabbi of Auschwitz, that demands some engagement with theological issues, Levine must be able to address God or the absence of God with a clear and forceful voice. Instead, Levine backs away from the terrifying theological implications of the Holocaust and speaks finally only of the local, personal loss that has troubled his days.

It would be wrong to criticize Levine harshly for failing to do something he has no intention of doing. It is not wrong, however, to note the weakening of Levine's poetry when he approaches explicitly Jewish subjects, as in "Jewish Graveyards, Italy" (Sweet Will), for instance. That these graveyards are specifically Jewish is of some import to the poet—it must be or else he would not have bothered to identify them as such in the title. The poem, however, avoids exploring the subject the title's specificity suggests. For the most part, this is a nature poem, divided into three sections under the headings of "dust." "shade," and "rain." The first section establishes the setting in language that is neither overly exciting nor engaging:

      it is summer, and even before noon
      the heat is rising to stun us all,
      the crickets, salamanders, ants.
      The large, swart flies circle slowly
      in air around something I can't see
      and won't be waved away.

There is a hint at an encounter with the mysterious in this passage, though this subject is never fully engaged as the poem unfolds. After a fuller presentation of the locale, the speaker finally performs his ritual, the ritual for which he has apparently come to this graveyard:

     I … bend to the names
     and say them as slowly as I can.
     Full, majestic, vanished names
     that fill my mouth and go out
     into the densely yellowed air
     of this great valley and dissolve

Once again Levine has come to record the names of the lost, the Jewish lost, though these Jews were neither victims nor martyrs but ordinary citizens of a once thriving Italian-Jewish culture. One hopes that the poem will intensify from here, fully engaging the subject with Levine's customary visionary passion, the same passion we encounter in Levine's masterful elegies, such as "To P. L., 1916–1937: a soldier of the Republic" and "On the Murder of Lieutenant Jose Del Castillo By The Falangist Bravo Martinez, July 12, 1936." Sadly, this is not what we get, for just as soon as Levine has engaged what could have become the heart of the poem, he backs away from it, returning to the rather romantic and unintentionally comic depiction of nature that dominates the poem's second part.

In "shade," Levine again approaches what should be the true center of the poem as he identifies the grave of "Sofia Finzi Hersch, who died / in New Jersey and rests / among her Italian relatives." What are we to make of this information? Unfortunately, Levine hasn't given us a clue. Finally, in section three, "rain," Levine confesses, "whatever truth falls from the sky / as slowly as dust settling in / morning light or cold mist rising / from a river, takes the shape / I give it, and I can't give it any." The poet is the shaper of truth, a Keatsian notion perhaps, but here Levine is admitting to his failure: neither truth nor beauty can be found here. It is not that the subject has overpowered him and gotten away from him. Rather, Levine has simply shied away from the true subject of the poem, knowingly or unknowingly. Though "On a Drawing by Flavio" fails, it approaches its subject with greater courage and directness. "Jewish Graveyards, Italy" dissolves into philosophical reflections on nature, missing the opportunity to present an elegy for people who might well fulfill Levine's requirements for ordinary heroes.

Levine's difficulty writing strong poems on overtly Jewish subjects is perhaps a reflection of his acknowledged ambivalence toward his Jewish identity, an ambivalence based on his rejection of God as well as his discomfort with the concept of Jewish exclusivity:

I thought it [Judaism] was a religion that preached exclusiveness. In every sense. I'm talking about the culture more than the faith. I was told that people who weren't Jewish hated me, and I ought to hate them, and no matter how I kidded myself sooner or later they'd get me. I was supposed to be somehow superior to them either because I did let them get me or I didn't—I could have my choice.


As a source of sympathy for other victims, national and international, however, Levine's Jewishness helps him produce inspired poetry, empowered by a deep sense of human justice and dignity. Indeed, the relatively few poems on overtly Jewish subjects may be less an indication of the minimal effect Jewishness has had on Levine's poetic vision than an indication of Levine's desire to avoid the potential charge of Jewish exclusivity. And he does avoid the charge by essentially abandoning Jewish life as subject matter and embracing in its stead the lives of other marginal characters and groups. Levine himself draws the connection between his Jewish past and his interest in the Spanish Civil War:

It began [his interest in the Spanish Civil War] because it was apparent to me … coming from a Jewish household, I had a very heightened sense of what fascism meant. It meant anti-Semitism; it meant Hitler. I mean he was like the king fascist. And then there were these minor league fascists, but they essentially meant the same thing. And I saw the threat reaching right into my house and snuffing me out if something wasn't done to stop the advance of fascism.


Thus, Levine's poems on the Spanish Civil War can be regarded as a displaced or, perhaps, universalized expression of his concerns as a Jew. This alone is evidence of the extent to which Levine's Jewish past continues to influence him precisely in the ways in which he rejects that past.

"Gift for a Believer," dedicated to the artist responsible for the portrait of the Rabbi of Auschwitz, may best exemplify the way Levine is able to incorporate powerful Jewish experience in a poem that addresses a subject that is not overtly Jewish. "Gift for a Believer" recounts a pledge not to forget atrocities perpetrated against man by systems political or economic. And the poem records the failure to honor that pledge. But the poem does not end on a note of utter despair:

      It is Friday, a usual day
      in Italy, and you wait. Below
      the street sleeps at noon.
      Once the Phoenicians came that way,
      the Roman slaves on foot,
      and later the Nazis.

The poem moves quickly from the present to the past, the historical perspective:

      … To you came
      the Anarchists chanting, 'We shall inherit,'
      and among them Santo Caserio
      who lost his head for knifing
      the President of France, the ambassador
     to hell.

As we have seen, Levine will not be trapped by what he perceives as the exclusivity of Judaism. Therefore, he does not express his moral outrage at crimes committed against Jews but finds a substitute, equivalent crime toward which to direct that moral outrage, which in this case is fascism and the Spanish Civil War.

      … Came little Ferrer
      in his long gown who taught
      the Spanish children to question.
      His fine hands chained behind
      his back, his eyes of a boy
      smeared, he swings above the stone trench
      of Montjuich. The wind came
      to blow his words away, then snow
      that buried your childhood
      and all the promises, that rusted
      out the old streetcars and humped
      over your fathers' graves.

Montjuich, as we learn in the poem of the same title, is translated variously as "Hill of Jews," "named for a cemetery long gone," or "Hill of Jove" (Ashes). It is in that cemetery that Ferrer and other anarchists and martyrs are buried. This is as close as Levine can come to linking the fate of the Jews with the fate of the Spanish anarchists. Consistent with Levine's other poems, this dutifully records a vision of the shattered, post-Edenic world—a world of wind that blows words away, and snow that buries one's childhood and obscures the graves of one's ancestors, cutting one off from one's past. Each time a hopeful vision is offered, it is immediately shattered:

     In your vision Durruti whispered
     to an old woman that he would
     never forget the sons and daughters
     who died believing they carried
     a new world there in their hearts,
     but when the doctor was summoned
     and could not stop his wounds
     he forgot. Ascaso, who fled
     with him to Argentina, Paraguay,
     Bruxelles, the first to die
     storming the Atarazanas Barracks,
     he forgot. The railyards of Leon
     where his father doubled over
     and deafened, forgotten. That world
     that he said is growing here
     in my heart this minute
     forgotten. (Lost)

     Clearly, Levine, by writing this poem, is resisting
     the pressures of an unjust world that caused
     Durruti to forget his vision for a just society,
     though Levine himself records with regret his own
     failure to remember tragedies witnessed in the

     … When old Nathan Pine
     gave two hands to a drop-forge
     at Chevy, my spit turned to gall
     and I swore I'd never forget.
     When the years turned to a gray mist
     and my sons grew away without faith,
     the memory slept, and I bowed
     my head so that I might live.

Resigned, humbled by the destructive forces of the world around him, Levine again adopts the pose of a penitent, the pose of prayer, and then turns to a passage resonant with biblical overtones:

      On the spare hillsides west
      of here the new lambs stumble
      in the fog and rise. My wife kneels
      to the cold earth and we have bread.

All the basic biblical (pastoral, as well) ingredients are present: lambs, earth, bread, etc. But as elsewhere in Levine's work, the promise of return to a biblically centered world affords no comfort:

     I see and don't believe. Farther
     west the ocean breaks
     on cold stones, the great Pacific
     that blesses no one breaks
     into water. So this is what
     I send you, friend, where you wait
     above a street that will waken
     into dark shops, sellers of flour
     and onions, dogs, hawkers
     of salt, iron, lies. I send
     water to fill your glass
     and overflow, to cool your wrists
     in the night ahead, water
     that runs like a pure thread
     through all my dreams
     and empties into tears, water
     to wash our eyes, our mother's last wine,
     two palm-fulls the sky gave us,
     what the roots crave, rain. (Lost)

In this exalted, visionary conclusion, Levine is able, momentarily, to overcome his despair, to identify at least one pure thing in the world, water. He is able to cry and to be nourished and to offer a gift, from a non-believer who has not yet given up on the world to a believer who has not given up yet either.

This poem modulates perfectly between a private voice—the voice that remembers Nathan Pine, the voice that dedicates the poem to a friend, and a public voice—the voice of history, the voice of the Bible. The poem brilliantly offers its gift, a bridge that joins believer to non-believer, Jewish historical experience to non-Jewish historical experience, the personal to the universal. Levine's despair, finally, is a representative despair; Levine's modest hope is our hope as well.

Indeed, when Levine attempts to write a poem about an explicitly Jewish subject his power is diminished. When he flavors his poems with images collected from Jewish cultural life, the images come closer to cliché than to anything authentic, original, true. But when Levine applies his sense of social justice, which he understands as having derived from his experiences as a young Jew growing up in Detroit, to atrocities beyond the circumscribed pale of Jewish life, he is able to write with absolute power and conviction, he is able to pour his Jewish and biblical sensibility into his language, and he is able to write unforgettably rich poems that may not speak exclusively to Jews, but that do speak to the Jew in each of us.

Andrew Hudgins (review date Winter 1992)

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SOURCE: Review of New Selected Poems and What Work Is in Hudson Review, Vol. XLIV, No. 4, Winter, 1992, pp. 681-682.

[In the following review, Hudgins considers Levine's New Selected Poems and What Work Is. He is particularly complimentary of the latter work, declaring that it is a brilliant collection and that Levine is a superb poet.]

Except for the addition of fifteen poems culled from Sweet Will (1985) and A Walk with Tom Jefferson (1988), Philip Levine's New Selected Poems is identical with his Selected Poems (1984), right down to pagination and typeface. New Selected Poems, which serves to consolidate the poet's move from his previous publisher to Knopf, will be of interest primarily to readers new to Levine's poetry. New Selected Poems was published simultaneously with What Work Is, a frequently brilliant collection of new poems. The book's recurrent metaphor for work is burning, a metaphor that is introduced in the first poem, "Fear and Fame." After cleaning pickling tanks with a "burning stew" of acids, a worker emerges from the tanks and removes his protective gear: "Ahead lay the second cigarette, held in a shaking hand, / as I took into myself the sickening heat to quell heat, / a lunch of two Genoa salami sandwiches and Swiss cheese / on heavy peasant bread baked by my Aunt Tsipie, / and a third cigarette to kill the taste of the others." Perhaps speaking for the poet too, the vat cleaner returns to his work "stiffened / by the knowledge that to descend and rise up / from the other world merely once in eight hours is half / what it takes to be known among women and men." The ending is evocative, but opaque. To attain fame, this Orpheus who returns from his eight-hour shift in the burning underworld will require something beyond his labor, but what is it—talent, luck, something else?

In another fine poem, "Fire," a father thinks of his son who is off fighting a forest fire and he, the father, vicariously experiences "on my skin, a light oil, a sweat / born of some forgotten leaning into fire." Fire turns to smoke again in "On the River," in which the speaker's brother once a week uses his lunch hour ("his only free time") to row out onto the Detroit River so he can look "with a painter's eye" at the industrial landscape and see "beneath the shadows / of concrete and burned brick towers / the flickering hints of life." The speaker speculates that his brother performs this weekly ritual so he can "behold his own life / come into view brick by dark brick, / bending his back for all its worth, / as the whole thing goes up in smoke." The metaphorical equation of work with burning becomes tendentious in "Burnt," a long poem that constitutes the third section of the book. Though the poem contains some of the best, most compelling writing in the book, as a whole it inclines toward slackness; and the weaker sections, which could easily have been omitted, undermine the good ones.

Occasionally Levine goes on auto-pilot and becomes Philip Levine, tough-guy poet and voice of the common man. You can hear this voice clearly in the title of the book: What Work Is. He knows, you don't, and he's going to tell you. A poem in this mode might begin with an abrupt tough-guy self-righteousness that asserts the speaker's superior sensitivity to the travails of the worker ("Take this quiet woman, she has been / standing before a polishing wheel / for over three hours, and she lacks / twenty minutes before she can take a lunch break. Is she a woman?") and end with heart-of-gold sentimentality ("… she places the five / tapering fingers of her filthy hand / on the arm of your white shirt to mark / you for her own, now and forever"). Another tough-guy ending is the tossed-off cheap shot, such as the conclusion of "Gin," which takes a gratuitous swipe at "the military and political victories / of Dwight Eisenhower, who brought us / Richard Nixon with wife and dog. / Any wonder we tried gin." But such easy preaching to the converted is largely absent from What Work Is. The book is full of lovely, powerful, surprising poems that reaffirm Levine as one of poetry's contemporary masters and the inventor of a distinctive verse line that riffs off of an iambic rhythm while its crisp line breaks derive from Levine's early work with syllabics. The poems in the book's fourth and final section are uniformly superb. Especially incisive, unflinching, funny and compassionate is "The Sweetness of Bobby Hefka." The poem begins with Bobby Hefka sitting in a high school classroom "admitting to Mr. Jaslow / that he was a racist and if Mr. Jaslow / was so tolerant how come he couldn't tolerate Bobby?" Through a funny, heartbreaking series of turns that never seem contrived, the poem manages to end "Bobby Hefka loved me." In What Work Is Philip Levine is a superb poet working at the top of his form.

Carol Frost (review date Fall 1992)

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SOURCE: "Philip Levine at Work," in New England Review, Vol. 14, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 291-305.

[In the following review of New Selected Poems and What Work Is, Frost not only considers the poems of these two books, but also ranges over the spectrum of Levine's wider output and poetic career.]

Exceptional poets come in two kinds: those whose territory is small (the neighborhood or garden, privately walled, perhaps) and those who speak for a wider locale. Both—like mapmakers, blues singers, and revolutionaries—are remarkable in their reinventions of common ground. It comes down to an act of mind, the imagination's ability to inhabit a place and time so deeply that the names for it are transformed. Philip Levine is a poet of wide territory, primarily interested in portraying the lives of ordinary working class people in America, shore to shore (Detroit, Gary, Pasadena, New York City, Dubuque, Akron, Baltimore, Wheeling, L.A.), in Spain (Barcelona, Malaga, Valladolid), and, with more passing reference, in Italy, Thailand, France, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Mexico, Canada, and Germany.

The Midwest exerts the strongest pull on his imagination, with its auto industry and its foundries, fertile ground for his treatment of the American work ethic, human will, and fatedness. Such places as Detroit and Belle Isle take on a nearly mythic glow, lit by the iron-colored fires of the transmission and chemical factories. "We burn the city every day," he says in "Coming Home," and references to fire and iron appear again and again throughout the 292 pages of his New Selected Poems and in What Work Is. Levine's poetry forges, out of a wide and common geography, terms for a new understanding of late-twentieth-century experience, rooted in the lives of second- and third-generation immigrants who continue their manual labors for a living and for their sense of dignity. But for all of that interest in the lives of others, Levine's poems are strongly personal; he so thoroughly empathizes with his characters, remembered and invented, that their experience becomes his own, and ours.

Levine's ideal is similar to Whitman's, who talks about his preference for the common over the heroic in notes for a lecture under the heading Beauty:

[N]ot the beautiful girl or the elegant lady … but the mechanic's wife at work … not the scenery of the tourist, picturesque, but the plain landscape, the bleak sea shore, or the barren plain, with the common sky and sun.

Everywhere in Levine's new collections are touches of a nearly journalistic plainness. Other features of Levine's work underscore his affinities with Whitman: colloquial speech, oratorical devices (in such poems as "They Feed They Lion"), parallel sentence structure, enumeration, very direct presentation of human experience, and the exclusion of conventional literary subjects. Levine has stated that Garcia Lorca's poetry offered him a model for "all the eloquence and fury a poet could master" ("The Poet in New York in Detroit"), and that Keats's poetry and theory, "being in uncertainties." added to his evolving sense of how to write a poetry no one else could write. The influences, one comes to understand as one reads through all the poems in the New Selected Poems, are numerous. Levine's mature line, for instance, is most closely related to the free verse of William Carlos Williams—a much less oceanic phrasing and a thinner profile on the page than Whitman or Lorca, less sensual than Keats. Furthermore, his imagery, rather than being exclusively realistic, is sometimes highly surreal, particularly in the poems selected from his earlier books, where the pressure of statement and emotion cause a more extravagant crafting of the poem, as in some of Dickinson and in Stephen Crane, and certainly in Lorca.

To mention Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Stephen Crane in this context is to open up for myself one chapter in literary history out of which Levine's work seems surely to come, and which, therefore, helps to explain the thematic development in these chronologically arranged selections of poems, as well as Levine's methods. His belonging to the continuum of realism-to-naturalism and his affinities with late-nineteenth-century poetry hardly make his work seem old-fashioned, narrowly American, or derivative. Levine's poetry is most notable for its freshness and originality. A freshness so apparent misdirects you, and you take the poems for granted as individual specimens of formally heightened emotion at its best; but then as the weight of your interest in the poems increases and you want to know what makes them tick and where they come from, common sense points to earlier poets, both like and unlike the one you are reading now, for new ways into the work. Levine writes what he writes not only because of his experiences in the "real world," but also because he has read what he has read and because of his accord in temperament, method, and theme with some of those poets. Fully invented as they are, the poems were not written in a literary vacuum.


The literary territory that Levine stakes out for himself is largely realistic, both in method and attitude. Verisimilitude is one of his virtues, and many of his poems present journalistic detailing: dates, place names and addresses, the exact time ("he woke at 3," "40 miles from Malaga," "Detroit, 1951, Friday night," and, in speaking of Barcelona, "Here / is the Plaza of San Jaime, here the Rambla / of San Pedro"). Even his most fantastic poems are faithful to realistic detail, as in a poem like "Angel Butcher," where the angel hoses out the abattoir prior to receiving Christophe, who asks the angel for "all the names of / all the tools and all / their functions," then "lifts / and weighs and / balances, and runs a long / forefinger down the tongue / of each blade" prior to his being stunned for slaughter. The surreal scene is made to appear tangibly true—as if in heaven such a place exists. Perhaps the clearest statement of Levine's method is made in "Silent in America," a poem which depicts the speaker's feelings of inadequacy ("Fresno's / dumb bard, America's last / hope") to speak for the downtrodden and the beautiful: Jews, Poles, the fated, and "those who had courage"—a full range of Americans. "Surely I have failed," he says. In section five, the speaker explains that what he surely knows about the world comes from a close scrutiny of physical details:

        I tell time
      by the sunlight's position
       on the bedroom wall:
      it's 5:30, middle June.
        I rise, dress,
        assume my name

        and feel my
      face against a hard towel.
        My mind is empty;
      I see all that's here to see:
        the garden
        and the hard sky;

        the great space
      between the two has a weight,
        a reality
       which I find no burden,
        and the height
        of the cot tree

        is only
       what it has come to deserve.
        I have not found peace,
       but I have found I am where
        I am by
        being only there,

        by standing
      in the clouded presence of
        the things I observe.

This section of the poem goes on to take note of the fact that there is an unobservable force in the air which "moves / when it is still" and "speaks / of being alive." It is in part in response to the unknowable, the answers to questions—why, for instance, there is little "to choose but failure" ("Lights I have seen Before") for the ordinary people who populate the cities and neighborhoods of the America Levine talks about, why "half / the men in this town / are crying in the snow," why fathers die young ("the mouth asking everybody and nobody / Why Why" in "Letters for the Dead"), why people want earth to be heaven and for there to be a heaven, and why "the earth / would let the same children die day / after day, let the same women curse / their precious hours, the same men bow / to earn our scraps" ("Ashes")—that Levine's realism shades into naturalism.

The details of the lives that Levine depicts, particularly in the selections of poems from his first eight books, are grim, and the speaker's tone frequently angry. As with Emily Dickinson, Levine's close observation of natural detail results in poems which sound naturalistic. It seems not to be his intention (or hers) to follow the tenets of the naturalists as much as it is the objective outcome of such close scrutiny of the physical world which makes him doubt human ability to overcome the difficulty ordinary living provides.

The seeds of Levine's naturalistic view appear early in his work in his references to fate, the incontrovertible nature of death, and the "failures of will" he finds all around him. He also early expresses anger toward what he perceives as an indifferent universe. In one early poem, "Noon" (Red Dust), in a landscape of abandoned bicycles, "ripening dirt," and washerwomen slapping the life out of laundry with worn hands, the speaker says, "At such times / I expect the earth / to pronounce." He seems to expect some benevolent word from the natural world, and gets none. In "Clouds," another early poem, Levine expresses his anger at a similar silence, this time from the clouds. Below them the wreckage of civilized living—abandoned cars, "the TV talking to itself," pollution, war, and death—is met by silence from the clouds who "have seen it all." In a characteristic statement which carries with it the presumption of nature's power and the notion that nature ought to be benevolent, the speaker says that the clouds

      … should be punished every morning,
      they should be bitten and boiled like spoons.

This bitterness is reminiscent less of Dickinson than of Stephen Crane, although many of Dickinson's ironies concerning the absence of an intervening God or universe when one faces death (in fact, nature's complicity suggested in such lines as "The blonde Assassin passes on—/ That Sun proceeds unmoved / To measure off an Approving God" and "When Winds take Forests in their Paws—/ The Universe—is still") seem to mock the conventions of nature and God. In Crane, however, particularly in "The Open Boat," a reader finds a rationale for a bitterness toward nature, a bitterness that matches Levine's. Crane writes, "When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples."

There are expressions of anger toward nature's indifference throughout the first half of the New Selected Poems, but the greatest concentration of this attitude occurs in the selections from The Names of the Lost. Speaking to his dead uncle in "No one remembers." the speaker says, "The earth is asleep, Joe, it's rock, steel, ice, / the earth doesn't care / or forgive." In "Gift for a Believer," speaking to a patriot who still believes in a dream of goodness, in politics righting political and social wrongs, despite historical evidence to the contrary, the speaker tells how the wind and the snow obliterate "your childhood / and all the promises." Then, near the end of the poem, the speaker describes the earth as cold and says "on cold stones, the great Pacific / that blesses no one breaks / into water." In Ashes there are several other such references to a cruelly indifferent world. In "On a Drawing by Flavio," though the Jews have been incinerated in Auschwitz, the sun seems to say, "Do as you please," and the implication is that it ought somehow to have put a stop to the killing. In "Ashes," the speaker wonders why the earth allows children to hunger and men to sacrifice their dignity for the little that they can earn and provide.

Levine also expresses anger at a god and a heaven which, if they existed, ought to provide solace and answers. God, it seems, does not care and probably doesn't exist, which is why in "Fist" (Red Dust) a fist is described as "a flower / that hates God," why in "Blasting from Heaven" (Not This Pig) the sounds issuing from heaven in response to the sad lives of a little family are the 8 o'clock whistle, and why in "Angel Butcher" (They Feed They Lion) at least one of the seraphim is responsible for the slaughter of the good and innocent who "come up the long climb." In a later poem, "Uncle" (1933), Levine mocks religious faith when he has the speaker remember that his uncle "taught / the toilet the eternal." There seems to be nothing substantial to be found in the pursuit of religious faith, for, as Levine tells us, "heaven was nowhere" ("On the Murder of Lieutenant Jose del Castillo by the Falangist Bravo Martinez, July 12, 1936"). If God has given people anything, it is each other and it is the corporeal.

And while realism turns Levine to a scrutiny of the common particulars of our experience, it also turns him to certain unhappy truths. The conflict that is presented through the first half of the New Selected Poems is between the ideals of human will, aspiration, and hard work on the one hand—all that represents promise—and reality on the other. Levine is angry about broken promise, about the discrepancy between the wish "for a new world and a new home" ("A New Day") and people's willingness to work for it, "putting their lives / into steel" ("The Helmet"), working until they are often too tired to stand up; and he is angry about the reality of poverty, the essential uselessness of work.

In "Hear Me," Levine says that the notion that work presents "salvation" is laughable. Men work hard, and get nowhere; children seem to follow in their fathers' footsteps. The poems in 1933 are poems about the real or imagined lives of parents and other relatives whose lives are repeated in the lives of their children. "The lie is retold in the heart," the speaker says in "Letters from the Dead," a poem which tells the story of a young man's remembrances of his family, the father a drunk who dies young, the mother vain and disappointed. The events of the father's life are reflected in the son's. He too leaves home, traveling on a hot bus to "the dawn of a new world." which provides nothing. As the speaker remembers this journey and then his father's death by suicide, he feels the air that "crackles with their angers," and later recalls his violence toward his "strange tall son." Disappointments seem generational, if not hereditary; in the unpromising environment depicted in these poems, children are caught up in a fate they do not quite understand. More particularly, the premature death of the father, "himself a child," ensures his son's loneliness. How can the future be anything more than the "scar" the grown child with his own nearly grown son calls it in "New Season"? Violence leads naturally and generationally to violence. A working class father spawns a working class son, and neither seems able to control his environment; neither seems fully to understand what forces are at work to prevent the promise of something wonderful.

In "No One Remembers," the speaker, addressing his uncle, indicts him for his violence toward his own wife—"She'll cry like always / when you raise your voice / or your fist." The speaker says it is his hand, not the uncle's, that the woman will take and will "feel / slowly finger by finger / like so many threads back / to where the blood dies / and our lives met / and went wrong, back / to all she said she'd be, / woman, promise." The identification with the uncle by the speaker shows the essential relationship of the generations to the conflict I mentioned earlier between promise and doomed hopes. In these poems the family is not presented without fondness: a grandfather in "Zaydee"—small and vulgar, a dandy, card cheat, cigar smoker, thief, ex-con, sensualist—is presented as wise and loving, for instance. A war veteran and a woman, who in the context of the other poems seem to be the speaker's relatives, fall in love at a dance in "At the Fillmore," and their illusions, "the promises again," are presented with a sweet regard. But the poems clearly set out the notion that the past traps the future.

It is only after his first eight books that Levine comes to an understanding which allows him, if not to love the experiences of living, at least to accept what can't be altered. The pivotal poem in New Selected Poems is "Lost and Found" (Ashes). Levine's quarrel with the world is partly resolved in this poem, which has the speaker take responsibility for his boyhood and the familial past, so that "father and child / hand in hand, the living and / the dead, are entering the world." What has allowed the speaker to reach this point of maturity is stated in the beginning of the poem:

     How long it takes to believe
     the simplest facts of lives—
     that certain losses are final,
     death is one, childhood another.

As a consequence of his acceptance of the unalterable nature of the starkest realities, Levine's speaker is able to escape the angers and victimizations of experience. He has "come home from being lost, / home to a name I could accept, / a face that saw all I saw / and broke in a dark room against / a wall that heard all my secrets / and gave back nothing." That becoming aware of the limitations of life is an act of adulthood is echoed in "Salts and Oils"; the speaker says that his fully digesting the "filth and glory / of the palatable world" happens "because I have to grow up."

In both these poems the moment of mature understanding occurs in the morning—"one quiet morning" in "Salts and Oils," and at the end of "the night which seemed so final" in "Lost and Found." There are seventy references to dawn or a new day in the 292 pages of New Selected Poems, as well as a few references to a new world or season as a part of the same thematic indication. In the poems before "Lost and Found," dawn is most often symbolic of nature's cheat. The expectations for nature's benevolence are shown as illusory in such lines as "A gray light coming on at dawn, / no fresh start and no bird song" ("A New Day") and "has anyone fallen on his knees / and begged the dawn to reconsider" ("Ask the Roses"). However, starting with "Lost and Found," dawn's symbolic value changes. Nature is no longer seen as cruelly indifferent or even malignant, and the new light of day more often shines on a world worth calling home. For instance, in "Rain Downriver," the speaker says, "the earth gives each of us / a new morning." and in the end he is able to declare that "the world is mine." This is a reversal of the earlier sentiment, as expressed in "Told," where the speaker says that the world "was not home." When Levine comes to accept that the experience of living is a mixture of good and bad news, the new sun, the new day, the new light, and the new season are much less often treated ironically. Overall, the positive and negative references to dawn are about equal, thirty-six to thirty-four—but it is most interesting to note that in the one hundred sixty-nine pages before "Lost and Found," the ratio of positive to negative is 1:3, and with that poem the ratio reverses itself.

A similar shift occurs in Levine's numerous references to tears. That the world gives people ample reason to cry is made clear by the variety of those who weep (grown men, children, mothers, wives, fathers, lost souls, an angel, laborers), and the inanimate objects that also do (the hills, the sea, the radio). These are tears of despair for the most part, the sadness relating to Levine's sense of injustice and hopelessness, and there is no shame in them. Still, when Levine's change of heart occurs in "Lost and Found," the expressions of sadness diminish considerably, even if the reasons for tears don't entirely alter. There are fifty-five early references to tears and only eighteen after Names of the Lost. The nature of tears changes slightly, with four of the later references suggesting stoicism: "He didn't like to cry" ("Nitrate"), "cry without a sound" ("A Poem with No Ending"), "the tears held back so long" ("28"), "She's not going to cry about it" ("These Streets").

The thematic shift in Levine's work from a strong emphasis on the sad realities of a hostile world, wherein humanity is fated to failure through no fault of its own, to an acceptance of the natural world (a shift not accompanied by any shift in his method of closely observing and recording the physical world) is consistent with a major strain of the American literary tradition. Where for a romantic the ideal dominates—nature and God are benevolent and an individual can affect his or her fate—for the naturalist physical reality dominates. Many naturalists eventually look for consolation. For Dickinson, the same forces that beheaded flowers bring the consolations of summer and autumn ("Summer makes her light escape / Into the Beautiful") and for Hemingway the consolation is how human beings perform in the face of danger and death; the conditions of his world are naturalistic, but his characters face them, so they seem idealized, even in failure. For Levine, the conditions of the world are bleaker than for either of the two writers mentioned, so it might be argued that his need for consolation is even greater. He introduces several: nature, courage in the face of impossible odds, love—"each other" ("Sources")—and, as in Whitman and Stephen Crane, camaraderie. The fellowship between the shipmates in Crane's "The Open Boat" is similar to the camaraderie that factory workers and other laborers share in "And the Trains Go On," "Sweet Will," and "An Ordinary Morning."

In Levine's later poems, a kind of comfort comes through realizing that nature's indifference, which once seemed cruel, is benign, even when its natural processes result in death. The speaker in "The Face," for instance, notes that the streets of the "battered" Spanish city are "filled with dirty children," but still listens for the "one word" from his dead father, who he imagines tells him "of why the earth takes / back all she gives." Knowing that earth does this, and having imagined his father's voice, "even that," he says, "comes to be enough." Imagining himself as dead in "Let Me Begin Again," the speaker says, "Let / me come back to land after a lifetime / of going nowhere." He wants to begin again in the world he knows is nothing more than "salt water and dark clouds" because, despite the "black wastes," his life is like no other. In "Snow," the "foolishness of the world" and "the filthy waters of their river" are givens, but what is left over from those who have died, their tears (snow), "given their choice chose then / to return to earth." Earth, the speaker in "Voice" says, "is my one home, as it always was," echoing the last lines in "Rain Downriver": "The fall of evening / glistens around my shoulders that also glisten, and the world is mine." Once death is seen as a part of living, a reality that is painful ("No one believes that to die is beautiful"), an understanding and even a little joy are possible: "Do you hear the wind / rising all around you? That comes / only after this certain joy."

Perhaps the most complete statement of this new attitude occurs in "The Poem of Flight," spoken by the Wright brother who was the first to fly. Concerning his flight, he has this to say:

      … the time has come to say something
      to a world that largely crawls, forwards
      or backwards, begging for some crust
      of bread or earth, enough for a bad life
      or a good death. I've returned because
      thin as I am there came a moment
      when not to seemed foolish and difficult
      and because I've not yet tired
      of the warm velvet dusks of this country
      of firs and mountain oak. And because
      high above the valleys and streams
      of my land I saw so little of what is here,
      only the barest whiff of all I eat each day.
      I suppose I must square my shoulders,
      lean back, and say something else,
      something false, something that even I
      won't understand about why some of us
      must soar or how we've advanced beyond
      the birds or that not having wings
      is an illusion that a man with my money
      refuses to see. It is hard to face
      the truth, this truth or any other,
      that climbing exhausts me, and the more
      I climb, the higher I get, the less I
      want to go on, and the noise is terrible,
      I thought the thing would come apart,
      and finally there is nothing there.

As this poem makes clear, the truth for Levine is that earth—with the fouled lakes, broken bottles, and shoddy trees, wrong turns, sulking gray factories, mentally deranged and violent people we continue to be reminded of—is what we've got, and as his own acceptance grows, he begins to be able to treat the notion of perfecting the world with some humor, as in "The Suit." As his zoot suit tatters from overwearing and abuse, so do the speaker's "other hopes for a singular life in a rich / world of a certain design: / just, proportioned, equal and different / for each of us and satisfying like that flush / of warmth that came with knowing / no one could be more ridiculous."

Levine is less and less apt to be furious, or to demand change, in the face of the bad he continues to see in American experience; the good he now allows. The earth is "amazing," according to the poor black man Tom Jefferson in "A Walk with Tom Jefferson," despite racism, plunder, and his neighborhood—the "dumping ground" for "mangled chifforobes" and "ice boxes / yawning at the sky." Tom Jefferson is "six feet of man, unbowed." There are other heroes in Levine's universe, stoics most of them—old boxers, uncomplaining peasants, and especially political idealists from the same war Hemingway idealized in For Whom the Bell Tolls. In "Francisco, I'll Bring you Carnations," the conditions of the working people for whom the leftists fought during the Spanish Civil War have not, the speaker says, improved. The Barcelona which Francisco knew is gone, "swallowed / in industrial filth"; the "smiling masters" and the police remain, but despite the slums and Francisco's early death (half his life before that spent in prison), "that dream / goes on," the dream "where every man / and every woman gives / and receives the gifts of work / and care." Those who manage to believe in a better future despite evidence to the contrary, who keep on with the belief even in quiet ways, are worthy of our admiration, Levine tells us in "To Cipriano, in the Wind," where the speaker praises a simple man's dignity. Cipriano, who presses pants, believes that "Some day the world / is ours," just as he believes spring follows the icy winter. Addressing Cipriano at the end of the poem, the speaker asks him to "enter my dreams / or my life" because he also would like to believe that "this / world will be ours." And he would like to live with dignity. Just as Hemingway's essentially nihilistic vision is repeatedly modified by his assertion of the possibility of living with courage, so in this poem is Levine's; but it isn't until after working through the journalistically recorded grimness of working class life and a period of youthful anger and wishful thinking—the position that the universe needs to be amended and God or nature was to blame for the lack of change. Crane's position—that Levine comes fully to appreciate the idea of grace under pressure, a faithfulness to the ordeal of living and dying. Two earlier poems featuring political heroes, "Gift for a Believer" and "On the Murder of Lieutenant Jose del Castillo by the Falangist Bravo Martinez, July 12, 1936," early as they are in Levine's thematic evolution, are basically negative; the characters' ideals turn into gray mist and smoke when they die, reality defeating promise.

During the twenty-five years it took for the books from On the Edge to A Walk with Tom Jefferson to be published, Levine's themes evolved in ways similar to the evolution of realism through seventy-five years. Faithfully recording the physical, social, and psychological facts of the American working class, Levine moves from a youthful anger at the way things are, at the machine of the natural universe which seems to grind up essentially innocent people, toward an acceptance of palpable reality, inimical nature, including the certainty of death he earlier railed against. In the last poems his attitude seems to be that human beings can persevere in the face of such realities, and that they have a responsibility toward the "amazing" planet that is home ("A Walk with Tom Jefferson").

This development is hardly casual; it is a growing process, a maturing of vision, and it is large. It is as if more than seventy-five years of American literary history have been telescoped into Levine's twenty-five years of writing and publishing poems, twenty-five years of living and seeing blended into what he has read and what he creates out of it—poems impressionistic, paradoxical, often ironic, and highly original.


The Levine line to which his readers have become accustomed is an orthodox free verse line, broken syntactically. He has a knack for rising action and for succinct detail, and can quickly establish the tone of narration, as in "Sweet Will," the title poem of a book published in 1985:

     The man who stood beside me
     34 years ago this night fell
     on to the concrete, oily floor
     of Detroit Transmission, and we
     carefully stepped over him until
     he wakened and went back to his press.
     It was Friday night, and the others …

Most of Levine's mature poems are informed by a similar strong narrative impulse, and it would seem that he is remembering events from his personal past, so that the story of his life is made to stand for the story of many. There are, however, so many exceptions to this that it would be a mistake to label Levine's oeuvre as narrowly autobiographical. An early example of a Levine poem which sounds like a personal narrative is "The Midget" (Not This Pig, 1968). In a quickly unfolding drama in a bar "lined with factory workers" who are drinking alone and heavily, Levine describes a midget with a potbelly and a cummerbund who singles out the speaker, asking him to verify his manhood by feeling part of his anatomy. The poem is so carefully detailed that it is reasonable for a reader to think that Levine has depicted an event from his own life, and that the I is Levine himself. The question might simply be where the real event stopped and the poet's imagination took over, perhaps at the point where the midget climbs into the speaker's lap, or when the speaker begins to sing a lullaby to him, "this late-born freak / of the old world swelling in my lap." It's a surprising poem, and when I mentioned it to Levine this fall, he told me there wasn't a midget, that he hadn't existed. What matters, of course, is the semblance of existence, artistic reality. One of Levine's particular strengths as a writer is his ability to imagine and empathize with invented characters to the point that readers assume they are acquaintances or relatives.

"On my Own," a poem from his tenth book One for the Rose (1981), further illustrates Levine's empathic powers. The piece also has intertextual significance, inasmuch as it serves to amplify and lend clarity to those of the older poems which own a debt to the surreal. In "On my Own," a supernatural being describes his entry into the ordinary stream of life on earth as a seven-year-old. Having chosen the house of an old woman who "opened her door expecting milk" and instead got the youngster with plastered-down hair and a suitcase filled with earthly paraphernalia (children's books, clothing, a stuffed toy), he must choose a name and go off to school for the first time, as if he's just moved into the neighborhood:

       I chose Abraham Plain
     and went off to school wearing a cap
     that said "Ford" in the right script.

The boy slowly gets used to the simple pleasures of earth, "the beauty of sleep" and being able to dream of "seascapes / at the other end of the world," and it is in the guise of this fictive character that Levine reveals his belief in the "infinite" powers of the imagination to enliven reality. The boy addresses the reader as if he had been present as a crossing guard;

       Sure, now you
     know, its obvious, what with the light
     of the Lord streaming through the nine
     windows of my soul and the music of rain
     following in my wake and the ordinary air
     of fire every blessed day I waken with the world.

Though it has been argued that Levine's poetry is more concerned with his personal life than with the life on the imagination, the two together seem equally to inform his poems. Indeed, Levine claims imaginary, idealized truths as his prerogative in "I was born in Lucerne" (One for the Rose): to have had a beautiful young woman as his mother, "A woman of independence and courage / who sang the peasant songs of her region," who turned the past of his father and other male relatives into myth, and helped protect the speaker from the facts about poverty and war. Balanced against the grayer truths "in the fields or in the factories" is Levine's sun-touched and, strangely, more defiant idea of reality:

            Look in my eyes!
      They have stared into the burning eyes of the earth,
      molten metals, the first sun, a woman's face,
      they have seen the snow covering all
      and a new day breaking over the mother sea.
      I breathed the truth, I was born in Lucerne.

The act of articulation resides in imagining the scene as vividly as memory, in careful reformulations of the way things are or seem to be. Levine's many references in the New Selected Poems to silence are accompanied by his personae's expressions of fear that he, and others, and reality itself, might lie. His strategy for telling the truth involves stepping bodily into the lives of all sorts of people—boxers, rabbis, stone-cutters, young girls (Pitt's Wall), fathers, sons, wives—who experience the weight of disappointment and death, as well as joy. In the best of his poems, the stories of their lives unfold swiftly through a series of precise images which delineate mood and tone and psychological motivation. In some of the weaker poems—under the influence of the style of the time, perhaps—the images are more vivid and easily associated with a feeling or attitude but the reason for the feeling exists off the page. A few of the poems in Red Dust (1971) contain exotic images of anger. The mood poem "Fist," for instance, suffers from a lack of context. A reader knows the terrible power of the speaker's anger in similes for his clenched hand, "a flower / that hates God, the child / tearing at itself," but would have to try to guess at the motivation for the anger unless he or she had read more of Levine's work.

If in a few poems Levine creates riddles while talking of real things, making impossible combinations of them, normally he ascribes to the ideals of style articulated in Aristotle's Poetics. His narratives and lyrics use the "regular words for things," but his language also varies from the "common element," largely in his use of metaphor, though also by changing the traditional value of a word by altering the syntax of his sentences, as in "They Feed They Lion." Anaphoric, syntactically parallel and at the same time syntactically wrenched, the poem makes use of high and low speech and a mixture of ordinary and extreme metaphors. Here are the first lines;

     Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
     Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
     Out of acids of rage, the candor of tar,
     Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
     They lion grow.
        Out of gray hills
     Out of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
     West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
     Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
     Out of the bones' needs to sharpen and the muscles' to stretch,
     They lion grow.

In "A Theory of Prosody" (A Walk with Tom Jefferson), Levine refuses to reveal his poetic intentions as they relate to the line, and the poem establishes, humorously (the tone that he employs with greater and greater frequency in his later poems), that chance is at least as operative in his decisions about line breaks as theory. Of the cat Nellie, the speaker says

     She would sit behind me
     as I wrote, and when the line
     got too long she'd reach
     one sudden black foreleg down
     and paw at the moving hand, the offensive one.
        The first
     time she drew blood I learned
     it was poetic to end
     a line anywhere to keep her

Though she is described as "alert," the speaker says it is the artist's pretense to say that nothing is left to chance. The poem's charm is a mixture of hyperbole and modesty. In lines which communicate Levine's refusal to acknowledge the skill that attends an intuitive sense of how a line should sound, the poem illustrates the simple authority of a well-schooled writer of free verse in the tradition of Williams. None of the lines in this particular poem are by themselves memorable, but overall they get the job done, with an occasional modest gesture in the direction of form repeating content. In a poem that is about accidental line breaks, Levine writes such a line as "quiet. After all, many morn-," yet he seems to be ribbing the theorist who would expect such a break. The authority of his lines often appears to derive solely from establishing a length and staying with it. Their integrity is related to narrative image; the poem unfolds, the details of the story are interesting, and the line carries those details with no visible show of artistic adornment. The rhythms of language and life grow out of one another. Despite Levine's rigorous schooling in the tradition (as a student he wrote sonnets for John Berryman), and despite evidence throughout the anthology of syllable- and accent-counting, it might be as simple as that.


What Work Is (1991) is a continuation of Levine's dual attempt to give voice to the complicated lives of men and women and to make that voice something closer to simple song than ordinary speech. The reasons for song are not the usual—happy, happy love or the beauties of nature—although Beauty does matter in the world Levine creates, and love is redemptive. Whistling in the dark is, perhaps, a better description of the kind of song sung by the people of whom Levine tells us. Life, he says, is not easy, not even for children, who in "Among Children" are asleep "so as to be ready for what is ahead, / the monumental boredom of junior high / and the rush forward tearing their wings / loose and turning their eyes forever inward." Their fathers "work at the spark plug factory or truck / bottled water"; the children's backs already "have thickened," and their hands are "soiled by pig iron." The speaker would like to

     sit down among them and read slowly
     from the Book of Job until the windows
     pale and the teacher rises out of a milky sea
     of industrial scum, her gowns streaming
     with light, her foolish words transformed
     into song, I would like to arm each one
     with a quiver of arrows so that they might
     rush like a wind there where no battle rages
     shooting among the trumpets, Ha! Ha!

What this poem contends is that the teacher's lessons on history, math, and civics will be of less importance to the children of Flint, Michigan, than laughter and song in the face of the stupefying boredom and difficulties of working people. The songs are the songs of grandfathers who sing themselves to sleep ("Burned"), of jazzmen like John Coltrane "playing his music with such joy / and contained energy and rage" that a woman twice his age, who has heard the solo in a dream, recognizes it as a gift that she passes along to her son, of hymns sung by women on a bus returning from church ("Coming Home from the Post Office"); of a boy at his first job at the soap factory, "singing / my new life of working and earning" ("Growth"); and of the blue morning glories along a fence whose existence is described as both music and laughter. "They blared all day," Levine tells us, "though no one could score their sense or harmony / before they faded in the wind and sun."

There are harmonies in these people's confrontations with reality—the daily labors of the workplace, where who you are and "what it takes to be known among women and men" ("Fear and Fame") is revealed by the normal effort expended at work, the dirt and grime associated with work, the hunger for a better position, the meals prepared and eaten, the rise and fall of day and season and man and woman, familial ties and personal histories out of which the rational and irrational hopes for the future come. It is work to find these harmonies, Levine tells us, work to "enter the fires of your own making, naked / day after day, until the burning becomes / a sweetness" ("Burned"). To transform a life, and life itself, into more than its angry and sad bits of experience, into "the final truth" of the same poem, one must enter the fires of the past, "stare into fire," and risk burning:

             I have to climb
     the slag hills again, but this time not
     as a child, and look out over the river of iron,
     and hold it all in my eyes,
     the river, the iron mountains, the factories
     where our brothers burned. I have to repeat
     the prayer that we will all go back
     to earth one day soon to become earth,
     that our tears will run to the sea
     a last time and open it, and our fires
     light the way back home for someone.

This is the work of living, and it exists as a monumental task. It includes "the mythology of boys growing into men," "girls fighting to be people" ("Coining of Age in Michigan"), and the lies attending the relationships between young men and women:

We even lied back in return, inventing squadrons of blondes and serious brunettes driven by love to wait on our doorsteps until we returned by bus, filthy and broken by the long days of breaking the earth, women with new cars and old needs content to take their turns. ("Innocence")

"It isn't easy," the speaker says in "On the River," to "get a better / look" at one's "own life" through the smoke "of our own making," and even though this smoke is really the dirty residue from factories, it also seems to be representatives of all that we allow to get in our way—fears, "false Gods" ("Burned"), facts, "foolish hopes" ("My Grave"), and forgetfulness, "an old pillow of forgetting, / a way out before the world got in" ("Perennials").

Levine's attempt to find out truth, to work for it and make it work for him, is accompanied by modest demurrals throughout the book. "I don't have the answer," he says in "Scouting" in reply to the question "What is it Like?" When in "Snails" the speaker is at the point of saying "something final" about the autumn beauty, he says he "kept quiet." By listening to the ticking of the leaves, and watching the shadows, letting the world "escape / to become all it's never been," Levine practices the art of the poet who has made a tangible commitment to truth; he lets the world speak for itself.

The bright, sung conversations of the earth and the earth-bound are what the poems in What Work Is records. If these are nearly the same stories, about trying to live with dignity in a very difficult century, that he told in New Selected Poems, they are worth their retelling. They continue Levine's quest for ways to understand the paradoxes of isolation and community, Godlessness and spirituality, death and beauty, tears and "deep song" (Lorca's phrase) which are synonymous with the experience of living. Firemen, steelworkers, boxers, women, dead poets and other ghosts, young and old, get a say. What they have in common he simultaneously turns into myth and demythifies. How they are different he acknowledges. The territory of this poetry keeps coming back to a center—praise for the common person, an American, probably with immigrant parents, who having gotten "off the bus / at the bare junction of nothing / with nothing" ("Scouting") manages to find a way home.

Richard Eder (review date 16 January 1994)

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SOURCE: "The Riot That Found Its Threnody," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 16, 1994, pp. 3, 9.

[In the following review of The Bread of Fire: Toward an Autobiography, Eder discusses some of the prominent aspects of Levine's life.]

"I don't understand. I don't understand," Federico Garcia Lorca exclaimed when he arrived in New York. Out of the bewildered encounter between the finely surreal singer of slain gypsies and flowers that bleed, and Manhattan's stink and clangor, came "Poet in New York." A poet can write out of any state of spirit as long as he trusts it. Lorca trusted his dismay.

And he taught Philip Levine to trust his. Levine came to poetry in the course of a dozen years alternately spent studying and working in the hot-metal foundries of Detroit's auto industry. Illegitimate, not knowing who his father was, raised in near-poverty by a keen-spirited mother, he wore his blue collar with pride; particularly when he took a course from the languidly patrician Robert Lowell, whom he loathed. He also wore it with a sense of artistic constriction. Had he lived in the '30s, he might have settled into Socialist Realism. In the supremely disengaged '50s, his proletarian condition, leftist convictions and passion for the old Spanish Republic had no place to lodge. But there was more to it than that.

After working the overnight shift at Chevrolet Gear & Axle, he would try to write, he tells us in one of these autobiographical essays. It didn't work. What stopped him was not weariness or unfashionability. It was his own sensibility. How could you write poetry about the gritty reality of America's working life? His rage was rhetoric-sized but he despised rhetoric. He loved Whitman, but there can be no other Whitman. He loved Keats, Stevens, William Carlos Williams and the fine, shining craft.

In this doubt, he tells us, he came upon "Poet in New York." Outrage shatters the sheer heaviness of things—derricks, subways, office-buildings—and the heaviness of outrage is lifted in turn, by the childlike joyfulness of Lorca's imagery. "A wooden wind from the south," Levine quotes from a dockside passage, "slanting through the black mire / spits on the broken boats and drives tacks into shoulders. / A south wind that carries / tusks, sunflowers, alphabets, / and a battery with drowned wasps."

"Never in poetry written in English had I found such a direct confrontation of one image with another or heard such violence held in abeyance and enclosed in so perfect a musical form," Levine writes. "What in my work had been chaotic rant was in his a stately threnody circling around a center of riot." It validated Levine's own rioting center; it told him that he might find a threnody of his own to circle it. It took years, he tells us. It was achieved—though he doesn't tell us—in his great collection What Work Is, published two years ago.

The pieces in The Bread of Time are a series of experiments in remembering rather than a whole organized act of memory. In suggesting the present simultaneity of discrete past images, Levine sometimes introduces bits that don't very clearly fit. He can strut his blue collar, as in his mockery of a young academic who "pranced before us reading some sprightly little paper for 'Notes and Queries'." He prefers bowling, he lets us know.

His wandering method works perfectly, though, in his portrait of his mother. She lived in Europe for a while, worked for years and in near-poverty in Detroit to raise her children and, when they were grown, skipped to California. Philip visits her when she is 80; she is sardonic and free. She shows an odd familiarity with the Italian poet Gabriele d'Annunzio—Levine pauses to wonder if he could be his father—and translates one of his poems for him. "It's a lot worse than it sounds," she assures him. "It loses a lot in the original." Truly, a poet's mother.

After sketching a mannered professor who taught him James Joyce at college, Levine touches upon various aspects of his own life and his growing sense of aging. Suddenly the professor is back, no longer caricatured but a contemporary in Levine's own autumnal process. The professor ends his course with Joyce's injunction that a reader should spend a lifetime reading what it took him, Joyce, a lifetime to write.

"I am that reader," Professor Prescott tells his departing students, "and I can tell you that it was a wasted life."

The three best pieces are about Levine's poetic mentors. He portrays John Berryman as a man stretched past his own long gawkiness in his passion to impart what poetry must be. His voice went so high that "it seemed that only a dog could hear it." His class was a battlefield; Berryman would tear the poems apart or praise them; either way, the students were goaded to make them better. "Levine, this will never do," still rings in the writer's ears, along with, "One must be ruthless with one's own writing or someone else will" and—when one student turned in a magnificent sonnet—"Say that better in 1,000 words and you're a genius."

Levine's young passion for the Spanish Republic led him to spend a sabbatical, years later, in Barcelona. He evokes the mid-'60s when the Franco regime still oppressed, but with a shaky hand. There is a wonderful encounter with two members of the once-feared Guardia Civil taking refuge from the rain in a bar. One of them showed Levine a cork stuck in the muzzle of his carbine to keep the water out, and launched into a sardonic political skit: "This is what they have given me to defend the sacred shores of Spain from the communist fleet. I haven't a chance. The string on the cork is broken; one shot and I'm through."

Out of his sketch comes the shadowy figure of Antonio Machado, modern Spain's greatest poet. Levine takes Spanish lessons from a young poet; he in turn introduces his pupil to Machado's grave, seemingly plain and magically haunted work. It has all but defied translation. Levine's efforts to translate a poem, and his irritation over a set of translations by Robert Bly, produce a comically frank image of a poet's work and prickles. Finally there is a beautiful tribute—virtually a prose poem—to Machado's spiritual oneness with the gaunt landscape of Castille. Levine calls it "soul" and his writing strips the word of millennia of lofty and sentimental associations and delivers it plain.

It is also the key word in his portrait of Ivor Winters. Freed from factory work by a fellowship to Stanford, Levine spent a year studying with the bristly and resolutely unfashionable poet and critic. In almost every respect they were opposites. Levine was young and new; Winters was old and even his contemporaries considered him a stylistic reactionary. Levine depicts a man whose passion for what he considered real poetry—he insisted that an obscure Georgian poet, T. Sturge Moore, was superior to Yeats—had isolated him both aesthetically and personally. Yet Levine manages to let us see what burned beneath the crust. Through long afternoons Winters read old French and Breton poetry to him. Laying out imagery and etymology. In the passion for craft it recalled Berryman; and in another way it recalled Machado. "Philip," Winters told him once, "we must never lie or we shall lose our soul."

Dana Gioia (review date 20 February 1994)

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SOURCE: "Stanzas in a Life," in New York Times Book Review, February 20, 1994, p. 14.

[In the following review, Gioia considers The Bread of Time, Levine's collection of autobiographical essays. Though Gioia praises certain facets of the work, he also criticizes it for certain shortcomings both as an autobiography and as a book of essays.]

The last few years have witnessed a changing of the guard in American poetry. The influential generation of writers born in the 1920's has reached retirement. It's hard to imagine this vigorous bunch, which includes Adrienne Rich, Donald Justice, Robert Bly, Richard Wilbur and Louis Simpson, as senior citizens. It seems like yesterday they were barnstorming the nation to oppose the war in Vietnam, redefine feminism or champion Surrealism. But the evidence is indisputable: they have begun publishing their memoirs. The last 12 months have seen the appearance of A Different Person by James Merrill and Donald Hall's Life Work as well as Adrienne Rich's autobiographical literary essays, What Is Found There. To those personal testimonies, one can now add The Bread of Time by Philip Levine.

Born in Detroit in 1928, Mr. Levine has assiduously cultivated the image of a tough working-class poet. His 15 volumes of feisty, chip-on-the-shoulder verse alternately celebrate and elegize a gritty world of lonely highways, aging factories and dead-end jobs. Although Mr. Levine's rebellious proletarian persona has always made for lively reading, it has also occasionally seemed studied and self-conscious. Something important was missing from his story. The Bread of Time explains the special circumstances that created this unusual writer.

"Although I was born into the middle class," he confides, "my father died before I was old enough to enjoy my station." After the poet's businessman father passed on without adequate insurance, the family began a slow economic descent into "a series of ever-shrinking apartments." Money became the nagging topic of mealtime conversation. The crummy jobs that the young Philip Levine agonizingly endured would have seemed natural to most working-class kids. To him, they opened up the nightmare of downward mobility, the middle-class terror of becoming poor. His outsider's perspective on working-class existence became his defining imaginative vision. The way genuine artists do, he took bad luck and made it inspiration.

The Bread of Time collects nine overlapping but independent personal essays, each of which focuses on a particular person or place important in the author's life. The subtitle, Toward an Autobiography, however, suggests the problem inherent in the volume's subjective and unchronological organization. Although it contains many compelling episodes, the book never quite coheres. It lacks the narrative unity of an autobiography but seems too repetitious and self-regarding to be a satisfactory book of essays.

Mr. Levine's natural medium is lyric poetry: the vivid and subjective expression of a particular moment. The Bread of Time sometimes reveals the strain of an artist working in an unfamiliar form. (Mr. Levine's only previous prose collection, Don't Ask, consists entirely of interviews.) A lyric poem need not present a balanced view of experience; it must only be true to the moment's insight. A memoir, however, raises a different set of imaginative challenges. There needs to be a cogent overall design that credibly connects past action and present reflection. Since the author is both the observer and the observed, the narrator's motives are always open to question. If a memoir seems too self-serving, the reader loses confidence in its veracity. Although every author is entitled to be the hero of his own story, an autobiographer must earn a reader's trust with at least a modicum of embarrassing candor and self-criticism.

While Mr. Levine's lyrical prose usually captures the emotional intensity of past experience, his inspired subjectivity aggravates the problems inherent in the book's episodic structure. For all its energy, The Bread of Time never develops much narrative momentum. What Mr. Levine offers instead is personal myth-making: the working-class anarchist from Depression-era Detroit who struggles to the top of American poetry. There are moments when his self-dramatization brings the book uncomfortably close to a celebrity autobiography. He is savvy enough to recognize his temptation to self-mythologizing, but he doesn't control it, probably because the strategy has worked so well in his poetry. Equally troubling is his obsession with settling old scores. One essay, "Class With No Class," seems to exist for no other reason than to smear a well-to-do family that briefly employed the 18-year-old writer to tutor their "exceedingly rat-faced" son. Perhaps this nasty clan was really as dreadful as Mr. Levine claims, but what the story mostly conveys is stereotypical class hatred.

In an introductory note Mr. Levine admits that his "original intent was not to write an autobiography" but to celebrate the memory of people who had helped shape his life. The Bread of Time works best when it sticks closest to the author's original vision. The high points of the volume are portraits of his poetic mentors, John Berryman and Yvor Winters. These two brilliant but difficult men touched a sympathetic nerve in Mr. Levine when he was young. His portrait of Berryman is particularly fine. As he recounts his arrival at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, he captures the passionate intensity of a young writer struggling to define his own identity in the intellectual and artistic ferment that followed World War II. If there ever was a place and a time to enlist in a graduate writing program, it was Iowa in 1953, when Robert Lowell and then Berryman were instructors and the entering class included Mr. Levine, Donald Justice, W. D. Snodgrass, Henri Coulette, Jane Cooper and several other notables. In Berryman Mr. Levine found the demanding but democratic teacher he needed to challenge his imagination. Mr. Levine's memoir makes no pretense of fairness; it is an overt celebration of a man he loved and revered. It may be prose, but it displays the irresistible force of poetry.

The finest moments in this volume mostly share the emotional quality of the Berryman episode. Love is the passionate and enduring attentiveness that incites Mr. Levine's imagination most vividly. Whether his subject is famous, like the eccentric, domineering and penetrating Winters, or forgotten, like Cipriano, the Detroit anarchist who worked in the neighborhood dry cleaners, the people Mr. Levine admires come alive on the page while the objects of his derision lie inert. "What will survive of us is love," Philip Larkin once wrote. He could have been reviewing The Bread of Time.

Kevin Stein (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: "Why 'Nothing is Past': Philip Levine's Conversation with History," in Private Poets, Worldly Acts: Public and Private History in Contemporary American Poetry, Ohio University Press, 1996, pp. 71-89.

[In the following essay, originally published in Boulevard, Volumes 25 and 26, Stein discusses Levine's historical consciousness. He analyzes Levine's insistence that the past is in constant dialogue with the present and that people and events of the past continue to mold those of today and of the future.]

Three-quarters of the way through Philip Levine's "The Present," a poem recounting the bloody memory of what happened when "Froggy Frenchman" fell from a high pallet at work, Levine shares a secret with his readers, "I began this poem in the present / because nothing is past." On a rhetorical level, Levine addresses his readers merely to let them know why, given the possibilities available to him, he chose present tense for a poem devoted to events long past. It's a way of saying, "Here's how this poem works," and though the remark surprises, it hardly smacks of the memorable. However, on an aesthetic plane, these lines reveal Levine's fundamental attitude towards the way the past impinges upon the present, enlivening, deepening, and sometimes haunting our lives. The past has never truly left us, Levine implies, and we can never flee from it.

In this larger sense, then, Levine has staked out a position on the interplay of history and the poet's own historical consciousness, insisting on a kind of dialogue with the people and events that compose the past and continue to shape the present. No solipsist, Levine is looking for an understanding of self that transcends the self, one that takes into account both the individual's place in history and history's place within the individual. In this way, Levine's thinking resembles Hans-Georg Gadamer's conception of the individual's relationship to history and its texts. Like Levine, Gadamer regards this process as a dialogue between the past and the present. In his Truth and Method, Gadamer makes this encounter an even more intimate affair, describing it as a "conversation," ideally one in which a person comes "to experience the 'Thou' truly as 'Thou,' i.e. not to overlook his claim and listen to what he has to say to us." It was Gadamer, after all, who once called history itself "the conversation that we are." Still, while Gadamer concerns himself mostly with how one reads and interprets a text, Levine demonstrates how this process applies as well to the creation of an artistic text, to the making of a poem.

Moreover, Levine apprehends one aspect of this conversation that Gadamer complacently overlooks: that often the dialogue excludes the disempowered, the poor and the marginalized, those who have by some intentional or unintentional means been silenced by the exercise of power. Recorded history is rarely written by or about those individuals disenfranchised from the realms of political or economic power. Levine's poetry, compelled by moral and aesthetic urgency, therefore directly engages those individuals in poetic conversation. Whereas James Wright often spoke for the silenced, Levine instead speaks directly to and with them. What most interest me are those poems in which the speaker addresses an historical "you" in a kind of dialogic act. Sometimes that "you" says nothing in the conversation, other times a dialogue ensues, and occasionally the reader is the "you" the poem addresses. These poems provide a forum for Levine both to intermingle the private and the cultural and to interact with history—offering, in the process, an aesthetic means for him to personalize the historical and historicize the personal.

Gadamer regards this process as a "fusion" of historical "horizons": that which the individual brings to the subject and that of the subject which speaks to him. In fact, Gadamer believes only a fool would consider these horizons as separate. Our individual horizon, what he calls "everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point," always exists within "one great horizon that moves from within," always remains part and parcel of "a single horizon that embraces everything contained in historical consciousness." Understanding takes place when our own personal horizon of historical meanings and assumptions comes to be seen as "only something laid over a continuing tradition" and when our horizon fuses with that of the historical subject we are examining, whether it is a text, an event, or a person. Gadamer refers to this simultaneous projection and removal of horizons as "effective-history."

This may be a somewhat fancified way of saying that we come to see history as part of us and ourselves as part of history. Once we realize that "the present is being continually formed" by our "encounter with the past," as Gadamer asserts, we come to see how these horizons which we thought to be discrete actually define, inform, and shape each other. Because the present requires the past to give it depth and perspective, and vice versa, understanding always issues from a "fusion" of these horizons which we imagine to exist by themselves. Levine's version of this is simply: "nothing is past."

Frequently these poems that converse with history examine the process by which human beings, burdened by oppressive economic and political forces and often nearly broken by them, still retain their essential human dignity. This idea surges like an undercurrent beneath much of Levine's poetry. Because it is a belief continually submitted to questioning, prodding, and belligerent testing, it charges his poems with poles of joy and anger, faith and despair, affirmation and resignation. For many poets such a compulsion might remain unfocused, a theme that inadvertently crosses wires and brings forth occasional sparks. Levine, however, claims both a personal source and an historical focus for his attentions: the Spanish Civil War. In his youth, Levine found in the Spanish anarchist's politics a system that promised to avoid the abuses of capitalism, fascism, and communism, a way of life he describes to an interviewer as having "to do with the end of ownership, the end of competitiveness, the end of a great deal of things that are ugly." Levine goes on to say that his "obsession" with the war gained poignancy while he was growing up Jewish in the "extraordinarily anti-Semitic city" of Detroit, largely because the Spanish anarchists seemed to be the only ones willing to fight the fascism already spreading like plague through Europe and potentially, he feared, "reaching right into my house and snuffing me out."

If, as in the poem "To P. L., 1916–1937," originally published in They Feed They Lion (1972), the historical figure remains silent, a conversation takes place just as surely as though the two were sitting face to face, over a cup of coffee, in a kitchen dark but for the light above the sink. And perhaps Levine did converse with P. L. before the man's death, for Levine reveals to Studs Terkel that P. L. was the "older brother of my closest friend," one of those men from Levine's Detroit neighborhood who "went off to fight for a free Spain and didn't come home." Vividly imagining the soldier's death, the speaker fashions a kind of dialogue with the dead man in which one of the parties (necessarily) remains silent in much the same way as the Russian theorist M. M. Bakhtin describes below: "Imagine a dialogue of two persons in which the statements of the second person are omitted…. The second speaker is present invisibly…. We sense that there is a conversation, although only one person is speaking, and it is a conversation of the most intense kind, for each present, uttered word responds and reacts with its every fiber to the invisible speaker…."

The poem opens by graphically recounting P. L.'s lonely death in the snow, with "one side of your face / frozen to the ground." and then describes the casual way "they … bundled you / in canvas, and threw you away." It's interesting to note that the poem begins with P. L. already dead, his sacrifice on the altar of democracy as complete as it was apparently futile. What the speaker focuses on in this conversation, and what he in effect thinks P. L. ought to know, is what happened after his sacrificial death for the republic.

Here the speaker envisions, in the person of an "old country woman / of the Aragon," an utterly pragmatic way in which good comes out of such abject defeat. The woman relieves the dead man of his Wellington boots, his hunting socks, and a knife he had worn on his right hip, laughing ambivalently at the thought of the knife even "though she had no meat to cut." In her poverty, caught in the middle of a violent and pitiful battle for freedom, the woman comes to see the dead man as an angel who has, through his passing, delivered unto her a tangible means of sustenance more valuable than mere rhetoric. Believing she "understood" the true nature of P. L.'s sacrifice, the old woman wears the boots and socks, and then passes them down to her nephew in a trail of inheritance which extends the traditional notion of family.

It's worth mentioning that Levine and P. L. share initials, for their identities tend to mingle by the poem's end. Like P. L., described here as "a soldier of the republic," Levine sees himself as a kind of soldier in the cause of social equality, as his many poems of the working class demonstrate. Moreover, the Spanish Civil War, which Levine calls "the most meaningful war I can remember," embodies all of the qualities most evocative in his world view: the pugnacity of the little guy against overwhelming odds, the obstinate human will for social democracy, and the unrelenting force used to squash such citizen rebellions. Levine wants P. L. to know simply that, despite his death and the anarchists' defeat, the human spirit remains fiercely unbroken. What's more, the dead man's inheritance proffers to this day a tangible as well as spiritual utility:

      The knife is still used, the black handle
      almost white, the blade
      worn thin because there is meat to cut.

Here the battle knife becomes the table knife—enacting a transformation as regenerative as the more familiar conversion of swords into ploughshares. In a larger sense, the poem achieves Gadamer's "fusion" of historical horizons; simply put, the poem's conversation with history asserts that the past is not past. Certainly not for the old woman, who years later sees in her mind's eye the dead man's "tight fists / that had fallen side by side" and must turn in grief from her bread and soup. Surely not for Levine, who, even after the woman's death, memorializes the spot where the man lay dead:

     Without laughter she is gone
     ten years now,
     and on the road to Huesca in spring
     there is no one to look for you
     among the wild jonquils, the curling
     grasses at the road side,
     and the blood red poppies, no one
     to look on the farthest tip
     of wind breathing down from the mountains
     and shaking the stunted pines you hid among.

To say the poem is political is no revelation, though the terms of its rebellion have less to do with overthrowing governments than with freeing the human heart. Its politics are implicit, inherent to Levine's conception of writing, for "just the writing of a poem is a political act … if a man or a woman insists on depicting the truth, that in itself is a kind of political act." In "Gift for a Believer," a poem addressed to the anarchist artist Flavio Costantini, Levine labors to depict such "truth," linking the fates of Jews under Nazism and all those who suffered under Spanish fascism.

The poem surveys the pitiable results of the Spanish anarchists'—and his own—dream for a "new world." It offers a cracked litany of those who were in one way or another defeated by the fascist system, including "Santo Caserio / who lost his head for knifing / the President of France, the ambassador / to hell," Ferrer Guardia, the leader of a Spanish free school that taught the "children to question" fascism, and Francisco Ascaso, killed during the "storming" of a fascist barracks. Troubled by the broken promise of these lives, the speaker dwells on a dream of Costantini's in which the anarchist Durruti voices his most solemn pledge:

     In your vision Durruti whispered
     to an old woman that he would
     never forget the sons and daughters
     who died believing they carried
     a new world there in their hearts,
     but when the doctor was summoned
     and could not stop his wounds
     he forgot.

Remembering those victimized by systems political or economic is perhaps the cornerstone of Levine's poetry, the sacred act of memorializing upon which all of his art is built. If Durruti's failure to remember receives rebuke here, the speaker's real argument is with the system that violently snuffed out the anarchist's dream. But lest he too easily let himself off the hook, the speaker recalls his own forgotten vow:

             When old Nathan Pine
     gave two hands to a drop-forge
     at Chevy, my spit turned to gall
     and I swore I'd never forget.
     When the years turned to a gray mist
     and my sons grew away without faith,
     the memory slept, and I bowed
     my head so that I might live.

This fusing of the personal and the historical gives the poem emotional depth and historical sweep. It shows Levine's readiness to interpolate his own historical presence within the broader scope of history, a practice which, as we shall see, only intensifies as his work matures.

In 7 Years from Somewhere, three years after the publication of "Gift to a Believer" in The Names of the Lost (1976), Levine still stubbornly mulls over the complex interrelationship of his own past and the broader movements of history, particularly the Spanish Civil War. If Levine broods, he does so not to satisfy some yearning for self-pity, or to feed the self-congratulatory conviction that he is indeed more sensitive than most. Instead, he ponders the past as a way to give proportion and perspective to the present, as a way to make sense of what it is to be human and caught up in the spiralling of larger forces against which our grandest designs have so little effect. Levine appears stolidly intent upon contradicting Heidegger's advice to the poet residing in a period such as ours, the "time of the world's night": "To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods." Levine purposefully neglects the godly in favor of the human. He turns his eyes not to heaven but to the dirt beneath his feet, to the horizon he moves through and which moves through him.

It's no wonder, then, that Levine throughout his career makes frequent pilgrimages to cemeteries, locales that hold the last physical traces of those whose lives have ended but whose influence may doggedly persist. For example, in "Francisco, I'll Bring You Red Carnations," a poem addressed to the anarchist Ascaso, the speaker wanders the "great cemetery / behind the fortress of Barcelona," among the graves of poor and rich alike, all of them finally equal in the blank, earthly brotherhood of death. The poem quickly moves to Levine's characteristic themes: poverty, economic and political oppression, and testing of the human spirit's will to endure. But the poem also marks a clear departure from the earlier "Gift for a Believer," for in it the speaker regains his confidence in himself and the greater cause:

     While the streets are echoing
     with victory and revolution,
     Francisco Ascaso will take up
     the hammered little blade
     of his spirit and enter for
     the last time the republics
     of death. I remember
     his words to a frightened
     comrade who questioned
     the wisdom of attack: "We
     have gathered here to die, but we
     don't have to die with dogs,
     so go."

There again is that knife blade, the knife of battle and of table, glinting with the promise for which Ascaso and P. L. and others gave their lives. There again is the dream of a "city / of God, where every man / and every woman gives / and receives the gifts of work / and care." This time, however, the speaker discovers that dream of social democracy "here / growing in our hearts, as / your comrade said." This time he asserts the dream will not end with their "last / breaths," for someone else will "gasp it home to their lives" and revivify its faltering spirit. This time, he vows to uphold that promise in word and deed:

                 we will be back,
      across an ocean and a continent,
      to bring you red carnations,
      to celebrate the unbroken
      promise of your life that
      was once frail and flesh.

The startling transition that has taken place between They Feed They Lion (1972) and 7 Years from Somewhere (1979) signals a transformation in Levine's attitude toward the persistence of the dream of social change. Just as remarkably, his personal horizon and the larger historical horizon have begun both to question and to define each other within these poems. It's arguable that the most compelling of these conversations with history appears in One for the Rose (1981), "To Cipriano, in the Wind," a piece that deftly conflates the personal and the historical.

Here, for the first time in these dialogic poems, the historical figure's own words take preeminence over the poet's, serving as both catalyst for the poem and object of the poet's need:

      Where did your words go,
      Cipriano, spoken to me 38 years
      ago in the back of Peerless Cleaners,
      where raised on a little wooden platform
      you bowed to the hissing press
      and under the glaring bulb the scars
      across your shoulders—'a gift
      of my country'—gleamed like wood.
      'Dignidad,' you said into my boy's
      wide eyes, 'without which is no riches.'
      And Ferrente, the dapper Sicilian
      coatmaker, laughed. What could
      a pants presser know of dignity?

"Dignidad." That which makes even the poorest human being rich. That which cannot be bought or stolen or wrenched by force from a man or woman who truly owns it. This, in a word, is the fullest expression of Levine's humanism. In the battle against political or economic oppression, Levine tells us, using Mera's words, we may be destroyed but never truly defeated if we retain our human dignity. Later in the poem Mera says it more succinctly, in stately though broken English, with subtle Biblical overtones:

      … 'Some day the world
      is ours, someday you will see.'

And still later,

      'Spring, spring, it always come after.'

After the winter's "worst snow," of course, when "within a week wild phlox leaped / in the open fields" surrounding Detroit. And after, Levine must also be thinking, P. L.'s death, after the old woman had liberated his boots, socks, and knife, soon came the spring and its "blood red poppies." Looking for a way to reaffirm his own beliefs, the speaker turns to Mera's words for emotional and intellectual succor. That out of apparent defeat, victory may come—this is what he sorely needs to be reminded of. He finds it not only in the person and words of Mera, but also in a host of personal memories that gain broader, historical perspective when associated with these remarks. Notice how the speaker personalizes the historical and, in turn, historicizes the personal:

      That was the winter of '41, it
      it would take my brother off to war,
      where you had come from, it would
      bring great snowfalls, graying
      in the streets, and the news of death
      racing through the halls of my school.
      I was growing….
                    That was the winter
      of '41, Bataan would fall
      to the Japanese and Sam Baghosian
      would make the long march
      with bayonet wounds in both legs,
      and somehow …
      he would return to us and eat
      the stale bread of victory.

This lesson of eventual "victory" in the long fight echoes the Biblical promise that the meek shall indeed inherit the earth. It is Mera's sustaining gift to Levine, a gift of belief equal to Costantini's and Ascaso's and more than enough to counter the ironic "gift" of scars Mera received from his country. Even more significant is what occurs near the close of the poem, when the poet, the supposed master of language, rejects his own words and instead appropriates Mera's. Levine speaks "Dignity" and "Some day this will ail be ours" into the "winds" that surely blew across P. L., Ascaso, Durruti, his own dead Russian "cousins," as well as the inhabitants of Barcelona's cemetery, in the end imploring the past to enter his present:

      Come back, Cipriano Mera
      …. Enter my dreams
      or my life, Cipriano, come back
      out of the wind.

Levine's insistence on immersing himself in such dialogue with history brings with it a commensurate receptivity to the voice of the Other. By the publication of A Walk with Tom Jefferson (1988), Levine's conversation becomes a true dialogue. Moreover, Levine shows a striking willingness to cede the remarkable lines of his poems, those lines most resonant of meaning and most memorable to the ear, to the voice of that Other. In the case of the title poem, it is Tom Jefferson, a black man scraping out a meager existence amidst a nearly abandoned neighborhood devastated by the 1967 riots in Levine's native Detroit. Levine offers a clue to the source of the poem, and a key to its manner, when he tells Mona Simpson: "I discovered in some of the areas that had been burned out back in '67 … almost a semi-rural life…. Lots of empty spaces, vacant lots, almost like the Detroit I knew during the war…. I met a guy who lived in one of these houses. He didn't own or rent it, and in fact he didn't even know who owned it. He described his life there, and the poem rose out of the conversation we had."

By the time "A Walk with Tom Jefferson," a poem of nearly six hundred lines, appears in print, the "conversation" to which Levine alludes has grown considerably. It embraces not only the original two characters and their respective histories, but also the history of Detroit, as well as a broad gauge history of race relations in America. And clearly Levine ups the ante when he names the character Tom Jefferson, "[s]ame name as the other one," for this man carries with him the powerfully charged associations of the "other" Jefferson's conflicting roles as defender of individual rights, president, plantation owner, and slave holder.

Given this range of characters, the poem's conversation with history can be expected to build and follow its own momentum, to veer off haphazardly in the manner such conversations take in the real world of late afternoon walks. In fact, the "walk" itself becomes a fitting metaphor for the process of dialogue, as the men amble over an ever-changing terrain, a wasteland, really, whose presence is both mental and physical. Gadamer recognizes this unpredictable quality of any conversation and clearly relishes it: "We say that we 'conduct' a conversation…. Rather, it is generally more correct to say that we fall into a conversation, or even that we become involved in it. The way in which one word follows another, with the conversation taking its own turnings and reaching its own conclusion, may well be conducted in some way, but the people conversing are far less the leaders of it than the led. No one knows what will 'come out' in a conversation."

When the narrator discovers that Tom Jefferson was a schoolmate of the boxer Joe Louis, the conversation quickly accelerates. Louis, who knocked out Max Schmeling and thereby debunked at once the myths of Nazi superiority and black inferiority, serves as public symbol of the private fight for dignity Tom Jefferson and others like him have fought within our society. Like Louis, Tom's father was "up from Alabama" and its cotton fields, "lured" to the good life expressed piquantly by the delicious phrase, "the $5 day." Like so many African-Americans, his family came to Detroit to seek factory work, as others migrated north for the same reason to Cleveland, Gary, Indianapolis, Chicago, and a score of Midwestern industrial sites, changing, in the process, the literal and figurative complexion of these cities. Thomas, of Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah, came to Akron for similar reasons….

Tom Jefferson embodies that transformation and its sullied promise. "We all come for $5 / a day and we got this!" Tom says, as he opens his arms, gesturing to both narrator and reader, upon a Whitmanian catalogue detailing the "dumping ground" of the broken and the lost. Here's a sampling:

               old couches and settees,
     burst open, the white innards
               gone grey, cracked
     and mangled chifforobes
               that long ago gave up
     their secrets, yellow wooden
               ice boxes yawning
     at the sky, their breath
               still fouled with years
     of eating garlic sausage
               and refried beans …

It's clear the narrator is touched by the sight of such desolation, especially in a neighborhood once familiar to him, and his choice of pronouns reveals his agitation and angst. He sails Tom's story amidst a heaving sea of pronouns, "he," "you," and "I" tossing on waves of emotion, sometimes allowing Tom to tell his story in his own words, sometimes paraphrasing him, and occasionally interjecting his own perspective on things, as he does below, when he links Tom, his readers, and himself in the inclusive embrace of "we":

      We feel it as iron
                  in the wind. We could escape,
      each of us feels in
                  his shuddering heart,
      take the bridge south to Canada,
                  but we don't.

The narrator realizes "escape," whether real or imagined, remains impossible. Even though snow will soon transform the assembled junk into a strangely beautiful "new world," he refuses its easy enticements. More importantly, he again seems to refuse the larger possibility of the "new world" Durruti spoke of, the city Ascaso dreamed of where everyone receives "the gifts of work / and care." The narrator's previous sense of unity momentarily disintegrates as he recognizes what differentiates Tom from himself: While the narrator "won't believe" in such change, Tom Jefferson "is a believer. / You can't plant winter vegetables / if you aren't."

Not surprisingly, Jefferson's garden, planted out of the need to feed his family, then becomes the focus of conversation. It's one means of "making do" with diminished resources, of course, an expression of undaunted human will to survive, as the narrator smartly points out Tom was planting his "before the Victory Gardens" occasioned by World War II or those made popular among the genteel classes by the PBS television series. This garden, by necessity, values sustenance over beauty or hobby. But, as Gadamer remarks, "no one knows what will 'come out' in a conversation," and Jefferson's garden abruptly gains symbolic and Biblical overtones. Gradually the metaphor blossoms and spreads, entwining the narrator's and Jefferson's lives.

When Jefferson went off to World War II, his son "took over the garden," and later when his son went off to the Korean War and died there, Tom resumed his duties:

    'That's Biblical,' he says,
                'the son goes off,
    the father takes up the spade
                again, that's Biblical.'

This sense of cycle and loss, as well as the corresponding need for someone to pick up the fallen flag and carry it forward, suddenly permeates the conversation. In Tom's eyes everything is "Biblical." and the word recurs, repeated like the chorus of a gospel hymn, each time more resonant and encompassing, each repetition more compelling. Tom relies on it to describe his relationship with his wife after their son's death, the story of David and Saul and Absalom, "[m]aybe even" war and the fighting of poor whites and poor blacks for the same "gray" jobs and housing. It's not clear in the poem whether the last two remarks are made by Tom or by the narrator, for as Richard Jackson points out, the narrator "seems to absorb some of Jefferson's vocabulary and images," so much so that a "gradual fusion of points of view" occurs in the poem. Such fusion began fitfully, as I've noted, with the narrator's use of the pronoun "we," and it suggests a key to the poem's structure.

Levine's melding of viewpoints resembles the fusing of historical horizons Gadamer describes in Truth and Method, and the poet nicely gathers these perspectives into a complex but unified whole. Jefferson's belief that we "need / this season" of winter cold to fulfill Biblical and natural cycle persuades the narrator himself to believe that "the heart / of ice is fire waiting," that "the new seed / nestles in the old, / waiting, frozen, for the land to thaw." These sentiments surely echo Mera's belief in eventual "victory" in the long fight, in the coming birth of a moral state, in his conviction that "some day this will all be ours."

Here the poem's true dialogic structure reasserts itself. As a conversation can take unexpected swerves, so does the poem, for the dialogue sheers away to the narrator's memory of working, as a "kid," at Cadillac transmission (where Levine, it should be noted, once worked himself):

      When I worked nights
                    on the milling machines
      at Cadillac transmission,
                    another kid just up
      from West Virginia asked me
                    what was we making,
      and I answered, I'm making
                    2.25 an hour,
      don't know what you're
                    making, and he had
      to correct me, gently, what was
                    we making out of
      this here metal, and I didn't know.
                    Whatever it was we
      made, we made of earth. Amazing earth …

And with it the cycle continues, ineluctably, as another kid like Tom, "just up" from the South, sets to work in the factories. But if Tom knows what he makes out of earth, his beets and cabbages and tomatoes, these men have no idea what they are making on the assembly line. If ever the time were ripe for Levine to issue forth Marxist dogma, this is it. The dissociation of maker from the thing made begs the question of commodity reification, a process Fredric Jameson describes as the "way in which, under capitalism, the older forms of human activity are instrumentally reorganized and … reconstructed according to various rational models of efficiency." The result, Jameson argues, is that "all forms of human labor" lose their qualitative differences as human acts of making and come to be judged solely "under the common denominator of money."

Instead, through the voice of his narrator, Levine abjures such dogma, much as James Wright does, in favor of Jefferson's belief in the ultimate efficacy and dignity of human labor. Jefferson's example persuades the narrator to "half-believe" he was indeed making transmission parts all those years ago. Moreover, Jefferson's argument about the value of "making do," which pervades the poem, proves, in the end, more convincing than the fact it said "Chevrolet Gear & Axle / right on the checks they paid / us with." Through Jefferson's example, the narrator recognizes human dignity can endure, if not elude, enslavement by the "common denominator of money." He comes to understand that, no matter what he was in fact making on the assembly line, he was truly "making do"—the most blessed expression of human endeavor. Tom Jefferson's example bespeaks the full measure of Mera's "Dignidad," and as such, these two men (plus Jefferson's presidential namesake) blend race, nationality, and time in a kind of global/historical humanism.

One curious aspect of these conversations with history is the role of the reader, who has, for the most part, remained a passive witness to the proceedings. True enough, Levine occasionally refers to the reader as "you" in "A Walk with Tom Jefferson," and his use of the pronoun "we" further acknowledges the reader's presence. Still, the narrator's own ruminations and his interaction with Jefferson direct the poem's development through distance and time.

Many of Levine's most recent conversations with history change all of that. In What Worlds, winner of the 1991 National Book Award, Levine often reaches out to yank the reader into the poem, in the process decentering the speaker as the focus of attention and replacing him with the reader. One example of this is "Coming Close," where the speaker serves merely as guide for the reader's encounter with a brass polisher—one of those disempowered "historical" voices that Gadamer too conveniently overlooks. Once passive observer, the reader now becomes active participant, dirtied by the grimy reality of industrial labor. The poem's opening tugs its readers by the lapels into a dehumanizing factory setting that renders even gender questionable:

      Take this quiet woman, she has been
      standing before a polishing wheel
      for over three hours, and she lacks
      twenty minutes before she can take
      a lunch break. Is she a woman?

The speaker asks the reader to consider what this kind of work has done to the woman, to note her "striated" triceps, the "dusting of dark brown" above her lip, even the sweat that spills beneath the "red / kerchief across the brow" and the "darkening" wrist band she uses to wipe it away. Everything is open to question, everything subject to debate, the speaker implies. What's more, when this distance proves too great to ascertain the facts, the speaker insists,

           You must come closer
      to find out, you must hang your tie
      and jacket in one of the lockers
      in favor of a black smock …

This merging of identities, this willingness to "experience the 'Thou' truly as 'Thou,'" as Gadamer argues, undergirds true historical consciousness: the ability to see, from our perspective in the present, the fusing of our personal horizon within the larger horizon of history. Precisely this understanding is available to the reader who grunts to lift heavy loads with the woman and who ferries her "new trays of dull, / unpolished tubes," experiencing, if only imaginatively, the bludgeoning repetitiveness of her work. To learn to see this woman as an individual, not as a nondescript face among masses of workers, this at once serves as the speaker's goal for the reader and the reader's unspoken, and perhaps unwilling, quest.

If in the past these conversations primarily involved the poet, history, the poem, and a reader whose role in the dialogue was rarely acknowledged, now this reader actively engages both text and history. Even though poetic form, of course, prevents the reader from actually speaking words within the text, that reader's response is what gives the poem its urgency and communion, its full historical vitality. Without the reader's active mental presence and rhetorically implied physical presence, the poem would falter. Its conversation would fall ineffectually silent. Similarly, although the reader cannot answer the woman when she asks "why" her life and work must be like this, that reader is marked for life by the encounter:

                  Even if by some magic
     you knew, you wouldn't dare speak
     for fear of her laughter, which now
     you have anyway as she places the five
     tapering fingers of her filthy hand
     on the arm of your white shirt to mark
     you for your own, now and forever.

What's striking about the final gesture is the way the woman just as well marks the reader for her own, the dirt of her hand serving as outward sign of the reader's inward experience. Thus, Levine's rhetorical decision to engage the reader in the poem's dialogue introduces the reader to a person inhabiting a different historical circumstance. In the poem "What Work Is," as well as the poem above, that historical circumstance separating reader from Other has more to do with class than with temporal distance. If in "Coming Close" the reader merely assists the narrative's main figure, here the reader becomes the poem's central character. Note how the poem's opening pronouns forcefully merge speaker and reader, as the speaker's "we" pulls the reader's "you" into the line of men seeking work:

      We stand in the rain in a long line
      waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
      You know what work is—if you're
      old enough to read this you know what
      work is, although you may not do it.
      Forget you. This is about waiting,
      shifting from one foot to another.
      Feeling the light rain falling like mist
      into your hair, blurring your vision
      until you think you see your own brother
      ahead of you, maybe ten places.

"Forget you," the speaker commands the reader. Forget you are reading poetry in an overstuffed chair and instead become the "you" standing in line, in light mist, "waiting" for an offer of work that odds say won't be forthcoming. Refocus your "vision" so radically that you see not a clump of men wearing flannel shirts and baseball caps but "your own brother" among those looking for work. Fuse your horizon with this "you" so as to become him, this Other "you."

Thereafter, the speaker's use of the word always carries a double meaning, so that the "you" experiencing the poem's narrative is joined with the "you" reading it. The effect is a compelling fusion of poem and reader, especially when "you" discover that, even though it is "someone else's brother" standing in line, that man shares your brother's "stubbornness, / the sad refusal to give in" to the cold reality of "No, / we're not hiring today" which awaits both of you. In fact, your brother is lucky; he has a job. He's home sleeping off "a miserable night shift" so he can awaken to study German and "can sing / Wagner … / the worst music ever invented."

The thought of your brother's refusal to be defeated by the economics of hard labor and thus his yearning for self-betterment, even through something as questionable as Wagnerian opera, floods "you" with an emotional torrent. In him, Mera's dream of "Dignidad" still breathes. Unlike so many of the workers Herbert Marcuse describes in Eros and Civilization (1955), your brother has not been psychologically victimized by mind-numbing factory labor, denuded of any individual qualities by the assembly line. But perhaps "you" have—not by work, but by the lack of it. The poem moves to climax as a result of this sudden recognition, which prompts an overwhelming urge to tell your brother you love him and "maybe" kiss his cheek:

              You've never
     done something so simple, so obvious,
     not because you're too young or too dumb,
     not because you're jealous or even mean
     or incapable of crying in
     the presence of another man, no,
     just because you don't know what work is.

The poem's final line cleaves the poem's "you" and the readerly "you," both unifies and separates them in keeping with the word's double meaning. On one hand, the line emphasizes the importance given to work in our culture, so much so that being without it strikes at the core of a man's sense of maleness, his acceptance of the stereotypical burden to support himself and his family. To "know what work is," to have a job, is to know one's place in the culture and thus to know one's self. On the other hand, the line carries an accusatory tone, particularly if one keeps in mind that the poem originally appeared in The New Yorker. Most of the magazine's upscale readers, one assumes, have never known standing in line for work at "Ford Highland Park," or better, have never known the debilitating wound that lack of work can inflict upon one's psyche. Remember, also, that much of Levine's best work has appeared in The New Yorker, and he has been known to suggest at poetry readings that he frequently considers the response such a poem will generate among its readers.

One final poem, "On the Meeting of Garcia Lorca and Hart Crane," a poem which also appeared in The New Yorker and which opens Levine's 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Simple Truth, exemplifies the tendencies discussed thus far. The poem concerns the speaker's cousin, Arthur Lieberman, a former "language student at Columbia" who, on his deathbed, told the speaker of his having brought together Lorca and Crane in Brooklyn in 1929. Not only does Arthur facilitate such historical dialogue, he also, because he "knows both Spanish and English," acts as its interpreter. He would therefore seem to be the perfect embodiment of Gadamer's "effective-history."

Surprisingly, not a word of the conversation between the two "poetic geniuses" appears in the poem. Neither Arthur nor the speaker is "frivolous" enough to try to recapture it or to "pretend" it bore "wisdom." Neither is foolish enough to attempt to "invent a dialogue of such eloquence / that even the ants in your own / house won't forget it." No doubt theirs was a conversation like all others, fraught with misunderstanding and peril and surprise. No doubt theirs was no better or worse than the conversations each of these poems has pursued. What does come to Arthur as a result of this encounter is a "double vision" which fuses his historical horizon with theirs, shocking him with a premonition of the poets' untimely deaths: Crane's suicide from a ship at sea in 1932 and Lorca's at the hands of a firing squad during the Spanish Civil War (returning us to the wellspring of Levine's work). The speaker asks his reader:

               Have you ever
     had a vision? Have you ever shaken
     your head to pieces and jerked back
     at the image of your young son
     falling through open space, not
     from the stern of a ship bound
     from Vera Cruz to New York but from
     the roof of the building he works on?
     Have you risen from bed to pace
     until dawn to beg a merciless God
     to take these pictures away? Oh, yes,
     let's bless the imagination. It gives
     us the myths we live by. Let's bless
     the visionary power of the human
     (the only animal that's got it) …

Levine acknowledges this perilous aspect of imagination, the way that we humans, by imagining the life of others, may come face to face with the "horror" as well as the beauty of our own existence. This "double vision" issues from an assiduous attention to the intersection of our lives with that of the Other, and it orders our sense of place and value in a world divided along historical, social, and racial lines. Through their conversations with history, these poems seek to enlarge both the poet's and the reader's individual horizons, to extend what we can see from our "particular vantage point," as Gadamer puts it. These poems ask readers to chance a "vision" of ineffable loveliness and equal ugliness, a vision of what it is to be human. If we take Levine's word that "nothing is past," then we readers follow this vision toward a future always in dialogue with the past and the evanescent moment of our present.

Jeff Parker Knight (review date Summer 1997)

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SOURCE: Review of The Simple Truth in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 71, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 179-82.

[In the following excerpt, Knight briefly considers the role of truth and reality in Levine's poems and also mentions Levine's "mastery of craft."]

There's just no reason for anyone to continue believing the old maxim that poets will have done their best work by middle age. Following the example of Robert Penn Warren, a number of American poets—among them A. R. Ammons, Maxine Kumin, and Donald Hall—are writing excellent poems past age sixty. For the reader who has watched a poet's literary life unfold, reading a first-rate collection of new poems from a longtime favorite is deeply satisfying. So it is with the … most recent [book] from Philip Levine….

Philip Levine … is interested in the holiness of daily life, the beauty of bare existence. American poets have spent a good deal of the twentieth century reminding us how complex reality is, how we see only "truth" or "truths," never Truth. We are forever getting poems written from Medusa's point of view, or Hitler's, or Nixon's, showing us that perspective is everything. The concrete poets, and more recently the language poets go out of their way to draw attention to the way the words were put on the page by someone at sometime, to de-familiarize the style, reminding the reader that it's all just another representation. Reality can never be known. There is no privileged place to stand above it all and say what's what. In this kind of poetic context, it's worth asking why Levine chose to call his latest volume The Simple Truth. Part of the answer comes from the uneasiness of what Lawrence Ferlinghetti called "constantly risking absurdity" as the poet strives to find something worth while to say, along with an interesting way to say it. More than one poet has the frequent and uneasy feeling that it would be better just to shut up, that we miss the obvious in stretching for some grand trope. Certainly that's the sense I get in the first of these poems, "On the Meeting of Garcia Lorca and Hart Crane." In the meeting, if it happened (and in the poem in any case), neither man speaks the other's language. They have been brought together by a graduate student, who interprets. Levine writes that the meeting was uneventful, that the young man stared out the window at the river, bored, and "Something flashes across his sight," his eye and imagination play some kind of trick on him, and he sees a horrible vision of some kind. Levine writes:

     Let's not be frivolous, let's
     not pretend the two poets gave
     each other wisdom or love or
     even a good time, let's not
     invent a dialogue of such eloquence
     that even the ants in your own
     house won't forget it. The two
     greatest poetic geniuses alive
     meet and what happens? A vision
     comes to an ordinary man staring
     at a filthy river.

There's more to the poem, but this sloughing off of poetic expectations keys us to one dimension of Levine's provocative title: the simple truth isn't going to live up to the grandeur of myth. In "The Trade" we see a man who's had enough of the latter make a choice to embrace the former. If Levine weren't such a good writer, this would seem heavy-handed, whether or not the events actually took place. Levine, traveling in Genoa, takes a man up on his offer of two lemons and a knife ("A grape knife, wooden handled, / fattened at one end like a dark fist, the blade / lethal and slightly rusted") for Levine's pocket edition of T. S. Eliot's Selected Poems! Levine tells us, protesting too much, that he hadn't meant to rid himself "of the burden / of a book that haunted me," a book that was a gift, a book he had carried "all those years until the words, memorized, / meant nothing." Eliot represents the power of the imagination, what art can accomplish, and Levine swaps all that for a simpler tool. The title poem, placed in the center of the book, takes this idea as far as it can go:

                             Some things
     you know all your life. They are so simple and true
     they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
     they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
     the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
     in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
     naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.

But of course, the poems are poems. They are not the things standing for themselves. It is Levine's very mastery of craft that enables him to suggest its lack, in lines like these (also from "The Simple Truth"):

      I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes,
      took them home, boiled them in their jackets
      and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
      Then I walked through the dried fields
      on the edge of town.

In the subsequent pieces, many of which touch on issues of identity and family, Levine finds himself backsliding from the view expressed in "The Simple Truth." Relationships are complex, after all, and it's hard to know the truth, much less tell it. In trying to give each other some idea of how things seem to us, it turns out, all we have are these words, just these words, and we are back on that high wire, risking absurdity. There are no answers in the back of the book. The Simple Truth is a fine poet's engagement with tough issues of representation, perception, memory, love, and language…. Levine … remind(s) us, in poem after poem, that literature (like love) has pleasures to offer beyond the fire and passion of youth: there is perspective, the way your history led you to this moment, which is already the seed of the next, and the next. Without making too much of "old poets," let me close with this: … [this book] rewards the reader with a careful and loving focus on the details of life-as-lived, the particulars of any given moment, the perspective gained from an attentive lifetime.


Levine, Philip


Levine, Philip (Vol. 14)