V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




Early in his career, Levine's poetry was often characterized
as very angry, and that anger provided much of the energy
fueling many of his best poems.  But that rage evident
at an earlier age and in a large share of his poetry, although
not gone altogether, has given way to some extent in recent years,
especially in his three latest collections, to an even more thoughtful
and reflective poetry exhibiting an even greater generosity of spirit.

For a number of years now, Philip Levine has held a secure position among the handful of American poets who have written substantial bodies of distinctive and influential poetry during the closing decades of the twentieth century.  Since the 1963 publication of his first book, On the Edge, Levine has produced a steady accumulation of powerful poems whose thematic and stylistic characteristics are as identifiable and revealing as the "auras of smoke and grease" or the "eyes swollen with sleeplessness" that mark those urban blue-collar workers in "Salt and Oil"÷one of the remarkable poems from his latest collection, The Mercy÷as well as many other individuals enduring difficult lives whom Levine has "frozen in the fine print of our eyes."
    Anyone who had been harboring doubt about Levineâs stature as one of our significant poets ought to have been convinced by the works in his two previous books, each of which went on to win a prestigious award: What Work Is (1991) won the National Book Award for Poetry and The Simple Truth (1994) won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.  Indeed, after the laurels and attention showered upon that pair of poetry collections, many readers might expect to be let down or at least inoculated against the repeated charms and recognizable characters who again appear, like old photos drawn once more from a family album, throughout the poems in this new volume.
   The Mercy, like most of Levine's seventeen earlier books of poetry, displays an elegance and effectiveness surprisingly evident in such deceptively plain-spoken poems, especially in the many elegies written in memory of people and places of importance in his past, that appear throughout his works.  In fact, this new volume by Levine derives its title from a poem depicting his mother's migration passage to America as a nine-year-old girl aboard a ship aptly named "The Mercy," and the book begins with a dedication÷In Memory of My Mother Esther Levine, 1904-1998÷acknowledging his mother's departure from this life and her influence upon his.
    In between the dedication and the title poem, the penultimate piece in the volume (a final poem, "The Secret," written upon the death of his mother, appears almost as a coda to close the collection), Levine offers an assortment of elegies and fond memories of family members (mother, unknown father, brother, aunts and uncles), friends, factory co-workers, and favorite artists, writers, or musicians (Charles Scheeler, Federico Garcia Lorca, César Vallejo, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Cesare Pavese, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown) who have informed and influenced his own passage through this life.
     In "Flowering Midnight," Levine speaks about a scene he remembers from nearly fifty years ago and of a co-worker at "Chevy Gear & Axle":

                                            My friend Marion,
        the ex-junkie and novice drop-forge worker,
        off by himself humming "Body and Soul,"
        stares wide-eyed straight up letting the flakes
        fill his mouth. He played with Hawkins before
        his troubles and now has four ten-inch Bluebirds
        left to prove it. Now even these trees hunger
        for the music, three black trees filling with winter.

     "And That Night Clifford Died" presents lines like so many in Levine's work that convincingly persuade readers we are often able to chronicle our lives most effectively through associations with memories of those who affected us so deeply, even those artists we knew only through their work. After hearing trumpeter Clifford Brown on "an FM station fading in / and out on the car's radio," Levine recounts the night in June of 1956 after coming home late from work at the factory when he heard news of Brown's death. He recalls,

                                . . . the music
        I lived for, created by men
        becoming myths. Twenty-five years
        would pass before Brownie's pure voice
        would find me again . . . .

    A quarter century after the event, Levine is able to associate his reminiscence about that night of Brown's death in an automobile accident at the age of twenty-five with the condition of his own life, tying together memory and memoir, cultural or political history with personal reflections and emotions:

                                        I sat
        alone and silent. The open
        window gave me a dark wind
        freighted with late September
        and the smell of burning fuel
        stinging my eyes unless I
        was crying for the joy of being
        whole in a country at war.

    Over the years, there have been accusations that Levine's poems often offer easily apparent situations evoking false sentimentality.  One of his harshest critics has been Helen Vendler who once commented in The Music of What Happens (Harvard University Press, 1988), "I am not convinced that Levine's observations and reminiscences belong in lyric poems, since he seems so inept at what he thinks of as the obligatory hearts-and-flowers endings of 'poems.'"  As much as there may be a few individual endings of poems in past works where this kind of complaint is justified, any general statement suggesting this as a continuous problem in Levine's poetry is exaggeration, or any comment such as Vendler's assertion Levine's poetry "is only one step away from Lois Wyse or Rod McKuen" is clearly overblown.  In fact, in poem after poem the language filling Levine's lines takes the risk of being seen as simply sentimental, but instead offers the reader the greater rewards of genuine sentiment, emotions earned through scenes rendered in simple language.
    In "Joe Gould's Pen," Levine even speaks of the "earned word":

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

    The Mercy, with the personal allusions or the private attachments present in its title poem and its dedication, a book full of rear-view mirror reflections published by Levine as he enters his seventies, probably risks criticism of sentimentality and nostalgia even more than any previous work.  Nevertheless, the poems gathered in this volume defy such easy terms of dismissal.  Rather, studying these poems one discovers lingering lines, evocative images, and powerful portraits arising out of Levine's memory that will remain now in the reader's consciousness and cannot easily be dismissed in any sense of the word÷lines, images, and portraits that will remain like those scattered seeds of the pomegranate.
    On occasion, Philip Levine also has been legitimately faulted for the seeming arbitrariness in line breaks and too-frequent examples of weaker words at line breaks in his poems.  Although there are still a number of lines (as seen in the excerpt from "Joe Gould's Pen")÷none of which can be excused as syllabic or metered lines÷in this book that would be enhanced by rearrangement and removal of prepositions, conjunctions, or other ineffective words from line endings, far fewer examples occur here than in his earlier books.  Levine has apparently been more conscientious about creating effective line breaks in his recent collections, and such criticism now may only amount to quibbling about a minor irritation.
    Levine often wonders about the usefulness of words, especially in poetry, to adequately convey meaning and emotion.  In "These Words," he describes trying to read "scraps of old letters / damp ragged stories" ruined by rain:

        "Door," she has written, "leaf," on the page's
        other side, "stone," words out of poetry,
        the words my mother read to Aunt Pearl
        forty-nine years ago to comfort her
        in her loss. How innocent we were then,
        how much we believed in the comfort words
        could bring, how much we thought they would explain . . . .

    He questions and criticizes the effect of words against silence in "'He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do":

        Fact is silence is the perfect water:
        unlike rain it falls from no clouds
        to wash our minds, to ease our tired eyes,
        to give heart to the thin blades of grass
        fighting through the concrete for even air
        dirtied by our endless stream of words.

    Other times, as in "Sundays with Lungo" where he regards with wonder the way his friend's words "came sideways out of his mouth / so the wind would blow it to tatters, words / that became nothing," words assume "pure sounds / thrust back into the wind's face."  In one of the poems about searching for knowledge of his father, "The Return," he quotes a note from a journal left by his father and inherited by Levine when he "was almost seventy." It reads simply enough, "He who looks for answers finds questions."  Now in his seventies, still looking for answers, Levine asks in "Sunday with Lungo,"

        Do you know how to read the wind? Do you?
        It's easy. Just close your eyes and listen.
        Of course, you have to be old, broken
        in body and spirit, brought down so low÷
        as Lungo was÷that even words make sense.

    Indeed, it is fascinating to read the two poems ("The Return" and "The Mercy") in this collection that most reflect Philip Levine's attempts to fully understand the lives, and the deaths, of his parents÷the father he didn't know and the mother who influenced him greatly.  This is territory Levine also has explored with prose in his autobiographical memoir, The Bread of Time, published in 1993, where he includes a conversation with his mother:

        "You want to know who your father was?"
        I could tell by the way she was looking at me that she expected
        a serious answer.  Here I was, a man in his sixtieth year, and I
        had to ask the old Dr. Prescott question: Was I searching for the father.
        I knew without the least doubt that if I simply asked, Who was my father?
        She would answer me without the least temporizing.  As it was, in my
        ignorance, he could have been anyone old enough but not too old in 1927:
        Jack Dempsey, the Prince of Wales (who had yet to give himself body
        and soul to Wally Simpson), Henry Ford, Herbert Hoover, Thomas Mann,
        Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, Hart Crane, Babe Ruth, Walt Disney, Bertolt
        Brecht, Benny Goodman, Moishe Oysher, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Joe Blow.
        The list was finite but enormous, and by a simple question I could reduce
        it to one. You don't need a key that says "Mosler" on one side and opens
        a long-forgotten door to know what I did.

    It is instructive to view the closing lines of these two poems. "The Return" describes Levine's visit to a grove of apple trees resembling a pencil drawing in his father's journal. He concludes the poem with lines that recall scenes or comments about "words" in the poems mentioned earlier:

        The wind hummed in my good ear, not words exactly,
        not nonsense either, for what I spoke to myself,
        just the language creation once wakened to.
        I took off my hat, a mistake in the presence
        of my father's God, wiped my brow with what I had,
        the back of my hand, and marveled at what was here,
        nothing at all except the stubbornness of things.

    These lines also foreshadow an image in the last lines of "The Mercy," describing Levine's mother after she had disembarked from that ship bearing the name of the poem's title:

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

     The author's notes accompanying Levine's poetry have been fairly consistent throughout the four decades of his publishing career÷with one exception.  Detailing his move from Detroit as a young man, Levine's earliest notes read, "after a succession of stupid jobs, he left . . . ."  However, the biographical information in recent books reads, "after a succession of industrial jobs, he left . . . ."  Early in his career, Levine's poetry was often characterized as very angry, and that anger provided much of the energy fueling many of his best poems.  But that rage evident at an earlier age and in a large share of his poetry, although not gone altogether, has given way to some extent in recent years, especially in his three latest collections, to an even more thoughtful and reflective poetry exhibiting an even greater generosity of spirit.
    Perhaps the closing pair of stanzas from another fine poem in The Mercy÷"The Knowable," Levine's tribute to jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins÷would also prove a fitting closing comment on Philip Levine:

        The years pass, and like the rest of us
        he ages, his hair and beard whiten, the great
        shoulders narrow. He is merely a man÷

        after all÷a man who stared for years
        into the breathy, unknowable voice
        of silence and captured the music.

Levine, Philip. The Mercy.  New York City, New York: Knopf, 1999.  ISBN: 0-375-40138-5  $22.00

© by Edward Byrne


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