Early in his career,
poetry was often characterized
as very angry, and that
provided much of the energy
fueling many of his best
But that rage evident
at an earlier age and in
share of his poetry, although
not gone altogether, has
way to some extent in recent years,
especially in his three
collections, to an even more thoughtful
and reflective poetry
an even greater generosity of spirit.
of years now, Philip Levine has held a secure position among the
of American poets who have written substantial bodies of distinctive
influential poetry during the closing decades of the twentieth
Since the 1963 publication of his first book, On the Edge,
has produced a steady accumulation of powerful poems whose thematic and
stylistic characteristics are as identifiable and revealing as the
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
Levine has "frozen in the fine print of our eyes."
been harboring doubt about Levineâs stature as one of our
ought to have been convinced by the works in his two previous books,
of which went on to win a prestigious award: What Work Is
won the National Book Award for Poetry and The Simple Truth
won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Indeed, after the laurels and
showered upon that pair of poetry collections, many readers might
to be let down or at least inoculated against the repeated charms and
characters who again appear, like old photos drawn once more from a
album, throughout the poems in this new volume.
most of Levine's seventeen earlier books of poetry, displays an
and effectiveness surprisingly evident in such deceptively plain-spoken
poems, especially in the many elegies written in memory of people and
of importance in his past, that appear throughout his works. In
this new volume by Levine derives its title from a poem depicting his
migration passage to America as a nine-year-old girl aboard a ship
named "The Mercy," and the book begins with a dedication÷In
My Mother Esther Levine, 1904-1998÷acknowledging his
from this life and her influence upon his.
dedication and the title poem, the penultimate piece in the volume (a
poem, "The Secret," written upon the death of his mother, appears
as a coda to close the collection), Levine offers an assortment of
and fond memories of family members (mother, unknown father, brother,
and uncles), friends, factory co-workers, and favorite artists,
or musicians (Charles Scheeler, Federico Garcia Lorca, César
Juan Ramon Jimenez, Cesare Pavese, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker,
Brown) who have informed and influenced his own passage through this
Midnight," Levine speaks about a scene he remembers from nearly fifty
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.
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
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
home late from work at the factory when he heard news of Brown's death.
. . . the music
I lived for, created by men
becoming myths. Twenty-five years
would pass before Brownie's pure voice
would find me again . . . .
after the event, Levine is able to associate his reminiscence about
night of Brown's death in an automobile accident at the age of
with the condition of his own life, tying together memory and memoir,
or political history with personal reflections and emotions:
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.
there have been accusations that Levine's poems often offer easily
situations evoking false sentimentality. One of his harshest
has been Helen Vendler who once commented in The Music of What
(Harvard University Press, 1988), "I am not convinced that Levine's
and reminiscences belong in lyric poems, since he seems so inept at
he thinks of as the obligatory hearts-and-flowers endings of
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
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
from Lois Wyse or Rod McKuen" is clearly overblown. In fact, in
after poem the language filling Levine's lines takes the risk of being
seen as simply sentimental, but instead offers the reader the greater
of genuine sentiment, emotions earned through scenes rendered in simple
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.
with the personal allusions or the private attachments present in its
poem and its dedication, a book full of rear-view mirror reflections
by Levine as he enters his seventies, probably risks criticism of
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
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
scattered seeds of the pomegranate.
Philip Levine also has been legitimately faulted for the seeming
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
syllabic or metered lines÷in this book that would be enhanced by
and removal of prepositions, conjunctions, or other ineffective words
line endings, far fewer examples occur here than in his earlier
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.
wonders about the usefulness of words, especially in poetry, to
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 . . . .
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.
in "Sundays with Lungo" where he regards with wonder the way his
words "came sideways out of his mouth / so the wind would blow it to
words / that became nothing," words assume "pure sounds / thrust back
the wind's face." In one of the poems about searching for
of his father, "The Return," he quotes a note from a journal left by
father and inherited by Levine when he "was almost seventy." It reads
enough, "He who looks for answers finds questions." Now in his
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
collection that most reflect Philip Levine's attempts to fully
the lives, and the deaths, of his parents÷the father he didn't
the mother who influenced him greatly. This is territory Levine
has explored with prose in his autobiographical memoir, The Bread
Time, published in 1993, where he includes a conversation with his
"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
I knew without the least doubt that if I simply asked, Who was my
She would answer me without the least temporizing. As it was, in
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
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.
to view the closing lines of these two poems. "The Return" describes
visit to a grove of apple trees resembling a pencil drawing in his
journal. He concludes the poem with lines that recall scenes or
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.
foreshadow an image in the last lines of "The Mercy," describing
mother after she had disembarked from that ship bearing the name of the
. . . 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.
notes accompanying Levine's poetry have been fairly consistent
the four decades of his publishing career÷with one
his move from Detroit as a young man, Levine's earliest notes read,
a succession of stupid jobs, he left . . . ." However, the
information in recent books reads, "after a succession of industrial
he left . . . ." Early in his career, Levine's poetry was often
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
to some extent in recent years, especially in his three latest
to an even more thoughtful and reflective poetry exhibiting an even
generosity of spirit.
pair of stanzas from another fine poem in The Mercy÷"The
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
New York City, New York: Knopf, 1999. ISBN: 0-375-40138-5
© by Edward Byrne