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Modern American Poetry: Philip Levine
The Atlantic Monthly interview (1999)
The Academy of American Poets: Philip Levine
Philip Levine, an American poet, was born in 1928 in Detroit, Michigan. Growing up, his parents told him he was Spanish; "Why my parents, both born in a little shtetl in western Russia, would tell me this, I have no idea. But it may have had something to do with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492." As a youth, Levine faced the anti-Semitism embodied by a local celebrity, the pro-Hitler radio priest Father Coughlin. He was educated at Wayne University, now Wayne State University, and held a series of industrial jobs before he left Detroit. He was an anarchist who claimed that "property is theft" until he bought his first house. He eventually settled in Fresno, California to teach and write. He is now Professor of English at California State University in Fresno.
Levine's poetry frequently features animals, the factory workers of Detroit, and the revolutionaries of the Spanish Civil War. In 1995 he won the Pulitzer Prize and in 1991 and 1980 the National Book Award for poetry.
Levine's eighteenth published book is Breath: Poems. Other titles include What Work Is, The Simple Truth, Ashes, They Feed They Lion, and The Mercy.
An Abandoned Factory, Detroit
The gates are chained, the barbed-wire fencing stands,
An iron authority against the snow,
And this grey monument to common sense
Resists the weather. Fears of idle hands,
Of protest, men in league, and of the slow
Corrosion of their minds, still charge this fence.
Beyond, through broken windows one can see
Where the great presses paused between their strokes
And thus remain, in air suspended, caught
In the sure margin of eternity.
The cast-iron wheels have stopped; one counts the spokes
Which movement blurred, the struts inertia fought,
And estimates the loss of human power,
Experienced and slow, the loss of years,
The gradual decay of dignity.
Men lived within these foundries, hour by hour;
Nothing they forged outlived the rusted gears
Which might have served to grind their eulogy.
The long lines of diesels
groan toward evening
carrying off the breath
of the living.
The face of your house
it is your face, black
and fire bombed
in the first street wars,
a black tooth planted in the earth
and bearing nothing,
and the earth is black,
sick on used oils.
Did you look for me in that house
behind the sofa
where I had to be?
in the basement where the shirts
yellowed on hangers?
in the bedroom
where a woman lay her face
on a locked chest?
at windows the rain streaked
and no one told me.
I found you later
from The History of Siege,
eyes turned to a public wall
before I turned back, mouth
in mine and gone.
I found you whole
toward the autumn of my 43rd year
in this chair beside
a masonjar of dried zinnias
and I turned away.
I find you
in these tears, few,
useless and here at last.
Don't come back.
Shake out my pockets! Harken to the call
Of that calm voice that makes no sound at all!
Take of me all you can; my average weight
May make amends for this, my low estate.
But do not shake, Green Thumb, as once you did
My heart and liver, or my prostate bid
Good Morning to -- leave it, the savage gland
Content within the mercy of my hand.
The world was safe in winter, I was spring,
Enslaved and rattling to the slightest thing
That she might give. If planter were my trade
Why was I then not like a planter made:
With veins like rivers, smudge-pots for a soul,
A simple mind geared to a simple goal?
You fashioned me, great headed and obscene
On two weak legs, the weakest thing between.
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. Later, beneath the bed,
We found you taking notes of all we said.
At last we parted, she to East Moline,
I to the service of the great unseen.
All the way home I watched a circling crow
And read your falling portents in the snow.
I burned my clothes, I moved, I changed my name,
But every night, unstamped her letter came:
"Ominous cramps and pains." I cursed the vows
That cattle make to grass when cattle browse.
Heartsick and tired, 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.
When I awoke I found beneath the door
Only the invoice from the liquor store.
The grape-vine brought the word. I switched to beer:
She had become a civil engineer.
When I went walking birds and children fled.
I took my love, myself, behind the shed;
The shed burned down. I switched to milk and eggs.
At night a dream ran up and down my legs.
I have endured, as Godless Nazarite,
Life like a bone even a dog would slight;
All that the dog would have, I have refused.
May I, of all your subjects, be excused?
The world is yours, Green Thumb; I smell your heat
Licking the winter to a green defeat.
The creatures join, the coupling seasons start;
Leave me, Green Thumb, my solitary part.
I Sing the Body Electric
People sit numbly at the counter
waiting for breakfast or service.
Today it's Hartford, Connecticut
more than twenty-five years after
the last death of Wallace Stevens.
I have come in out of the cold
and wind of a Sunday morning
of early March, and I seem to be
crying, but I'm only freezing
and unpeeled. The waitress brings
me hot tea in a cracked cup,
and soon it's all over my paper,
and so she refills it. I read
slowly in The New York Times
that poems are dying in Iowa,
Missoula, on the outskirts of Reno,
in the shopping galleries of Houston.
We should all go to the grave
of the unknown poet while the rain
streaks our notebooks or stand
for hours in the freezing winds
off the lost books of our fathers
or at least until we can no longer
hold our pencils. Men keep coming
in and going out, and two of them
recall the great dirty fights
between Willy Pep and Sandy Sadler,
between little white perfection
and death in red plaid trunks.
I want to tell them I saw
the last fight, I rode out
to Yankee Stadium with two deserters
from the French Army of Indochina
and back with a drunken priest
and both ways the whole train
smelled of piss and vomit, but no
one would believe me. Those are
the true legends better left to die.
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. I have crossed
a continent to bring these citizens
the poems of the snowy mountains,
of the forges of hopelessness,
of the survivors of wars they
never heard of and won't believe.
Nothing is alive in this tunnel
of winds of the end of winter
except the last raging of winter,
the cats peering smugly from the homes
of strangers, and the great stunned sky
slowly settling like a dark cloud
lined only with smaller dark clouds.
M. Degas Teaches Art & Science At Durfee Intermediate School--Detroit, 1942
He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, "What have I done?"
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, "You've broken a piece
of chalk." M. Degas did not smile.
"What have I done?" he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke. "M. Degas,
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle." Degas mused.
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
be incorrect. "It is possible,"
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
"that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn." I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this would go on another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I'd be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way. M. Degas
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty one
as though in complicity with Gertrude,
who added confidently, "You've begun
to separate the dark from the dark."
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and I
knew this could go on forever.
Mad Day in March
Beaten like an old hound
Whimpering by the stove,
I complicate the pain
That smarts with promised love.
The oilstove falls, the rain,
Forecast, licks at my wound;
Ice forms, clips the green shoot,
And strikes the wren house mute.
May commoner and king,
The barren bride and nun
Begrudge the season's dues.
May children curse the sun,
Sweet briar and grass refuse
To compromise the spring,
And both sower and seed
Choke on the summer's weed.
Those promises we heard
We heard in ignorance;
The numbered days we named,
And, in our innocence,
Assumed the beast was tamed.
On a bare limb, a bird,
Alone, arrived, with wings
Frozen, holds on and sings.
On the Meeting of Garcia Lorca and Hart Crane
Brooklyn, 1929. Of course Crane's
been drinking and has no idea who
this curious Andalusian is, unable
even to speak the language of poetry.
The young man who brought them
together knows both Spanish and English,
but he has a headache from jumping
back and forth from one language
to another. For a moment's relief
he goes to the window to look
down on the East River, darkening
below as the early light comes on.
Something flashes across his sight,
a double vision of such horror
he has to slap both his hands across
his mouth to keep from screaming.
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. 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—,
bless the exact image of your father
dead and mine dead, bless the images
that stalk the corners of our sight
and will not let go. The young man
was my cousin, Arthur Lieberman,
then a language student at Columbia,
who told me all this before he died
quietly in his sleep in 1983
in a hotel in Perugia. A good man,
Arthur, he survived graduate school,
later came home to Detroit and sold
pianos right through the Depression.
He loaned my brother a used one
to compose his hideous songs on,
which Arthur thought were genius.
What an imagination Arthur had!
On The Murder Of Lieutenant Jose Del Castillo By The Falangist Bravo Martinez, July 12, 1936
When the Lieutenant of the Guardia de Asalto
heard the automatic go off, he turned
and took the second shot just above
the sternum, the third tore away
the right shoulder of his uniform,
the fourth perforated his cheek. As he
slid out of his comrade's hold
toward the gray cement of the Ramblas
he lost count and knew only
that he would not die and that the blue sky
smudged with clouds was not heaven
for heaven was nowhere and in his eyes
slowly filling with their own light.
The pigeons that spotted the cold floor
of Barcelona rose as he sank below
the waves of silence crashing
on the far shores of his legs, growing
faint and watery. His hands opened
a last time to receive the benedictions
of automobile exhaust and rain
and the rain of soot. His mouth,
that would never again say "I am afraid,"
closed on nothing. The old grandfather
hawking daisies at his stand pressed
a handkerchief against his lips
and turned his eyes away before they held
the eyes of a gunman. The shepherd dogs
on sale howled in their cages
and turned in circles. There is more
to be said, but by someone who has suffered
and died for his sister the earth
and his brothers the beasts and the trees.
The Lieutenant can hear it, the prayer
that comes on the voices of water, today
or yesterday, form Chicago or Valladolid,
and hands like smoke above this street
he won't walk as a man ever again.
Picture Postcard from the Other World
Since I don't know who will be reading
this or even if it will be read, I must
invent someone on the other end
of eternity, a distant cousin laboring
under the same faint stars I labored
all those unnumbered years ago. I make you
like me in everything I can -- a man
or woman in middle years who having
lost whatever faiths he held goes on
with only the faith that even more
will be lost. Like me a wanderer,
someone with a taste for coastal towns
sparkling in the cold winter sun, boardwalks
without walkers, perfect beaches shrouded
in the dense fogs of December, morning cafes
before the second customer arrives,
the cats have been fed, and the proprietor
stops muttering into the cold dishwater.
I give you the gift of language, my gift
and no more, so that wherever you go
words fall around you meaning no more
than the full force of their making, and you
translate the clicking of teeth against
teeth and tongue as morning light spilling
into the enclosed squares of a white town,
breath drawn in and held as the ocean
when no one sees it, the waves still,
the fishing boats drift in a calm beyond sleep.
The gift of sleep, too, and the waking
from it day after day without knowing
why the small sunlit room with its single bed,
white counterpane going yellow, and bare floor
holds itself with such assurance
while the flaming nebulae of dust
swirl around you. And the sense not to ask.
Like me you rise immediately and sit
on the bed's edge and let whatever dream
of a childhood home or a rightful place
you had withdraw into the long shadows
of the tilted wardrobe and the one chair.
Before you've even washed your face you
see it on the bedoilied chiffonier -- there,
balanced precariously on the orange you bought
at yesterday's market and saved for now.
Someone entered soundlessly while you slept
and left you sleeping and left this postcard
from me and thought to close the door
with no more fuss than the moon makes.
There's your name in black ink in a hand
as familiar as your own and not
your own, and the address even you
didn't know you'd have an hour before
you got it. When you turn it over,
there it is, not the photo of a star,
or the bright sailboats your sister would
have chosen or the green urban meadows
my brother painted. What is it? It could be
another planet just after its birth
except that at the center the colors
are earth colors. It could be the cloud
that formed above the rivers of our blood,
the one that brought rain to a dry time
or took wine from a hungry one. It could
be my way of telling you that I too
burned and froze by turns and the face I
came to was more dirt than flame, it
could be the face I put on everything,
or it could be my way of saying
nothing and saying it perfectly.
Can you imagine the air filled with smoke?
It was. The city was vanishing before noon
or was it earlier than that? I can't say because
the light came from nowhere and went nowhere.
This was years ago, before you were born, before
your parents met in a bus station downtown.
She'd come on Friday after work all the way
from Toledo, and he'd dressed in his only suit.
Back then we called this a date, some times
a blind date, though they'd written back and forth
for weeks. What actually took place is now lost.
It's become part of the mythology of a family,
the stories told by children around the dinner table.
No, they aren't dead, they're just treated that way,
as objects turned one way and then another
to catch the light, the light overflowing with smoke.
Go back to the beginning, you insist. Why
is the air filled with smoke? Simple. We had work.
Work was something that thrived on fire, that without
fire couldn't catch its breath or hang on for life.
We came out into the morning air, Bernie, Stash,
Williams, and I, it was late March, a new war
was starting up in Asia or closer to home,
one that meant to kill us, but for a moment
the air held still in the gray poplars and elms
undoing their branches. I understood the moon
for the very first time, why it came and went, why
it wasn't there that day to greet the four of us.
Before the bus came a small black bird settled
on the curb, fearless or hurt, and turned its beak up
as though questioning the day. "A baby crow,"
someone said. Your father knelt down on the wet cement,
his lunchbox balanced on one knee and stared quietly
for a long time. "A grackle far from home," he said.
One of the four of us mentioned tenderness,
a word I wasn't used to, so it wasn't me.
The bus must have arrived. I'm not there today.
The windows were soiled. We swayed this way and that
over the railroad tracks, across Woodward Avenue,
heading west, just like the sun, hidden in smoke.
The Grave of the Kitchen Mouse
The stone says "Coors"
The gay carpet says "Camels"
Spears of dried grass
The little sticks the children gathered
The leaves the wind gathered
The cat did not kill him
The dog did not, not the trap
Or lightning, or the rain's anger
The tree's claws
The black teeth of the moon
The sun drilled over and over
Dusk of his first death
The earth is worn away
A tuft of gray fur ruffles the wind
One paw, like a carrot
Lunges downward in darkness
For the soul
Dawn scratching at the windows
Counted and closed
The doors holding
The house quiet
The kitchen bites its tongue
And makes bread
The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island
Eighty-three years ago was named "The Mercy."
She remembers trying to eat a banana
without first peeling it and seeing her first orange
in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman
who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her
with a red bandana and taught her the word,
"orange," saying it patiently over and over.
A long autumn voyage, the days darkening
with the black waters calming as night came on,
then nothing as far as her eyes could see and space
without limit rushing off to the corners
of creation. She prayed in Russian and Yiddish
to find her family in New York, prayers
unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored
by all the powers that swept the waves of darkness
before she woke, that kept "The Mercy" afloat
while smallpox raged among the passengers
and crew until the dead were buried at sea
with strange prayers in a tongue she could not fathom.
"The Mercy," I read on the yellowing pages of a book
I located in a windowless room of the library
on 42nd Street, sat thirty-one days
offshore in quarantine before the passengers
disembarked. There a story ends. Other ships
arrived, "Tancred" out of Glasgow, "The Neptune"
registered as Danish, "Umberto IV,"
the list goes on for pages, November gives
way to winter, the sea pounds this alien shore.
Italian miners from Piemonte dig
under towns in western Pennsylvania
only to rediscover the same nightmare
they left at home. 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 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 middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. "Eat, eat" she said,
"Even if you don't I'll say you did."
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.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I'm saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.
They Feed They Lion
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.
Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
"Come home, Come home!" From pig balls,
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,
From the furred ear and the full jowl come
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose
They Lion grow.
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 all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.
What Work Is
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.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it's someone else's brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, "No,
we're not hiring today," for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who's not beside you or behind or
ahead because he's home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed 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.
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