Looking Back With Philip Levine

Old men deserve  memory. Philip Levine has a good one and he knows how to put it to use. The Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, at 83, still finds his past to be fertile, as he has for some 50 years. But there’s something new in News of the World as well. Yes, Levine is still providing “a voice for the voiceless,” and getting inspiration from his days working in Detroit auto plants. But News seems wider in its perspective, softer in its anger and more direct in its language, just the things we might all hope for in our aged expressions.

Levine has always written from memory. Consider “Belle Isle, 1949” written almost 25 years after he and friends ran down into the Detroit River/to baptize ourselves in the brine/of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles/melted snow. The poem, a swimming out into peaceful darkness with a Polish high school girl/I’d never seen before and a return guided by harsh industrial light, takes one to the source of Levine’s work on its final line: to go back where we came from.

In “Innocence,” he returns to 1944 and his brother, stationed in London where he services B-24s. Immediately, the poem jumps ahead 50 years to a man who remembers, as a boy, hearing the planes taking off at dusk to level/the industrial cities of the Ruhr and then to his brother, now blind and glad to be alive, whose memory, precise–like a diamond– differs on the number of the dead.  It’s as if time, though not healing the wound, has lessened the giving of its injury.

Levine’s brother figures in a handful of these poems, serving  as a measure of the once and future. In 1945, he and his brother, awakened early by the younger brother’s dream-induced cry, go early into the fields at the edge of town to find small treasures of nature. They talk of the years ahead: the future coming/ toward us in the elm’s black shadow,/two brother–almost one man–/held together by what we can’t share.

Levine’s kinder look at the past even extends to Henry Ford, seeing him middle-aged, bored and joining his workers, “his beloved colored and Yids,” at the night shift time clock. The sympathy towards “the man who created/ the modern world comes from Ford’s realization that he has remade the world in his image, dark and starless.

Even basic human emotion is tied to working class memory. In “Of Love and Other Disasters” a divorced assembler meets a woman in a bar who is all wrong, way too skinny.  But there are other attractions, symbols of her life  as a punch press operator: she couldn’t get/her hands right, how the grease ate/so deeply into her skin it became/a part of her. He tries to find the lifeline in her palm and can’t. She cleans something, delicately, from his cheekbone. He thought, “Better/get out of here before it’s too late,” but/suspected too late was what he wanted.

If anything, Levine, a poet known for his use of common language,  is even more plain-spoken here. What disappointment is found in the volume comes from the infrequent use of the expected, cliched phrases that register before reading rather than registering surprise after. The even pacing of his phrases, despite often unpredictable line breaks, makes for a sort of music, more folk than formal, more ballad than be-bop. His narrative skills, built from memory, are as good as ever, and most of the poems here (unlike his earlier work) can be read as simple stories without attaching anything to their symbolic weight. The narrative function carries over especially well into the prose poems that make up the book’s third section.

The collection’s last poem, “Magic,” embraces everything that came before it: memory, class consciousness, cross-cultural coexistence, the importance attached to the future and its promise, the disappointment in realizing nothing changes. It carries stories inside stories, a nod to the jazz that reflected its time and, most importantly, the realization to regard myself as no part/of a great scheme that included everything. The poem closes with advice to the rest of us, disappointing only in its dependence on its lead cliche, on how to survive four score years and more: I had to put one foot in front of another,/both arms out for balance, stare ahead,/breathe like a beginner, and hope to arrive.–Cabbage Rabbit

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