April 8, 1999
"The American experience," the poet Philip Levine writes in (1994), "is to return and discover one cannot even find the way, for the streets abruptly end, replaced by freeways, the houses have been removed for urban renewal that never takes place, and nothing remains." What has remained for Levine -- born in Detroit, in 1928, to parents who were Russian-Jewish immigrants -- is memory. Few writers have made one time and place as singularly their own as has Levine in his elegies for the working-class life of the city he knew as a child and young man. Yet when Levine visited Detroit in the aftermath of the devastating 1967 riots -- an event that spurred him on to write one of his best-known and most indelible poems, "They Feed They Lion" -- it was a city that he no longer recognized.
Levine left Detroit in his twenties -- first to attend the Writing Workshop at the University of Iowa (where he was taught by Robert Lowell and John Berryman) and then Stanford University (where he was a Stegner Fellow under Yvor Winters) -- and his poetry has ranged far beyond the setting of his childhood, from California to New York to Spain. Running through it all is a strong narrative current. "Everyone has a story," he writes in a recent poem, and in his poetry history and autobiography flow together in a confluence that unites the past, present, and future. It is a narrative-lyric mode as uniquely his own as the stories he tells.
In his new collection of poems, (reviewed this month in The Atlantic), Levine returns to his perennial subjects -- obsessions, he might say. In the title poem he evokes his mother's journey to Ellis Island as a child; in "The New World" he re-imagines the urban-immigrant landscape of his grandparents' Detroit; in "The Return" he delves into the mystery of his father's life (which ended when Levine was five years old); and in "Salt and Oil" he captures the timeless, suspended layering of memory in one of his most affecting working-class poems since those published in the National Book Award-winning volume (1991). Yet there is another strain in this collection. In poems like "Joe Gould's Pen" and "'He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do,'" Levine expresses doubts about the permanence and efficacy of words. As he does so, however -- in language of the utmost simplicity and clarity -- these poems often take on an incantatory, almost prayerlike, intensity. It is as though the effort is to overcome the inadequacies of language through its sheer rhythmic and musical power -- a kind of primal power to enthrall, to entrance, and, as he says in the poem "These Words," to comfort.