Poet of the Factory Floor

PHILIP Levine's poetry has been steadily moving to the front rank of American poetry for three decades. Unlike a vast quantity of the poetry of those years, his has never fallen out. It contains elements unique to him -- not only a very special personal history but also a particular view of American life. If Walt Whitman's vision contained multitudes, and if Emerson's vision of nature transcended what it saw with its own eyes, Levine's poetic vision, nearly religious, transcends class, transcends natural boundaries, and transcends time.

The title poem in his new book, The Mercy (his eighteenth collection), describes how Levine's mother in 1913 crossed the Atlantic to Ellis Island. Her ship, the Mercy, was held for a month in smallpox quarantine in New York harbor, where a Scottish sailor gave the girl a bite of an orange and taught her the name of this exotic fruit.

A nine-year-old girl
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.

Born in Detroit in 1928, Levine grew up and was educated there, and he stayed on, working at jobs in factories. Places like Chevy Gear & Axle, Leo's Tool & Die, Dodge Main, Woodward Avenue, Hamtramck, and River Rouge stud the surface of his poetry like jewels. Levine cherishes the intimate glow of alienation that industrial work imposes as a condition of labor.

There is no
photograph, no mystery,
only Salt and Oil
in the daily round of the world,
three young men in dirty work clothes
on their way under a halo
of torn clouds and famished
        city birds.
There is smoke and grease, there is
the wrist's exhaustion, there is
        laughter, . . .

Though The Mercy culminates Levine's productive poetic career, this volume of thirty-seven poems revisits themes he began with forty years ago and gathers in ones he has developed since: Detroit and working men and women; Spain and the aspiration toward anarchism that inspirited the Spanish Civil War; California, New York, and other American regions where Levine has spent the greater part of his life teaching the art of poetry. Wherever Levine's poems take root, they blossom into vision: in "Angel Butcher," written nearly thirty years ago, he addresses an angel (possibly the twin brother who now and then puts in an appearance in his poems) who works next to the speaker in a slaughterhouse.

. . . I hear
my breathing double
and he's beside me smiling
like a young girl. . . .

                     He asks
me how I came to this place and
this work, and I tell him how
I began with animals, and
he tells me how
he began with animals. We
talk about growing up and losing
the strange things we never
understood and settling.

This abattoir seems to stand for industrial work of any kind, work that Levine tells us he deliberately chose as a young man. He has never turned his back on it, though he moved away from Detroit after only about half a dozen years of full-time industrial labor. In The Bread of Time (1994), a wonderfully direct yet evocative book of autobiographical essays, he speaks of how he came to his poetic vision of labor.

When I closed my eyes and looked back into the past, I did not see the blazing color of the forges of nightmare or the torn faces of the workers. I didn't hear the deafening ring of metal on metal, or catch under everything the sweet stink of decay. Not on that morning. Instead I was myself in the company of men and women of enormous sensitivity, delicacy, consideration.... In those terrible places designed to rob us of our bodies and our spirits, we sustained each other.

In other poems and essays he speaks, too, of the visions evoked in the Spanish countryside, where he managed to spend sabbatical years with his wife and three sons, and to learn enough Spanish to comprehend the poetry of the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado.

I delight to imagine Machado at his evening walk.... The air deepens and stills in the fields; time stops. Something like a vision rises in the golden dust of sunset, a vision of a world sweet enough to welcome the human heart freed from vanity and greed. I delight to imagine Antonio Machado alive in a world of others as good as he, a world as glorious as the simple language he found to create it.

Levine's poetry moves with quiet confidence into a language as pure and lucid as Machado's. Not that such language is new to him. In all the years since he first encountered the simplicity of Machado and William Carlos Williams, he has continuously cleansed his way of speaking. In books of poetry including (1991) and The Simple Truth (1994) he dedicated and rededicated himself to the understanding of two regions over which American poetry only hesitantly lingers: the nature of work, and the evidence of the senses. These two books won, respectively, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize -- which goes to prove that not all prizes reach the undeserving.In the former book he wrote,

These are the children of Flint, their
work at the spark plug factory
        or truck
bottled water in 5 gallon sea-blue jugs
to the widows of the suburbs. You
        can see
already how their backs have
how their small hands, soiled by
        pig iron,
leap and stutter even in dreams.

In the latter he eased the burden of intensity even more.

Some things
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.

Now Levine has reached the age of seventy-one; in The Mercy he writes about the sort of understanding that age does most to endow -- the need to accept the finality of the passage of time. In "The Return," my favorite among the poems in this volume (it appeared first in this magazine), the poet speaks of trying to follow in the footsteps of his father, long dead: "I considered but decided to go alone,/determined to find what he had never found." And in "The Secret" he writes of the death of his mother at a great age.

When you lived the secret
was yourself. You gave away
hours, days, years, 94 in all,
but never that. Your secret
is safe tonight. The earth turns
toward darkness, and the earth
asks nothing.

As the poet ages, he ages into elegy. The wildness of early discovery gradually transmutes into a broader and calmer understanding and, finally, rises to face what we have no choice but to accept: the eternity of the earth and of aspiration, the permanence of breath and of hope. There is in this acceptance only a sort of delight in the fact that things are as they are, and that the world continues, with us or without us.

If you asked
the sources of his glee he would shrug
his thick shoulders and roll his eyes
upward to where the turning leaves
take the wind, and the gray city birds
dart toward their prey, and flat clouds
pencil their obscure testaments
on the air.

The many passages I have quoted from Philip Levine's masterly poems give evidence, over and over again, that the most complete way to discover and understand the content of infinity and permanence is through the agency of our miraculous tool, the senses. Listen to the sound of those lines just above and notice how our senses are urged toward understanding, either through the actual words or by their sound -- especially by the motion of the verbs as they shrug those thick shoulders, as the leaves take the wind, as the birds dart toward their prey, and the clouds pencil their testaments. Where? On the air, of course. Where can more infinite a picture be penciled?

Philip Levine's vision of the American city may on its surface appear grim, yet there are always flowers blooming in the empty lots and along the half-deserted avenues. Poets are enabled to notice such things. In speaking of his childhood in Detroit, Levine writes of "the quiet world I left behind years ago."

How ordinary
it all was, the dawn breaking each
        morning, dusk
arriving on time just as the lights
        of houses
came softly on. Why can't I ever
        let it go?

Ordinary, you say? Not on your tintype. Nor is the following passage from a longish poem titled "Joe Gould's Pen," which sets out to describe the aspiration of Joe Gould, the famous street hero who spent his life in New York in a vain attempt to record the oral history of his times. "Everyone has a story," Levine writes, and here is Joe Gould's, which may stand for the inevitable failure that all poets know, penciling testaments on the air as they do.

He carried his swollen books
in a cardboard folder stained
with black coffee and clutched
to his chest as though they were
his own life. Perhaps they were.
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.

Peter Davison is the poetry editor of The Atlantic.

The Atlantic Monthly; April 1999; Poet of the Factory Floor; Volume 283, No. 4; pages 108-112.