I only first read about the work of Philip Levine last year, when I saw his obituary on the front page of The New York Times’ website:
Philip Levine, a former United States poet laureate whose work was vibrantly, angrily and often painfully alive with the sound, smell and sinew of heavy manual labor, died on Saturday morning at his home in Fresno, Calif. He was 87.
Often considered a blue-collar, workingman’s poet, much of Levine’s most evocative work drew from his experience on the car assembly lines during the decline of The Paris of the West, Detroit. Like Levine, I also grew up in the industrial Midwest — about 170 miles west along Lake Erie, in Cleveland, the spiritual sister to Levine’s native Detroit. While the era of an after-school job in a soap factory had passed me by, my childhood home was a short two miles from Cleveland’s river valley, the heart of steel country, and the big rusted blast forges that spewed fire into the night sky. Recently, when a friend offered to buy me a book, I eagerly asked for Levine’s What Work Is, his seminal, National-Book-Award-winning collection that cut to the quick of what it means to be a man of industrial means and memories, in search of “work.”
As it turns out, to read Philip Levine in this moment is to crack open a road map into the zeitgeist of populist, nativist, and nationalistic sentiments fueling unrest in globalized, post-industrial nations across the world, from the rise of far-right political parties in Europe, to the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, to the rise of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential elections. Even as political support for both factions, originally deemed “protest candidates,” spread to both rural and affluent demographics, the appeal of these movements comes from a Philip Levine-like anxiety of loss and decline. Campaign slogans like Sanders’s “We need a political revolution” or Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” are bred from a despair of losing something that was once a golden promise of individual success. There’s a palpable feeling of outrage and indignation at being left behind or sold out for the greater ideals of free trade and commerce, something that, way back in 1991, Philip Levine felt keenly, such as in his poem about the daily grind, “Every Blessed Day:”
Even before he looks he knows
the faces on the bus, some
going to work and some coming back,
but sealed in its hunger
for a different life, a lost life.
In the poem, the narrator, much like Levine once did, works at the “Chevy Gear & Axle #3.” Before going to punch in, he tries to find the “elusive calm/his father spoke of and searched for all his life,/there’s no way of telling. . .” To read Levine’s poetry is to fall into the ragged void of inexplicable loss, and it is to read poems about people who know there should be something more but cannot wrap their mouths around those words or look too closely into its core for the sheer pain and misery of this long demise. In “Coming Close,” Levine paints a portrait of a woman working at a polishing wheel — bone-weary after three straight hours without a single break — finding that the line between woman and machine wears away until:
. . .she would turn
to you and say, “Why?” Not the old why
of why must I spend five nights a week?
Just, “Why?” Even if by some magic
you knew, you wouldn’t dare speak
for fear of her laughter, which now
you have anyway as she places the five
tapering fingers of her filthy hand
on the arm of your white shirt to mark
you for your own, now and forever
The woman’s “‘Why?’” seems to be a question with an eternal flame, and it would be easy to put all sorts of identifiers after it: Why are my student loans so untenable? Why am I unable to find good, honorable work in my small town? Why does this job make me feel like an animal or a machine? Why cannot I not seem to get ahead? Why do we do this at all? But the simple provocation is enough, and the lingering stain of it causes the disruption and the true notion that there is unfairness in this despair. The question is an answer to a lie that has been brought about after doing everything right: graduating college or applying endlessly for work or working two jobs yet feeling unable to live a life worthy of a human being, let alone an “American.” In prognostic fashion, Levine’s “why,” as filthy and prohibitive as it might seem, is contagious and irreversible, and once it stains you it is forever a branding iron.
For Levine, however, the nature of this loss was not one of anger or even redemption, but of melancholy and introspection, as something that could always be delved into and learned from. Nowhere is this more potent than in the poem, “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School.” The narrator is a student in the class when the teacher draws a chalk line diagonally across the board and asks, “‘What have I done?’” The children take cracks at the obtuse riddle — one guesses a hypotenuse, one the roof of a barn — but the narrator’s thoughts are elsewhere, out on the window and on recess:
…It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the news winds…’
Yet despite the allure of the playground, the students are still stuck, trying to answer this incomprehensible question, and in many ways it feels the same as the “Why?” from earlier: if only the answer could reveal itself then they might be delivered to the sweet release of the playground or a quick sprint to the candy store to buy a Milky Way. Still, they are stuck in-between, not quite learning and not quite free: “I looked back for help, but now/ the trees bucked and quaked, and I knew this could go on forever.” The desire for help and resolution is so powerful and desperate, perhaps because it feels so caustic now with the appeal of national leaders who can say this stasis, this eternity is not the fault of the disenfranchised working class or professional peoples, instead it is the fault of a series of convenient boogeymen: immigrants, ineffectual leaders, power-hungry economic trading blocks, a sepia tone-soaked desire for the “good old days” rife with lopsided and clear-cut ideals, punctuated by much more “winning.” What’s interesting about Levine’s poetry in What Work Is is that he does not deign to imagine such woeful nostalgia and loss as solvable. For Levine, it is a clear and teachable thing to guide one’s life. The point of M. Degas’s question is not to solve the riddle, but to temper oneself in the face of its complex insolvability.
Central to all of this, quite clearly, is the elusive definition of “work,” as alluded to by the titular poem. Levine’s poetry shows it to be one of the most deeply held and vaguely defined words in English: work is eight hours in front of excel spreadsheets, but it’s also eight hours laying asphalt or cleaning gutters or taking care of children. It’s all the work people do in relationships, on themselves, for the greater good, for selfish ends, and more. You can see this in the poem, “Growth,” detailing Levine’s experience working as a teenager in a soap factory:
the squat Ukrainian dollied them in
to become, somehow, through the magic
of chemistry, pure soap. My job
was always the racks and the ovens—
two low ceilinged metal rooms
…the color of sick skin.
At once the work is ritualistic and meditative, wheeling these large drums back and forth, but despite its crass, grueling, and reductive nature, it is also singularly beautiful that their collective, rough, factory motions could — through the magic of chemistry and labor — turn fat into soap. The process is like alchemy, that amidst an act so disgusting and exhausting is the foundation of a civilized society, a thing as simple and essential as soap. Work, it would seem, is transcendent not just for the fat-turned-soap, but also for the young Levine himself at the end of the poem: “…my new life of working and earning,/ outside in the fresh air of Detroit/ in 1942, a year of growth.” There is a bitter taste of nostalgia in that last line, and it is clear that Levine values the factory horrors as much as his time spent in school or doing much else, and that the work there was very much the work of becoming himself.
The dichotomy and variety of “work” and what it ultimately means to Levine is perfectly captured in “What Work Is,” a poem that highlights Levine’s simplistic yet evocative style while striking near the heart of the brutality of this loss and questioning. In the poem, Men are waiting in the rain for “work:”
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.
The men are waiting for work, but there is also work being done to suffer through the rain, to have the patience and resilience to endure and earn that miserable answer. The narrator then shifts to remember his brother, who he thought he recognized in the crowd. He remembers their filial love and the work his brother did: working the night shift at Cadillac only to wake later to study German in order to sing Richard Wagner in an opera, as disparate a form of work as one waiting in the unemployment line at Ford Highland Park can imagine, but perhaps he can also begrudgingly admit that it is work, too. Finally, he wonders how long it has been since he’s done the work to tell his brother he loves him, if he ever has even said so:
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.
This one word, “work” is key to Levine’s success as a poet, and his ability to adapt it to so many different situations and forms gives his poetry a bottomless depth and nuance that is at once immediate, harrowing, and personally estranged. It seems, as a culture, we have calcified in our definitions of work: work is global trade or work is done with your hands and rewarded with a pension, work is against others or work is for me, and on and on. The winnowing of the variety of work has lead to derision and confusion and an anger that is fueled by a terrible sorrow — if there is only one sort of labor, and that is taken from you, then what do you have left? To read Philip Levine is to remember that work is done at the Chevy Gear & Axle plant, it is done bent over the polishing wheel, it is done over the music stand, it is done while waiting in the rain, it is done while scribbling poems, and it is even done in the words you form from your very own mouth.
Last year my mother died. Often, my habit and love for reading felt unbearable and foreign. Other weeks it was reading alone that comforted me. It was all I wanted to do, all I was capable of doing, because all I wanted was to live inside of sentences, stanzas, stories. I didn’t and couldn’t go out there, the world was glaring in its surface of sameness, but books were ultimately part of the company that drew me out of a space that was dangerous, expanding in its withdrawal and silence.
In 2015, I also had a book of my own published. And, honestly, it was difficult to navigate a space that suddenly felt inarticulate to me. Kind friends and kind strangers alike sent me specific titles regarding grief. I also consumed books where grief, loss, rebirth, and death were implicit, distilled, expanded into unbelievable landscapes I hadn’t seen or understood as clearly before, in the surreal afterlife of my mother’s absence.
One of the best books I read last year and have returned to more than once is Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World. The book left me speechless in its love, grace, and dignity. Reading that book gave me hope that I too could survive and celebrate life itself. Alexander’s book gave me hope and I picked up Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light and Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side. I also returned to Toi Derricotte’s The Undertaker’s Daughter.
Being on the road on tour for my own book, I often filled my suitcase with more books than clothing. Everything I wore was mostly black so I didn’t think or care about clothes at all. But I cared about books and knew there were certain books I needed to have with me should I wake up, inconsolable, in a hotel room on the other side of the country. And so, many books crossed state lines, their spines shifting in mile-high altitudes and time zones. I wrangled slim volumes of poetry into my camera bag, which was stuffed with lenses, notebooks, and a watercolor set.
I began thinking of books and geography, literally and psychically. I considered how landscapes affected my mood and how, of course, a voracious grief devoured everything. Sometimes I’d get frustrated because I couldn’t remember names of favorites characters or the way those characters in those books had once made me feel, so I’d go back and reread them. And, in my travels, I often looked out for marvelous independent bookstores where I would then pick up more books, often shipping them back to Brooklyn when I realized I’d be charged at the airport for being over the weight restrictions.
While working on a photography project in Oxford, Miss., last summer I reread William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Eudora Welty’s On Writing. I’d also carried around Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poems, edited by Kevin Young, because I was working on photographs about black women’s bodies, identities, and the presence and interruption of landscape in terms of blackness.
This journey made me pick up a second or third copy of Roger Reeves’s King Me because I ended up driving down to Money, Miss., and further into the Delta. King Me made me go searching for Jean Toomer’s Cane and Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road. Hurston’s grace and excellence sent me back, gratefully, into the words of Henry Dumas, Langston Hughes, and Robert Hayden.
While I was in Portland, I caught up with Matthew Dickman but was so shy about meeting him I forgot to ask him to sign the hardcover of Mayakovsky’s Revolver I’d stashed in my rental car. And when I traveled down to Santa Fe to teach at IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts), I dove again into Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song and read Jessica Jacobs’s Pelvis with Distance because I was in Georgia O’Keeffe country. I’m still working through O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz’s letters, My Faraway One, and made some serious dents in it this year.
I’ve opened up Vladimir Nabokov’s Letters to Véra and placed those two near each other, like constellations, in my reading stack. Speaking of women artists, I reread the Diary of Frida Kahlo and Hayden Herrera’s biography of Frida Kahlo because I curated the Poetry Society of America’s Poetry Walk for the New York Botanical Garden’s astonishing exhibition “Frida Kahlo: Art Garden Life.” Lucky for me, I got to spend lots and lots of time with the poetry of Octavio Paz, one of my favorites!
A dear friend just sent me a copy of Larry Levis’s The Darkening Trapeze. Literally, I’ve been hiding out in my house to devour it in one sitting, which obviously led to a second sitting so I could read the entire book aloud. But I had to leave my house eventually, so Levis has been riding the subways with me. We’re great company for each other.
Reading Levis, of course, made me pick up Philip Levine’s What Work Is again and that somehow made me pull out W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, and Jack Gilbert. When I journeyed to Vermont for the Brattleboro Festival, I cried at a moving tribute for Galway Kinnell and that made me buy another copy of The Book of Nightmares, which made me stay up all night in my hotel room reading aloud, remembering once how I’d been fortunate enough to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with Kinnell and so many other poets like Cornelius Eady and Marilyn Nelson and Martín Espada. And I think it was over 90 degrees out and Bill Murray walked across that day with us too. Anyway, Kinnell pushed me toward Seamus Heaney and Czesław Miłosz. Throw in Tomas Tranströmer and Amiri Baraka’s SOS: 1961 – 2013, and somehow eventually I’m holding Federico García Lorca, who is always near, and whose words also travel with me on trains, planes, and dreams.
When I read poetry I’ll sometimes take down several poets who may or may not be speaking clearly to one another in some tone or mood or style. It helps me hear each of them even more clearly.
Finally, I think, if there’s time, the last two things I hope to read (again) before 2016 arrives will be Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and the letters of Vincent Van Gogh.
As I sit here looking at the bookshelves crammed with new books, I simply sigh in joy and think, too, of the stacks of books at my visual art studio nearby. This year I’m a reader for something for PEN, which means in the last months I’ve read over 50 books by writers of color, including poetry, fiction, and non fiction. Thinking just of that list alone, there are far too many books this year for me to include here. How wonderful! We’re all better for it!
So, here, quickly, are some more titles, both old and new, that changed me, whether by their grief, their beauty, their joy, their violence, their ambition, their desire, their imagination, their history, or future, but always, by their truth and courage:
Ross Gay, Unabashed Catalogues of Gratitude
Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn; Lighthead
Patrick Phillips, Elegy for a Broken Machine
Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things
Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus
Jack Gilbert, Collected
Carl Phillips, Reconnaissance
Nicholas Wong, Crevasse
Vievee Francis, Forest Primeval
Kyle Dargan, Honest Engine
Nick Flynn, My Feelings
Tonya M. Foster, A Swarm of Bees in High Court
Rickey Laurentiis, Boy with Thorn
Jonathan Moody, Olympic Butter Gold
Margo Jefferson, Negroland
Chris Abani, Song for Night
Rick Barot, Chord
Major Jackson, Roll Deep
Yesenia Montilla, The Pink Box
Randall Horton, Hook
Parneshia Jones, Vessel
Ellen Hagan, Hemisphere
Yusef Komunyakaa, The Emperor of Water Clocks
Audrey Niffenegger, Raven Girl
Michael Klein, When I Was a Twin
Patti Smith, M Train
Marie Cardinal, The Words to Say It
Dawn Lundy Martin, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life
Michel Archimbaud, Francis Bacon: In Conversation with Michel Archimbaud
Paul Beatty, The Sellout
Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping; Lila
Chinelo Okparanta, Under the Udala Trees
Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite, War of the Encyclopaedists
Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer
Marie Mockett, Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye
Herta Müller, The Hunger Angel
Naomi Jackson, The Star Side of Bird Hill
Helen Macdonald, H Is for Hawk
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists
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Behold the magisterial front end of the 1954 Buick: the toothy chrome grill, the sharply tipped mammiferous bulbs of the “Dagmar” bumper, the “bombsight” hood ornament, the tear-drop headlights, all of it wrapped in luscious lipstick-red sheet metal. This rolling work of art serves as proof, if any were still needed, that they don’t make cars like they used to. It has also served as the muse for all the fiction I have written, providing a way for me to travel, in comfort and at speed, into my chosen theme: the hollow promises of the American Dream in the years following the Second World War.
Many people under the age of 40 have trouble believing it, but there was a 30-year period, from roughly the mid-1940’s until the mid-1970’s, when the United States of America truly had it going on. The economy was robust, the middle class was thriving, cars were big and fast and flashy and fun, and infectious pop music kept pouring out of Muscle Shoals, Memphis, Motown, and countless points in between.
It didn’t last, of course. It couldn’t possibly last. The buzz kill ’70s brought Arab oil embargoes, military defeat in Vietnam, the trauma of Watergate, and the simultaneous decline of Detroit and rise of the Japanese auto industry. And then, to seal the deal, along came disco, followed by Ronald Reagan and the long, systematic dismantling of the American middle class.
Those of us who lived through the so-called golden years of the so-called American Century tend to edit out certain inconvenient subtexts. There was the ever-present dread of nuclear annihilation; and if you happened to be a person of color, female, poor, or gay, there was (and still is) a good chance you were not enjoying a full share of the bounty. America’s swagger, it turns out, was built on flimsy hubris, a blinkered parochialism, and major inequalities. Oh, and cheap oil.
Yet there is no denying that something magical happened in America in the three decades after the Second World War, and it’s not surprising that writers continue to mine those years not only for their exuberant hardware, but also as a measure of just how much the world has changed. Almost always, that’s a way of saying just how much we’ve lost.
Timothy Walsh is the latest writer to revisit those expansive, metaphor-rich boom years. His third book of poetry is called When the World Was Rear-Wheel Drive, an automotive metaphor that establishes Walsh’s attachment to a time before today’s de-sexed, front-wheel drive, fuel-efficient hybrid cars, which is to say a time before our globalized economy and its computers and ruthless efficiency and digitized everything. The book’s subtitle is New Jersey Poems, and while there is a strong sense of place — the Jersey suburbs and shore, the looming allure of nearby New York City, that “oversize Oz” — the subtitle could also have been Rust Belt Poems, for these poems will resonate with anyone who lived in America’s industrial cities at their peaks, places like Newark and Buffalo and Cleveland and Detroit, places that suffered horrifically when America shed its rear-wheel drive past and American industry moved overseas, taking a way of life with it.
Walsh — a white, Catholic, middle-class baby boomer — beautifully captures what it was like to come of age in that vanished world. It was a world of ice cream trucks, Halloween pranks, jobs delivering newspapers, and pumping gas, eventually moving on to the adolescent world of girls and garage bands, motorcycles and muscle cars. This sounds more Mayberry than it reads on the page. Walsh deftly renders a world on the cusp — it’s both palpable and in the process of vanishing. He captures what Elizabeth Spencer captured in her 1960 novella The Light in the Piazza — “America’s midcentury moment of confidence,” in the words of Michael Gorra, “the confidence of people who thought, however briefly, that they could do anything.” A sense of the imminent, inevitable loss of this confidence is at the core of these poems, and it comes through most viscerally when people are in cars. Here’s a memory of riding in a Buick Wildcat:
What I remember most were those butterfly windows,
those hinged triangles of glass that angle outward
so you could ride with the windows wide open
and not get blasted by road wind.
Butterfly windows – gone the way of telephone booths,
transistor radios, and fountain pens.
Now we drive, hermetically sealed in sleek,
engines silent as stealth,
traveling through the world like something preserved
in glass jars,
shutting out the sounds and smells of summer –
the drone of cicadas and lawnmowers,
the musk of new-mown grass.
I also hear echoes of Philip Levine, the great poet of my hometown, Detroit, who captured the drudgery, terror, and occasional beauty of factory work in such books as Not This Pig and What Work Is. Here is Walsh’s description of working at a gas station:
When the big tanker trucks rumbled in,
dropped their load of gas into the underground tanks,
someone had to climb up with a flashlight
to check that the truck was actually empty.
Peering into the truck’s gaping belly, gasoline vapors
swirling, a voluptuous fog,
the polished steel innards gleaming like a gun-metal dawn,
it never didn’t occur to you that one spark –
one errant static discharge –
and you were history – blown to smithereens,
your molecules and atoms salting the woods,
raining down on the river.
There is humor here, too, including a poem called “Slingshot in the Confessional,” which goes a long way toward explaining why Catholics tend to be among the most imaginative and inveterate sinners:
Kneeling in the dark confessional, speaking through the screen,
the dark shadow-shape of the priest lurking,
you’d recite your litany of minor disobediences, curse words,
lies, and fights,
the squirt gun or slingshot in your pocket
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,
the priest would conclude,
sending you forth into the world cleansed and refreshed,
ready to embark on another round of transgressions.
In his memoir called Downtown, Pete Hamill gives voice to a nostalgia much like Walsh’s, but filtered through the eyes of immigrants, including his Irish-born parents. Hamill defines this nostalgia as “an almost fatalistic acceptance of the permanence of loss.” Hamill’s parents lost the world of the Old Country; Walsh and his post-war New Jersey clan lost an equally vibrant world. Hamill writes:
Every immigrant knew what Africans had learned in the age of
slavery: that there was a world that was once there in the most
intimate way and was now gone. Part of the past. Beyond retrieval.
On the deepest level, it didn’t matter whether you had that past taken
from you, as had happened to the Africans, of whether you had
decided personally to leave it behind. At a certain hour of the night,
the vanished past could be vividly alive.
When the World Was Rear-Wheel Drive is that certain hour of the night. It understands that loss is imminent and inevitable, and that the things we have lost are beyond retrieval. That’s what makes it so painful, and so lovely.
1. A Sacred Vocation
“I was first introduced to Philip Levine through the mail in the summer of 1976,” Mona Simpson wrote by way of introducing her interview with the poet in The Paris Review in 1988. For my part, I was first introduced to Philip Levine through his second book of poems, Not This Pig, in the spring of 1976.
“I was studying literature at Berkeley,” Simpson continued, “and my friends and I, all college freshmen or sophomores, were ardent readers of Levine, W.S. Merwin, Donald Justice, Gary Snyder and Hart Crane.” At that time I was studying English at Brown, I was a senior, and I was an ardent reader of Merwin, Snyder and Crane, with heaping side orders of Baudelaire and Bukowski, Stevens and Williams, Ginsberg and Rimbaud. I knew already that I had no talent for writing poetry, but I loved to read it because I believed then as I believe now that its compression and precision make it the highest form of writing, even more exalted than the beloved novel.
Simpson went on, “A friend from the college literary magazine, The Berkeley Poetry Review, introduced me to Ernest Benck, a California poet, who kindly sent some of both of our poems to Levine. Levine wrote back to us, marking our poems assiduously. Since then I have received many letters from him, always on yellow legal paper with comments like, ‘I’m not sure my remarks, which are fairly nasty at times, really indicate…’ His comments, though never nasty, were always serious, as if he took the business of correspondence to be part of the education of a poet. I had the feeling he wrote many such letters to young poets around the country: poets driving trucks, picking oranges, poets who were waiters and acupuncturists’ assistants and college students.”
This is where Simpson’s story and mine, after nearly twinned beginnings, started to diverge. I never sent Levine any poems and he never sent me any letters. But I kept reading his poetry, marveling at the development of his craft, his earthy subject matter, and his unkillable passion for poems in a country that was doing its best to marginalize all serious writing, especially poetry.
Finally, Simpson summed up the lesson she learned from all the letters she has received from Levine over the years: “Levine takes his role as mentor with the responsibility of a sacred vocation.”
All of which is a roundabout way of saying I believe Philip Levine is going to make a sublime Poet Laureate when he takes over the post on October 17.
2. Not This Pig
When the pupil is ready to learn, says the Zen proverb, a teacher will appear. Without realizing it, I was ready to learn from Not This Pig when it came roaring into my life, unannounced, in the spring of 1976. I had never heard of Philip Levine and I don’t remember how I came to the book (or how it came to me), but I do remember being intrigued the instant I picked up this thin $2 paperback and read Levine’s remark on the back cover that the book’s 37 poems “mostly record my discovery of the people, places and animals I am not, the ones who live at all cost and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos – a gesture they don’t need – would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or ‘No pasaran’ or ‘Not this pig.'”
The book’s opening poems were an astonishment. Written in sparkling, almost stark language – with short lines and non-existent or haphazard rhyme schemes – the poems are populated with auto workers and other prosaic nobodies doing the most unspectacular things: driving home to Detroit after an all-night drinking spree in Toledo; stopping on the side of the road to piss in the snow; tripping the switch that stirs to life the “slow elephant feet” of a metal-stamping press; driving overnight from Detroit to Chicago to see what Lake Michigan looks like at dawn. This last poem, “A New Day,” ends with a stanza I can still recite from memory 35 years after first reading it:
And what we get is what we bring:
A grey light coming on at dawn,
No fresh start and no bird song
And no sea and no shore
That someone hasn’t seen before.
In these poems, shorelines are not open places full of promise and possibility. They’re where the land dies, where things end, where Levine’s characters come up against the iron limitations of their small lives. This carries a predictable sense of resignation, but in this resignation there is no admission of defeat; there is, paradoxically, a stubborn refusal to succumb to monstrous and superior forces, in this case the great dehumanizing dynamos of the industrial Midwest. These are, remember, people who live at all cost and come back for more and say, “Don’t tread on me” and “Not this pig.” Their refusal to admit defeat is a triumphant twist, one that reminds me of Camus’ struggle to find the strength “to accept what exists once I have recognized that I cannot change it.”
Philip Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and went to work in a soap factory at the age of 14. For the next dozen years he worked a series of brain-killing factory jobs at Chevrolet Gear & Axle, at Cadillac, at Brass Craft, at Feinberg and Breslin’s First-Rate Plumbing and Plating – jobs that nearly crushed his spirit and his body but wound up providing him with rich and unlikely fodder for his poetry. “Those were my first good Detroit work poems – the poems in Not This Pig…,” Levine told an interviewer for The Cortland Review in 1999. “It’s ironic that while I was a worker in Detroit, which I left when I was 26, my sense was that the thing that’s going to stop me from being a poet is the fact that I’m doing this crummy work… I’m going to fuck up because what am I doing? I’m going to work every day. The irony is, going to work every day became the subject of probably my best poetry. But I couldn’t see that at the time. And it took me another ten years to wake up to it – that I had a body of experience that nobody else had.”
There are several reasons why I was so ready to learn from Not This Pig in the spring of 1976. First I, like Levine, had grown up in Detroit and was, like all residents of that once-proud, now-ruined city, attuned to the all-powerful rhythms of its auto industry. My father, like everyone’s father, worked in the industry, not in the oceanic roar of a car factory but in the considerably less brutal buzzing of the Ford Motor Company’s public relations hive. Second, there is a narrative quality to these early poems (and many that would follow), a straightforward telling of stories about unpoetic people that appeals to my own novelistic temperament. Levine once said, “One of the aspects of my own poetry that I like best is the presence of people who don’t seem to make it into other people’s poems… What I regard as novelistic about my work is the telling of tales, which is utterly natural to me. How can a poet or fiction writer tell the truth…if he or she can’t present the events in a meaningful sequence, which is what a story is?” And most importantly, when I first read Not This Pig in the spring of 1976 I was living in the gray borderlands between two worlds, getting ready to leave the world of school and go off into the world of work. It was a confusing time and a confusing place. I had known since the age of 10 that I wanted to be a writer – a real writer, a novelist – but after two years of college I’d become convinced that further schooling would be a waste of time. I was a 19-year-old kid from the middle class who had not yet lived, and I told myself that if I wanted to write fiction I would need a “body of experience,” to borrow Levine’s phrase.
So I dropped out of college after my sophomore year, loaded my dog into my ’54 Chevy pickup truck, and took off on an erratic cross-country odyssey that was equal parts Travels With Charley and On the Road, with a few pop quizzes from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test along the way. I got jobs as a racehorse groom, a farm hand, a dish washer, a fruit picker. I worked alongside rednecks, cowboys, Mexican immigrants, Okies and Arkies, people I was not, the ones who lived at all cost and came back for more. One day in northern California, while high in a tree picking fat green Gravenstein apples and listening to my fellow workers chatter in Spanish, I had an epiphany. This was the summer of 1974, the summer when Woodward and Bernstein were completing the ruination of Richard Nixon, and it occurred to me that if I wanted to be a writer I needed to quit picking apples and start getting paid to write. And the best way to do that would be to get a job as a newspaper reporter. And the only way to get such a job, given the “credentials inflation” of the day, was to get a pointless but prerequisite college degree. So I returned to college where, in the spring of my senior year, I came upon a book of poems that proved to me that art can be made from absolutely anything, from a night-shift job at Chevy Gear & Axle or a job picking Gravenstein apples, and that if I truly wanted to be a writer it was up to me to get busy making use of my own body of experience and, far more important, my imagination, my wits, and my will.
Philip Levine made me believe I could do it.
3. Small Heroics
In 1988, while I was struggling to write a novel set in Detroit during the 1967 riots, Levine published a book of poems called A Walk With Tom Jefferson. Like Not This Pig, the book came into my life, almost magically, at a moment when I was ready to learn from it. In one of the book’s first poems, “Winter Words,” I heard a thrilling echo of “A New Day”:
Friday night, after swing shift we drove
the narrow, unmarked country roads searching
for Lake Erie’s Canadian shore.
Later, wrapped in rough blankets, barefoot
on a private shoal of ground stones
we watched the stars vanish as the light
of the world rose slowly from the great
gray inland sea. Wet, shivering, raised
our beer cans to the long seasons
to come. We would never die.
But it was the long title poem, which comprises the second half of the book, that spoke most powerfully to me. While revisiting his hometown some twenty years after the riots, Levine happened to meet an out-of-work autoworker named Tom Jefferson who was living in an abandoned house on a burned-out block, growing flowers and vegetables, eking out a humble but proud life. Tom Jefferson, who had come up from Alabama, needed just a dozen outraged words to sum up the history of Detroit: “We all come for $5 a day and we got this!” In that Paris Review interview with Mona Simpson, Levine talked about how the poem came into being: “I met a guy who lived in one of these (abandoned) houses. He didn’t own it or rent it, and in fact he didn’t even know who owned it. He described his life there, and the poem rose out of the conversation we had. It also came out of the hope that the city might be reborn inside itself, out of its own ruins, phoenix-like, rising out of its own ashes. Except I don’t see it in heroic terms. The triumphs are small, personal, daily. Nothing grandly heroic is taking place; just animals and men and flowers and plants asserting their right to be, even in this most devastated of American cities.”
“Nothing heroic is happening in Detroit,” Simpson says.
“Nothing epic,” Levine replies. “Just the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn’t give a shit, getting through the world with as much dignity as you can pull together from the tiny resources left to you. It’s the truly heroic. The poem is a tribute to all these people who survived in the face of so much discouragement. They’ve survived everything America can dish out. No, nothing grandly heroic is happening in Detroit. I guess nothing grandly heroic ever took place there; it was always automobiles, automobiles, hard work, and low pay.”
Again, Levine had passed along a valuable lesson – that heroics can be small, that there is something immense about animals and men and flowers and plants asserting their right to be in the most hostile of circumstances. It was a revelation that helped me see my own novel with fresh eyes. I was trying to write with broad brushstrokes about big themes – race, rage, revenge – when I should have been concentrating on my characters’ personal daily triumphs and setbacks, the small heroics of getting through the day. Levine helped me finish writing that book.
4. A Message From the Kingdom of Fire
If Not This Pig contained Levine’s first good Detroit work poems, then 1991’s What Work Is contained his very best. The book won the National Book Award, justly so, and minted Levine as a major American poet after thirty years of steady toil. (Four years later he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Simple Truth, and he has been awarded numerous other poetry prizes.) What Work Is opens with a poem called “Fear and Fame,” which comes on like a blowtorch and sets the tone of all that follows:
Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acid lowered to me on ropes – all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric
steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash
of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,
metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts,
until I knew the burning stew was done.
Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer
returned to the ordinary blinking lights
of the swingshift at Feinberg and Breslin’s
First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message
from the kingdom of fire. Oddly enough
no one welcomed me back, and I’d stand
fully armored as the downpour of cold
water rained on me and the smoking traces puddled
at my feet like so much milk and melting snow.
Such crystalline, deceptively simple writing is the work of a master at the pinnacle of his powers. There is great dignity here, and rich humor too – this working stiff seeing himself as a knight, an adventurer, a chef preparing a lethal stew, and winding up amazed that no one, “oddly enough,” welcomes him back from his epic adventure down inside a kingdom of fire that is, in truth, nothing but a poisonous pickling tank.
5. Gifts That Change Our Lives
Though now justly famous as a poet – if “famous poet” is not too ridiculous an oxymoron in 21st-century America – Levine also happens to be a superb writer of non-fiction. His 1994 book, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, is less a memoir or straight autobiography than a collection of impressionistic essays about his boyhood and early manhood in Detroit, his later years in California, where he taught poetry, and his travels in Spain, where he fell under the spell of Gaudi’s architecture and Machado’s poetry and the legends of the doomed anarchists who’d inspired the Spanish Civil War. While writing the book, Levine reports, “I realized I was striving to account for how I became the particular person and poet I am.”
The book opens with a portrait of his two teachers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1950s, the disappointing Robert Lowell and the ferociously inspiring John Berryman. It was Berryman who instilled in Levine and his classmates – including Donald Justice, W. D. Snodgrass, Jane Cooper, William Dickey, and Robert Dana – the notion that writing poetry is a serious, nearly sacred pursuit, one that requires intensive study and a lifetime of hard work. Yet Berryman was not without a sense of humor. At the end of the semester, teacher and pupil had a conversation about what a poet should look like. “No poet worth his salt is going to be handsome; if he or she is beautiful there’s no need to create the beautiful,” Berryman told Levine. “Beautiful people are special; they don’t experience life like the rest of us.” (Lord Byron, apparently, was the exception who proved this curious rule.) After a pause, Berryman added, “Don’t worry about it, Levine, you’re ugly enough to be a great poet.”
Levine has reverential feelings for his two most influential mentors – Berryman, the future suicide, and Yvor Winters, who taught Levine that his soul is the part of him that leaves each time he lies. I’m convinced that this reverence goes a long way toward explaining why Levine came to regard his own teaching duties as a sacred vocation, why he has written so many letters on yellow legal paper critiquing the poems of Mona Simpson and all those other young poets who were driving trucks and picking oranges and struggling to be poets.
There is a lovely essay called “Entering Poetry” about boyhood nights when Levine climbed up into trees in the woods near his home in Detroit and spoke to the stars. “I would say ‘rain’ and ‘moon’ in the same sentence and hear them echo each other, and a shiver of delight would pass through me,” he writes. One night, noticing that his hands smell of earth and iron, he says to the stars, “These hands have entered the ground from which they sprang.” “That,” he reports giddily, “was the first night of my life I entered poetry.”
Not long after entering poetry, Levine discovered his first poet. “When I was in the eleventh grade and the war was still going,” he said in an interview with The New Yorker in 2006, “a teacher read us some poems by Wilfred Owen. And after class, for some reason, she called me up to her desk and said, ‘Would you like to borrow this book?’ How she knew that I was responding so powerfully to these poems, I’m not sure, but I was. She said, ‘Now, I want you to take it home, and read it with white gloves on.’ In other words, don’t spill soup on it. It was probably the most significant poetic experience I had in my whole life, and I was only seventeen.”
In the essay “The Poet in New York in Detroit,” Levine describes his young self as “a humiliated wage slave employed by a vast corporation I loathed,” namely General Motors. The chapter opens with a frank portrait of this wage slave’s unlikely path to poetry: “In the winter of 1953 I was working at Chevrolet Gear and Axle, a factory in Detroit long ago dismantled and gone to dust. I worked the night shift, from midnight to eight in the morning, then returned by bus to my apartment, slept for a time, and rose to try to write poetry, for I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought too that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life – or at least the part my work played in it – I could embrace it with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.” I have not read a more succinct portrait of an artist as a young man bursting with an impossible and gorgeous dream. Speaking of his heroes Berryman and Winters, Keats and Whitman, Machado and Garcia Lorca, Levine wrote words I wish I had written about Levine: “That’s what they give us, the humble workers in the fields of poetry, these amazingly inspired geniuses, gifts that change our lives.”
Levine concludes, from long personal experience, that Diego Rivera’s graceful, colorful frescoes of autoworkers at the Detroit Institute of Arts are “nonsense.” I agree, partly on aesthetic grounds and partly because Rivera, that great communist and champion of the working man, was paid out of the bottomless pockets of Henry Ford’s son, Edsel. Likewise his ill-fated mural at Rockefeller Center in New York City, which was paid for (and destroyed) by another family not known for its liberal politics or the sympathetic treatment of the working man.
The only weak stuff in The Bread of Time is an essay called “Class With No Class,” in which Levine throws a roundhouse punch at the people who have grown rich at the expense of wage slaves like himself, all those country club swells in Grosse Pointe and Bloomfield Hills and Sherwood Forest. Levine, it turns out, is much better at celebrating than at denigrating. Yet “Class With No Class,” for all its flaws, had the salutary effect of revivifying the legends of class warfare all Detroiters grow up with. Now more than ever those legends demand to be remembered. In 1937, Henry Ford, the anti-Semitic, anti-union founder of the company my father would eventually work for, had sent his goons out from his River Rouge plant to bloody Walter Reuther and other United Auto Workers union organizers in the notorious Battle of the Overpass. A few months earlier, workers at one of GM’s Fisher Body plants in nearby Flint had shut down the assembly line and barricaded themselves inside the factory until the exasperated General Motors brass broke down and agreed to negotiate its first contract with the union. We’ve come a long way since those heroic days. We now live in an age of high unemployment when labor unions – that is, people who work for a middle-class wage teaching school and making cars and climbing down into pickling tanks – are being laid off and demonized for somehow causing the current economic malaise. Meanwhile, as vast corporations and rich individuals enjoy unconscionable tax breaks and immunity from the public’s wrath, the middle class doesn’t even realize that it’s been hoodwinked, or that it’s sinking faster by the day.
For this reason, among a great many others, I was thrilled when the Library of Congress announced that our next Poet Laureate will be a card-carrying member of the proletariat, a man who went to work in a Detroit soap factory at the age of 14 and, from that unpromising beginning, went on to write timeless poems and pass along his passion for poetry to hundreds of students like Mona Simpson and untold thousands of ordinary readers like me.
We’re an unmoored country that needs to be reminded what work is – and what it is not – and there’s no one more qualified for the job than Philip Levine.