Can you taste what I’m saying? The simple truths of Philip Levine

The Library of Congress has just announced that Philip Levine will succeed W.S. Merwin to the post of Poet Laureate Consultant this October.

Poetry has always been a calling for Levine. He began writing while working the night shift in an auto factory in his hometown Detroit in the early 1950s. He later recalled, “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.”* In an interview with Jeffery Brown for the PBS News Hour, he explained that although he hated the world of heavy industry, over time it grew from being an impediment to his aspirations as a writer to serving as the central theme of his work.

In 1953, he began graduate studies in creative writing at the University of Iowa, where his mentors included Robert Lowell and John Berryman. After earning a master’s degree, Levine taught technical writing in Iowa City, but in 1957, he relocated his family to California, where he would put down permanent roots.

Levine has had a prolific career as a writer. He has over twenty books of poetry to his credit, including The Simple Truth, which won the Pulitzer Prize, What is Work, which received the National Book Award, and Ashes: Poems New and Old, which was honored with the National Book Critics Circle Award and the first American Book Award for Poetry.

Although he is best known for poetry that expresses the dark desperation of the American working class, Levine’s work embraces a wider range of human experience. He has an uncanny ability not only to reconstruct moments lived in another place and time, but also to revisit them and inhabit them at will. His masterful ending of “Black Stone on Top of Nothing” perfectly captures the desolation of political exile.

César Vallejo untangled the black ribbon no one else saw and climbed
to his attic apartment and gazed out at the sullen rooftops
stretching southward toward Spain where his heart died. I know this.
I’ve walked by the same building year after year in late evening
when the swallows were settling noiselessly in the few sparse trees
beside the unused canal. I’ve come just after dawn,
I’ve come in spring, in autumn, in rain, and he was never there.

Levine has a very personal and authentic approach to both the form and content of his work. The Spanish poets Federico García Lorca and Antonio Machado may have informed his style, but his poems related to the Spanish Civil War are more an outgrowth of the enduring impressions he formed of that event during his childhood than an offshoot of his admiration for Spanish poets of the era. He organically assimilates what fascinates, troubles, or haunts him and gives it a human voice.

His poems are carefully layered reconstructions of scenes and events that fuse personal and collective memory, painstaking research, and social conscience. “The Mercy,” not only describes his mother’s experience as a young immigrant to the United States; it also conflates her experience with the experiences of others: those of a generous sailor who offers her the first orange she ever tasted, of Italian miners who leave one hell in Southern Europe only to fall into another in western Pennsylvania, and of the poet himself, who researches the subject of the poem he is writing in a public library on New York’s 42nd Street. Signifiers and their referents are the warp and woof of Levine’s work. The word mercy weaves in and out of  the fabric of this poem like a shuttle through a loom: as the title of the work, the name of a boat, a prayerful petition for protection that passed “unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored” on a dark night at sea, and a kind gesture of a stranger. In Levine’s hands, it becomes something palpable. Deftly shifting the voice from the she of his mother to the you of the reader to make the experience universal, he writes:

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.

Memory never descends into nostalgia in Levine’s poems, and no comfortable dust settles on his evocations of the past. Levine reduces the geographic, temporal, and cultural distances between the subject of a poem and the reader, which preserves the contemporaneity of the situations he writes about. There is no notable difference between the restless young people in Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” and the bathers in Levine’s Belle Isle, 1949.

We stripped in the first warm spring night
and ran down into the Detroit River
to baptize ourselves in the brine
of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles,
melted snow. I remember going under
hand in hand with a Polish high school girl
I’d never seen before, and the cries
our breath made caught at the same time
on the cold, and rising through the layers
of darkness into the final moonless atmosphere
that was this world, the girl breaking
the surface after me and swimming out
on the starless waters towards the lights
of Jefferson Ave.

An American poet laureate serves as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress—and by extension to the American public—for only one year. Hopefully, more Americans will discover Philip Levine’s poetry during his tenure and his work will receive more exposure around the world as a result of his appointment.

Across the planet, millions of people now find themselves facing a moment that calls for an honest reflection upon the most basic of their assumptions of what life is about. A book of Levine’s poetry would be a good companion on a journey into the individual and collective human spirit. As he states in his poem “The Simple Truth”:

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 by themselves . . .
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.

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* Quotation taken from an article in the poets.org website.

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