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At 83, Philip Levine has been writing poetry to the voiceless since he worked in Detroit’s auto factories when he was a young man. Last month, the Library of Congress honored his work, by naming Levine as the 18th U.S. poet laureate.
Dwight Garner of the New York Times writes that Levine’s work “radiates a heat of a sort not often felt in today’s poetry, that transmitted by grease, soil, factory light, cheap and honest food, sweat, low pay, cigarettes and second shifts. It is a plainspoken poetry ready-made, it seems, for a time of S&P downgrades, a double-dip recession and debts left unpaid.”
Some have faulted Levine’s work for relying too much on narrative descriptions that seem more journalistic than poetic.
Clayton Eshleman wrote in a Los Angeles Times review that “the literal perspective admits only a single actor in a single life scene,” and that Levine’s writing “boils down to: This is what happened to me and this is what I am.”
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work
You know what work is — if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
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. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
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.
— From “What Work Is,” by Philip Levine (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).
You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.
You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.
-From “News of the World,” by Philip Levine, (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011).
On 52nd Street
By Philip Levine
Down sat Bud, raised his hands,
the Deuces silenced, the lights
lowered, and breath gathered
for the coming storm. Then nothing,
not a single note. Outside starlight
from heaven fell unseen, a quarter-
moon, promised, was no show,
ditto the rain. Late August of ’50,
NYC, the long summer of abundance
and our new war. In the mirror behind
the bar, the spirits—imitating you—
stared at themselves. At the bar
the tenor player up from Philly, shut
his eyes and whispered to no one,
“Same thing last night.” Everyone
been coming all week long
to hear this. The big brown bass
sighed and slumped against
the piano, the cymbals held
their dry cheeks and stopped
chicking and chucking. You went
back to drinking and ignored
the unignorable. When the door
swung open it was Pettiford
in work clothes, midnight suit,
starched shirt, narrow black tie,
spit shined shoes, as ready
as he’d ever be. Eyebrows
raised, the Irish bartender
shook his head, so Pettiford eased
himself down at an empty table,
closed up his Herald Tribune,
and shook his head. Did the TV
come on, did the jukebox bring us
Dinah Washington, did the stars
keep their appointments, did the moon
show, quartered or full, sprinkling
its soft light down? The night’s
still there, just where it was, just
where it’ll always be without
its music. You’re still there too
holding your breath. Bud walked out.
-From “Breath,”by Philip Levine (Alfred A. Knopf in 2004).