February 17, 2015

Remembering Philip Levine

we'll leave the world weighing
no more than when we came

wrote Philip Levine in his poem "A late answer". After I learned that he had died this weekend, I got my book of his poems down from the shelf, and found I had left a marker at that page the last time I was reading in it -- a sheet torn from a local elections booklet, dated October 2013.

I can't place the circumstance, but I can of the other marker in the book, a folded blue post-it. Only my father would have had post-its on hand as he read poetry, and indeed, it was he who had used one to mark another poem, his favourite, the one with which he introduced me to Philip Levine, some twenty years ago now. "Have you read this?" he had said with palpable excitement, handing me the book. It was one of Levine's most famous poems, "They feed they lion".

I remember clearly that moment when I fell under the spell of Philip Levine, of his poem with its rumble of the assembly line, its incisive cadences, its fierce old-testament imagery, all driving it unrelentingly, hypnotically, to its conclusion. "They feed they lion", like James Baldwin's "The fire next time". The fire now. The poem is from the late sixties, the time of "Burn baby burn!", the terrible riots which erupted across America in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination. The city of Detroit, where Levine had worked on a car factory's assembly line with a man who spoke the words which became the poem's title (noticing that the burlap sacks they had been given to fill with old car parts were stamped "Detroit Municipal Zoo"), was one of the worst hit.

Here's Philip Levine reading it:

...From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.

In the farewells flooding the media, I see Philip Levine being described as the poet who sang of blue-collar America. Having read his description of the effect the Spanish Civil War had on him as a boy in his wonderful memoir The bread of time: toward an autobiography , I can't help but feel that his wrath was aroused by injustice, greed, oppression of the spirit wherever, in whatever form. The workingman's plight was simply his own experience of it.

My own favourite Philip Levine poem differs from "They feed they lion" in being markedly personal, but it is just as intense. Written later in life, it's about his memories of his father -- the relevance of this does not escape me -- and the revelation (Levine's poems always have a revelation, or at least that's how I read them) is the indomitable capacity of the spirit, however world-weary, for renewal. It's called "Starlight", and amazingly enough, I had remembered the poem just this weekend, lying on a picnic table looking up at the night sky, watching for shooting stars. We were on "the Barrier", Great Barrier Island, far from city lights, from any lights, with the stars almost blindingly bright. Shooting stars didn't lack. I like to think that one of them was Philip Levine's spirit, passing over.

Here he is reading "Starlight", from the film "In person: 30 poets", and the text below so you can follow if you like.


My father stands in the warm evening
on the porch of my first house.
I am four years old and growing tired.
I see his head among the stars,
the glow of his cigarette, redder
than the summer moon riding
low over the old neighborhood. We
are alone, and he asks me if I am happy.
“Are you happy?” I cannot answer.
I do not really understand the word,
and the voice, my father’s voice, is not
his voice, but somehow thick and choked,
a voice I have not heard before, but
heard often since. He bends and passes
a thumb beneath each of my eyes.
The cigarette is gone, but I can smell
the tiredness that hangs on his breath.
He has found nothing, and he smiles
and holds my head with both his hands.
Then he lifts me to his shoulder,
and now I too am among the stars,
as tall as he. Are you happy? I say.
He nods in answer, Yes! oh yes! oh yes!
And in that new voice he says nothing,
holding my head tight against his head,
his eyes closed up against the starlight,
as though those tiny blinking eyes
of light might find a tall, gaunt child
holding his child against the promises
of autumn, until the boy slept
never to waken in that world again.

Philip Levine, Selected poems

-- Karen

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 16:26


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