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Critical Review by Ricard Hugo
SOURCE: "Philip Levine: Naming the Lost," in American Poetry Review, May-June, 1977, pp. 27-8.
In the following review, Hugo lauds Levine's poetry collection, The Names of the Lost, stressing in particular the poems' emotional depth.
Philip Levine knows a few things so well that he cannot forget them when he writes a poem, no matter what compositional problems might arise. He seldom tells us anything we don't already know but what he tells us is basic to the maintenance of our humanity, and fundamental to perpetuating our capacity for compassion. If I were dictator of the world long enough to pass a few laws, two of those laws would be: (1) at least once a year, everyone must view the films taken at Hiroshima immediately after the bombing; (2) at least once every six months, everyone must read a book of Philip Levine's poems aloud. That wouldn't necessarily make us better people, but it might make us hope we won't get any worse, and want to be the best we can be….
Here are a few things Levine knows well: to the heart, in time relationships transcend values ("On the Birth of Good and Evil During the Long Winter of '28." Levine's world is at least as old as religion. The professional is outlawed. It is the amateur who discovers "7000 miles from home" that she who "bruised his wakings" can, on this cold day after her death, be forgiven for the wool cap she knitted long ago, whose very color once seemed despicable.
We did not return love when it was needed. When we realize that failure it is too late and we must live with the resultant regret. We did not accept the essential relationships that provided our sense of self. When we understand that, it is too late and self-acceptance remains painfully difficult ("The Secret of Their Voices").
People hurt each other in lasting ways. The ways we help each other seem trivial and transitory in contrast. Time and memory and accumulated experience make the helpful acts as permanent as the hurtful ones ("No One Remembers").
Levine's poems seldom fail to remind us of important things about ourselves we should not forget. The Names of the Lost is the third powerful book Levine has given us in the past five years. Give him a saliva test. The title might be so-so for some poets, but it is ideal for Levine. He has been naming the lost for a long time. Not just lost people but lost associations and feelings.
Levine's method of writing depends to some extent on the ear of the reader to get into the poems. Few of his first lines are grippers: "Nine years ago, early winter," "Beyond that stand of firs," "In a coffee house at 3 a.m.," "It is Friday, a usual day," but they are immediate enough that we faintly sense something is going on, and we faintly sense that feelings are involved in the terse sounds of the words even when the words seem to be only narrating, conveying information or setting the scene. In a lesser poet this would be starting too far upstream, at the beginning of things rather than in the middle. For the reader it seems like getting a running start, then becoming aware that the race has already begun, long ago. The feeling seems to precede its source.
In a way, Levine's technique corresponds with his vision of the world in which grief is presumed the perpetual condition of humanity, there long before the individual has experienced anything to grieve. When something happens that causes us grief, we are already in good grieving condition because we have been practising a long time.
Since Levine can write as if feeling precedes experience, he can command a wider range of subjects than many poets. By wider range, I mean his subjects can vary in the intensity of their relationship to him. (In their natures, his subjects are similar). He can invest as much feeling in poems about the poets of Chile or a man killed in Spain when Levine was eight years old in Detroit, as he can in poems involving relatives, friends and personal experience.
No poem in this fine collection is disappointing and almost every poem seems to be the best when reading it. My favorite, "And the Trains Go On," is a poem of great faith and it immediately precedes the final poem, "To My God in His Sickness," a somewhat grim parody of John Donne's "Hymne to God my God in my sicknesse." If Levine is solely responsible for the arrangement of the book, he may still consider the faith he has found in the power of words, in the power of naming, secondary to the religious faith he has lost in the face of an unjust world. If that is necessary to keep poems of such emotive force coming, let's not try to set him straight.
"And the Trains Go On" is a sort of microscopic Odyssey. The speaker is on the run from a self and a situation he could not bear, "The run from a war no one can win," and finds himself in a bizarre, cruel and despairing world. At first he and a companion are "at the back door / of the shop" and a "line of box cars / or soured wheat and pop bottles / uncoupled and was sent creaking down our spur…." Already what is given ("was sent") is a world used, empty ("pop bottles") and spoiled ("soured wheat"). The old man who steps from the box car certifies the negative heritage with mock gentility—"… and tipped his hat. 'It's all yours, boys!'" The speaker wonders "whose father / he was and how long he kept / moving until the police / found him, ticketless, sleeping in a 2nd class waiting room / and tore the card-board box / out of his hands and beat him / until the ink of his birth smudged / and surrendered its separate vowels." So the speaker has no doubt about the outcome. In this brutal world we lose not only our meagre possessions but our beginnings and our names to civilization's authority. Though the speaker never sees the man again, his vision is so relentless and fixed that the man's fate is determined in detail.
With the mention of "2nd class" the scene has shifted to Europe. Levine senses in the more immediate heritage, the historical heritage. He writes in some historical depth anyway, despite the immediacy of emotions and images. What civilized authority can do to the mind is revealed in the next event in the poem. A dog is wandering in the Milan railyard. A boy makes a perfectly reasonable explanation: the dog is "searching for his master." But the boy's grandfather "said, 'No. He was sent by God / to test the Italian railroads.'" The boy can still believe in the desirability and need for affectionate and supportive relationships. The grandfather has cynically accepted a bizarre explanation, involving phony religiosity, the deity's direct interest in the state, and a presumed unimportance of humanity.
This unimportance of humanity on the scale of civilization's values is reinforced by the next image. The speaker sleeps in a "box car of coffins bound / for the villages climbing north" and wonders if he will waken when "women have come to claim" dead husbands, sons, lovers, "what is left of glory." Or will he sleep through that and not waken again until he is back in the States, crossing the Mystic River, which is in Massachusetts?
Levine takes the poem out beautifully, "back the long / tangled road that leads us home," but now his companion is you, and me, and it is also him, the self he ran from, "in a dirty work-shirt that says "Phil," (the only person named in the poem). And if we, you, I, Levine, can "lean way out / and shout out the holy names / of the lost neither of us is scared / and our tears mean nothing." We can go home (accept the self we ran from) with the certainty, the poet's certainty, that our words (their names and ours) are all we can give, and if we can share in that, then we have transcended our grief and redeemed our loss.
This is one of the most moving poems I've seen. In its capacity to touch and affect. I believe it rivals Yeats' "Easter, 1916," and like "Easter, 1916," we find ourselves in a world where 'motley is worn' or if not motley, then its industrial work-shirt counterpart. It is a world that doesn't hear and doesn't care. Levine's poems are important because in them we hear and we care. They call us back to the basic sources of despair: the dispossession, the destitution, the inadequacy of our love for each other. And they call back again that we can triumph over our sad psychic heritage through language and song.
Given the emotional depth of Levine's poems, one is inclined to avoid prolonged explorative analysis. Not that it would be ruinous, the poems are too tough for that, but that it would seem secondary, if not trivial—like program notes to a splendid concert. But at least one poem in this collection lends itself to discussion because it is somewhat revelatory of Levine's psychic process involved in the act of writing. More than most of his poems, it shows how his writing grows out of ways he feels about himself and his relations with the world.
Let It Begin
Snow before dawn, the trees asleep.
In one window a yellow light—someone
is rising to wash and make coffee
and doze at the table remembering
how a child sleeps late and wakens
drenched in sunlight. If he thinks
of a street, he knows it has gone,
a dog has died, a tulip burned
for an hour and joined the wind.
With the others I drift, useless,
in the parking lot while the day-shift
comes on, or I stand at the corner
as the sun wakens on a gray crust.
The children pass by in silent knots
on the way home from the burial
of the birds. The day has begun.
I can put it away, a white shirt,
unworn, at the back of a drawer,
but my hands are someone else's—
stained, they shine like old wood
and burn in the cold. They have joined
each other in the fellowship
of the shovel. I stood in the temple
of junk where the engine blocks
turned and the nickle-plated grills
dripped on hooks, and though
steel rang on the lip of the furnace
and fire rose out of black earth
and rained down, in the end
I knelt to cinders and ice. I stared
into the needle's dark eye
so the peddler could mend his elbow
and gasp under his sack of rags.
Now the cat pulls on his skullcap
of bones and bows before the mouse.
Light that will spread the morning glory
burns on my tongue and spills
into the small valleys of our living,
the branches creak, and I let it begin.
Levine feels that loss, like the imagination, is the final equalizer. The man "thinks of a street" and knows three losses, the street, a dog and a tulip, equal in value now they are gone, equal because they are gone. In a world where loss predominates, the yellow light in the window is as good a beginning as dawn which comes now, not to waken the child but to wake itself on the gray industrial crust of the city. The speaker is "useless" (dawn does not need him), one of the many third shift workers who "drift in the parking lot." The aimlessness of their existence is as gratuitous as the snow that starts this poem, this day. You come off shift and it's just there: "Snow before dawn, the trees asleep."
The workers are "children" bound together in "knots" of an innocence they've inherited. The innocence of an existence that dims the senses, minimizes experience and limits possibilities. They are silent as the birds who are buried in silence once dawn is complete and their song is ended. When childhood is over and they could no longer wait for sunlight to drench them awake, but had to obey the call of the alarm clock, their impulse to song (poetry?) drained away.
The speaker can't be part of the middle class and knows it. His white shirt can be put away, unworn, for good. In Levine's case, very much for good, his and ours. But neither is he part of the working class. His hands are worker's hands, but they are not his, even though "they have joined each other in the fellowship of the shovel," a union (labor union?) of dubious worth. The sentimentality seemingly built into certain "of" constructions is ideal for nailing down a sarcastic phrase—my garden book of memories.
He is not of the working class because he cannot identify with accomplishment; the engine blocks, the grills, the steel and fire of the plant, that "temple of junk." Given the deterioration of religious values by industrial values that in turn are inadequate substitutes, the poet kneels not to abandoned Gods of the past, nor to the gods of the present, progress, civilization, the end products of manufacturing. He kneels to the end products of the whole process, cinders and ice, the two ways it can end, according to Frost. Levine will not break off his love affair with the finality of loss.
He stares into the "needle's dark eye" not for mystical purposes, the try for "inscape," but to prolong and perpetuate the suffering of the forlorn, the deprivation of humanity, the quotidian despair. The eye of the needle could be the gate of the biblical city, "dark" suggesting what cities have become, but the word "mend" suggests that whatever its metaphorical past it is now just a needle.
If that were all Levine was saying in this passage, he would be guilty of no more phoniness than is normal to a poet. He would be saying, I'll keep you patched together, your elbow mended, so you can gasp under your sack of rags and I can write "and gasp under his sack of rags." In a way that is what he is saying. But of course he is also trying to save the rag man (and you, and me) from oblivion. By prolonging our suffering, Levine is giving himself a chance to finish the poem, but he is also prolonging us.
The cat bows to the mouse because the cat needs the mouse just as the poet needs the rag man. The "skullcap of bones" suggests the death of religion and the act of kneeling is not a religious act, but an aesthetic one. Because the poet has insight, he is not part of what he sees and realizes a certain powerful advantage, the advantage of the cat over the mouse. He gives up the advantage to write the poem.
Levine has remained a child and kept alive his impulse to sing. The dawn that drenched him awake, still burns in him, on his tongue, in his words. The "it" he lets begin is the dawn, the life that belongs to all of us and is all we have, the poem itself. He not only shouts out the holy names of the lost, he shouts out the holy names of the living. And we are not lost. That's a big beautiful cat at our mousy feet.
Levine may very well believe that imagination and loss are not just close allies or forces that mutually trigger each other, but one and the same. One of our able critics should enlighten us on this in the years ahead. Those of us who are not critics should read Levine not for whatever literary advance he could be making but because he reminds us of what we are in a time it is important that we don't forget. And whatever we are, hopeful hurt, angry, sad, happy, we should forget least of all Philip Levine's poems. They attend us and our lives in profound, durable ways. I believe he is deservedly destined to be one of the most celebrated poets of the time.
This section contains 2,665 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)