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Critical Review by Frederick J. Marchant
SOURCE: A review of A Walk with Tom Jefferson, in Boston Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, June, 1988, pp. 28-9.
In the following review, Marchant considers Levine's humanistic faith and the nature of spirituality in his poetry.
In a dozen books over the last twenty-five years, one of Philip Levine's most significant achievements has been to extend the province of the lyric to include the world of the blue-collar laborer. In Levine's poetry the smell of garlicky lunchboxes and greasy machinery have always had a place. There has also been a place for the description of mind-numbing work, and most important of all, his poetry has given voice to the angers that so easily well up after such labor has taken its toll. Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and came of age working in a number of automotive factories there. He has been a full-lime poet for many years now, but his poetry still holds an imaginative landscape centered on this working-class experience. As with Robert Frost's relation to his Derry farm, Philip Levine's imagination has never totally abandoned his youthful workplace, and it has in many ways become Levine's root metaphor for life in our time and place.
One of the most important and revealing blue-collar incidents in Levine's new book, A Walk with Tom Jefferson, comes toward the end of the long poem from which the book takes its title. The poem concludes with a speaker reminiscing about a time in his youth when he "worked nights" on a milling machine in a factory which turned out Cadillac transmissions. He recalls that
another kid just up
from West Virginia asked me
what was we making
and I answered, I'm making
2.25 an hour,
don't know what you're
making, and he had
to correct me, gently, what was
we making out of
this here metal, and I didn't know.
An epiphany for the speaker of the poem, the recollection here is like fingering an old scar, and it forcefully brings to the speaker's mind the real cost of living and working as an appendage to a machine. His consciousness had been shrunk to the size of his hourly wage, and the important questions had somehow been banished by the din and clatter.
What are we making here? That is the question which haunts both the title poem and the book as a whole. In some poems in this volume it prompts Levine to sound like a Biblical prophet damning a nation which would allow its cities to become "block after block / of dumping grounds" with the streets littered with everything from "old couches and settees / burst open, the white innards / gone gray" to "whole market counters / that once contained the red meats / we couldn't get enough of" The prophet's tone, however, more often gives way to the elegiac note which characterizes Levine's best work. In "Buying and Selling," for instance, Levine recalls a time in his youth when he worked as a purchasing agent for buyers ("my waiting masters" he calls them) of Army surplus automotive parts. He remembers once going into "the wilderness of warehouses" and cutting into the crates which held driveshafts and universal joints packed in preservative cosmoline. The parts were perfect, the bids made, the deal consummated. As the truck pulled away from the warehouse, however, the speaker found himself in the grip of a profound sadness:
The great metal doors
of the loading dock crashed down, and in
the sudden aftermath I inhaled a sadness
stronger than my Lucky Strike, stronger
than the sadness of these hills and valleys
with their secret ponds and streams unknown
even to children, or the sadness of children
themselves, who having been abandoned believe
their parents will return before dark.
These lines have the characteristic Levine rhythms. The mostly enjambed lines cascade down the page and give the ending an aura of arrival and inevitability. The sadness of these lines also seems inevitable. It is part of the product of the poem's slowly accumulating anger at the meaningless-ness of buying and selling. The speaker of this poem feels like an abandoned child precisely because in the wilderness of warehouses he is bereft of any transcendent meaning. No God the Father here to lay down the laws, just the commerce in the so-called "goods" and services. Such commerce, the poem seems to want to say, might well be our daily glimpse into a small corner of the abyss.
There is, however, another side to Levine's imagination. His darker thoughts and intuitions are balanced at times by a genuinely humanistic faith. The character Tom Jefferson can be thought of as this book's most obvious representative of the more affirmative streak in Levins's work. Tom has "the same name as the other one," but this Jefferson is a black man surviving in the urban wasteland of Detroit. Having emigrated from Alabama prior to World War II, Tom Jefferson owns and lives in one of the few houses left standing amid the vacant lots and debris. It is late autumn in the poem, and he is tidying up what's left of his summer vegetable garden. Stoic, tenacious, and resolved, he is planning what he will plant next year. He will not quit the place. What he represents is a life-affirming spirit of rootedness, commitment, and nurture. He knows precisely what he is making with his work. He is making something decent and useful out of what the city of automobile manufacture has offered and given him.
Levine calls him a "believer," and there are other believers in this book. For instance, the speaker of one poem imagines his dead father as preceding him into the darkness, "burning the little candle / of his breath, making light of it all." In another poem, "For the Country," Levine imagines an elderly woman living alone, nearing her death, filled with memories that seem more real than anything else around her. In her last moments, death becomes for her a "dark sister" with whom she stays up late, playing with her in bed, as if both were little girls again. Imaginings such as these are all acts of faith in the spirit that Tom Jefferson represents. Probably the most affirmative poem in the collection is called "The Whole Soul." Here the speaker wonders if the soul is like an onion, the same as one moves toward the core. "That would be suitable," he says, for the soul is "the human core and the rest / meant either to keep it / warm or cold depending / on the season." The whole soul, however, is more than just the individual. It is, in this poem, the larger, perhaps impersonal interconnectedness between self and creation. The poem ends with the speaker on the seashore, taking a few handfuls of water in his hands and thinking:
I speak in a tongue hungering
for salt and water without salt,
I give a shape to the air going
out and the air coming in,
and the sea winds scatter it
like so many burning crystals
settling on the evening ocean.
That is Levine's idea of the "whole soul," transpersonal, transcendent, ultimately absorptive in death. For this poet whose work is so rooted in working-class American life, it is perhaps ironic to think that he so firmly believes that there is a spiritual component to life on earth. But there is another truth about the human soul which Levine's poetry dramatizes. It is the sense that our souls can pass away long before our bodies. Human consciousness can shrink down to practically nothing, and without nurture, the soul will wither away. Like Keats, Levine would say that the world we live in, like it or not, is a vale of soul-making. Or, to be more accurate, that is what our world ought to be, even as we tie ourselves to our machines and the wages we get paid for so doing.
This section contains 1,296 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)