Tuesday, December 22, 2009

News of the World / Philip Levine

...the unwritten epic of tedium...

Philip Levine's new book from Knopf, News of the World, is the latest collection by the great American poet, identified by Edward Hirsch in the New York Times Book Review as "a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland." Levine, who now lives in Walt Whitman's Brooklyn, after being raised in Detroit, and teaching for years in Fresno, has not slowed down since reaching his eighties: News of the World is his 17th collection of poems.

The new poems elicit memories of earlier works, but are fresh and provocative as any he's written. Certainly ever since his National Book Award winner What Work Is, Levine is our most astute living poet to tackle issues that engulf the working man and woman, their toils and lives, their desires and fears.

Consider the closing lines of "Of Love and Other Disasters":
She took a paper napkin off the bar,
spit on it, and told him to hold still
while she carefully lifted his glasses,
leaving him half blind, and wiped
something off just above his left
cheekbone. "There," she said, handing
him back his glasses, "I got it," and even
with his glasses on, what she showed
him was nothing he could see, maybe
only make-believe. He thought, "Better
get out of here before it's too late," but
suspected too late was what he wanted.
Levine's poems go right to heart, tugging and pulling, revealing and crushing. He knows the consequences of our decisions can be devastating. In "Yakov" he writes of his uncle's cabin in the old country:
"The silence, it was
all, it was everything."
Even the wolves, he told me, moved
through the trees without breathing.
The blackbirds vanished hours before
sunset. Snow fell only in the dark
so that at daybreak the world
was new.
But moving to America, to work, to survive, cost his uncle Yakov a very large price:
His Detroit was something else:
in the back of Automotive
a bare bulb swung above him
as he bowed to the wrong job
in the wrong place and entered
the unwritten epic of tedium...
Many of Philip Levine's poems recall the past, but with neither nostalgia nor fear; instead they bring the past to the present, reminding us that histories--of countries, of people, of the body--return again and again. In "During the War" Levine writes of his brother coming home wounded in battle, as the poet waited in line for bread and faced an indirect victim of the war, a widow:
When I got home my brother ate the bread
carefully one slice at a time until nothing
was left but a blank plate. "Did you see her,"
he asked, "the woman in hell, Michael's wife?"

That afternoon I walked the crowded streets
looking for something I couldn't name,
something familiar, a face or a voice or less,
but not these shards of ash that fell from heaven.
Levine's language is precise and haunting, rooted in sound, time and the strength of well-placed silences: "nothing/was left but a blank plate. 'Did you see her...'." These silences engage the reader in ways that are almost undetectable, but have great conviction and power.

In "Before the War," Levine assigns a name Gertrude to a mother in Toledo who works hard for the son she loves, a boy called Solly. Levine effortlessly and quietly brings his readers devastatingly into the poem, as he writes:
He accepts his whole name, even
as a kid he stands and faces us,
just as eleven years from now
he'll stand and face his death
flaming toward him on a bridge-
head at Remagen while Gertrude
goes on typing mechanically
into the falling winter night.
Sounds of all kinds--typing, a woman humming, a Dutch doctor comforting a small girl with "Nay! Nay!"--are important to these poems and counter the frequently evoked quiet. In "Unholy Saturday" the sounds may not even exist:
In the distance someone keeps
calling the names of the brothers
in the same order over
and over, but they don't hear
what with the riverbank gorged
with blue weed patches and all
the birds in hiding. Perhaps no
one is calling and it's only
the voices of the air as
the late light of June hangs on
in the cottonwoods before
the dark whispers the last word.
Just as Whitman hears America singing, with his carpenter measuring his plank or beam, his shoemaker sitting on his bench, Levine hears his people live their lives while doing what they must do to thrive (from "The Music of Time"):
The young woman sewing
by the window hums a song
I don't know; I hear only
a few bars, and when the trucks
barrel down the broken street
the music is lost.
Philip Levine has given us powerful poems that resonate long after they are read; they are strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable and rich; for that we are grateful.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Total Oblivion, More or Less

"I guess I was feeling histrionic because, you know, I had the plague," from Alan DeNiro's debut novel, Total Oblivion, More or Less (Spectra/Ballantine, 2009).

Here's my review at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune published on Sunday, December 20, 2009.