Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Too Late Was What He Wanted

I first read Philip Levine when his poem "28" appeared in The New Yorker 20-odd years ago. I was not 28 yet, but I liked the idea of a poet from Detroit (where I was born in 1964). "28" then came out in A Walk with Tom Jefferson, which I bought in Boulder (just passing through to visit my friend Tiffany) on August 17, 1988, which also happens to be the day my nephew Alex was born.

Given our shared birthplace, I was thrilled when I read the opening of his poem "The Escape" in The Simple Truth in 1995:

To come to life in Detroit is to be manufactured
without the power of speech.

Such a striking line break, as "manufactured" becomes "manufactured / without the power of speech."

I especially love the last three lines of the new Levine poem in The New Yorker of February 5 (thanks to the blogger I stole this from so that I don't have to type it myself):


The punch-press operator from Flint
met the assembler from West Virginia
in a bar near the stadium. Neither
had anything in mind, so they conversed
about the upcoming baseball season
about which neither cared. We could
be a couple, he thought, but she was
all wrong, way too skinny. For years
he'd had an image of the way a woman
should look, and it wasn't her, it wasn't
anyone he'd ever known, certainly not
his ex-wife, who'd moved back south
to live with her high-school sweetheart.
About killed him. I don't need that shit,
he almost said aloud, and then realized
she'd been talking to someone, maybe
to him, about how she couldn't get
her hands right, how the grease ate
so deeply into her skin it became
a part of her, and she put her hand,
palm up, on the bar and pointed
with her cigarette at the deep lines
the work had carved. "The life line,"
he said, " which one is that?" "None,"
she said, and he noticed that her eyes
were hazel flecked with tiny spots
of gold, and then—embarrassed—looked
back at her hand, which seemed tiny
and delicate, the fingers yellowed
with calluses but slender and fine.
She took a paper napkin off the bar,
spit on it and told him to hold still
while she carefully lifted his glasses
up on his forehead, leaving him half
blind, and wiped something off
above his left cheekbone. "There,"
she said, lowering his glasses, "I
got it," and even with his glasses on
what she showed him was nothing
he could see. He thought, better
get out of here before it's too late, but
knew too late was what he wanted.


Jeff Newberry said...

Philip Levine was an early influence of mine. About seven years ago, I was 25 & had just started taking poetry very seriously. He was on of the poets (along w/ Charles Wright, Mark Jarman, & a few others) whom I imitated early on.

I even wrote a letter to him which he answered. A great guy, he gave me some pointed criticism on the poems I sent as well as suggested a plethora of poets to read (Yeats, Machado, Lorca, Dylan Thomas, others).

I love "28," as well.

I've read his latest, Breath, a well-wrought book of poems, but not a Not This Pig. Breath is superior to The Mercy, however.

Andrew Shields said...

Levine is so physically vivid. His poems are full of scenes where it's just too cold for how much you're wearing, or just hot enough that anything you wear will be too much.

There's a taste of smoke that even a non-smoker can feel, or there's the overwhelming blue of the Mediterranean even for those who have never been there.

Beyond all the stories he tells, it's that physicality—the physicality of the experience of reading Levine—that keeps bringing me back to his work.

I also like the way his bio used to say that he had a series of "stupid jobs," but then, around the time of "What Work Is," he started calling them "industrial jobs."