Not This Pig
One of the most engaging poems in Not This Pig, Philip Levine’s second book, is “A New Day,” a parable recited to imply that in life “what we get is what we bring.” A secondary implication is that what we bring is never enough. What we get, at the end, is:
A grey light coming on at dawn,
No fresh start and no bird song
And no sea and no shore
That someone hasn’t seen before.
In another poem, “Possession,” people go back to a beloved place in search of old, accustomed things, “The same marked squirrels/nesting in the walnut trees”; but they find themselves standing in someone’s yard, “awed by the gladiolus/and the absence of something/they knew.” The yard had been free land once, “but now it was yours/who went in to call the law.” Many of Mr. Levine’s poems record similar occasions: he is particularly sensitive to lack, absence, finality. The time of year we may behold in him is late Fall: Summer is never there when he wants it. His special kind of darkness comes when power fails and the lights go out. Tomorrow is represented as if it were already yesterday, its promises quietly but decisively broken. “When was I young?” he asks.
This is not merely “the malady of the quotidian.” True, there are several poems in which he complains that “with no morning the day is sold.” In these transactions we always get short measure. Childhood is miserable because every evil is still ahead. But these poems enact a more exorbitant desire, a dream of innocence and new days. Mr. Levine wants morning to last all day. Every sea must be seen for the first time. The governing word in these poems is “no”: not the sign of rejection, but the mark of loved things gone, spoiled, contaminated. The poet has been everywhere before, and it was different then. So I am not sure that the poems endorse Mr. Levine’s account of them:
[These poems] mostly record my discovery of the people, places, and animals I am not, the ones who live at all cost and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos—a gesture they don’t need—would have them say, “Don’t tread on me” or “Once more with feeling” or “No pasarán” or “Not this pig.”
In “Silent in America” he speaks of himself
In the clouded presence of the things I observe.
But there is no joy in that stance. The heroic idiom in which his theory speaks of discovery is not audible in the poems themselves. Often, the “people, places, and animals I am not” turn out to be experiences stained by their inception. The reason is, I think, that Mr. Levine does not discover the objectivity of his people, places, and animals with any particular satisfaction. He says he does, but the evidence of the poems goes the other way. In many poems Mr. Levine observes things…
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