The Death Notebooks
The Awful Rowing Toward God
Over the last few years Philip Levine has become so striking a poet that I’m surprised he’s not more highly valued than he is. Of course he always wrote forceful poems, but were they always so original? An early admired one, “That Distant Winter,” seems now, in retrospect, not to be Levine at all, has varying echoes of Lowell, Jarrell, Trakl, and some of the dramatic properties of Lawrence’s “The Prussian Officer,” which probably inspired it. Another, equally admired, “On the Edge,” sits with the ghost of Weldon Kees, who has haunted the poet elsewhere. But it’s when we come to his latest collections, They Feed They Lion, published a few years ago, and the recent 1933, that the particular Levine style and strategy continue almost uninterruptedly from page to page. The fine savagery of the earlier volume is manlier, more immediate in its appeal; the later volume is smoother, craftier, a bit muted, but is an advance, I think, deeper, certainly, and more humane.
Levine’s is a daunting, brooding art, often without solace. Scorn and sympathy seem to be there in equal measure, “so much sorrow in hatred,” as he says. The bonds of family, work, class, Levine as householder in America, knockabout wanderer in Spain, the wars of man and nature, wilderness and town—these are the different features of a difficult face, “human and ripe with terror”—and with knowledge. Recognition through confrontation, behavior under pressure—obviously these do not come easily to him.
An antagonistic strain, what he calls the “sour afterthought,” rubs off on practically everything he touches. Essentially he’s a poet of solitude, presents not “the bliss of solitude,” Whitman’s theme, but solitude as recoil from attachment or obligation, solitude that has him as a poet in middle age ruminating on remnants of a boy’s dream “of a single self / formed of all the warring selves split / off at my birth / and set spinning.” And it is just these selves or their later incarnations—Levine as husband, father, friend—which he keeps discovering or despoiling again and again.
He manages, I suppose, two things probably better than any of his contemporaries, at least those born in the middle or late Twenties. The old mon semblable, mon frère business of Baudelaire is given renewed American vigor in a number of his poems—for instance, “The Midget,” “Baby Villon,” “Angel Butcher,” parts of “Silent in America.” More important, he can create the sense of a milieu, the sound, feel, geography of a place, a time, a people, the flavor of what’s been happening among us and what continues to happen, which seem to me almost totally lacking in most other serious poetry today. His portraits, in particular—those in They Feed They Lion and 1933—are troubling, mysterious, delicate, wrathful, constitute a sort of litany of the industrial (Detroit) and immigrant (Jewish) backgrounds which formed him and follow him. They define the poet to himself and his world to us.
Here is Levine’s grandmother in “her empty room in heaven,”…
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