In Praise of Philip Levine

I am so excited to have just received my copy of Philip Levine’s posthumous collection,                                                 The Last Shift.

I am savoring reading his words, which have always affected me so deeply.

His very first poem in the collection, “Inheritance,” moves me to tears, especially the last few lines.   The poem is about a watch and other items Levine, as a child, coveted of his grandpa’s. He used to sneak into his grandpa’s room and look at the objects.

Here’s how the poem ends:

 

…I could call them

“Infinite riches in a little room”

or go cosmic and regard them

as fragments of a great mystery

instead of what they are,

amulets against nothing.

phil l

I met and spoke with Philip Levine only once, but the memory of his humbleness and humanity will stay with my whole life.

I wrote an elegy for him the year he died (2015), but never presented it anywhere.  My verse adopts Levine’s practice of the 9-syllable line (mostly), a syllable off from what the ear is used to with the more common English 10-syllable line, giving the overall composition an uneasy bearing or forward momentum.

 

A Simple Truth    

in memoriam for a great poet

 

I imagine Philip Levine time-

shifting in Trafalmadorian

fashion to 1936 where

he is an angel-on-the-shoulder

weeping as Lorca is tortured, then

murdered; to Fresno State his first year

teaching where on a lunch break he sits

with a student reciting Roethke;

to one April in Detroit, the mud

Biblical, men milling, cued up

for news of work that never arrives;

back to the mills, haunted as the men’s

eyes who labored there, understanding

one human being is everyone.

 

And how many more lives than the six

million hearts stopped by Hitler does he

daily visit with his words?  Grass, boats,

dust, wind, the darkening skies, two sons,

a brother, the loves declared, unnamed

desires that were answered not by

their aims, but by the simple truths, small

red potatoes, melting butter, salt.

 

The book is open to the first page

yesterday. Tomorrow is always

the fourteenth of February.  And

today it is 1941

five minutes to 8AM, sweet Phil,

Billy Pilgrim, this day never ends.

 

Yes, oh yes, it is enough to say

what you can, the gift of transcribing

ordinary suffering into

extraordinary joy, your name

hangs in the brilliant morning air, a

feather, eyelid of a magpie, closed.

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