Click Image to Visit the Pecan Grove Press Web Page for Poetry from Paradise Valley


Poetry From Paradise Valley

Pecan Grove Press has released an anthology of poems, a sampling of works published in Valparaiso Poetry Review during its first decade, from the original 1999-2000 volume to the 2009-2010 volume.

Poetry from Paradise Valley includes a stellar roster of 50 poets. Among the contributors are a former Poet Laureate of the United States, a winner of the Griffin International Prize, two Pulitzer Prize winners, two National Book Award winners, two National Book Critics Circle winners, six finalists for the National Book Award, four finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award, two finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and a few dozen recipients of other honors, such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, etc.

Readers are encouraged to visit the Poetry from Paradise Valley page at the publisher's web site, where ordering information about the book can be found.

Best Books of Indiana 2011: Finalist. Judges' Citation: "Poetry from Paradise Valley is an excellent anthology that features world-class poetry, including the work of many artists from the Midwest, such as Jared Carter, Annie Finch, David Baker, and Allison Joseph. It’s an eclectic and always interesting collection where poems on similar themes flow into each other. It showcases the highest caliber of U. S. poetry."
—Indiana Center for the Book, Indiana State Library

Friday, May 8, 2009

Reading Philip Levine at Mother's Day

As the Mother’s Day weekend is upon us, I’d like to suggest readers revisit Philip Levine’s title poem, “The Mercy,” from a collection published in 1999. Levine includes a dedication to his mother at the beginning of the book, and the poem chosen for the volume’s title recounts his mother’s arrival in the United States on a ship carrying the same name. In an interview with Levine by Edward Hirsch, the poet was asked about his choice of a dedication to his mother, and Levine replied:

“I was very lucky to have a mother who encouraged me to become a poet. As a fourteen-year-old I fell in love with horse racing, and she hated that. I think she was so glad I quit the track and went to college when I turned eighteen that I could have studied lion taming, and she would have said, That’s an old and honorable profession. But she loved poetry, fiction, music; that a son of hers would devote himself to this art thrilled her. Only the final poem in the book was written after her death, which was in the spring of last year just after she turned ninety-four. I did not see her death coming. The last time I spoke with her she sounded very snappy and was looking forward to my new book. I hope the book contains some of her zest for life, some of her belief in the power of beauty, some of her great humor. As a teacher you too must have known many young people who wanted to pursue poetry but were discouraged by their families. I’m one lucky guy to have had Esther Levine for my mother.”

The entire interview, “The Unwritten Biography: Edward Hirsch and Philip Levine in Conversation,” is available at the Academy of American Poets web site.


The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island
Eighty-three years ago was named “The Mercy.”
She remembers trying to eat a banana
without first peeling it and seeing her first orange
in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman
who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her
with a red bandana and taught her the word,
“orange,” saying it patiently over and over.
A long autumn voyage, the days darkening
with the black waters calming as night came on,
then nothing as far as her eyes could see and space
without limit rushing off to the corners
of creation. She prayed in Russian and Yiddish
to find her family in New York, prayers
unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored
by all the powers that swept the waves of darkness
before she woke, that kept “The Mercy” afloat
while smallpox raged among the passengers
and crew until the dead were buried at sea
with strange prayers in a tongue she could not fathom.
“The Mercy,” I read on the yellowing pages of a book
I located in a windowless room of the library
on 42nd Street, sat thirty-one days
offshore in quarantine before the passengers
disembarked. There a story ends. Other ships
arrived, “Tancred” out of Glasgow, “The Neptune”
registered as Danish, “Umberto IV,”
the list goes on for pages, November gives
way to winter, the sea pounds this alien shore.
Italian miners from Piemonte dig
under towns in western Pennsylvania
only to rediscover the same nightmare
they left at home. A nine-year-old girl travels
all night by train with one suitcase and an orange.
She learns that mercy is something you can eat
again and again while the juice spills over
your chin, you can wipe it away with the back
of your hands and you can never get enough.

Philip Levine

My review of The Mercy appeared in the initial issue of Valparaiso Poetry Review, in the fall of 1999. As encouragement for visitors to read the whole collection of poems, I reprint my commentary below.


For a number of years now, Philip Levine has held a secure position among the handful of American poets who have written substantial bodies of distinctive and influential poetry during the closing decades of the twentieth century. Since the 1963 publication of his first book, On the Edge, Levine has produced a steady accumulation of powerful poems whose thematic and stylistic characteristics are as identifiable and revealing as the "auras of smoke and grease" or the "eyes swollen with sleeplessness" that mark those urban blue-collar workers in "Salt and Oil"—one of the remarkable poems from his latest collection, The Mercy—as well as many other individuals enduring difficult lives whom Levine has "frozen in the fine print of our eyes."

Anyone who had been harboring doubt about Levine’s stature as one of our significant poets ought to have been convinced by the works in his two previous books, each of which went on to win a prestigious award: What Work Is (1991) won the National Book Award for Poetry and The Simple Truth (1994) won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Indeed, after the laurels and attention showered upon that pair of poetry collections, many readers might expect to be let down or at least inoculated against the repeated charms and recognizable characters who again appear, like old photos drawn once more from a family album, throughout the poems in this new volume.

The Mercy, like most of Levine's seventeen earlier books of poetry, displays an elegance and effectiveness surprisingly evident in such deceptively plain-spoken poems, especially in the many elegies written in memory of people and places of importance in his past, that appear throughout his works. In fact, this new volume by Levine derives its title from a poem depicting his mother's migration passage to America as a nine-year-old girl aboard a ship aptly named "The Mercy," and the book begins with a dedication—In Memory of My Mother Esther Levine, 1904-1998—acknowledging his mother's departure from this life and her influence upon his.

In between the dedication and the title poem, the penultimate piece in the volume (a final poem, "The Secret," written upon the death of his mother, appears almost as a coda to close the collection), Levine offers an assortment of elegies and fond memories of family members (mother, unknown father, brother, aunts and uncles), friends, factory co-workers, and favorite artists, writers, or musicians (Charles Scheeler, Federico Garcia Lorca, César Vallejo, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Cesare Pavese, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown) who have informed and influenced his own passage through this life.

In "Flowering Midnight," Levine speaks about a scene he remembers from nearly fifty years ago and of a co-worker at "Chevy Gear & Axle":
My friend Marion,
the ex-junkie and novice drop-forge worker,
off by himself humming "Body and Soul,"
stares wide-eyed straight up letting the flakes
fill his mouth. He played with Hawkins before
his troubles and now has four ten-inch Bluebirds
left to prove it. Now even these trees hunger
for the music, three black trees filling with winter.
"And That Night Clifford Died" presents lines like so many in Levine's work that convincingly persuade readers we are often able to chronicle our lives most effectively through associations with memories of those who affected us so deeply, even those artists we knew only through their work. After hearing trumpeter Clifford Brown on "an FM station fading in / and out on the car's radio," Levine recounts the night in June of 1956 after coming home late from work at the factory when he heard news of Brown's death. He recalls,
. . . the music
I lived for, created by men
becoming myths. Twenty-five years
would pass before Brownie's pure voice
would find me again . . . .
A quarter century after the event, Levine is able to associate his reminiscence about that night of Brown's death in an automobile accident at the age of twenty-five with the condition of his own life, tying together memory and memoir, cultural or political history with personal reflections and emotions:
I sat
alone and silent. The open
window gave me a dark wind
freighted with late September
and the smell of burning fuel
stinging my eyes unless I
was crying for the joy of being
whole in a country at war.
Over the years, there have been accusations that Levine's poems often offer easily apparent situations evoking false sentimentality. One of his harshest critics has been Helen Vendler who once commented in The Music of What Happens (Harvard University Press, 1988), "I am not convinced that Levine's observations and reminiscences belong in lyric poems, since he seems so inept at what he thinks of as the obligatory hearts-and-flowers endings of 'poems.'" As much as there may be a few individual endings of poems in past works where this kind of complaint is justified, any general statement suggesting this as a continuous problem in Levine's poetry is exaggeration, or any comment such as Vendler's assertion Levine's poetry "is only one step away from Lois Wyse or Rod McKuen" is clearly overblown. In fact, in poem after poem the language filling Levine's lines takes the risk of being seen as simply sentimental, but instead offers the reader the greater rewards of genuine sentiment, emotions earned through scenes rendered in simple language.

In "Joe Gould's Pen," Levine even speaks of the "earned word":
Perhaps he knew that when
he gave back the last hard breath
each earned word would disappear
the way the golden halo
goes when the dawn shreds the rose
into dust, the way a voice fades
in an empty room, the way
the pomegranate fallen from
the tree scatters the seeds of
its resurrection, the way
these lines are vanishing now.
The Mercy, with the personal allusions or the private attachments present in its title poem and its dedication, a book full of rear-view mirror reflections published by Levine as he enters his seventies, probably risks criticism of sentimentality and nostalgia even more than any previous work. Nevertheless, the poems gathered in this volume defy such easy terms of dismissal. Rather, studying these poems one discovers lingering lines, evocative images, and powerful portraits arising out of Levine's memory that will remain now in the reader's consciousness and cannot easily be dismissed in any sense of the word—lines, images, and portraits that will remain like those scattered seeds of the pomegranate.

On occasion, Philip Levine also has been legitimately faulted for the seeming arbitrariness in line breaks and too-frequent examples of weaker words at line breaks in his poems. Although there are still a number of lines (as seen in the excerpt from "Joe Gould's Pen")—none of which can be excused as syllabic or metered lines—in this book that would be enhanced by rearrangement and removal of prepositions, conjunctions, or other ineffective words from line endings, far fewer examples occur here than in his earlier books. Levine has apparently been more conscientious about creating effective line breaks in his recent collections, and such criticism now may only amount to quibbling about a minor irritation.

Levine often wonders about the usefulness of words, especially in poetry, to adequately convey meaning and emotion. In "These Words," he describes trying to read "scraps of old letters / damp ragged stories" ruined by rain:
"Door," she has written, "leaf," on the page's
other side, "stone," words out of poetry,
the words my mother read to Aunt Pearl
forty-nine years ago to comfort her
in her loss. How innocent we were then,
how much we believed in the comfort words
could bring, how much we thought they would explain . . . .
He questions and criticizes the effect of words against silence in "'He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do":
Fact is silence is the perfect water:
unlike rain it falls from no clouds
to wash our minds, to ease our tired eyes,
to give heart to the thin blades of grass
fighting through the concrete for even air
dirtied by our endless stream of words.
Other times, as in "Sundays with Lungo" where he regards with wonder the way his friend's words "came sideways out of his mouth / so the wind would blow it to tatters, words / that became nothing," words assume "pure sounds / thrust back into the wind's face." In one of the poems about searching for knowledge of his father, "The Return," he quotes a note from a journal left by his father and inherited by Levine when he "was almost seventy." It reads simply enough, "He who looks for answers finds questions." Now in his seventies, still looking for answers, Levine asks in "Sunday with Lungo,"
Do you know how to read the wind? Do you?
It's easy. Just close your eyes and listen.
Of course, you have to be old, broken
in body and spirit, brought down so low—
as Lungo was—that even words make sense.
Indeed, it is fascinating to read the two poems ("The Return" and "The Mercy") in this collection that most reflect Philip Levine's attempts to fully understand the lives, and the deaths, of his parents—the father he didn't know and the mother who influenced him greatly. This is territory Levine also has explored with prose in his autobiographical memoir, The Bread of Time, published in 1993, where he includes a conversation with his mother:
"You want to know who your father was?"

I could tell by the way she was looking at me that she expected a serious answer. Here I was, a man in his sixtieth year, and I had to ask the old Dr. Prescott question: Was I searching for the father. I knew without the least doubt that if I simply asked, Who was my father? She would answer me without the least temporizing. As it was, in my ignorance, he could have been anyone old enough but not too old in 1927: Jack Dempsey, the Prince of Wales (who had yet to give himself body and soul to Wally Simpson), Henry Ford, Herbert Hoover, Thomas Mann, Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, Hart Crane, Babe Ruth, Walt Disney, Bertolt Brecht, Benny Goodman, Moishe Oysher, Gabriele D'Annunzio, Joe Blow. The list was finite but enormous, and by a simple question I could reduce it to one. You don't need a key that says "Mosler" on one side and opens a long-forgotten door to know what I did.
It is instructive to view the closing lines of these two poems. "The Return" describes Levine's visit to a grove of apple trees resembling a pencil drawing in his father's journal. He concludes the poem with lines that recall scenes or comments about "words" in the poems mentioned earlier:
The wind hummed in my good ear, not words exactly,
not nonsense either, for what I spoke to myself,
just the language creation once wakened to.
I took off my hat, a mistake in the presence
of my father's God, wiped my brow with what I had,
the back of my hand, and marveled at what was here,
nothing at all except the stubbornness of things.
These lines also foreshadow an image in the last lines of "The Mercy," describing Levine's mother after she had disembarked from that ship bearing the name of the poem's title:
. . . A nine-year-old girl travels
all night by train with one suitcase and an orange.
She learns that mercy is something you can eat
again and again while the juice spills over
your chin, you can wipe it away with the back
of your hands and you can never get enough.
The author's notes accompanying Levine's poetry have been fairly consistent throughout the four decades of his publishing career—with one exception. Detailing his move from Detroit as a young man, Levine's earliest notes read, "after a succession of stupid jobs, he left . . . ." However, the biographical information in recent books reads, "after a succession of industrial jobs, he left . . . ." Early in his career, Levine's poetry was often characterized as very angry, and that anger provided much of the energy fueling many of his best poems. But that rage evident at an earlier age and in a large share of his poetry, although not gone altogether, has given way to some extent in recent years, especially in his three latest collections, to an even more thoughtful and reflective poetry exhibiting an even greater generosity of spirit.

Perhaps the closing pair of stanzas from another fine poem in The Mercy—"The Knowable," Levine's tribute to jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins—would also prove a fitting closing comment on Philip Levine:
The years pass, and like the rest of us
he ages, his hair and beard whiten, the great
shoulders narrow. He is merely a man—

after all—a man who stared for years
into the breathy, unknowable voice
of silence and captured the music.

Levine, Philip. The Mercy. New York City, New York: Knopf, 1999. ISBN: 0-375-40138-5


27Susans said...

Another little girl, traveling solo, told us of her first encounter with a banana. It was handed to her by a rich lady on an upper deck. "What are you doing here little girl?" the woman asked. "I am hungry." The child's attempt to chew the banana whole broke the ice and thereafter the kind woman fed my grandmother daily. It was she who explained a child's passage into womanhood, providing the necessities.

John Guzlowski said...

I came from the refugee camps in Germany after the war, and I still remember landing at Ellis Island and my father going out to look for food. He was hoping to find kielbasa, Polish sausage.

I wonder if that's the essential immigrant experience--arriving here and looking for something to eat.

My dad had been in a concentration camp for 4 years, and when he got out he weighed 75 pounds. In the camps, he had eaten bark, newspaper, cloth buttons, the grain he dug out of the dung left by the cows.

America for him was the endless meal of sausage and bread.

Anonymous said...

In this Levine's book there is a poem titled "Cesare". It's about the italian poet Cesare Pavese, but also about someone who Levine doesn't name "because simply I can't" he say in a poem's line. Do you know that name and why Pavese reminds Levine of this poet or writer ?
thank you

John Guzlowski said...

No, I don't know who the poet is.

Did you see Edward Hirsch's interview with Levine at poets org? He talks a little about Cesare, also about the book Mercy and his mom.


Anonymous said...

Thank you! This link has been really helpfully to me. I can suppose that Levine talks about Hart Crane who, very young, commited suicide like Pavese.
thank you for your kindness Mr Guzlowski.