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

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Philip Levine: BREATH

When I reviewed Philip Levine’s The Mercy in the first issue of Valparaiso Poetry Review back in the fall of 1999, I concluded my comments with a quote from one of the poems, “The Unknowable,” a tribute to jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins. I suggested some of the lines, including the closing ones, could prove just as fitting for a description of Levine: “a man who stared for years / into the breathy, unknowable voice / of silence and captured the music.” Therefore, when I noticed the title of Levine’s next collection and read the book’s epigraph (“Some days I catch a rhythm, almost a song / in my own breath”) drawn from the first lines of its final poem, “Call It Music,” a similar tribute to Charlie “Bird” Parker, I smiled.

My smile showed not only from a recognition of the repetition in images that bridges the two volumes, but also from a sense of fulfillment, a feeling that Levine, too, was acknowledging some greater degree of identification with the musicians he admires so much, those figures of jazz such as Bird, with his “breath of genius / which now I hear soaring above my own.” Like those bebop musicians—including Bud Powell or Thelonious Monk—Levine lauds in his deceptively plain-spoken yet lyrical lines, the poet has developed a distinctive sound over the past few decades that preserves well the mood and atmosphere of particular times or places now lost. As well, the poet’s characters, many long dead, appear as presences kept alive a little bit longer by lingering elegiac lyrics, each phrase sounding like a breath of expression blown into a wind instrument or notes from some old piano riff held forever on tape from a recording session more than half a century ago.

In the last two decades readers may have detected a mellowing voice in many of Philip Levine’s poems, which has resulted in a strengthening rather than a weakening of the poetry. The language one finds in his recent collections appears more open to a greater range of sentiments and to possibilities of extending forth moments holding tender emotions without slipping into sentimentality. In Alice Quinn’s conversation with Levine and Galway Kinnell that appeared in The New Yorker last October, Levine acknowledged his awareness of a shift within his work after once hearing Kinnell compliment “tenderness” in poetry: “I thought, he’s right. Why the hell isn’t that in my poetry? It changed the way I looked at the past.”

That effort to include a tender look at the world has been especially evident in Levine’s last two books—his pair of volumes published since winning the National Book Award in 1991 for What Work Is and the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth; although, the poet’s softer voice was already speaking in much of those award-winning collections as well. Levine seems to be emphasizing less anger and resentment in these recent works, as he displays even greater affection for those individuals from his past who populate his poems. In his New Yorker discussion with Quinn and Kinnell, Levine remarked upon a wish to include in his writing many individuals he’d known over the years, “people who didn’t appear in poetry,” and whose lives touched his own: “I thought, God, what an opportunity I’ve been given here, to try to get these people into some poems. And then, lo and behold, they appear in The New Yorker.

Perhaps no other contemporary poet has exhibited as large a cast of characters in his or her poetry as Philip Levine has in his heartfelt elegiac lyrics concerning personal relations, as well as in the eloquent emotional reflections on historical figures or cultural icons whose influence may have helped mold Levine’s own heart and certainly aided in shaping his art. In his New Yorker dialogue, Levine reveals his new thinking: “I began to focus on the people whom I worked with and had great affection for, people who transformed my vision of the human with their grace and their courage and their independence.”

Indeed, Levine’s technique of honoring others by keeping them alive in his lines, preserving memories one by one in his poetry, also serves to create for readers a distinct and detailed cumulative portrait of the poet’s own persona. Here, too, Levine has benefited recently from an increased scope of emotions in his poetry due to his even more compassionate voice. One is won over by the depth of feelings, especially the vulnerability and an awareness of the inherent transience in life, held by the speaker in “The West Wind” who can “hear / the past years calling / in the pale voices / of the air,” or who observes one tree that “harbors a few leaves / from last fall, black, curled, / a silent chorus / for all those we’ve left / behind.” When the persona pronounces, “at my back I feel / a new wind come on, / chilling, relentless, / with all the power of loss, the meaning / unmistakable,” he invokes haunting thoughts of mortality and he invites readers to consider their own state of impermanence.

In “Moradian,” a piece which tries to bring to life a high school friend killed in World War II, Levine laments that only he remains to maintain the memory: “He can’t just be me, / smaller now than I, his damp hands empty, / his breath my breath, his silence also mine / in the face of our life, he just can’t be.” Throughout this collection, Levine assumes an obligation to those who might be forgotten without his words instilling fresh breath into their personae. One way by which he proceeds with his duty is to attempt a cessation of time within the lines of his poems. Repeatedly, Levine cites specific years during which the narrated events occur: readers are reminded it is “1928,” “1933,” “1938,” etc. Each poem wants time halted, perhaps like the “fenced truck yard / behind my father’s grease shop where all time stopped” (“1/1/2000”). Levine perceptively mentions in “The Lesson”: “Sixty-four years ago, / and each morning is frozen in memory, / each a lesson in what was to come.”

The book contains two longer sets of poetry, “Dust” and “Naming,” similar to extended pieces familiar to readers of Levine’s past volumes. Each series is reinvigorated by its pattern of narrative. In “Dust” Levine includes five numbered sections incorporating dust as a central metaphor, complete with its traditional implication of death and the associations with circumstances of lost lives in that past era known by the “Dust Bowl.” In one section Levine even reports that he lives “across from a funeral parlor,” and the series ends with the poet joining his wife to toast their New Year with wine, an act “as good as any / to stall our time from whirling into dust.”

“Naming,” which takes up an entire part of Breath, has twenty-five 15-line pieces, each with an octet and a septet. The uniformity of the poems contributes to the impression of a litany being presented in this sequence as, one after another, the works capture memories of moments or men and women the poet had once known so they are no longer forgotten: “Over and over we live / that perfect winter of ’33,” Levine writes in one section. In another he wonders: “Who are these people in our lives / talking in voices that were never theirs?” At one point, the speaker concedes a sense of frustration with his efforts: “I say your names, numberless, / into the wind, and it’s not enough.” In its entirety, "Naming" supplies a stunning example of Levine's poetic skill.

Sometimes when reading Philip Levine’s poetry, I feel like I might become lulled by the reluctant eloquence hidden within such seemingly blunt and unpretentious poetry delivered in a straightforward manner some may mistake as ordinary or muted. Also, I frequently forget how much of Levine’s poetry is about suggesting the self as reflected through meditations on the lives of others. As one of Philip Levine’s former students and also an elegiac poet, Larry Levis, once explained, elegy is “self-reflexive,” revealing the mind and nature of the poet as much as the character of the subject in the poem. Thus, in Breath Philip Levine continues to give readers a glimpse into his thoughts on life by reviving the dead, and he provides significant lessons on living, even when he appears to confront more openly his own mortality. As he ominously describes in the final lines of the book after so much naming as a way of reclaiming, what lies ahead now are “the low gray clouds / blowing relentlessly in from that nameless ocean, / the calm and endless one I’ve still to cross.”

Levine, Philip. Breath. Knopf, 2004.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of "reluctant eloquence" embedded in Levine's blue collar poetry, and agree his work (what I know of it) seems largely elegiac in tone - he seems to capture the loneliness of the universe in a rusted-out Chevy.