Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Philip Levine, Working Class Proud

It really is perfect that Phil Levine has been named the U.S. Poet Laureate in this year of Occupy Wall Street, the lingering economic meltdown/jobs catastrophe, Scott Walker-style attacks on public workers, "austerity measures" across Europe, and other bullshit that's been foisted onto working people to bear the brunt of the recklessness brought on us all by the elite 1% and the financial industry's outrageous behavior since the 1980s. A year of too much and a year of fighting back. Definitely a time to turn to a poet like Phil Levine.

All along, there have been those who've known this was coming, who have plodded along documenting the severe toll Reaganomics and de-regulated industry have taken on the environment and the common people. Phil Levine is such a poet.

Still, it is a surprise that Levine has been so honored, given the lack of posturing in his work. Levine's poems are firmly rooted in life, in the real people mauled by the capitalist system. No caricatures here, nor labyrinthine masks of identity work. No posing, no theoretical discourse, no glib detachment. Substance and style are present and go hand in hand to craft compelling human songs of suffering and discovery, an amassed body of evidence of the failure of capitalism to be a human system and of the perseverance of people even in the face of hopeless conditions. As this New York Times writer reminds us, Levine's poetry is full of people, which has become all-too-rare in contemporary poetry, where the overly self-conscious speaker is often the only human presence in a poem.

For further reading, my friend Alex Long co-wrote a damned good piece (with Devin Harner) in the Chronicle of Higher Education in the fall, shortly after the Poet Laureate appointment. They get into the radical choice of Phil as Poet Laureate, as well as the metaphysics behind the labor-centric physicality of his poems.

Levine's earlier works are alive with a fiery anger and the politics of witness. His later poems are full of tenderness and humility in which, while still enthralled by poetry, he hesitates to make too great claims for it. His poem, “He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do,” ends:

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.
As someone from a working class family, and as a resident of a string of crippled, post-industrial towns (and who takes these both on in subject matter), I've been aware of the importance of Levine's work for years--like since I started reading poetry. But it wasn't until recently that I've actually really sat down to read his work, poring over They Feed, They Lion (1972); What Work Is (1991, National Book Award Winner), and his recent collection News of the World (2009). These are astonishingly good poetry collections.

Here's one poem to savor and, I hope, to lead you to more. It is the opening poem of What Work Is:

Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight's but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes--all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O'Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric
steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash
of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,
metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts,
until I knew the burning stew was done.
Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer
returned to the ordinary blinking lights
of the swingshift at Feinberg and Breslin's
First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message
from the kingdom of fire. Oddly enough
no one welcomed me back, and I'd stand
fully armored as the downpour of cold water
rained down on me and the smoking traces puddled
at my feet like so much milk and melting snow.
Then to disrobe down to my work pants and shirt,
my black street shoes and white cotton socks,
to reassume my nickname, strap on my Bulova,
screw back my wedding ring, and with tap water
gargle away the bitterness as best I could.
For fifteen minutes or more I'd sit quietly
off to the side of the world as the women
polished the tubes and fixtures to a burnished purity
hung like Christmas ornaments on the racks
pulled steadily toward the tanks I'd cooked.
Ahead lay the second cigarette, held in a shaking hand,
as I took into myself the sickening heat to quell heat,
a lunch of two Genoa salami sandwiches and Swiss cheese
on heavy peasant bread baked by my Aunt Tsipie,
and a third cigarette to kill the taste of the others.
Then to arise and dress again in the costume
of my trade for the second time that night, stiffened
by the knowledge that to descend and rise up
from the other world merely once in eight hours is half
what it takes to be known among women and men.

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