978-0-375-40138-1 / 9780375401381

The Mercy: Poems





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About the book:

Over the last four decades, Philip Levine has earned a reputation as America's consummate blue-collar bard--a kind of postindustrial Walt Whitman, albeit one with a taste for surrealism and bebop. To a degree, of course, this is an accurate picture. Levine has written about the working life with a hard-nosed clarity and tenderness that few American poets can match: it's no accident that his pivotal 1991 collection was called What Work Is. Still, his penchant for lunch-bucket lyricism has tended to overshadow his other gifts, of which there are many. For starters, Levine is a superb elegiac poet. His imaginative engagement with the past enlivened almost every line in The Simple Truth, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. And his 17th collection, The Mercy, entails a similar search for lost time--even as it demonstrates the mournful, memorializing power of language itself.

In the first part of The Mercy, Levine mostly re-creates the Detroit factories, machine shops, and neighborhoods of his youth. Here are the "six bakeries, four barber shops, a five and dime, / twenty beer gardens, a Catholic church with a shul / next door where we studied the Talmud-Torah." Whether these were the good or bad old days depends, needless to say, on your point of view. But Levine seldom overlooks the pitfalls of what he calls "merely village life, / exactly what our parents left in Europe / brought to American with pure fidelity." Elsewhere he celebrates his predecessors (Federico García Lorca, César Vallejo, Charlie Parker) and contemporaries (most notably Sonny Rollins, in "The Unknowable"). In every case the poet squeezes the maximum music out of his compact, unfussy lines. He also has a genius for imparting meaning, and even grandeur, to the trashiest particulars. Note his take on one piece of industrial detritus in "Drum":

On the galvanized tin roof the tunes of sudden rain.
The slow light of Friday morning in Michigan,
the one we waited for, shows seven hills
of scraped earth topped with crab grass,
weeds, a black oil drum empty, glistening
at the exact center of the modern world.
Who but Levine would have nudged this empty (but resonant!) receptacle to stage center? This must be what they mean by poetic reclamation--in every sense of the word. --James Marcus

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