Sunday, April 30, 2017

National Poetry Month: Philip Levine


"Baby Villon" - Philip Levine

He tells me in Bangkok he’s robbed
Because he’s white; in London because he’s black;   
In Barcelona, Jew; in Paris, Arab:
Everywhere and at all times, and he fights back.
He holds up seven thick little fingers
To show me he’s rated seventh in the world,   
And there’s no passion in his voice, no anger   
In the flat brown eyes flecked with blood.
He asks me to tell all I can remember
Of my father, his uncle; he talks of the war   
In North Africa and what came after.
The loss of his father, the loss of his brother,
The windows of the bakery smashed and the fresh bread   
Dusted with glass, the warm smell of rye
So strong he ate till his mouth filled with blood.
“Here they live, here they live and not die,”
And he points down at his black head ridged   
With black kinks of hair. He touches my hair,   
Tells me I should never disparage
The stiff bristles that guard the head of the fighter.
Sadly his fingers wander over my face
And he says how fair I am, how smooth.   
We stand to end this first and last visit.   
Stiff, 116 pounds, five feet two,
No bigger than a girl, he holds my shoulders,   
Kisses my lips, his eyes still open,
My imaginary brother, my cousin,
Myself made otherwise by all his pain.
Philip Levine started to work in car manufacturing plants at the age of 14. He went to college at Wayne University in Detroit, where he began to write poetry, encouraged by his mother, to whom he dedicated the book of poems, The Mercy. In his 1988 Paris Review interview Levine commented on his early work: "Rhythm is deep and it touches us in ways that we don’t understand. We know that language used rhythmically has some kind of power to delight, to upset, to exalt, and it was that kind of rhythmic language that first excited me. But I didn’t encounter it first in poetry . . . perhaps simply in speech, in prayer, preaching. That made me want to create it. My earliest poems were a way of talking to somebody. I suppose to myself. I spoke them and I memorized them. I constantly changed them. I would go out and work on my rain poem and improve it. ... Rain was my first, and I guess, a constant theme. But things like wind in the winter, the trees, and my sense of relationship with them. You could actually see the stars, we were on the outskirts of Detroit, there were no factories around. So you could see the stars and, oh the world is, you know, a cosmos, is immense."

Philip Levine died in 2015 at the age of 87. His final collection, published in 2016, was The Last Shift.

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