Monday, February 1, 2010

Our Daily Bread

Philip Levine's The Bread of Time is a must read. It's inside look at Robert Lowell and John Berryman, Detroit industrial working class jobs, Levine's first steps into poetry, his coming of age as a poet, the synthesizing of these and additional experiences, as well as finding Lorca's voice in Poet in New York, are all powerfully written and universally applicable to every poet's journey.

The most interesting sections for me were Levine's discussions of poetic source and influence--a validation of both the way I came to poke at "the burning coal," to steal a phrase from Gerald Stern, and find a poet with whom I share significant experiences in life and a certain tone or temperament in writing. I loved hearing about thirteen-year old Philip's evening ventures into his neighboring, deeply-wooded undeveloped blocks, his climbing into the lower branches of an elm or copper beech tree, leaning back and speaking to the stars, hearing the magnificence of language for the first time from his solo voice before the audience of the universe.

I had a similar experience as a child. My father moved my mother and I from Illinois to northern New Mexico, where he purchased a house in a brand new subdivision, built at the edge of a small oil-boom town, nestled among the high plateaus overlooking the San Juan Valley. Our house was on the last street of the subdivision, and I could walk through our neighbor's back yard, up a hill, and be in John Wayne world, with all of the cactus, sage brush, mountain cedar, dry arroyo beds, box canyons, boulders and cliffs that a nine-year old boy could desire. Being an only child, I roamed those hills, climbed those cliffs, sat on ledges, listened to the rhythms of rattlesnake and sirocco, the music of coyote, and the great voice of silence that inhabited the sand, holding the warmth of day into the cool of night as I lay under the stars and voiced prayers aloud that one day would become lines written on the page.

I was thrilled to read about Levine's experiences in Berrymans' workshop at Iowa, which provoked thought about Levis in Levine's class, and to think about all poets who have studied under other poets--how poetry is this seamless work of art, this one poem, as Malena Morling (translator of Levine into Swedish), puts it. I too was challenge by Berryman, as Levine told about his teacher raising the bar for his class of great poets and poets-to-be (William Dickey, W.D. Snodgrass, Donald Justice, Paul Petrie, Robert Dana, Constance Urdang, Jane Cooper, Donald Finkel, Henri Coulette, among others), stressing that the only way they could improve was to attempt writing something beyond their abilities, something they didn't yet know how to write.

The second aspect I liked so much about The Bread of Time was Levine's search, unfulfilled for so long, for a poet who would show him the way into voicing his truth about the abuses of the Detroit blue-collar industrial complex. Levine identified with the hardships of Keats, but his poetry was not couched in terms he was seeking. Upon first discovering Diego Rivera's frescoes, Levine thought that he might have found the model for poetry he hoped to write. But, as he looked more closely at his art based upon the Ford plant at River Rouge, for example, he realized that there was a beauty, an optimism and a tone in it that did not ring true with his experiences at Chevrolet Gear and Axle. Then Levine stumbled upon these lines by Lorca:

I denounce everyone
who ignores the other half,
the half that can't be redeemed,
who lift their mountains of cement
where the hearts beat
inside forgotten little animals
and where all of us will fall
in the last feast of pneumatic drills.
I spit in all your faces.

Levine credits Lorca's Poet in New York for his being able to write "They Feed They Lion," and more importantly, to believe that he could write his truth about his experiences in his unique voice--something to which we all aspire, and for which we are all seeking help from the poets in our world.

But Levine never copies style. He transforms it into something new. In "Pili's Wall," Levine has stretched what would be a much shorter piece by some poets, into an eight page poem, using short, compact lines, thereby enacting the length of a wall, as well as the pictures that appear on it, with his ten sections, each of which depict a different scene. In places, the poem is almost a list poem, expanding each item in the list into a stanzas, such as "the small sister," "the lost dog," "the shepherd," and even "seven jackdaws" from section II:

I am the one
you never drew
the small sister
jumping rope
just within the circle
of the cypress

the lost dog
howling at shadows
and fleeing the chatter
of stones

the shepherd
alone and herdless
who came one afternoon
sweat running
from his eyes

seven jackdaws
soundless, until the sky
and there was
no place.

But "Pili's Wall" is far more than a list of objects appearing on the wall or on its mental image. Pili herself steps into the the scene and brings the reader with her in section X: "I seem//to be this girl, this Pili, waiting/for children/with particular names...old father,/that seems to/be smiling down//on all of us with particular names."

Little by little, Levine widens the view and the context of the poem appears: a field of cane, stalls of pigs, a hill of olives. The wall is an image that conveys far more than the pictures that are drawn there; it becomes the poems' surface with two sides: sides that within the poem are easy to see, with the geography of the surroundings carefully laid out. With the wall AS the surface of the poem, we the readers, stand on one side, the poem on the other, and we find ourselves moving back and forth across the wall, the images from the poem trailing onto our side of reality, as they are carefully and convincingly brought to life. This is the internal structure and beauty of the poem: an image that carries the poem, as well as an image that stands for the poem, that IS the poem, interacting with us as if we were in the poem, as well--something to consider as we select our images and our images select us.

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