poem index

Silence Amidst the Crowd: A Reading of Philip Levine's "The Simple Truth" and "Call It Music"

Written by

Christine Hume
Contributor Page

Year

2011

Two remarkably patient, deferential poems that invoke the unsayable in the midst of America's increasingly bumptious culture are "The Simple Truth" and "Call It Music" by Philip Levine. Although appearing ten years apart, "The Simple Truth" in 1994 and "Call It Music" in 2004, these two lyrical narratives defer in their conclusions to the ineffable "voice" behind speech, moving from a remorseful ars poetica in "The Simple Truth" to a mystical reverie in "Call It Music." In both poems, the catalyst that inspires Levine to humble himself before ineffable truths lies in his placing others, a potato vender in "The Simple Truth" and Charlie Parker in "Call It Music," before him with Whitman-like awe and empathy. It is Levine's "negative capability" in identifying with these sacred ordinary others that spawns his awareness of the power of the unsayable.

The Simple Truth

I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red
   potatoes,
took them home., boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and
   salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In the middle of June the
   light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and
   mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me the
   potatoes
was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater
   and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. "Eat, eat," she said,
"Even if you don't I'll say you did."
                                               Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and
   true
they must be said without elegance, meter and
   rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the
   salt-shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for
   themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in
   1965
before I went away, before he began to kill
   himself,
and the two of us betray our love. Can you taste
what I'm saying? It is onions and potatoes, a
   pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is
   obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always
   wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call
   salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live in it.


Call It Music

Some days I catch a rhythm, almost a song
in my own breath. I'm alone here
in Brooklyn, it's late morning, the sky
above the St. George Hotel is clear, clear
for New York, that is. The radio is playing
Bird Flight. Parker in his California
tragic voice fifty years ago, his faltering
"Lover Man" just before he crashed into chaos.
I would guess that outside the recording studio
in Burbank the sun was high above the jacarandas,
it was late March, the worst of yesterday's rain
had come and gone, the sky was washed. Bird
could have seen for miles if he'd looked, but what
he saw was so foreign he clenched his eyes,
shook his head, and barked like a dog—just once—
and then Howard McGhee took his arm and assured
   him
he'd be OK. I know this because Howard told me
years later, told me he thought Bird could
lie down in the hotel room they shared, sleep
for an hour or more, and waken as himself.
The perfect sunlight angles into my little room
above Willow Street. I listen to my breath
come and go and try to catch its curious taste,
part milk, part iron, part blood, as it passes
form me into the world. This is not me,
this is automatic, this entering and exiting,
my body's essential occupation without which
I am a thing. The whole process has a name,
a word I don't know, an elegant word not
in English and Yiddish or Spanish, a word
that means nothing to me. Howard truly believed
what he said that day when he steered
Parker into a cab and drove the silent miles
beside him while the bright world
unfurled around them: filling stations, stands
of fruits and vegetables, a kiosk selling trinkets
from Mexico and the Philippines. It was all
so actual and Western, it was a new creation
coming into being, like the music of Charlie
   Parker
someone later called "glad," though that day
I would have said silent, "the silent music
of Charlie Parker." Howard said nothing.
He paid the driver and helped Bird up two flights
to their room, got his boots off, and went out
to let him sleep as the afternoon entered
the history of darkness. I’m not judging
Howard, he did better than I could have
now or then. Then I was nineteen, working
on the loading docks at Railway Express,
coming day by day into the damaged body
of a man while I sang into the filthy air
the Yiddish drinking songs my Zadie taught me
before his breath failed. Now Howard is gone,
eleven years gone, the sweet voice silenced.
"The subtle bridge between Eldridge and
   Navarro,"
they later wrote, all that rising passion
a footnote to others, I remember in '85
walking the halls of Cass Tech, the high school
where he taught after his performing days,
when suddenly he took my left hand in his
two hands to tell me it all worked out
for the best. Maybe he'd gotten religion,
maybe he knew how little time was left,
maybe that day he was just worn down
by my questions about Parker. To him Bird
was truly Charlie Parker, a man, a silent note
going out forever on the breath of genius
which now I hear soaring above my own breath
as this bright morning fades into afternoon.
Music, I'll call it music. It's what we need
as the sun staggers behind the low gray clouds
blowing relentlessly in from the nameless ocean,
the calm and endless one I've still to cross.

These two poems develop similar paradoxical themes on the nature of Levine's inscrutable muse. While issuing a prophet-like caveat at the close of "The Simple Truth" about the impossibility of ever speaking truths he's known "all his life," despite their life-sustaining presence in the "back of the throat," in "a form we have no words for," Levine defines this unspeakable but palpable truth in "Call It Music" as "a silent note / going out forever on the breath of genius." Although generally not given to philosophical flights in his recurring lyrical narratives and jeremiads about factory work, family history, anti-Semitism, the legacy of poetry and rites of passage, Levine conjures a metaphysical conceit for music that is similar to his conceit for truth, an abiding, mystical silence. A close reading of these poems reveals an overheard voice that engages Levine in a poetic conversation with himself about just what he can and cannot say. But his subject, which is also not a subject, namely, those truths that are inexpressible, remains the inscrutable subtext of both poems and consequently Levine's essential agon in the making of these poems.

Levine divides "The Simple Truth" into two sections with the strategy of broaching his impossible subject by first engaging his reader with personal narrative. In the first seventeen lines of the poem, he recounts a recent purchase of "a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes" from a Polish woman—"someone out of [his] childhood"—and then walking through "the dried fields on the edge of town" in June. While this vignette is rich with pastoral detail, recalling a scene out of Dos Passos' USA or a passage from Whitman's "Democratic Vistas," it doesn't present much more than a vivid account of Levine's encounter with a Polish vender at a roadside vegetable stand who urges him to "eat, eat" her fruits and vegetables. This woman's look, accent, and threat bring back memories of Levine's childhood, prompting him to turn his reflection into philosophizing. Moving from the Polish woman's command to "eat, eat" to the general observation that there are "some things you know all your life," Levine unravels an ars poetica that redounds on the very chthonic ground he describes so evocatively in the first half of the poem. The literal potatoes he bought for "a dollar and a half" from the Polish woman become metaphors for the unsayable, which are those "things" one knows all his life. This a priori epistemology becomes the real subject of the poem, addressing the poet's primary responsibility to innate knowledge, namely, to forgo "elegance, meter and rhyme" when speaking of those things "so simple and true." What remains mysterious, however, is why this awareness about the simple truth leads to suicide and betrayal. Levine confesses his and Henri's betrayal of their love, along with Henri's suicidal downward spiral, as a seemingly direct consequence of his awareness of the truth's need for simple and inelegant form. "My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965 / before I went away, before he began to kill himself, / and the two of us to betray our love." Levine leads his reader to assume from these tragic consequences of arriving at the simple truth, that it, whatever "it" is, is both revelatory and destructive.

Levine's shift from literal storytelling to figurative witnessing turns on his phrase "some things" in line 18. By implication, these "things" are antipodes of formal poetic expression, free of meter and elegance. Things (lines, phrases, silence) that "stand for themselves...naked and alone...on the table beside the salt shaker." But Levine never says what these things are specifically, leaving his reader to surmise for herself. He does, however, provide gustatory clues that hearken back to the potatoes he bought from the Polish hierophant at the roadside vegetable stand and went home and cooked for dinner "with a little butter and salt." These same potatoes are now "like a truth you never uttered because the time was always wrong." The same food that's celebrated for its sustenance at the start of the poem has now become "like a truth" "at the back of the throat." We now see what Levine was up to in the first part of the poem, namely setting up the physical "that" with his potato vignette in a dialectic that concludes with a metaphysical "this" that incorporates the same potato. Patience leads to prescience in this compound narrative where earth is wed to truth "in a form we have no words for" but nonetheless exists as a vital sustenance that one lives on, or not. The elusive simple truth Levine leaves his reader with resonates more as a spiritual cognizance than any possible truthful utterance. The fact that the "time is always wrong" for uttering those things one knows all his life belies any absolute efficacy of language, leaving silence as truth's most authentic realm and poetry's inscrutable, ironic source.

A decade after writing "The Simple Truth," Levine returned to silence in his poem "Call It Music" as a realm that evinces more than mere absence of sound, but a mystical music as well that resonates first from random things in "the bright world," then finds its way through the receptive ear and eye of the musician to an adequate instrument, which Levine identifies as Charlie Parker's saxophone. And even though this silent music emanating from mere ordinary things pours out ultimately from Parker's saxophone, Levine claims that it somehow also remains "silent."

Howard truly believed
what he said that day when he steered
Parker into a cab and drove the silent miles
beside him while the bright world
unfurled around them: filling stations, stands
of fruits and vegetables, a kiosk selling trinkets
from Mexico and the Philippines. It was all
so actual and Western, it was a new creation
coming into being, like the music of Charlie
   Parker
someone later called "glad," though that day
I would have said silent, "the silent music
of Charlie Parker." Howard said nothing.

Whether intentional or not, Levine echoes here the same ancient conceit that David employs in lines 2 through 4 of Psalm 19. "Day to day pours forth speech, / and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; / their voice is not heard; / yet their voice goes out through all the earth, / and their words to the end of the world." Substitute Parker's saxophone in this Psalm for "day" and "night," and one becomes the other. This metaphorical synergy that Levine's friend, Larry Levis, called "glad music" does indeed play out as "day's speech" and "night's knowledge" in "Call It Music," betraying his inherent awareness—not unlike David's—of the ultimate "silence" of his own words within time's cosmic sweep. But it is this particular submission and admission that imbrue Levine's lines in the here and now with valiant witness to the "bright world," the glittering minutiae and "glad music" that is memorable, at least for as long as his "voice" and lines remain in the memories of his readers.

Levine repeats the same gustatory metaphor in "Call It Music" that he used in "The Simple Truth" to once again capture the taste of truth, equating it to the air that sustains him. "I listen to my breath / come and go and try to catch its curious taste, / part milk, part iron, part blood." Can one then infer syllogistically that truth is breath for Levine? Or does he merely wish to use the same metaphor to describe both truth and breath while ascribing different meanings to these two subjects? He does add milk and blood to the list, so there are a few additional flavors in his organic taste. But Levine never makes any definitive claim about truth being breath, or vice versa, choosing instead to distill his tropes in "Call It Music" (the last poem in his most recent book titled Breath) down to four things: "automatic" breath, a "curious taste," silent music, and the "breath of genius." Levine writes about these four endogenous and metaphysical things as if he has known them all his life, but is just now finding the right words for his mystical knowledge. He talks to himself throughout much of the poem, overhearing himself say that his breathing is not he, that Charlie Parker's music is "silent," that his late friend Howard McGhee, a jazz musician, teacher and disciple of Charlie Parker, did the best he could in attending to Parker, despite Parker's institutionalization and early demise, and that the word for the "whole process" of breathing "means nothing" to him. In a show of exemplary deference, Levine humbles himself before Parker's music at the end of the poem, perceiving from his humility's ironic alembic just what ineffable quality Parker's music possesses that inspires him in turn to call it "silent," namely, its genius "above [his] own breath." Levine qualifies this music as necessary, not just for him, but for his reader as well. "It’s what we need / as the sun staggers behind the low gray clouds / blowing relentlessly in from the nameless ocean." However, rather than issue another directive about the inexpressible, as he does in "The Simple Truth," Levine returns to his first person musing, concluding with a deferential acknowledgment of "that nameless ocean / that calm and endless one I've still to cross."

The poem has been personal up to this point, elegizing the lives and music of Howard McGhee and Charlie Parker. Levine's leap from I to we at the end betrays his subtle but effective shift away from the personal to the universal, saving the poem from mere private reminiscence about his two late friends and his own imminent demise. Unlike his speaker in "The Simple Truth" who leaves his reader with a palpable metaphor for the "unsayable," Levine avoids the topic of telling "the simple truth" altogether in his conclusion of "Call It Music" in favor of evincing the power of breath alone as that transcendent ether that both vivifies the body and sounds "the silent notes" of genius.

The metaphor in the poem's diminuendo is revelatory for Levine. Charlie Parker the man, who is also "a silent note going out forever on the breath of genius" leads Levine like an angel to the inner sanctum of silent music where he hears Parker's breath "soaring above [his] own" at day's end. This music's inherent grace, in turn, bestows a mortal vision to Levine of an empyreal ocean, "the calm and endless one [he has] still to cross." Like Dickinson's psychopomp, a fly "with blue uncertain stumbling buzz" in her poem "I heard a fly buzz," Parker's silent music leads Levine to that point where he "cannot see to see." And yet he does see a final time and place, at least in his mind; it is an afternoon at the beach on a cloudy afternoon, but like the truth he cannot utter in "The Simple Truth," the ocean over which the clouds blow in concealing the sun, remains nameless.

Levine's patience with his impossible subject lies in his wisdom to submit to truths he knows but cannot express, "without any irritable reaching after fact or reason." His willful surrender to "the silent note" instills him with a self-abnegating muse. In a letter Levine wrote to me about this poem in response to a first draft of this essay, he provided this invaluable footnote on the inspiration of Parker's music within the tragic context of his abbreviated life.

The silent music of Charlie Parker. Have you ever heard the recording—that famous infamous one—of "Lover Man"? It's one Bird wished was never released. It was Larry Levis who used the term "the glad music" of Bird. I say silent because that solo says so much about silence, and then it was followed by months of literal silence because Parker was confined to a mental institution in Camarillo, California for close to six months. When near the end of the poem I hear Bird's voice soaring above my own, I'm hearing his music; in the beginning of the poem I refer to "Bird Flight"—that's a week-day radio broadcast hosted by Phil Schaap on WKCR; it lasts over an hour and is dedicated to the music of Charlie Parker...The poem is about what cannot be said. I have for some years been writing about just this theme.

Levine is not alone among other poets of his generation in his homage to the unsayable. Adrienne Rich and W.S. Merwin corroborate his paradoxical embrace of the unsayable in recent testimonies of their own. Adrienne Rich concludes her 2006 essay "Poetry and Commitment" with this reaffirmation of the timeless role of "the unspeakable" in poetry. "Finally: there is always that in poetry which will not be grasped, which cannot be described, which survives our ardent attention, our critical theories, our classrooms, our late night arguments. There is always (I am quoting the poet/translator Americo Ferrari) 'an unspeakable where, perhaps, the nucleus of the living relation between the poem and the world resides.'" W.S. Merwin echoes Rich's sentiments in a prepared statement on this subject that appeared in the American Poetry Review's 25th Anniversary issue (June / July 2008). Responding to the question, How does poetry help people to live their lives?, Merwin answered, "The source that rises unbroken from the unsayable speaks to us of the impulse and mystery that we share with every living creature. The urge is meaningless, like the unknown itself, and in the end remains, by nature, unsayable." While these statements reaffirm what is most sacred about the wellspring of poetry in eloquent prose, Levine's testimonies to what Qoholeth described in Ecclesiastes as the "eternity that God has put into the minds of men, but so he cannot figure out what has happened from beginning to end," provides a timely poetic update on the inviolate silence that resounds between the lines of memorable poetry.