The Unwritten Biography: Philip Levine and Edward Hirsch in Conversation
Edward Hirsch: What are the reverberations of the word mercy in the title of your new book?
Philip Levine: First, The Mercy is the name of the ship that brings my mother from Europe to the U. S. when she's a girl. As I say in the poem, mercy is something she can never get enough of. I think that reflects my sense of the world, though I'm not sure why. I have received mercy from those I love and about none from those I mistakenly thought loved me. In my Hart Crane-García Lorca poem in The Simple Truth I speak of a merciless God who pushed these hideous images at the speaker, who is clearly me, images of my young son falling from the roof he works on, of my father dead. I'm afraid we live at the mercy of a power, maybe a God, without mercy. And yet we find it, as I have, from others.
Hirsch: The word tenderness comes up in the first poem, "Smoke." How did a feeling of tenderness come into your poems?
Levine: In that poem I list the names of the guys coming out into the morning air after a night of work, Bernie, Stash, Williams, and I. One of us uses the word tenderness, and I know it wasn't me. I know who it was, I remember the moment forty-seven years ago in a bar in downriver Detroit. Bernie Strempek and I were watching this beautiful second-rate jazz singer, and Bernie—divining my state of mind—began to speak of tenderness and how above all else it was what he desired. I'm going to sound like a moron, but I had no idea what he was talking about. My thoughts were large and elsewhere. Bernie was a guy of amazing smarts who seemed almost too gentle and delicate for this world, the world in which he did not long remain. His mother was and still is one of my heroes. The father had abandoned the family of four, and she supported them by working at Ford Rouge on nights; furthermore she totally supported Bernie's wish to become a poet. She appears in two poems in the new book. Years later I heard Galway Kinnell remark how much he valued a poetry of tenderness, and I thought, Wow, I could use some in mine, which at the time was dominated by rage toward American racism and imperialism. In the book 1933 you can see my first efforts in that direction.
Hirsch: I wonder if you would say something about the final three lines of "Reinventing America," which seem to be a description of the Detroit of your boyhood.
It was merely village life,
exactly what our parents left in Europe
brought to America with pure fidelity.
Levine: I'm talking about the racial and ethnic hatreds that seemed asleep until they exploded in violence. I have a hunch this was inspired by Williams's In the American Grain. Detroit may have been something Europe never knew—though it must know it now—but it did not submit to the new world in the manner that Williams hoped. We lived with the old poisons still intact. An act, or more likely a rumored act, sets the place on fire. If you were Phil Levine aged fourteen, five-feet-two, 125 pounds, it was a nightmare. Detroit was the most anti-Semitic city west of Munich, and all these Jew haters—in my imagination—were coming after me, and in fact a lot of them were. But in spite of that the kid in the poem is learning to accommodate all the madness and to live in the eye of the hurricane and survive. In that way the title is not ironic.
Hirsch: Would it be fair to say there's a sense of orphanhood running through this book?
Levine: In an odd way, yes. I don't mean I personally felt I was an orphan. My father died when I was five, but I grew up in a strong family. My mother worked full-time so I was largely ungoverned, free to roam the streets of Detroit from an early age and research the poems to come, a tiny Walt Whitman going among powerful, uneducated people. I have a sense that many Americans, especially those like me with European or foreign parents, feel they have to invent their families just as they have to invent themselves.
Hirsch: American poets have sometimes been criticized for writing about their families. Is there any validity in this critique?
Levine: American poets have been criticized for anything you can think of. For being too English, recently for not being English enough. For free verse, for formal verse. For being obscure. For assuming words have meaning. For using their imaginations to invent an America more interesting than the ones they got. For writing about their love lives, for not writing about their love lives. Each of us has a family or doesn't have a family. Those who do might naturally turn to that experience and try to transform it into poetry. Look what Williams did with the elderly women in his family starting with Emily Dickinson Wellcome. Would we not want to have those poems? The test is the quality of the work. Period.
Hirsch: The poets Vallejo and Lorca come into your new book. What have they meant to you?
Levine: More than I can find words for. In The Bread of Time I described how Poet in New York directed me toward my first decent poems of rage against Detroit and General Motors for whom I worked. I soon learned not to imitate Lorca. For one thing it's too easy, for another it always shows. Back in '94 I reread a lot of Lorca to write that essay, and the day I reread Poet in New York I put the book down and couldn't stop talking like Lorca. "Hunger is a boy in a dark room with brown shoes that pinch," and so on. I was seeing the world through his images. Something like that happened when I first visited the Prado back in '66. I spent more than an hour with Goya's black paintings, and when I left the museum I entered the Madrid of Goya. Wherever I looked I saw the punished bodies, the torn mouths, the eyes bursting with fear or rage.
Vallejo I came to much later, in my early thirties, in the translations of Jim Wright, Thomas Merton, Lillian Lowenfels, Nan Braymer, Charles Guenther, which are still the best translations we have. I later learned Spanish and struggled with the originals which are very difficult, and then many friends, the scholar José Elgorriaga and the Mexican poet Ernesto Trejo, led me patiently through them, and I got an idea of their majesty. If his collected works were available in great translations he'd be as famous here in the States as Neruda.
No one can write like Vallejo and not sound like a fraud. He's just too much himself and not you. I did swipe one thing from him. In his great poem to Pedro Rojas he gives this railroad worker a little silver spoon with which to eat his lunch on the job. It's just a perfect tiny insight into the man. In my poem to P. L., the soldier who died in Spain, I give P. L. a little knife he wears at all times. Maybe someday someone will find the person who gets the fork.
Hirsch: How much do you think of yourself as poet of work? I think there's a deeper commitment to saving from oblivion what is thought of as ordinary life.
Levine: In my twenties, before I learned how to write poems of work, I thought of myself as the person who would capture this world. There'll always be working people in my poems because I grew up with them, and I am a poet of memory. There was always music in the poetry of Jimmy Merrill and Bill Matthews; music was just part of who they were and in their poems still are. For sure I once thought of myself as the poet who would save the ordinary from oblivion. Now I think poetry will save nothing from oblivion, but I keep writing about the ordinary because for me it's the home of the extraordinary, the only home.
Hirsch: Your early years of working in Detroit seem inexhaustible. Do you ever feel you're overdrawing the account?
Levine: Probably not nearly as often as others do, especially those who have no idea how poetry comes to be. I write what's given me to write. I don't sit down with the notion, I will celebrate those who work or even those I worked with. I sit down with a pad of paper and a pen. On good days I'm ready to celebrate, as García Lorca would put it, "the constant baptism of newly created things." I see nothing wrong with poems about work or people who work. If half the most celebrated poets want to pay homage to Wittgenstein, I won't complain. Whatever the drive is, we follow it: if the poem is about killing and devouring a rabbit or seducing a statue or singing in an empty warehouse to make my peace with the demons of filth, so be it. All of this may produce garbage, but we do our best.
Hirsch: I love the poem "The Unknowable." Would you say something about its genesis? It seems as if jazz has had a great influence on you as a poet.
Levine: The Sonny Rollins poem. I love his sound. I can hear it right now on "Lover Man" with Brownie and Max Roach; it's such a full and unapologetically sensual blooming. In the late sixties before his second "retirement" he recorded "East Broadway Rundown." I listened to that over and over, couldn't get enough of his sound. What made him my hero was his ability to remove himself from the music scene just at that point in his career when he was becoming the dominant saxophonist, to stop playing publicly and retire into himself and his instrument. For close to two years he lived like a monk alone in Brooklyn, lifting weights, practicing his music on the Williamsburg Bridge when the weather permitted, just living with both of his instruments. That dedication amazed me; he withdrew from the whole commercial thing into the monastery of his art.
I don't know how much the music has influenced my writing; I know it's inspired me, and the young jazz musicians I went to school with in Detroit—Kenny Burrell, Pepper Adams, Bess Bonier, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris—were the first people I knew who were living the creative lives of artists. In age they were kids like me, and I thought, if they can do it then I can do it. There were many others who did their best and wound up as footnotes, like my friend Marion in the poem "Flowering Midnight," but they too were part of the enterprise. It's just like poetry: you can give it your all and find out later it wasn't enough.
Hirsch: At times you seem to be mythologizing the world of your parents before you were born. Why is that so important to you?
Levine: What I inherited were myths and maybe even a few facts. My father's life seemed and still seems utterly mysterious to me. He came alone to the States from Russia at age eleven. He settled in New York City with two sisters and their families. A few years ago I learned there were three sisters. He enlisted in the English army at age nineteen. He was stationed in Palestine. He deserted. He found a new identity and a passport in Cairo. Or maybe none of this happened. I recall a tall, loving, dark, very handsome man, one who spoke perfect English, Yiddish, Russian, Arabic, who read Latin poetry and Russian and French fiction, who voted for Hoover and not F. D. R. A Jew voting for Hoover? He was thirty-five when he died. My mother carried on and supported us; her ambition had been to write poetry and songs. I never heard or saw one. They and my grandfather seemed mythic: people who crossed a continent, an ocean, landed in a strange country, learned "our ways, our language," and lived with gusto and style. They mythologized themselves.
Hirsch: There's a revealing moment in "Salt and Oil" in which you say,
[This] . . . is a moment
in the daily life of the world,
a moment that will pass into
the unwritten biography
of your city or my city
unless it is frozen into the fine print
of our eyes. . . .
Do you see this recent work as saving that moment and writing that unwritten biography?
Levine: I want a record, a visual one will do. I'm saying look, here they come, pay attention. Let your eyes transform what appears ordinary, commonplace, into what it is, a moment in time, an observed fragment of eternity. Millions of us are walking the streets, and at any moment literally dozens of us are seeing. I'm saying if you're awake, if I'm awake, this is what we could see. Any one of us can transform the moment into what it is. Salt and Oil are based on two poets I knew and loved who passed from breath before they did the work they were meant to do. The hero of one, Salt, the name I give Bernie Strempek, was Hart Crane. Oil had two heroes, Homer and Rilke. I can't write like either Rilke or Homer, so I fed at the trough of Hart Crane for this poem. Of course there is a third person in the drama, but I never name or describe him. I invite the reader to mortalize him.
Hirsch: I wonder if you'd say something about the structure of The Mercy.
Levine: Originally I saw the book very differently, but my editor, Harry Ford, asked me to write a description of the book even before I began to put it together. I wrote one description and my wife disliked it, so I wrote a second in which I called it a book of journeys, from youth to age, from innocence to experience, from sanity to madness and back again. When I then looked at the poetry I'd assembled I saw about fifty pages of it didn't belong; then I had to put the rest together. I quickly saw three sections and a building toward intimacy, intensity. That final section is mainly family poems and includes actual as well as spiritual brothers and sisters and parents. You and Larry Levis helped me with my previous book and together you gave me the notion of building the sections to a sort of climax and keeping that high into the next section, then gradually coming down to rebuild again to another climax. I tried it again. My friend Peter Everwine gave me the notion of the coda at the end, the little elegy for my mother who died while I was putting the book together. If this is a successful structure I owe it to you, Eddie, and Larry, and Peter. If it's not I still owe it to you, not that I had to take your advice.
Hirsch: Do you know where you're going next?
Levine: Brooklyn in April. Not really. I never do. I'm seventy-one now, so it's hard to imagine a dramatic change. I don't expect to embark on anything like The Cantos or The Dream Songs. Or even a Brooklyn poem based on Paterson. It would be nice to stumble onto one of those great projects so I could stay busy right through my dotage, but I'm not counting on it. Work might keep me from turning into an ash tree or a cabbage tune on the wind I should be hearing. I've never known where I'm going until I've gone and come back, and then it takes me ages to see what the trip was about. I've never truly planned a book ahead of time. I know that works for others, and to paraphrase Frost, "It might work for me, but it hasn't yet."
Hirsch: Have I forgotten someone or something?
Levine: Cesare Pavese. I first read him thirty years ago in a Penguin translation I found in London. I fell in love with his way of making a poem. Then later Hard Labor translated by William Arrowsmith, and I must have read it fifteen times before I found it could help me. He's in this book, he and—as usual—Williams. And for a change Hart Crane and Antonio Machado. But Pavese is the inspiration or maybe the trickster to whom I owe much of this work or whatever is worthy in the book. He blamed himself enough; he doesn't need my fuck-ups on his shoulders.
Hirsch: The Mercy is dedicated to your mother. Does she cast a retrospective light over the book?
Levine: I was very lucky to have a mother who encouraged me to become a poet. As a fourteen-year-old I fell in love with horse racing, and she hated that. I think she was so glad I quit the track and went to college when I turned eighteen that I could have studied lion taming, and she would have said, "That's an old and honorable profession." But she loved poetry, fiction, music; that a son of hers would devote himself to this art thrilled her. Only the final poem in the book was written after her death, which was in the spring of last year just after she turned ninety-four. I did not see her death coming. The last time I spoke with her she sounded very snappy and was looking forward to my new book. I hope the book contains some of her zest for life, some of her belief in the power of beauty, some of her great humor. As a teacher you too must have known many young people who wanted to pursue poetry but were discouraged by their families. I'm one lucky guy to have had Esther Levine for my mother.