Philip Levine: '1949, Miami Beach. Zero.'

Commentary on the Next U.S. Poet Laureate From the Archives of the Forward

By Rodger Kamenetz

Published August 10, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Philip Levine, who has been named the next Poet Laureate of the United States, was the first poet featured in the Forward’s Psalm 151 poetry series. In this piece from the Forward’s archives, Rodger Kamenetz writes about Levine’s poem “Zero for Conduct.”

Originally published in the Forward December 1, 2000.

A powerful body of Jewish American poetry has emerged since the end of World War II. In recognition of this rich proliferation, the Forward has asked me to set out some examples in a monthly series featuring new poems by distinguished contemporary poets. Instead of getting caught up in defining Jewish American poetry — which takes the complexity of “Who is a Jew?” and multiplies it by the complexity of “Who is a poet?” — I thought we would dive right in with a beautiful poem by Philip Levine, “Zero for Conduct.”

Mr. Levine’s work is distinguished by its piercing clarity and frank beauty, its deep regard for the wisdom and difficulties of working people, as well as by its sudden moments of illumination and revelation.

In “Zero for Conduct,” an unlikely spiritual journey unfolds just after closing time as a “band of four sure losers” joins a fierce search for transcendence against difficult odds. As he often does, Mr. Levine appears in his own work as witness and guarantor of the truth.

Mr. Kamenetz is the author of “The Missing Jew: New and Selected Poems” and “Stuck: Poems Midlife.” “Stalking Elijah” won the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought in 1997.

ZERO FOR CONDUCT

The bartender says, “Please,” and then suggests
they go somewhere else to finish their fight.
He’s had it. Night after night, the story
always the same: Zero just wants a place

in which to quietly ruin his life —
the words are his — and Estelle just requires
he live in a torment of her design.
1949, Miami Beach. Zero

farther down on his luck than even I,
waiting tables at the last Jewish diner
in Christendom, peeling potatoes, learning
fry cooking from an ex-con from Fresno.

So the four of us — I had a sidekick
in Cuban porno films teaching me Spanish —
set out for the Topper, where Zero worked
until the night he lay down on the parquet,

face down, and begged Jesus Christ to kill him.
The audience had hissed, so he pissed his pants.
Tonight in the warm moonlight the world seems
full of possibility. At the sky’s edge the stars

open and close their eyes as though flirting
with our little band of four sure losers.
I can hear the ocean sighing out there
where the invisible enters my sight

to become a cliché. Zero suddenly stops,
stamps out his cigarette, points heavenward
to announce that the one God of his boyhood
is hiding his face behind the lightshow

and will show no other side of death
unless it’s the sea out there churning at rest.
Then he dubs his Estelle Queen of the Night.
“Ascend to your throne!” He tries to lift her

by the elbows, but the weight of her prattle,
constant and incomprehensible, holds
her earthward. Why I woke the next morning
just after the false dawn on someone’s couch

to hear Zero at prayer, wrapping tefillin,
I’ll never know, nor what silenced Estelle
at last, nor why the cold sea swallowed the sky,
nor why I’ve chosen you to tell this to.
— Philip Levine


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.