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Driving Home a Reality Check

I’ve seen Philip Levine’s face on the back cover of his books, and once in a while, on podiums at readings. When I saw him two feet away, in an NYU bathroom of all places, I was totally baffled. “That’s Philip Levine!” I exclaimed, my voice echoing through the stalls. To which the poet answered: “Yes, Philip Levine takes sh*ts.”

Since then, anytime I encounter the man’s work, I can’t help but think to myself: “Phillip Levine takes…” Which may be a completely inappropriate response to any other Parnassian, but I know Levine would remain unfazed: realism — often gritty realism — is his credo. Having written first collections of poetry while working at an automobile plant in Detroit his focus has remained, throughout his career, on the representation of America’s industrial landscapes: physical, as well psychological.

This has made him the poetic voice of the working class, but a voice heard by other classes too. Last week, on November 19, Levine read at the 92nd street Y with Rita Dove, and the reading was sold out. How often do you hear of a poetry reading selling out a space that big? That’s the kind of a thing we associate with Rolling Stones rather than Pulitzer-winning poets.

Levine’s ironically titled new collection, “News of The World,” reminds us that the aims of poetry are antithetical to simple factuality and news for its own sake. As a result, poetry often takes for its subjects those things which are timeless. And indeed, the title poem from this collection describes finding an old vintage radio at an antique shop in the back-roads outside of Barcelona.

Because the mountains are blocking any worthwhile broadcasts, the shop-owner tunes into a local Communist radio station while promising the poet he can procure “anything” he might want to buy. Within a matter of hours he can have anything from Cadillac to an American film star. Of course the poet chooses not these iconic images of desire, but the enduring irony of a radio broadcasting the past.

For though there’s no real news that this radio can convey, involuntarily, it broadcasts an ongoing juxtaposition, an example of humanity’s constant conflict and contingent situation — in this case, the bizarre mish-mash of Communism, mercantilism, history and nature erupting in the middle of Spanish exurbia. The conversation is bizarre and comic, and one can just imagine the Marxist propaganda, and its long-defunct slogans, blaring in the background.

In “Library Days,” the narrator is a van-driver, obsessed with literature. Levine uses the setup to describe his own literary pedigree, featuring Balzac and Chekhov, arguably, the world’s most famous literary realists. He also brings in Melville, which may turn one’s mind to Moby Dick’s most illustrious character, philosopher-cum-sailor Ishmael, who, like the narrator, interspersed his physical work with intellectual discourse. Dostoyevsky’s “Idiot” receives most attention in the poem, however. Its frighteningly seamless integration of madness into the everyday life makes all things seemingly simple and realistic appear mysteriously irrational. Which may just be the case with this very poem:

Library Days

I would sit for hours with the sunlight
streaming in the high windows and know
the delivery van was safe, locked in the yard
with the brewery trucks, and my job secure.
I chose first a virgin copy of The Idiot
by Dostoyevsky, every page of which confirmed
life was irrational. The librarian, a woman
gone gray though young, sat by the phone
that never rang, assembling the frown
reserved exclusively for me when I entered
at 10 A.M. to stay until light dwindled
into afternoon. No doubt her job was to guard
these treasures, for Melville was here, Balzac,
Walk Whitman, my old hero, in multiple copies
each with the aura of used tea bags. In late August
of 1951 a suited gentleman reader creaked
across the plished oaken floor to request
the newest copy of Jane’s Fighting Ships
only to be told: “This, sir, is literature!”
in a voice of pure malice. I looked up
from the text swimming before me in hopes
of exchanging a first smile; she’d gone back
to her patient vigil over the dead black phone.
Outside I could almost hear the world, trucks
maneuvering the loading docks or clogging
the avenues and grassy boulevards of Detroit.
Other men, my former schoolmates, were off
on a distant continent in full retreat, their commands
and groans barely a whisper across the vastness
of an ocean and a mountain range. In the garden
I’d planted years before behind the old house
I’d long ago deserted, the long winter was over;
the roses exploded into smog, the African vine
stolen from the zoo strangled the tiny violets
I’d nursed each spring, the mock orange snowed
down and bore nothing, its heavy odor sham.
“Not for heaven or earth would I trade my soul,
rather would I lie down to sleep among the dead,”
Prince Myshkin mumbled on page 437,
a pure broth of madness, perhaps my part,
the sole oracular part in the final act
of the worst play ever written. I knew then
that soon I would rise up and leave the book
to go back to the great black van waiting
patiently for its load of beer kegs, sea trunks
and leather suitcases bound for the voyages
I’d never take, but first there was War and Peace,
there were Cossacks riding their ponies
toward a horizon of pure blood, there was Anna,
her loves and her deaths, there was Turgenev
with impossible, historionic squabbles,
Chekhov coughing into his final tales. The trunks –
with their childish stickers – could wait, the beer
could sit for ages in the boiling van slowly
morphing into shampoo. In the offices and shops,
out on the streets, men and women could curse
the vicious air, they could buy and sell
each other, they could beg for a cup of soup,
a sandwich and tea, some few could face life
with or without beer, they could embrace or die,
it mattered not at all to me, I had work to do.


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