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David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee

David Rigsbee is the author of two forthcoming collections: The Pilot House, from Black Lawrence Press and The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems from NewSouth Books. He is contributing editor to The Cortland Review.

David Rigsbee reviews "News of the World: Poems" by Philip Levine

News of the World: Poems
by Philip Levine

80 pages
Knopf, 2009


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Philip Levine has always subscribed to the lefty slogan that says if you're not mad, you're not paying attention. At 81, he is within his rights to make peace with the old angers, political, cultural, and personal. In his superb new collection, News of the World, Levine takes up questions of end-gaming, and it will be of interest to his many readers that he has not only such questions to raise, but also some answers—of a sort. Neither the icy Olympian equanimity of a Beethoven, nor the self-conscious shantis of an Eliot present plausible scenarios to this poet. And you can forget traditional religious consolations. But his naturalism is compact with Whitman's, and the trump card that this allows him to play releases him to envision the same anonymously grassy freedom that enveloped Uncle Walt, although grass, for the denizen of Motown, looks positively nostalgic in the wake of the Great Recession.

What we might call the "naturalist option" proposes that you give up relinquishing any robust claim of transcendence. This is true whether you are a poet, a soldier, or a machinist. Thus, opting for a naturalist outlook, you are in for a big sigh of relief (if you can opt for it). Naturalism derives its strength from the justice of matter, with which Levine finds common cause. Consider "New Year's Eve, In Hospital," which encounters still-Victorian attitudes towards mortality, revealing Arnold's cosmic hand-wringing in "Dover Beach" as nothing more than the manipulations of a religious scold and Cardinal Newman (who could refer to "That masterful negation and collapse/Of all that makes me man") as source of the hand-me-down discourse of a young priest making rounds:

A young priest
sat by my bed and asked, did I know
what Cardinal Newman said
about the sea. This merry little chap
with his round pink hands entwined
told me I should change my life.
"I like my life," I said. "Holidays
are stressful in our line of work,"
he said. Within the week he was off
to Carmel to watch the sea come on
and on and on, as Newman wrote.
I hate the sea," I said, and I did
at that moment . . .

Levine is letting his book-learning provide some of the ammo here, which elsewhere he evokes to summon the same refusals that most of us take a literary life to be underwriting. That casual erudition, to be sure, can still snap a whip, even if it can't (or won't) suggest a redemptive system to its hungry readers:

You should change your life,"
he repeated. I asked had he been
reading Rilke. The man in the next bed
a retired landscaper from Chowchilla,
let out a great groan and rolled over
to face the blank wall.

The knowingness is acute and only marginally therapeutic. That last gesture comes, as you probably noticed, courtesy of Comrade Hemingway, who turns up in "In the White City" (one of eight prose poems) where a lieutenant in the Spanish Guardia Civil who wants to lead American tourists in a Falangist teaching moment. Convictions are scrambled elsewhere, too—especially political ones. In "News of the World," an Andorran shop owner recalls the changes:

Back then," he said, "we were all reds." "And now?" I said. Now he could sell me anything I wanted. "Anything?" He nodded. A tall graying man, his face carved down to its essentials. "A Cadillac?" I said. Yes, of course, he could get on the phone & have it out front—he checked his pocket watch—by four in the afternoon.

The commitments, obligations, entailments, desires, regrets—take a bow—which, as gestures go, is a long way from pacing the battlements. And yet, Levine suggests, there was something about the devotion to human justice, about the acknowledgment of the tragic, even if that tragic continually arrives without its stoic fur. While we are alive, the poems suggest, those of us paying attention struggle against those of us who aren't. Then life, concluding the narrative of us, puts its period to the struggle:

Think of it,
my name, no longer a portion
of me, no longer inflated
in a rich compost of memory . . .


a tiny me taking nothing, giving
nothing, empty and free at last.
                                        ("Burial Rites")

It is a flintiness devoutly to be wished. At the same time, readers of Levine will recall many poems informed by a tenderness made all the more tender for refusing a second helping of emotion, or in any way underscoring the affect, in whose dimension, in fact, most living takes place. What it feels like to be poor, to have been dealt a lousy hand, to be on the wrong side of history—these are questions the gods find unintelligible. One of Levine's strengths is his ability to stir readers at an emotional level, while refusing or holding off more expansive or rhetorically pumped-up versions, often brake-tapping by means of a counter-statement:

Yusel Prischkulnick,
I bless your laughter

thrown in the wind's face,
your gall, your rages,
your abiding love
for money and all
it never bought,
for your cracked voice
that wakens in dreams
where you rest at last,
for all the sea taught
you and you taught me
that the waves go out
and nothing comes back.
                                        ("My Fathers, the Baltic")

The working class paradox, which consists of old-fashioned solidarity versus the wish to experience release—i.e., to escape—has never found more forceful, intelligent expression in contemporary poetry than in Levine's work.

In "Our Valley," Levine asks us to hold two thoughts: 1) "home" is a nonce term and 2) naming, that special talent of poets, waits at the behest of some beyond that is itself just an inkling ("that huge silence we think of as divine"):

Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they
     dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call
     it our life.

That reminder of the ocean, that "whiff of salt" is all you need to get going with geography, starting from invisibility and zooming all the way in to your "home." The other thing you need is patience—which is to say, to make your attendance an extension of the patience of time ("you can almost/ believe something is waiting beyond the Pecheco Pass"), the recognition of which leaves you "thrilled and terrified." The sea is there—or you believe it's there—but the point is that a life is like that attendance, that waiting for the "beyond." Just waiting is the thing—not getting the wish, not arriving on time, not the money shot. For a few minutes you might be excused for believing that this was a poem by Richard Hugo, but Hugo's nostalgias are masculine and Western, hoping to hook into myth. Levine's are urban, suspicious of myth, which so often presupposes the wrong kind of heroism: "You came north/ to Detroit in winter. What were you thinking?" ["Arrival and Departure"].

Poets who report from the midst of history rather than from myth are attuned to the narrative and the question of its control. "A Story" is a meta-poem that offers the suggestion that, whatever the story—even the one that didn't happen—there is more than meets the eye. Beginning with the domestic mundane ("Let's begin with/ a house.") Levine, like a master draftsman, begins to make the crosshatch shade the line to the point that we can come to feel this is a family—not just a poem. Whatever there is about this family, moreover, there must be included its spectacular, yet banal demise:

This was the center of whatever family life
was here, this and sink gone yellow
around the drain where the water, dirty or pure,
ran off with no explanation, somewhat like the point
of this, the story we promised and may yet deliver.
Make no mistake, a family was here.

The diction incidentally marks a distinction: the poet no longer fits squarely within the class he is describing. Or does he mean to suggest, like Whitman, that this class now possesses the diction that politics would prevent? In other words, does his poetry itself stand as evidence and elegy of the educated, blue-collar poet's crossing over, or does it extend the franchise? What we learn is that the hypothetical family in this poem gives way to a real one (presumably the poet's own)—by virtue of being named—and the new reality is defended against the aggression of the hypocrite lecteur.

The worn spot on the sill
is where Mother rested her head when no one saw,
those two-stained ridges were handholds
she relied on; they never let her down.
Where is she now? You think you have a right
to know everything?

Like a film director, as well as a custodian of family history, Levine widens and heightens the perspective to aver, "If those questions are too personal, then tell us,/ where are the woods? They had to have been..." The poem ends, "there has to be more than dust, wind-borne particles/ of burning earth, the earth we lost, and nothing else." Does the opening proposition, "Everyone loves a story" yield an answer in "there has to be more than this"? Long story short, there is, because the force of there has to be pushes the narrative until it topples into is (pace Kant). We know this because the old distinction between ought and is is meaningless in hindsight, where both are—we might say—poetry. This poem begins with "Everyone," considers a concluding image ["no more than dust"] but finishes with the adverb: else. It may be that the narrative line is obligated to take readers to "else," which, after all, promises deliverance from the likes of "is."

The biggest historical event is of our lives is up for grabs. For the Greatest Generation, however, it's not arguable. It's WWII. Levine's brother (brotherhood is the template of several poems here) appears in "Innocence," where, years after the war and now grown blind, he lives in a Neutra glass house. When someone passes along the received toll of the Air Corps, to which he belonged, the brother shows why the events of that history never leave:

When I tell him
of the 50,000 airmen the gardener told
the novelist about, his blind eyes
tear up, for above all my older brother
is a man of feeling, and his memory is precise—
like a diamond—and he says,' "Not that many."

The brother's probity in "On Me!" explores how coming-of-age is configured  

by money:
In the next room, my brothers are asleep,
the two still in school. They just can't wait
to grow up and be men, to make money.

The question raised here is whether bearing is the same as bearing up. But events can queer the arithmetic: where once coming of age equaled being a man, it now finds a tertium quid: coming of age equals no money, which in turn equals anger. Coming-of-age, in other words, means coming to recognize one's own ongoing baseline of rage:

Now it's so clear,
so obvious, he wonders why it took
so long for him to get it and to come of age.

Levine's poems often search for a way to accommodate failure by considering what is authentically empty, the seal of authenticity becoming a place-holder for value, offering peace of a sort.

In "Homecoming," the poet considers the nothing that comes after the something:
An actual place in an the actual city
where we all grew up. you and I pass it
on the way to school or on the way home
after work. It's where the old house
once stood, it's wide eyes open day and night,
replaced by nothing.

This "nothing," then, becomes a theme, surrounded by the accoutrements of language, for the sake of which, you might say, it becomes an honorary thing: "Call it an empty log/ though it's not empty." It's here in this poverty that Levine works best. He may not be religious, but he likes the presence of virtual things made present by virtue of language:

If we're quiet
we might hear something alive
on the move through the dusty alleys
or the little abandoned parks, some-
thing left behind, the spirit of the place
welcoming us, if the place had a spirit.

Reading a poet so admirably and reliably hardheaded, you might conclude that naturalism is just a green version of nihilism. But nostalgia and desire (even anti-nostalgias and desire's refusal) come to the rescue because memories and hopes—even faulty memories and daft hopes—supply a metaphysical layer on top of materialism, on top of things. A denial, a dismissal, a lie—all require the energy it takes to propound them. They could have suffered indifference, which is the badge worn by meaninglessness.

Levine's devotion to what Heaney calls the "redress" of poetry is the subject of "Library Days," where in wartime (Korean), stealing time from his job as a beer delivery truck driver, he treats himself to "these treasures, for Melville was here, Balzac/Walt Whitman, my old hero, in multiple copies..." Guarded by a harpy ("gone gray though young") he makes his way through Dostoyevsky ("every page of which confirmed life was irrational"), Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Chekhov, noting that

Outside I could almost hear the world, trucks
maneuvering the loading docks or clogging
the avenues and grassy boulevards of Detroit.

The resistance that this hungry reader and future writer puts up adds another, more personal chapter to the dilemma posed by this book: deadening work or no-money-making imagination? It's the question raised by a previous collection, What Work Is, for if what work is is work, then the work of literature is either a transvaluation or a lie.

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.

The work of literature, this insistence on world-making either in the void or else contested by pressing, often violent contingencies, is in its purest form an instance of creation (not recreation) ex-nihilo, even as its miraculous happening is a trick of the eye or ear. In "The Music of Time," he notes,

I can lie awake in the dark
rehearsing all the trivial events
of the day ahead, a day that begins
when the sun clears the dark spires
of someone's god, and I waken
in a flood of dust rising from
nowhere and from nowhere comes
the actual voice of someone else.

He is "on [his] way/ to nothing" ("Two Voices") when he hears his name, as if from a voice in a cloud, which turns out to be a crowd ("kids in Rollerblades/ kids on skateboards, kids on foot"). In "Alba," the poet travels with other tourists in still-Franco Spain, where he encounters the story of a mass execution by a young commandant, González Brilla, whose killings are preceded by speech-making:

You who are guilty, who are about to die,
to leave the stage of history, behold . . .
behold . . . something or other."

"Something or other" is all his friend can remember, while Brilla's widow "swears he never spoke/ that way his whole life." Skipping to the point, the poet finds the friend in a hospital ("he remembers nothing,/ not even the war"). The poet asks,

Can we hear them now, the words of Brilla,
the elusive lesson worth all those lives?
Above the cries of seagulls, the message comes
transplanted into the language of water and wind,
decipherable, exact, unforgettable, the same
words we spoke before we spoke in words.

In a similar spirit in "Magic," the poet muses on the fate of a friend "back from Korea/ with graying hair and a flying cross," and both noting and wondering why he notes such changes, lays his poem to rest in as positive a note as he is able to summon, witness and chronicler that he is,

It took me years to learn
a way of walking under an umbrella
of indifferent stars, and to call them "heavenly
bodies," to regard myself as no part
of a great scheme that included everything.
I had to put one foot in front of another,
hold both arms out for balance, stare ahead,
breathe like a beginner, and hope to arrive.

Although history forces us away from our pretension to timelessness—a notion dear to many poets of Levine's generation, it also enables the tragic register to come into play. The fallacy lies in believing that the tragic kicks in as the metaphysical (the timeless, religion, Platonism) ebbs. To refuse heaven is courageous, even macho; to refuse the tragic is sublime. What Levine shows, to his credit—is both the desire to be free of history and yet to have experienced it deeply—where winners and losers vie for the narrative. Hence Brodsky was moved to draw attention to the poet's "necessary ambivalence"—his version of negative capability. The paradox lies in the insistence, clear in this book as never before, that to be free of history, to return to the dust and meaninglessness after a life of engagement is itself a kind of metaphysics, for it returns us, shorn of sound and fury, to natural structures once designated as harmonious. Getting in touch with our inner-Dostoyevsky, railing against the dying light and all that, look from the perspective of Alpha Centauri, quaint. But that was never our perspective, and while we railed, we were as big as our contradictions: only the living know this. And the silent Who cares! of the beyond is a boorish hurricane compared to the whisper, the whimper, and the sigh.


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