by Philip Levine

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Always a poet of memory and invention, Philip Levine looks back at his own life as well as the adventures of his ancestors, his relatives, and his friends, and at their rites of passage into an America of victories and betrayals. He transports us back to the street where he was born “early in the final industrial century” to help us envision an America he&


Always a poet of memory and invention, Philip Levine looks back at his own life as well as the adventures of his ancestors, his relatives, and his friends, and at their rites of passage into an America of victories and betrayals. He transports us back to the street where he was born “early in the final industrial century” to help us envision an America he’s known from the 1930s to the present. His subjects include his brothers, a great-uncle who gave up on America and returned to czarist Russia, a father who survived unspeakable losses, the artists and musicians who inspired him, and fellow workers at the factory who shared the best and worst of his coming of age. Throughout the collection Levine rejoices in song–Dinah Washington wailing from a jukebox in midtown Manhattan; Della Daubien hymning on the crosstown streetcar; Max Roach and Clifford Brown at a forgotten Detroit jazz palace; the prayers offered to God by an immigrant uncle dreaming of the Judean hills; the hoarse notes of a factory worker who, completing another late shift, serenades the sleeping streets. Like all of Levine’s poems, these are a testament to the durability of love, the strength of the human spirit, the persistence of life in the presence of the coming dark.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Terrance Rafferty
So all Levine is willing to say, for now, is that on a good day the rhythm, the intimation of continuity, is there for him -- which should be enough for any writer. Philip Levine is a great American poet, and Breath brings the wonderful news that he's still at work on his almost-song of himself.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Though Levine's late-'60s poems (in They Feed They Lion) surprised everyone, by now his readers know what to expect. Levine writes gritty, fiercely unpretentious free verse about American manliness, physical labor, simple pleasures and profound grief, often set in working-class Detroit (where Levine grew up) or in central California (where he now resides), sometimes tinged with reference to his Jewish heritage or to the Spanish poets of rapt simplicity (Machado, Lorca) who remain his most visible influence. Levine's 18th book will neither disappoint his devotees nor silence the doubters. The simple lyric pleasures are still here, however colored with mortality: "I came to walk/ on the earth, still cold, still silent." Many poems memorialize, by name, men now dead whom Levine admired when young: Uncle Nate, Uncle Simon, "great-uncle Yenkl"; "Antonio, the baker"; Bernie whose "mother/ worked nights at Ford Rouge"; Joachim, who once fought for the Spanish Republic; young John, "coming home from the job at Chevy," "even at sixteen... a man waiting to enter/ a man's world, the one that would kill him." "Until he dies, a boy remains a boy," the sequence "Naming" states; often Levine contrasts his boyhood memories with his experience of old age, to serious effect. His poems of grief also form, as Levine says, "a silent chorus/ for all those we've left/ behind." (Sept.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
It seems as if Levine's entire life has been flashing before his eyes in his poetry, of course since the early 1960s. Now past 70, the Pulitzer Prize winner (for The Simple Truth) is even more disposed to view the world in hindsight ("I knew then what I know/ now: the past, not the future, was mine."), again re-visioning childhood epiphanies, the "murderous" routine of Detroit factory labor, and his family's eccentricities was there ever a poet with more aunts and uncles? in the unadorned, candid, but fluid manner that his readers have come to expect. Levine waxes elegiac for a lost world and for departed friends while summoning praise for "the exquisite in the commonplace." Despite the richness that he discerns in the life he's led, and for all his backyard stargazing and invocations of childhood heroes and local saints, Levine remains unfulfilled ("hunting/ everywhere for what I'd never find/ in all the years to come, salt for the spirit") and unconsoled even by poetry ("How weightless/ words are when nothing will do"). A bittersweet offering from one of America's senior autobiographical poets; recommended for large collections. Fred Muratori, Cornell Univ. Lib., Ithaca, NY Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

The Lesson

Early in the final industrial century
on the street where I was born lived
a doctor who smoked black shag
and walked his dog each morning
as he muttered to himself in a language
only the dog knew. The doctor had saved
my brother’s life, the story went, reached
two stained fingers down his throat
to extract a chicken bone and then
bowed to kiss the ring--encrusted hand
of my beautiful mother, a young widow
on the lookout for a professional.
Years before, before the invention of smog,
before Fluid Drive, the eight-hour day,
the iron lung, I'd come into the world
in a shower of industrial filth raining
from the bruised sky above Detroit.
Time did not stop. Mother married
a bland wizard in clutch plates
and drive shafts. My uncles went off
to their world wars, and I began a career
in root vegetables. Each morning,
just as the dark expired, the corner church
tolled its bells. Beyond the church
an oily river ran both day and night
and there along its banks I first conversed
with the doctor and Waldo, his dog.
"Young man," he said in words
resembling English, "you would dress
heavy for autumn, scarf, hat, gloves.
Not to smoke," he added, "as I do."
Eleven, small for my age but ambitious,
I took whatever good advice I got,
though I knew then what I know
now: the past, not the future, was mine.
If I told you he and I became pals
even though I barely understood him,
would you doubt me? Wakened before dawn
by Catholic bells, I would dress
in the dark -- remembering scarf, hat, gloves --
to make my way into the deserted streets
to where Waldo and his master ambled
the riverbank. Sixty-four years ago,
and each morning is frozen in memory,
each a lesson in what was to come.
What was to come? you ask. This world
as we have it, utterly unknowable,
utterly unacceptable, utterly unlovable,
the world we waken to each day
with or without bells. The lesson was
in his hands, one holding a cigarette,
the other buried in blond dog fur, and in
his words thick with laughter, hushed,
incomprehensible, words that were sound
only without sense, just as these must be.
Staring into the moist eyes of my maestro,
I heard the lost voices of creation running
over stones as the last darkness sifted upward,
voices saddened by the milky residue
of machine shops and spangled with first light,
discordant, harsh, but voices nonetheless.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Philip Levine is the author of sixteen collections of poems and two books of essays. He has received many awards for his poetry, including the National Book Award in 1980 for Ashes and again in 1991 for What Work Is, and the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth. He divides his time between Brooklyn, New York, and Fresno, California.

Philip Levine’s The Mercy, New Selected Poems, The Simple Truth, and What Work Is are available in Knopf paperback.

From the Hardcover edition.

Brief Biography

Fresno, California
Date of Birth:
January 10, 1928
Place of Birth:
Detroit, Michigan
B.A., Wayne State University; M.F.A., Iowa Writers Workshop, University of Iowa

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