The Mercy

The Mercy

by Philip Levine

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Philip Levine's new collection of poems (his first since The Simple Truth was awarded the Pulitzer Prize) is a book of journeys: the necessary ones that each of us takes from innocence to experience, from youth to age, from confusion to clarity, from sanity to madness and back again, from life to death, and occasionally from defeat to triumph. The book's mood…  See more details below


Philip Levine's new collection of poems (his first since The Simple Truth was awarded the Pulitzer Prize) is a book of journeys: the necessary ones that each of us takes from innocence to experience, from youth to age, from confusion to clarity, from sanity to madness and back again, from life to death, and occasionally from defeat to triumph. The book's mood is best captured in the closing lines of the title poem, which takes its name from the ship that brought the poet's mother to America: A nine-year-old girl travels all night by train with one suitcase and an orange. She learns that mercy is something you can eat again and again while the juice spills over your chin, you can wipe it away with the back of your hands and you can never get enough.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Adam Kirsch
Levine is intent on presenting himself as a common man, more at home with the workers than with the professors....[This persona has] antecedents in Whitman and Hemingway: masculine, sentimental, fraternal, sensual....The Mercy is one of Levine's finest books, and it has many virtues... —The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Work was something that thrived on fire, that without/ fire couldn't catch its breath or hang on for life," Levine recalls of the working-class Detroit of his childhood. This 18th collection continues a career-long project of lending permanence to modern, work-governed life. Typically, Levine tirelessly uncovers "the daily round of the world,/ three young men in dirty work clothes/ on their way under a halo/ of torn clouds and famished city birds," slightly tempering a bitter reality with the steady, romantic presence of "the wind/ bringing hope in the morning/ and carrying off our exhaust / as the light goes each evening." The result is an inclusive archive of American experience sympathetically human, dramatized in his signature persona poems like "After Leviticus" and "The Evening Turned Its Back Upon Her Voice," which infuse fleeting things ("the few pale tulips and irises"; "salami cut so thin/ the light shone through the slices") with the power to shape self-awareness. While he shares with James Wright the rare ability to honor the dignity of human labor, this volume, more than the last two (The Simple Truth; What Work Is), does so to the near banishment of much else — compelling phrasing, avoidance of the trite. There is some respite, however, at the volume's end, where an account of his mother's ocean journey to America on "The Mercy" is followed by her private funeral, in "The Secret": "you weren't/ there as you're not in this haze,/ nor in the first evening breeze."
Library Journal
This is distinguished poet Levine's 18th book of poems and his first since The Simple Truth (LJ 11/1/94) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Levine's is above all, perhaps, the art that conceals art: his elegiac ruminations on his upbringing in Detroit and his ancestors and friends are so unobtrusively and cleanly made that their emotional and intellectual richness arrive almost as an aftertaste. In his search for the "nothing at all except the stubbornness of things" that lies behind memory and longing, Levine explores, with unprecedented clarity, the humility, the difficulty, and the silences of immigrant and working-class life in America. His work, like the mercy of the title poem, "is something you can eat again and again...and you can never get enough." Highly recommended.--Graham Christian, Andover-Harvard Theological Lib., Cambridge, MA
Peter Davison
...Levine's poetic vision, nearly religious, transcends class, transcends natural boundaries, and transcends time....Ordinary...? Not on your tintype.
The Atlantic Monthly
Joel Brouwer
...[T]he poem is less about politics than it is about a particularly American ambivalence: the hunger to feel part of something larger than youself, mixed with a deep distrust of dogmatism. Levine captures the feeling with honesty and good humor.
The Progressive
From the Publisher
"Narrative poems of remarkable honesty and beauty—lines that speak softly and need not raise their voice to capture our full attention."
— Sarah Manguso, Boston Book Review

"The Mercy is a book for the twenty-first century, revealing the diversity out of which Americans emerged and toward which we continue . . . In our rapidly changing world, we need such vision."
—Kate Daniels, Southern Review

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Random House
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt

The Unknowable

Practicing his horn on the Williamsburg Bridge
hour after hour, "woodshedding" the musicians
called it, but his woodshed was the world.
The enormous tone he borrowed from Hawkins
that could fill a club to overflowing
blown into tatters by the sea winds
teaching him humility, which he carries
with him at all times, not as an amulet
against the powers of animals and men
that mean harm or the lure of the marketplace.
No, a quality of the gaze downward
on the streets of Brooklyn or Manhattan.
Hold his hand and you'll see it, hold his eyes
in yours and you'll hear the wind singing
through the cables of the bridge that was home,
singing through his breath--no rarer than yours,
though his became the music of the world
thirty years ago. Today I ask myself
how he knew the time had come to inhabit
the voice of the air and how later
he decided the time had come for silence,
for the world to speak any way it could?
He wouldn't answer because he'd find
the question pompous. He plays for money.
The years pass, and like the rest of us
he ages, his hair and beard whiten, the great
shoulders narrow. He is merely a man--
after all--a man who stared for years
into the breathy, unknowable voice
of silence and captured the music.

The Return

All afternoon my father drove the country roads
between Detroit and Lansing. What he was looking for
I never learned, no doubt because he never knew himself,
though he would grab any unfamiliar side road
and follow where it led past fields of tall sweet corn
in August or in winter those of frozen sheaves.
Often he'd leave the Terraplane beside the highway
to enter the stunned silence of mid-September,
his eyes cast down for a sign, the only music
his own breath or the wind tracking slowly through
the stalks or riding above the barren ground. Later
he'd come home, his dress shoes coated with dust or mud,
his long black overcoat stained or tattered
at the hem, sit wordless in his favorite chair,
his necktie loosened, and stare at nothing. At first
my brothers and I tried conversation, questions
only he could answer: Why had he gone to war?
Where did he learn Arabic? Where was his father?
I remember none of this. I read it all later,
years later as an old man, a grandfather myself,
in a journal he left my mother with little drawings
of ruined barns and telephone poles, receding
toward a future he never lived, aphorisms
from Montaigne, Juvenal, Voltaire, and perhaps a few
of his own: "He who looks for answers finds questions."
Three times he wrote, "I was meant to be someone else,"
and went on to describe the perfumes of the damp fields.
"It all starts with seeds," and a pencil drawing
of young apple trees he saw somewhere or else dreamed.

I inherited the book when I was almost seventy
and with it the need to return to who we were.
In the Detroit airport I rented a Taurus;
the woman at the counter was bored or crazy:
Did I want company? she asked; she knew every road
from here to Chicago. She had a slight accent,
Dutch or German, long black hair, and one frozen eye.
I considered but decided to go alone,
determined to find what he had never found.
Slowly the autumn morning warmed, flocks of starlings
rose above the vacant fields and blotted out the sun.
I drove on until I found the grove of apple trees
heavy with fruit, and left the car, the motor running,
beside a sagging fence, and entered his life
on my own for maybe the first time. A crow welcomed
me home, the sun rode above, austere and silent,
the early afternoon was cloudless, perfect.
When the crow dragged itself off to another world,
the shade deepened slowly in pools that darkened around
the trees; for a moment everything in sight stopped.
The wind hummed in my good ear, not words exactly,
not nonsense either, nor what I spoke to myself,
just the language creation once wakened to.
I took off my hat, a mistake in the presence
of my father's God, wiped my brow with what I had,
the back of my hand, and marveled at what was here:
nothing at all except the stubbornness of things.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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