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


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.

Editorial Reviews

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

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
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
Peter Davison
...Levine's poetic vision, nearly religious, transcends class, transcends natural boundaries, and transcends time....Ordinary...? Not on your tintype.
The Atlantic Monthly

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
5.68(w) x 8.91(h) x 0.24(d)

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.

Meet the Author

Philip Levine was born in 1928 in Detroit, where he was formally educated in the public schools and at Wayne University (now Wayne State University). After a succession of industrial jobs, he left the country before settling in Fresno, California, where he taught at the university there until his retirement. He has received many awards for his books of poems, most recently the National Book Award in 1991 for What Work Is, and the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth.

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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