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The Mercy


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 ...
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The Mercy

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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 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.
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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
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
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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375701351
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 96
  • Product dimensions: 5.74 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.33 (d)

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.


On August 10th, 2011, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington announced the appointment of Philip Levine as the Library's 18th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2011-2012.

Levine will take up his duties in the fall, opening the Library's annual literary season with a reading of his work at the Coolidge Auditorium on Monday, Oct. 17.

"Philip Levine is one of America's great narrative poets," Billington said. "His plainspoken lyricism has, for half a century, championed the art of telling ‘The Simple Truth'--about working in a Detroit auto factory, as he has, and about the hard work we do to make sense of our lives."

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

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.

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Table of Contents

Smoke 3
Flowering Midnight 5
After Leviticus 6
Drum 8
Orphans 9
The Communist Party 10
And That Night Clifford Died 12
The Three Crows 14
Photography 2 16
Reinventing America 17
The Cafe 19
Salt and Oil 21
Joe Gould's Pen 27
The Search for Lorca's Shadow 31
The Sea We Read About 33
Sundays with Lungo 34
The Unknowable 36
I Caught a Glimpse 38
Night Words 40
Once 41
Philosophy Lesson 43
"He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do" 44
The Mortal Words of Zweik 46
Little Apple of My Eye 49
Clouds Above the Sea 55
The New World 56
After the War 58
Black Stone on Top of Nothing 60
The Dead 61
The Evening Turned Its Back Upon Her Voice 63
These Words 64
Cesare 66
It Was Autumn 67
The Return 69
Northern Motive 71
The Mercy 73
The Secret 77
Notes 81
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Interviews & Essays

On Monday, April 19th, welcomed Philip Levine to discuss THE MERCY.

Moderator: Welcome, Philip Levine! We are so pleased that you could join us to discuss your new poetry book, THE MERCY. How are you this evening?

Philip Levine: Fine. Here it is afternoon.

Clare from Reno, TX: You chose your powerful poem "The Mercy" as the title of your new collection. Why? Tell us a little bit about this poem and its inspiration.

Philip Levine: Why did I choose it? It is a book about journey, and it seemed to me this was a central journey. I also titled the book after my mom died, last April. I finished the book in June. She was much with me in my consciousness, so the book is dedicated to her, and I hope it is a tribute to her. She is the central figure in that poem.

Kate from Hanover: Tell us how you arrived at the structure of THE MERCY, i.e. the arrangement and order of the poems. What did you hope to achieve by this arrangement?

Philip Levine: Well, it is in four sections, but only three are real sections. The final is a coda, or afterthought, and the last poem I wrote for my mother. The others I tried to thematically connect to the other sections of the book. I tried to go from the second intense poem and then quietly descend in each section into the center of that section, and then in the end rise to the most emotionally intense poem, and then keep that intensity as I begin the next section. The last section, for example, is family poems, and although someone may read it and say, "The fourth poem -- is this about family?" "Cesare" is about a spiritual brother. What did I hope to accomplish by this stucture? To hold the reader's attention.

Betsy Ramey from Chicago, IL: Some of your poems in THE MERCY are written in the third person, while others are in the first. How do you decide which tense a poem should be? Is it largely a structural decision or a more personal decision in how you relate to that piece?

Philip Levine: How do I decide? I don't. The poem writes itself, and I follow it. Sometimes I write it in the first person and then change it because I say to myself, that's not you, so I change it to the third person. The poet is always in the poem; it doesn't matter what person it is in.

Mary from San Diego: In many of your poems, you recall past experiences, such as "Sundays with Lungo" or "The Sea We Read About." Were these poems written or begun in those actual scenes, or are they all memories? How long after an experience is it ideal to write a poem?

Philip Levine: They were all written long after the experiences. But the poem you mention, "Sundays with Lungo," is totally invented, not about an experience. There is no ideal time; I mean the material comes to you, vividly -- it may be 10 years or 50 years later, and that is when you are compelled to write it. You can't say, I got divorced 10 years ago, now is a good time to write about this. Eleven years later, you may not even remember his or her name. [laughs]

Marion Davidson from Bend, Oregon: 1. Is the poet in? 2. To what do you attribute the recent spate of book-length poems?

Philip Levine: In regards to your second question, ambition. There is the good kind of ambition and the bad kind. I think some people want to look singular and therefore write a whole book-length poem, and others really have a whole lot to tell. I frankly am not aware that there are that many. I don't read them.

Peter from New York: We really seem to be going through a revitalization and popularization of poetry in America. I see poetry everywhere, even in the subways. What explains this rebirth, and what are your thoughts on how we can strengthen this movement?

Philip Levine: I think that what explains it is that poetry in the last 20 years has become more available, less elitist, and more comprehensible. It is regaining its ancient audience, the people. How can we help? Tell our friends how good it is. Give it as gifts. Proclaim it from the Brooklyn Bridge. There is another reason. A great number of people who felt shut out from poetry -- women, blacks, Hispanics -- are no longer, and so their constituents are now reading it because there is a poetry for them. The most exciting young poet is a Chinese American, Li-Young Lee. Twenty-five years ago I was aware of no Chinese-American poet.

Ramsey from Charlottesville, VA: What was the inspiration behind "The Search for Lorca's Shadow" about death? That is such a moving, chilling poem.

Philip Levine: I have been obsessed for 30 years at least with the death of García Lorca and his assassination. I wrote this poem in 1988, the hundredth anniversary of his birth.

Elise from Lighthouse Point, FL: I think one of my favorite poems is your "What Work Is." Is this poem autobiographical? Is the brother you write of in this poem your own, or does he represent you?

Philip Levine: It is autobiographical, and it is my brother -- my twin, actually.

Seth from Richmond: How do you approach a new, unfamiliar poem? Do you read it aloud first?

Philip Levine: No, I read it to myself first. I raised three children, and that meant there were five of us in the house, and if I was to be reading poems aloud all the time, they would have killed me. [laughs] But if I find a poem I especially like, I read it aloud to my wife.

Bruce from Atlanta, GA: If someone had never read your work and you wanted to give them a sense of your poetry, which poems would you recommend?

Philip Levine: That is a tough question. I would recommend that poem "A Walk with Tom Jefferson."

EV from Brooklyn, NY: Some friends of mine studied with you in the MFA program at the University of Houston and have said wonderful things about you. What do you like most about teaching? How do you view the role of a teacher of creative writing?

Philip Levine: What I like best about it is being with young people who care about poetry, and the role of the teacher is to encourage talent and not lie -- no matter how tempting it is -- and keep the hour amusing.

Greg from New York: How long on average does it take you to write a poem, Mr. Levine? For example, how long did it take you to finish this new collection? Are you constantly rewriting and editing your works in progress?

Philip Levine: There is no specific time for a poem. I have finished some in a single day, others took years to get as right as I could get them. You have to trust your own tastes, finally, and you make mistakes. I have let poems go that I shouldn't have. But only two. [laughs] This last book took four years to write.

Mark from Topeka, KS: In your autobiographical essays, you say that you are more comfortable presenting yourself as the common man than as the academic or intellectual. Where does this stem from? How has your background affected your choice of subjects in your poems?

Philip Levine: Well, Mark, all you should do is read my poems, and you will see. The poems come out of growing up in Detroit and going to public schools, becoming a working man, getting a family, moving to California, living in Spain, struggling against the government, and getting old -- it is all there!

Tom from Austin, TX: Simple question: Who is your favorite poet of all time. Of today?

Philip Levine: Of all time -- Chaucer. Of the 20th century, William Carlos Williams. My favorite living poet is Galway Kinnell.

Jake from San Francisco: What is your favorite poem in this new collection? Which poem was the most difficult to write?

Philip Levine: My favorite is the poem called "Salt and Oil." Let me think. The most difficult, I would say, is "The Secret," "The Secret" because it is the most personal.

Molly from Baltimore, MD: How would you describe the experience of reading a new poem to an audience? Do you enjoy doing readings? Do you feel that people can understand your poetry better hearing you read it aloud?

Philip Levine: I enjoy reading a new poem because I hear it in a way I have never heard it before, reading it to an audience. I almost hear it the way they are hearing it. The dead spots resound in my head, so it is an educational experience. If I do readings once a month, I like it a lot, but if I do it more, it is just work and I get bored listening to myself. The audience pretends they understand my poems, and they convince me that they do. Or maybe they actually do, maybe they aren't pretending.

Mindy from Pittsburg, PA: Who do you like to read? Do you read mostly poetry, or also fiction and nonfiction? What are you reading now?

Philip Levine: Right now I am reading THE COSSACKS by Tolstoy. I read a lot of fiction and nonfiction. I just finished THE HOURS by Michael Cunningham. Terrific book.

Sarah from Elizabeth City: What is the image on the cover of THE MERCY?

Philip Levine: "The Steerage," 1907. A steerage is the lowest class you could take on a passenger ship in the early part of the century. What you are seeing is an image of poor Europeans on their way to America. The poem "The Mercy" is about my mother coming to Ellis Island as a young girl.

Ray from Great Meadows, NJ: Just following up on Jake's question -- why is "Salt and Oil" your favorite? Could you explain to us the inspiration behind that particular poem? Thanks. I'm looking forward to reading THE MERCY.

Philip Levine: It is my favorite because I wrote it all in a great rush, and I felt totally inspired when I wrote it and I didn't change a thing. To use an expression that a friend of my uses, it wrote itself, and that happens only once in five years. The two characters in the poem named "Salt and Oil" are based on two dear friends that are dead, and I feel I caught them.

Ellen from Miami: What was the first poem you ever memorized? Can you still recite it?

Philip Levine: "Greater Love" by Wilfred Owen. I can still recite it.

Marion from Bend, Oregon: Do you work on your poems most days?

Philip Levine: Yes, I would say. I work on poetry more days than not, five days a week from about seven until noon. And sometimes I get nothing, and sometimes I get something that is worst than nothing. I have a very full wastebasket. I like to write. Writing is what I do, so I do not run away from it.

Berry from Williamsburg: Who would you consider some of the best new voices in poetry?

Philip Levine: Good question. Billy Collins, Dorianne Laux, Marie Howe, Susan Wood, and I already mentioned Li-Young Lee, and Rodney Jones and a guy who has just been discovered -- he is just terrific -- B. H. Fairchild.

Jason from Ithaca, NY: When did you begin writing poetry? Could you describe what your first attempts at poetry were like?

Philip Levine: I was 13. They were free verse poems. They were inspired by fundamentalist preaching I heard on the radio. The subjects were rain, wind, the smell of the earth, and they were probably awful. Fortunately they don't exist anymore. They were never written down.

Beth from Allentown, PA: What's next for you, Mr. Levine? When will your next book of poems come out?

Philip Levine: I have no idea when the next book will come out. I don't really know what is next. I have a lot of poems toward a new book, but I am in no hurry, and I don't know what it will look like.

RT from KY: How do you feel when you write? I mean, does it make you anxious, relaxed, or...? And do you have a test to decide if what you've written is quality, say, wait a while and review the material to see if you are still pleased with it?

Philip Levine: I am so focused on the writing that I don't feel anything; I mean that my emotions are in absence -- they are absent, in a way. They are obviously driving me, but I feel how you would feel if you were, say, building a table. I am focused on getting it right. Do I have a test? I certainly wait. Even one day can tell you how bad it is, but it takes weeks to tell how good it is, so I sit on it for a while.

Moderator: What books do you plan on reading this summer? Are there any books that you have been saving for the summer months?

Philip Levine: To be truthful, I am not saving anything. I read all the time. In fact, I would read the same that I would in the winter. I am not seasonal. I guess I am going to reread Chaucer and Tolstoy and Homer.

Isabel from Texas: I'm a high school English teacher, and one of my students recently chose you for a poetry project. He analyzed "They Feed They Lion" for the class. They enjoyed it very much! I try hard to encourage a lifelong love of poetry in my students. What advice would you give a teacher toward that goal? And what advice would you give students who enjoy writing poetry?

Philip Levine: The advice I would give to teachers is don't teach any poems you don't like. If you don't have enthusiasm for what you are teaching, you won't convey it. To students, remember, if you don't write your poetry, no one will do it for you, and everyone has a right to be a poet. If you can get through childhood, you have the material to be a poet!

Moderator: Thank you for answering all of our questions, Philip Levine. Do you have any final words for the online audience?

Philip Levine: I am happy to find so much interest in poetry. Thank you.

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