Philip Levine,
The Mercy
(Random House, 2000)

I once had the pleasure of attending a Philip Levine reading in New York City. Like most of our lauded poets, he drowned the audience in a forcible modesty, at one point saying that he is only thought of as a worker's poet, but he's "really not." Well, whether that is just another artist's malevolence towards critics of the day or honest sentiment, The Mercy seems to back him up.

Unlike past masterpieces such as Names of the Lost or What Work Is, The Mercy indulges in an extra dollop of jazz poems, such as the eulogy to the great Sonny Rollins, feeding his horn with breath on Manhattan's Williamsburg Bridge, breath that "became the music of the world," as Levine puts it in one of The Mercy's best poems, "The Unknowing." Of course, this collection offers Levine's typically brilliant working poems, such as the first poem, "Smoke." "Why/was the air filled with smoke?" Levine writes, "Simple. We had work/Work was something that thrived on fire, that without/fire couldn't catch its breath or hang on for life."

But there is yet a third dimension to Levine that surfaces here, an element of playfulness, of constructing the poems as conversations between speaker and reader, such as on the just-mentioned poem, in which he speaks of smoke in the first stanza and drifts off onto something of a tangent, and as if his ear were not just tuned to the cadence of his own poem but also to the reader's mind, he writes, "Go back to the beginning, you insist." And he does. Other times, it is as if Levine were writing about writing, almost mocking his chosen art, as on poems such as "Clouds Above the Sea," a poem about his parents standing side by side, "I could give her a rope of genuine pearls/as a gift for bearing my father's sons/and let each pearl glow with a child's fire/I could turn her toward you now with a smile/so that we might joy in her constancy."

This sort of teasing propels these poems to the heights of tragicomedy, as most poems are deeply rooted in the heavy world of tragic characters that pervade most of Levine's work. Only this time, any element of mawkishness has evaporated, and we get a curious blend of laughs and sighs leaping from each page. Perhaps this is The Mercy's most impressive facet; that now in his early 70s and after 40 years worth of books, Levine's poetry continues to evolve.

- Rambles
written by Gianmarc Manzione
published 8 March 2003

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