News of the World by Philip Levine
Reviewed by ZARA RAAB
Alfred Knopf, 2009
In his teens and twenties, Philip Levine worked in Detroit’s factories, and that working class world–– the grinding poverty, dysfunction, drunkenness, violence, as well as the courage, stoicism, and longing––became his great subject, as Chicago was Carl Sandburg’s subject, and the stuff of seventeen books and numerous prizes and awards. Weaving in and out of his vivid, unswerving portraits of working class life in America at mid-century are the elements of his own essential American story: turn-of-the-century, immigrant grandparents; Yiddish-speaking grandfather; solidly middle class family wrenched from its moorings by the Great Depression, American jazz, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, anarchism.
Levine is primarily a poet of images skillfully crafted into narratives in which an even distance between poet and his material is maintained. The embodiedness of his images creates the excitement of his poetry and demonstrates a deep psychic intelligence. Image and richly detailed narrative are Levine’s primary poetic strategies. There is little of Steven’s rhetoric, flamboyance, or excess of imagination; no significant variety of tone or the playfulness with diction of Frank O’Hara in Levine’s work. But within his narrow range, lucid yet at times intricate, Levine achieves results of some power. His narrative––hierarchical, sequential––demonstrates Levine’s commitment to stories and his passion for the possibilities of poetic depth. In “Closed,” he writes:
Echoes of Carl Sandburg live in Levine’s narratives of city life in the ear-splitting, filthy, perilous, machine-drive factories of the Mid-west. But more than Sandburg, Levine’s poems have a pressing undertow of loss and defeat. The metaphor of the closed diner resonates throughout the poem. What these young working class men seek in life is closed to them; they are shut out; all that’s on offer after an eight hour shift is cold pastry. “This has spoiled my whole weekend, maybe my whole life” says how just how beaten down these working class brothers are.
But Levine’s is an American gloom, at mid-century still with some hope in it; other pieces in this new collection capture an American exuberance that seems more 1990’s than 1930’s, as in the title poem, in which the poet and his companion make their way, as tourists, to Andorra, a tiny country high in the eastern Pyrenees on the border between Spain and France. There they find “what we’d come for: the perfect radio.” The shop owner, a communist who’d fled Germany in the 1930s and stayed, tells them he can get them anything they wish for. “Anything?” the poet asks. “A Cadillac?” The shop owner could have it that very afternoon. Only an American film star will take a little longer. 
Levine captures the struggle, the occasional bitter-sweet triumph, of an earlier time: “I had to put one foot in front of another,/hold both arms out for balance, stare ahead,/breathe like a beginner and hope to arrive.” [61, “Magic,” News of the World] Octogenarian now, Levine finds even in death the thought of freedom and release: “Think of it,/my name, no longer a portion/of me, no longer inflated/or bruised. . .a tiny me taking nothing, giving/nothing, empty, and free at last.” [58, “Burial Rites,” News of the World].
Levine’s perennial theme of fraternal solidarity recurs in this new book. In “Dearborn Suite,” he imagines a decrepit, sleepless Henry Ford coming down to his factory:
Some reviewers focus on Levine’s anarchistic political beliefs and his lack of sentimentality. I have found in Levine a religious poet whose narratives, interwoven with society and politics and class struggles, give meaning to the working class experience of life and express a religious view in Friedrich Schleiermacher’s 18th century Enlightenment understanding of the concept as “a feeling of absolute dependence.” Levine’s work acknowledges how
[p.18, “Sweet Will,” Sweet Will, 1985]
What makes Levine’s work religious, besides such reveries on the power of the universe, is his Old Testament grace, unconsumed by bitterness, rancor or regret in the face of loss.
Levine is a also poet of memory, ‘”stewing/in a rich compost of memory/or the simpler one of bone,” [58, “Burial Rites,” News of the World], so it is natural that family memory enter his poems, the grandfather crossing the ocean:
Here is an expression of the values of a religion spurning futility and fantasy and emphasizing the ways of ordinary living over abstract beliefs. In an earlier poem, “Jewish Graveyards, Italy” (from Sweet Will), the poet had written,
Levine’s poems can make a moral claim on the reader through the felt knowledge of his need for others, just as they need him: In this new book, he writes, “Manhattan is not an island”––
“All these voices are singing about who you are. For a moment you are part of the mainland.” [38, “Islands”]
In News of the World, Levine sustains his production of well-mannered, well-proportioned poems that still rumble and groan with a certain passion. Like the products of a factory, Levine’s poems roll out on schedule, one much like the next in formal qualities, in size, diction, and metrics. Like the cars from an assembly line at the General Motors plant, where Levine worked as a young man helping to make the cars he admits to driving joyously in his youth, the poems provide the undeniable pleasures of a good ride, sturdy and compelling their forward movement. Yet how unlike the standard manufactured product! How earthy and perceptive they are, and how complex.
ZARA RAAB’s poems appear in West Branch, Arts & Letters, Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Her Book of Gretel came out this spring. Swimming the Eel is due out in 2011. She lives and writes in San Francisco.
The diner was closed. The two brothers stared through the window & could see no one behind the counter. One small light burned over the cash register . . . . Max, the huskier brother in a checked mackinaw, suggested they find another dump. “If Teresa’s ain’t open, nothing gonna be open,” Bernie, his taller, wiry brother said. “There’s the Greek,” said Max, “come on, it’s close.” The Greek was actually Yervan, an Armenian who’d opened a small grocery store that sold delicatessen across from the transmission plant. Bernie thought of lighting a joint on the short walk but realized he was too tired for that. “What you got today, Nick?” Max said. “What you want?” said the Greek. “Coffee & two eggs over easy with crisp bacon & whole wheat toast,” said Bernie. Yervan told them to try Teresa’s because this wasn’t a restaurant. “You call Teresa’s a restaurant?” said Max. “For eight hours I been thinking of nothing but breakfast,” said Bernie. “This has spoiled my whole weekend, maybe my whole life.” By this time the sun had cleared the stacks of the transmission plant & broken thorough the dusty window of the deli. The Greek shielded his eyes a & knew it was going to be a long day. . . . “I got coffees & fresh milks,” he said, “those little pies you guys like.” “Okay,” said Bernie & put both bands on the counter & leaned in to them. “If I had anything left in me,” he said, “I’d cry.” [42, “Closed”]
The old man, King Henry, punches in
for the night shift with us,
his beloved coloreds and Yids,
to work until the shattered
windows gray. There is a justice
after all, there’s a bright anthem
for the occasion, something
familiar and blue, with words we
all sing, like “Time on My Hands.” [20-21]
. . . people rose one
by one from cold beds to tend a world
that runs on and on at its own sweet will.
I bless your laughter
Thrown I the wind’s face
Your gall, your rages,
Your abiding love
For money and all
It never bought,
For your cracked voice
That wakens in dreams
Where you rest at last,
For all the sea taught
You and you taught me:
That the waves go out
And nothing comes back.
I . . . bend to the names
And say them as slowly as I can.
Full, majestic, vanished names
That fill my mouth and go out
Into the densely yellowed air
Of this great valley and dissolve
As ever the sea dissolves beating
On a stone shore or as love does
When the beloved turns to stone
Or dust or water [54-54]