The first time I drank gin
I thought it must be hair tonic.
My brother swiped the bottle
from a guy whose father owned
a drug store that sold booze
in those ancient, honorable days
when we acknowledged the stuff
was a drug. Three of us passed
the bottle around, each tasting
with disbelief. People paid
for this? People had to have
it, the way we had to have
the women we never got near.
(Actually they were girls, but
never mind, the important fact
was their impenetrability.)
Leo, the third foolish partner,
suggested my brother should have
swiped Canadian whiskey or brandy,
but Eddie defended his choice
on the grounds of the expressions
"gin house" and "gin lane," both
of which indicated the preeminence
of gin in the world of drinking,
a world we were entering without
understanding how difficult
exit might be. Maybe the bliss
that came with drinking came
only after a certain period
of apprenticeship. Eddie likened
it to the holy man's self-flagellation
to experience the fullness of faith.
(He was very well read for a kid
of fourteen in the public schools.)
So we dug in and passed the bottle
around a second time and then a third,
in the silence each of us expecting
some transformation. "You get used
to it," Leo said. "You don't
like it but you get used to it."
I know now that brain cells
were dying for no earthly purpose,
that three boys were becoming
even as they took into themselves
these spirits, but I thought then
I was at last sharing the world
with the movie stars, that before
long I would be shaving because
I needed to, that hair would
sprout across the flat prairie
of my chest and plunge even
to my groin, that first girls
and then women would be drawn
to my qualities. Amazingly, later
some of this took place, but
first the bottle had to be
emptied, and then the three boys
had to empty themselves of all
they had so painfully taken in
and by means even more painful
as they bowed by turns over
the eye of the toilet bowl
to discharge their shame. Ahead
lay cigarettes, the futility
of guaranteed programs of
exercise, the elaborate lies
of conquest no one believed,
forms of sexual torture and
rejection undreamed of. Ahead
lay our fifteenth birthdays,
acne, deodorants, crabs, salves,
butch haircuts, draft registration,
the military and political victories
of Dwight Eisenhower, who brought us
Richard Nixon with wife and dog.
Any wonder we tried gin.
-from What Work Is
They Feed They Lion
Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.
Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
Out of the bones' need to sharpen and the muscles' to stretch,
They Lion grow.
Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
"Come home, Come home!" From pig balls,
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,
From the furred ear and the full jowl come
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose
They Lion grow.
From the sweet glues of the trotters
Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower
Of the hams the thorax of caves,
From "Bow Down" come "Rise Up,"
Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
The grained arm that pulls the hands,
They Lion grow.
From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.
-from They Feed They Lion
BIO: Phillip Levine was born in Detroit, Michigan, Michigan, in 1928. He is the author of sixteen books of poetry, most recently Breath (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). His other poetry collections include The Mercy (1999); The Simple Truth (1994), which won the Pulitzer Prize; What Work Is (1991), which won the National Book Award; New Selected Poems (1991); Ashes: Poems New and Old (1979), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the first American Book Award for Poetry; 7 Years From Somewhere (1979), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award; and The Names of the Lost (1975), which won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.
In a review of Breath, Levine's most recent collection, Publishers Weekly wrote: "Levine writes gritty, fiercely unpretentious free verse about American manliness, physical labor, simple pleasures and profound grief, often set in working-class Detroit (where Levine grew up) or in central California (where he now resides), sometimes tinged with reference to his Jewish heritage or to the Spanish poets of rapt simplicity (Machado, Lorca) who remain his most visible influence."
Levine has also published a collection of essays, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (1994), edited The Essential Keats (1987), and co-edited and translated two books: Off the Map: Selected Poems of Gloria Fuertes (with Ada Long, 1984) and Tarumba: The Selected Poems of Jaime Sabines (with Ernesto Trejo, 1979).
Levine has received the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize from Poetry, the Frank O'Hara Prize, and two Guggenheim Foundation fellowships. For two years he served as chair of the Literature Panel of the National Endowment for the Arts, and he was elected a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets in 2000. He lives in New York City and Fresno, California, and teaches at New York University University.
An Interview with Philip Levine by Diane Osen
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Michigan on January 10, 1928, two-time National Book Award winner Philip Levine first began composing poetry at the age of 14, inspired by the flowering of a mock orange bush he had purchased with money he had earned washing windows. "I looked on the work my hands had wrought," he recalled later, "then I said in my heart, as it happened to the gardener, so it happened to me, for we all go into one place; we are all earth and return to earth. The dark was everywhere, and as my voice went out I was sure it reached the edges of creation."
It was not until he had graduated from Wayne State University State University, however, that he decided to become a poet, after spending several years working at a succession of monotonous, back-breaking, dangerous jobs at factories in Detroit.
Four years later, in 1954 he married Frances Artley, a gardener, and the following year he received his MFA from the University of Iowa, where he taught before joining the faculty of California State State University in Fresno in 1958.
The author of 20 collections of poetry, including What Work Is, which won the 1991 National Book Award for Poetry, he has won many other awards as well, including the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and an Award from the National Book Critics Circle.
The father of three, he remains dedicated to writing poetry "for people for whom there is no poetry...the people I grew up with who brothered, sistered, fathered, and mothered me, and lived and worked beside me. Their presence seemed utterly lacking in the poetry I inherited at age 20, so I've spent the last 40-some years trying to add to our poetry what wasn't there."
Diane Osen: I know that you first discovered your voice as a poet in your backyard, when you were a kid. What led you to poetry as an adult?
Philip Levine: It was a freshman composition class. A teacher named John Sinclair asked to see me. I had handed in a long personal essay, and he said to me, "Have you ever thought of becoming a writer? You have much more talent than I do, for example. I'm talking about a gift for writing."
I was elated and stunned. Shortly thereafter, I read Stephen Crane's poems -- they were the first poems I had read on my own that really excited me, though I got tired of them in a week -- and then read T.S. Eliot, and found his poems extraordinary. I had never seen the modern city in poetry, and it suddenly occurred to me that I lived in a modern city and that the poetry I might write would be very different from the poetry of William Cullen Bryant and Longfellow and Poe, that I had read in high school. I might find it useful being me, having been born in an industrial city and having grown up there. So I immersed myself in the whole tradition of poetry in English.
I didn't know anything about how poets lived, but I had a feeling it would probably be difficult making a living doing this stuff. On the other hand, both my mother and my twin brother were very enthusiastic and supportive emotionally. It wasn't until I graduated college that I began to think I had some options. I had a notion that if I didn't over-use my mind I could keep it for writing, so the kind of work I looked for was largely physical work. I did factory work, worked on construction, drove trucks, out of superstition. Then, at the age of 22, I found myself with some money that I'd saved and no financial obligations, and spent a year doing almost nothing but writing. I had decided I was going to be a poet.
DO: Who were some of the most important early influences on your voice?
PL: My first poems, the ones I wrote when I was very young, were inspired largely by the rhythmic structure of the Bible and the rhetorical structure of evangelical preaching, which I loved to listen to on the radio. I loved the language they used, and the high seriousness, and the way they structured their spiels. When I came back to writing, I was much more cognizant of the movement of traditional English poetry, Eliot being an early sponsor of my work. Robert Lowell was another powerful influence; I could hear in him an American talking to other Americans, very seriously, very musically, very lyrically, but still talking. In Hart Crane, too, I could hear this speaking voice. And when I looked at Lowell and Crane, I could see the immense formal control; they were able to do things with traditional English structures and rhyme that were very difficult. Then I looked at William Carlos Williams, the most important voice I came across, and I didn't see any of that, and I wondered, Why is this so extraordinary? I had to dig another level deeper, and hear how his exploiting the natural resonance of each word created forms that never existed before. I was intrigued by his use of people speaking, by the idea that the vitality of the spoken voice could be captured in poetry. There was something magical in Williams that I was striving for, but I doubt I ever quite got it, to be frank. I have been a more controlled poet.
DO: What Work Is is distinguished by the many vivid portraits of ordinary people that emerge from the poems. How did you come to be interested in working people, and how do you go about creating the speakers and characters who figure in the book?
PL: I had never encountered the people I worked with in the movies, and for the most part, factory workers don't exist in popular literature, either. It occurred to me that they ought to -- and that I should do something about it.
Some of it also had to do with just falling in love with certain men and women. I'm not talking about romantic love. It's so obvious that they're unique and irreplaceable, and so there's always this desire to make them available to other people. In many cases, they are people I met who taught me things that proved permanently useful.
For example, "Tom Jefferson", in my poem "A Walk with Tom Jefferson," is an amalgamation of several people I knew. It's my best poem, I think, and it's about an imaginary walk the speaker conducts with an elderly black man through a bombed-out neighborhood in Detroit. I wrote half of it within two or three days, and stalled. I didn't fret over it; the truth is that I'd sought some different characters, and as I shaped them they began to bore me, so I dropped them and stalled. Then I remembered a conversation I'd had with a man on the day I'd walked through that neighborhood. I remembered a very moving remark that he'd made, and I looked at my poem and realized I had left it out. The remark was, "That's biblical," and I suddenly realized where the poem was going to go.
Rilke used a phrase that first intrigued me 30 years ago; he wrote about "spilled religion." My sense of it had to do with the failure of formal religion to hold our enormous sense of religiosity. When the vessel of formal religion cracked for me, the religion poured out over the objects and people I encountered. I have a deep belief that we encounter what we might call the eternal -- if we encounter it at all -- minute by minute, in ordinary experiences. The angelic is all around us, in ordinary people; it's up to us to figure out that what seems ordinary is in fact divine. So that's where my allegiance is; I'm not interested in poetry that strives to rise above the everyday.
DO: Did you intend, as you were writing these poems, to create a book?
PL: I don't write poems with books in mind. When people ask what my next book is about, I answer truthfully that I don't know; I'll have to see when it's done. I only write poems one at a time, so I don't see the connections between them until I have about 30 or 40 poems. I didn't really see that What Work Is was going to be about work until I wrote the poem "What Work Is." By that time I was maybe halfway through the book, and once I saw what it was going to be about, I went back to my poem "Burned," which I had started writing at least 15 years earlier. It was actually the last poem I wrote for the book. What that underlines is my greatest virtue as a writer: I'm enormously patient.
DO: What place does What Work Is hold in your writing life?
PL: It liberated me from the obligation to write about work anymore, although I know I will go on, as other events and people revive themselves in my mind, and write other poems that have to do with work. And I'm constantly surprised by how many people read my poems. It was very thrilling to discover, for example, that I had all these fans in Canada, who saw in the quality of my work the quality of their own lives.
I'm working on another book now, but I haven't reached the point where I can say what it will be about. But I have a deep belief that the ideal appears before us in actual form, and that will always be the subject of my poetry, because nothing is higher. It is the most significant thing.