Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Top Ten Poetry Books for your Holiday Wish List: The Bread of Time by Philip Levine

Once again I'm writing about a poet I've already posted about. I can't help it--like the circinate narratives of Larry Levis' poetry, I keep returning to the center, not as a destination, but for further departures, informed by previous ones, in an attempt to create in response to his work, what Levis so virtuosically achieved in his work*.

That center for Levis began with his mentor, Philip Levine. And, we too, are invited to feed on the yeast of Levine's writing life in The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography.

From his humble beginnings in Detroit, discovering poetry in the dense woods beside his house every night after dinner at age thirteen, alone, speaking aloud to the stars, to slaving in an auto plant as a young man to eke out a meager living, to attending classes taught by Lowell and Berryman at the University of Iowa, without ever having the money to enroll in them, through his pilgrimages in Fresno, Barcelona, New York--becoming one of the best poets (and best teachers of poetry) of his generation--replete with stories of the teachers, the poets, his own blue-collar brand of the writing life--always the struggle for worker's rights, for human rights, for food, for time, for art--including the great love of his life--to his public success which did not taint his life-force, nor diminish his lion's roar--The Bread of Time nourishes readers and writers alike--anyone who has ever committed themselves to "the word."

In re-reading passages from each chapter as I write this blog, I want to share the entire loaf, pass it all around the table and let you pull willing handfuls onto your plates. But, that is for you to do for yourself. I will waft the aroma of the warm, risen dough beneath your nose with one poem, after the following final paragraph from the lengthy story of Levine "entering poetry," from the chapter with the same name, picking it up after the young Levine tried his hand at being a gardener.

The days were lengthening, and it was still light out when I sneaked out of the house after helping with the dishes. I made my way to the deepest center of the woods and climbed a young maple tree and gazed up into the deepening sky above. I must have dozed off for a few minutes, because quite suddenly the stars emerged in a blacker sky. Although I did not know their names--in fact, I did not even know they had names--I began to address them quietly, for I never spoke with "full-throated ease" until hidden by the cover of total darkness. A soft wind shook the leaves around me. From my own hands I caught the smell of earth and iron, which now I carried with me at all times. I reached down my shirt and extracted the mock-orange branch and breathed in the deep feminine odors while between thumb and forefinger I fretted the blossoms until they fell apart. I began then to address my own hands, which seemed somehow to have been magically transformed into earth. For the first time, a part of me became my night words, for now the darkness was complete. "These hands have entered the ground from which they sprang," I said, and, tasting the words, I immediately liked them and repeated them, and then more words came that also seemed familiar and right. Then I looked on the work my hands had wrought, 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. I was sure too my words must have smelled of sandy loam and orange blossoms. That was the first night of my life I entered poetry.


My father stands in the warm evening
on the porch of my first house.
I am four years old and growing tired.
I see his head among the stars,
the glow of his cigarette, redder
than the summer moon riding
low over the old neighborhood. We
are alone and he asks me if I am happy.
"Are you happy?" I cannot answer.
I do not really understand the word,
and the voice, my father's voice, is not
his voice, but somehow thick and choked,
a voice I have not heard before, but
heard often since. He bends and passes
a thumb beneath each of my eyes.
The cigarette is gone, but I can smell
the tiredness that hangs on his breath.
He has found nothing, and he smiles
and holds his head with both my hands.
Then he lifts me to his shoulder,
and now I too am there among the stars,
as tall as he. Are you happy? I say.
He nods in answer, Yes! oh yes! oh yes!
And in that new voice he says nothing,
holding my head tight against his head,
his eyes closed up against the starlight,
as though those tiny blinking eyes
of light might find a tall, gaunt child
holding his child against the promises
of autumn, until the boy slept
never to waken in that world again.

If you're tired of awakening in this world, read The Bread of Time--you may not like the one you wake up in any more than this one, but you're life will never be the same. And neither will Levine's poetry, for it will always carry the loam from those woods where he first discovered the power of words, and the lights--those "blinking eyes"--that never forgot the patterns he discovered there.
* The following is an excerpt from my post on 9/8/10: "Lost in Discovery: The Looping Narrative Arc"

There is a center to “The Widening Spell of the Leaves” that is a kind of spiritual ground, from which, like the ever present leaves, a force emanates and to which it returns. This force is harnessed and directed towards the production of unique narratives of plenitude and loss—circular furrows in the ground—that sing to one another as they bring forth a yield that can be nothing but what it is. And that nothing is everything: “As if it could never be otherwise, as if it were all a pure proclamation of leaves & a final quiet” (173). Arising as mysteriously as crop circles, and created with as much precise craftsmanship, these rings produce a harmonic between their concentric narrative arcs that is akin to the poet’s history, and by extension, ours: a history that has been, at once, sacred and profane, glorious and horrific, meaningful and empty. Perhaps it is this prosody of expanding rings itself that Levis is describing in the text’s penultimate lines:

It goes on & I go with it; it spreads into the sun & air & throws out a fast

That will never sleep, and I go with it; it breaks Lincoln & Poe into small
drops of oil spreading

Into endless swirls on the water, & I recognize the pattern:


granddaddy said...

String of vile expletives exploding like angry vomit!

I just wrote a profound and moving comment about the absolute perfection of Levine on entering poetry. Well, at least I was profoundly moved and wrote about it.

And then, paraphrasing Whitman, I prepared to post and leave for last-minute shopping mall horrors while looking up from time to time at the stars. And the fucking computer dog ate my fucking homework! And all I have left is a handful of dogshit where seconds ago I held a handful of the same fertile soil in which Levine planted stars.

granddaddy said...

Holy shit! It's a Christmas miracle! The candle is still burning! Now that I have destroyed its truth, I found it:

When I write and think about my thirty-odd year long exploration of My-Friend-the-Poet-Morris-McCorvey's observation that, "The poet's work is seeing," it is this kind of experience I have been chasing, tasting, holding, releasing, spreading... In the language I have been using, this entrance into poetry is an entrance into The Way of Seeing. "These hands have entered the ground from which they sprang," is a moment of such seeing, a first step of The Way, and Levine's telling of it invites the reader to put her hands into the same earth, to smell it as it sifts through his fingers, to see it as the same substance or spirit or whole as the stars and the fertile dark soil in which they grow.

Trying to teach someone to write poetry without trying to lead someone to an entry like this is an opportunity for a brilliant simile of futility and emptiness, but, for the life of me, with my hands so full of the rich darkness of the earth and all things, I do not want to give emptiness another thought. Instead, I think I will rise and glide out into the yard, to the driveway, on the way to buy that last Christmas present and, in the frantic Saturday rush, from time to time, look up in perfect silence at the stars.