Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Phillip Levine: August 23 + 29

Discussion: Philip Levine:
Review discussion:
What work is
Fear and Fame
Belle Isle
They Feed They Lion

Yeats: Our quarrel with the world we express in the rhetoric of prose;
For our quarrel with our selves, we use poetry.

Levine’s poems call on personal experience, but sweep us into universals
Of the who we are . What is work? What is fame? Recognition? What is love?

Levine’s poems seem simple – but in a poem such as What Work Is you can see he knows how to thread his repetitions, twist in new details that change meaning and keep us on the edge of our seat. Not only does he mention the word “brother” 4 times, but the word “waiting” — how work in and of itself, does not shift — but rather our relationship to it and others does. That he uses gerunds contrasts a sense of “work” as being a solution as we prolong uncertainty. What can we see? Understand? It is not just the rain in the glasses that is blurring the eyesight — but the vision of who we are to each other as brothers... How easily we dismiss the "other part" of a person when they are not at work. What is so difficult about telling your brother, who is learning to sing opera you hate, that you love him? Without banging on the truth that maintaining family relationships is hard, we relate to that truth.

The first time we read Fear and Fame we were left with a new appreciation of what goes into the making of things we use. After Jim’s columns, we were able to more fully appreciate the driven sense of getting a job done, which overshadows any fear. To know in oneself that fear, and that heroic response to danger is only half of what is necessary to be distinguished among women and men. Levine doesn’t spell out the other half. Survival tactics: heat to quell the heat, the third cigarette (held in a shaking hand) to wipe out the taste of the others. Half an hour to dress to do this job; 15 minutes to eat a salami sandwich before returning. One understands why O’Mera drank himself to death. This hero won’t. He straps on his other self, the one that will distinguish him, not because of the black shoes and white socks and Bulova watch... but what this self outside of work is. This is a hymn to people who work in underground, hidden ways, but also a hymn to the part of a man who can inspire us as he keeps on in spite of fear...

After discussing the descent into the pickling tank, our group appreciated the honest appraisal of our fortune of living in a different social situation – and how, these poems about work open our eyes to what it is like to do a job no one would choose to do. To work with acids that fog up glasses, stick in the throat, and which could dissolve your wedding ring, is indeed to descend into hell. The return to sharing food, “normal” activity before donning the gauntlets and playing knight, contrasts the edge of fear on which a hero treads with the every day.
In Belle Isle, a descent into the dirty Detroit river could be seen almost as redemptive – where “baptized” becomes a holy place for an initiation rite. I love the idea that finding joy ensures a pathway for dignity. On the first reading, the group had a sense of “we’ll never think of a blind date in the same way” – but after the second discussion, thanks to your opening, we had a deeper sense of life-force in the young people, a deeper understanding of what it is one needs to allow us to survive. May God protect the joyful!

They Feed They Lion, with its liturgical force, the "lionization" of verbs, the 3rd person objective "they" gives a tone of sacred, mysterious. Lion as God, as Aslan, but we become lion taking ordinary work; earthy to industrial. Mary mentioned the expression of "coming with their 5 arms and 2 legs" -- i.e. fairly heavily burdened.
Metaphors bridge the familiar to the un-nameable...

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