Obsessed with Detroit
by Keith Taylor
From the October, 2002 issue
Poet Philip Levine left Detroit almost fifty years ago, when he was twenty-six. He had been born and educated in the city, part of the immigrant Jewish working class; his father died when he was five, leaving his mother to raise three sons during the Depression and the tumultuous years of the Second World War. Levine started working early, first at low-level jobs downtown, but quickly moved on to the slightly better, though still exploitive, wages in the various automobile factories. Levine doesn't get close to any false sentimentality about the nobility of factory work. What he remembers is the incredible strength that allowed some people to display their natural dignity in an environment designed to rob them of it. It is one of the major themes of his poetry.
Though Levine taught for a long time in California and now lives in New York City, and though he has traveled around the world, he remains obsessed with Detroit during those tough years around the middle of the twentieth century. In one poem in The Mercy, his most recent collection, he remembers 1949 and a "modest house in a row of modest houses / in an ordinary neighborhood on the west side / of the city of Detroit." After the poem weaves through memories of Spain and memories of Charlie Parker, it returns to where it started:
| How ordinary |
it all was, the dawn breaking each morning,
arriving on time just as the lights of houses
came softly on. Why can't I ever let it go?
In an essay in his recent prose collection So Ask, Levine acknowledges, "I was resentful of the factory work I had to do, partly because I saw it as something that was either going to delay my arrival into the kingdom of poetry or deny my entry. Little did I know it would become my subject matter."
And that subject
matter provokes Levine's best poems. The recent "Drum" takes its subtitle from a job location: "Leo's Tool & Die, 1950." In the poem Levine describes the lives of the people who work there with him, who "sweep, wash up, punch out, collect outside / for a final smoke." At the end even this small job shot finds an almost mythic connection:
| The slow light of Friday morning in Michigan, |
the one we waited for, shows seven hills
of scraped earth topped with crab grass,
weeds, a black oil drum empty, glistening
at the exact center of the modern world.
Philip Levine reads from his poems at the Michigan League on Tuesday, October 8.
[Originally published in October, 2002.]
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