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Philip Levine, Fierce About Poetry

The U.S. poet laureate on growing up Jewish in Detroit, playing tennis in verse, and hanging on to his memories, which are the source of his art

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Philip Levine. (Geoffrey Berliner, courtesy Library of Congress)

The Seventh Summer
How could I not know God had a son?
the biggest kid asked. I considered.
No one told me. Did I ever go to church?
Yes, but they spoke a language I didn’t
actually understand. The three stared at me.
I could have answered that it was possible
God did not have a son and that this picture
over what was to be my bed was a fake—
for one thing it wasn’t a photograph,
for another it looked like an ad for Life,
but I was already sorry I’d said, “Who
is he?” referring to the figure displayed
behind glass in a plain wooden frame.
What I truly wanted to know was why God
had let anyone do such a thing to his son,
nail his hands and feet to a huge wooden cross
from which he sagged in what appeared
to be less discomfort than I would have felt.
“The Jews done it,” the biggest one said, as though
reading my mind. I felt a chill run through me,
sure that once more I was going to be blamed
for what I had not done or what I’d done
but done without meaning to, but the boys
—the oldest was sixteen, over twice my age—left
me to myself, for it was early to bed for everyone.
I lay awhile in the silent dark of the farmhouse
wondering if it could be so, that God had
a son he had let die, and if this were so why
no one had told me so that I might understand
why life could be so puzzling for all of us.
Days passed before Lars, the fourteen year old,
told me that it was OK, this Jesus had died
so that all of us could be saved, in the end
things turned out for the best. That was Sunday,
after the boys had returned from church—
to which I did not go—, and before we walked
into town to swim in the big public place.
I remember best how sweet was the lake water
we swam in, how I could even swallow
little gulps of it and not feel ill and how large
the bodies around me were, Lars and Sven thrashing
after the girls in their dark wool suits, the girls
squealing with mock hurt when they would catch
them up in their pale arms, for though their faces
were deeply browned their bodies were ghostly.
Sven, Lars, and Thomas, three boys as big as men,
who let me climb to their secret room beside
the hay loft, where they smoked and spoke of women,
the laughter rushing out of their great throats,
the strange words I had never heard before coughed
out in sudden spasms, and such hopes uttered
as they moved about the room in a half-dance,
half-sword-fight, calling out the magic names
of the absent girls as they stroked their own bodies
at chest and crotch or rolled on the floor
in mock death agony. August in Michigan,
the world spinning around me, my mother gone
in the grief of final loss, from which one day
she would awaken in daylight, one year
before the wars in Ethiopia, Spain, and China
could give me growing up its particular name,
and yet I sat at their table that night, head bowed
in the grace I did not say, thankful for corn,
beans, and poisonous pork, and understood it all.

Excerpted from What Work Is by Philip Levine. Copyright © 1991 by Philip Levine. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Zackary Sholem Berger says:


Perhaps more than any other ethnic group in the United States, Jews have struggled with their dual identity.” Perhaps – and perhaps not! 

J. Arnon says:

I must say, Levine’s poetry never did much for me. 

If I had ot choose between a make believe Jews like Levine and a real Goy like Berryman I’ll take the Goy every time. 

Berryman, is one of my favorite American  poets, btw.

Very typical of the majority of American Jews, completely ignorant of who he is and where he comes from.

I think the Talmudic term Am Haaretz best sums him up.

What’s up with the Nadal comments? I don’t think Levine is nearly that fierce! Unless profanity fierceness? Anyway, I always think of that poem about a cat sitting on top of the poet’s typewriter, swatting at his hands every now and then and that’s now poetic lines are made – perfectly describes the ones given here.

Thomas Graves says:

berryman probably turned levine into a drunk, though…as levine says in the interview, he was “proud;” no way berryman, who drank more as he got older, while levine drank less, was “proud…”  berryman wasn’t “proud.” that’s the difference…

Does anyone know who the Pulitzer-winning classmate who ‘became a Mr. Important’ is?

I suppose it might be W. D. Snodgrass. The dates roughly line up. ‘He wrote one other decent book, and after that everything he wrote was shit.’ Well, certainly Snodgrass’s career after ‘Heart’s Needle’ didn’t go quite the way he wanted it to.

Just a thought.

Shame on some of you…for some of the comments below. Levine is enough of a Jew. Read his work. His poems often take on an incantatory, almost prayerlike, intensity…like תְּפִלָּה. I love his work. Levine is the son of Russian Jewish immigrants. His parents and their experience loom large in his poetry — as do his grandparents, and his extended family. All Old World Jews. All of them. Also, Levine has fought Antisemitism ever since he was a kid in Detroit. That informs his poetry, too.

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Philip Levine, Fierce About Poetry

The U.S. poet laureate on growing up Jewish in Detroit, playing tennis in verse, and hanging on to his memories, which are the source of his art