Newsletter Issue #47 May, 2015

Newsletter Issue #47 May, 2015
May 18, 2015 Plume

Welcome to Plume, Issue # 47.

May: and to begin, you’ll be happy to find below, as we begin this brief newsletter, again not my own digressions but  Christopher Buckley’s wonderful introduction of our “secret poem” —Phillip Levine’s “Belief.” Here let me tell you that this is a rather special issue of Plume. And not only for this introduction and poem, but for its Featured Selection.  As a final wave good-bye to Phillip Levine, our Feature this time comprises not poems (well, one, and a fine one from Jim Daniels) but “remembrances” on work, apropos that subject often turned to by Phil, earning him the somewhat dubious title the “Poet of Work.” A designation Chris takes dead aim at in his essay below.
What you will find when you read that Featured Selection is, honestly, a marvel. Its genesis is, as are most things related to Plume, a passing thought. Why not email some Plume contributors and ask them to send in their memories or general thoughts on their own experiences of work? Thinking I’d receive if we were lucky ten or so, and we could indeed run them as that Feature. I am glad — and humbled — to report that we received almost immediately more than that number, and they have kept coming day by day; the last arrived just a few minutes ago.
So: if you read nothing else in this issue (though why would you do that?), I urge you to take up the Featured Selection at once. For here you will find, among other things, Jane Hirschfield’s recollection of her days as a trucker (!); watch as Kathleen Flenniken“pores over aerial photos from the 20s, 30s, 40s, using stereoscopic glasses… Suddenly I was God looking down at the long-ago farmers with their dogs, workmen in the field, the woman feeding chickens, and the shadows they cast”; endure with David Huddle his first days in the army; discover with Tom Lux the rewards of being a night-watchman; learn from Amy Gerstler the duties of a residential aide for kids whose labels ranged from “pre-delinquent, to autistic, aphasic, and schizophrenic” — and many more.

But, now, Christopher Buckley on Phillip Levine’s “Belief”:

On Philip Levine’s “Belief”
When Philip Levine was appointed Poet Laureate for 2011-12, almost every media release tagged him as “the poet of working class Detroit”–most all of the obituaries this past February read similarly.  True, a significant portion of Levine’s work extols the fortitude of the worker and praises the lives of common people, lifting them into their own dignified element.  These poems bear fierce witness to the inhumanity as well as to the beauty and fortitude of much of American life through hands-on examples in the factories and the cities, and Levine is rightly praised for giving a voice to the voiceless in these many memorable poems.  There is, however, much more to Levine’s range and vision.

The many poems of witness and elegy for the soldiers, poets, and people of the Spanish Civil war extend the scope of Philip Levine’s important themes and subjects and should not be overlooked. His attention is intense and exact, and hauntingly accounts for the individuals who gave their lives then to oppose Franco and fascism.

Additionally, Levine is a master of the long poem; they move narratively, elegiacally, imagistically, and especially symphonically. “Burned” unites the workers of the automobile industry in Detroit to a Dantean overlay and vision.  “Letters for the Dead,” “A Walk With Tom Jefferson,” “A Poem with No Ending,” “Silent in America,” “New Season,” and “Naming” are tour-de-force long poems, each with its distinct strategy and perception, and there are many more.

Most notably, there are the middle and later books in which Levine presents visionary poems whose metaphysical cast and resolution rise far beyond the chronicles of work and the elegy for the individual–poems such as “Belief” and “The Voice” from One for the Rose, “Jewish Graveyards, Italy” from Sweet Will, “The Secret” from The Mercy, “The Whole Soul” from A Walk with Tom Jefferson, “Dust” from Breath and “Ascension” from Unselected Poems–come immediately to mind. With the title poem in Sweet Will (1985) there is a pronounced shift in tone and thematic development, and subsequent books expand from a fierce witnessing to an often more multi-dimensional visionary or metaphysical resolution; the rhythms are often more reflective, pensive, and there is more hope, more final recovery.

My favorite poem in this metaphysical mode has long been “Belief.”  In “Belief,” Levine’s strategy is to use larger, more mythic and elemental images. He does not ground a place, time, speaker, and social condition–as many of his poems do–but turns instead to images of water, light, breath, wind, and earth. He sees all aspects of existence as interconnected; man is part of, not apart from nature. Each of Levine’s images shines with a natural life-force and therefore rises easily and accessibly to the level of emblem.

Levine then counterpoints the weight and run of images with short narrative sketches. Yet, there is no single narrative for the poem, no autobiography or biography of character beginning to end; rather, it is Levine’s meditative voice and all-encompassing vision that direct the progress of the poem. It is a concept-centered strategy, a symphonic theme and variation approach which is often a strategy in movement of long poems. In “Belief,” although there is the first person pronoun used in a good deal of the poem, the voice is not the familiar personal voice of Levine, that voice we know with the rich authority of “I/we lived here, worked at this, witnessed this done, made this life, cherished that.” Instead, the voice in this poem is a disembodied voice, a speaker not particular or necessary to the historical Philip Levine.
To be sure, Levine’s distinctive style is very much in evidence–a powerful anaphoric structures which order and advance ideas and stories, the forceful emotional rhythms. And this is not mere habit; it is a necessary and compelling technique that meshes the imagistic and narrative portions of the poem; by the last line, the poem is sharply focused and there is a weight and resonance in the rhythm and imagery. Throughout the poem Levine sets up the reader for the ending that arrives at a credence in a metaphysical existence. In the poem’s first section, images are derived from the natural world, and their broad scope complements the latitude of his subject, that expanded notion of life-continuum after death, and the longer scaffolding of the poem allows Levine to establish this landscape. He initially builds images of wind, sea, long black volcanic reefs, and water. “North Wind” is invested with the human characteristics of rage and depression, while the sea still has its traditional values of life and mystery in the image of the “unknowable heart of water.”
To enlarge his vision and amplify his theme, Levine employs a long poem structure that intersperses narrative vignettes with the panoply of natural images, thereby integrating the usual and human span of life with the elemental and the cosmic. The poem is a long strophe and not divided into stanzas so that these vignettes work in a larger symphonic mode, establishing a particular vision, then varying that atmosphere and recapitulating at the poem’s end. The most thinly narrative section is the allusion to the life and death of Keats which occurs in the early portion of the poem. Levine chooses Keats’ famous line–”Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”–not only for its resonance of the brevity of life in the face of our desire and our efforts, but also for its appropriate connection with the imagery he is using.
After the narrative vignettes, the poem returns to the singular concentration on images of light, water, and trees:
. . .  the bodies of the drowned collect
light from the farthest stars and rise
at night to glow without song . . .
for the first time among all my family
and that the magic of water
which has filled me becomes me
and I flow into every crack and crevice
where light can enter. Even my oak
takes me to heart . . . .

Here is the cyclical life-force of the environment and Levine has become part of it; the water has “filled” him, and it “becomes me” as has the light which allows him to be among “all my family” and so, one more piece of that light. Moreover, it is the “magic”/mysterious life principle of water which allows him to be taken into the oak tree. Thus, Levine, the meditative consciousness of the speaker of the poem, becomes one with the elements, shares, more than a little pantheistically, their life source.
Levine also chooses a voice that allows our attention to be directed toward his theme and away from personality. He speaks at times as an entity outside the body, outside time; in places, he is almost the voice of Keats, or the child of his past, or of the elements of and around the earth. It is an elevated conceit, but one which is the perfect coefficient for the vital force in the properties of the earth, for the vision of life beyond the particular limits of one lifetime.
Levine closes on an image that again demonstrates his belief in life in and an existence beyond the world; “First light” is an image found in several Levine poems, but it always has had the denotative meaning–dawn. I think we correctly read this closing image not only as dawn, but, since the focus of the poem falls on this well ordered final image, as “first light–primary principle–life source.” In the largest sense, Levine has given up his life, his personality, to the world and the stars, and this makes for a startling and convincing strategy to motivate the reader to look beyond this life and to believe. And although he begins the last eight lines of the poem with the sixth repetition of “No one believes . . .” the emphasis is now on the positive and immediate evidence of his belief, for “tonight is the journey/ across dark water to the lost continent/ no one named.” At this point he resolves the largest paradox of life/death and hones his vision on the light that comes out of the darkness; by this point the anaphora is undercut by the imagistic overlays of existence pulled from the elements of earth. Levine now expects the reader to believe; and now he is not alone in his vision for we are to follow not just Levine, but Levine among all the living elements:
. . . .   Do you hear
the waves breaking, even in the darkness,
radiant and full? Close your eyes, close
them and follow us toward the first light.


No one believes in the calm
of the North Wind after a time
of rage and depression.
No one believes the sea cares nothing
for the shore or that
the long black volcanic reefs
that rise and fall from sight
each day are the hands
of some forgotten creature
trying to touch the unknowable
heart of water.  No one believes
that the lost breath of a man
who died in 1821 is my breath
and that I will live until
I no longer want to, and then
I will write my name
in water, as he did, and pass
this breath to anyone who can
believe that life comes back
again and again without end
and always with the same face–
the face that broke in daylight
before the waves at Depot Bay
curling shoreward over and over
just after dawn as the sky cracked
into long slender fingers of light
and I heard your breath beside me
calm and sweet as you returned
to the dark crowded harbor of sleep.
That man will never return.  He ate
the earth and the creatures of the sea
and the air, and so it is time he fed
the small tough patches of grass
that fight for water and air
between the blocks on the long walk
to and from school, it is time
that whatever he said begin
first to echo and then fade
in the mind of no one
who listened, and that the bed
that moaned under his weight
be released, and that his shoes curl
upward at last and die, for they too
were only the skins of other animals,
not the bear or tiger he prayed to be
before he knew he too was animal,
but the slow ox that sheds his flesh
so that we might grow to our full height–
the beasts no one years to become
as young men dream of the sudden fox
threading his way up the thick hillside
and the old of the full-bellied seal,
whiskered and wisely playful.  At the beach
at Castelldefels in 1965 a stout man
in his bare socks stood
above two young women stretched out
and dressed in almost nothing.
In one hand he held his vest,
hi shoes, and his suit jacket
and with the other he pointed to those
portions of them he most admired,
and he named then in the formal,
guttural Spanish of the Catalan gentleman.
He went away with specks of fine sand
Caught on his socks to remind him
that to enter the fire is to be burned
and that the finger he pointed would
blacken in time and probe the still earth,
root-like, stubborn, and find its life
in darkness.  No one believes he
knew all this and dared the sea
to rise that moment and take him
away on a journey without end
or that the bodies of the drowned collect
light from the farthest stars and rise
at night to glow without song.
No one believes that to die
is beautiful, that after the hard pain
of the last unsaid word I am swept
in a calm out from shore
and hang in the silence of millions
for the first time among all my family
and that the magic of water
which has filled me becomes me
and I flow into every crack and crevice
where light can enter. Even my oak
takes me to heart.  I shadow the yard
where you come in the evening
to talk while the light rises slowly
skyward, and you shiver a moment
before you go in, not believing
my voice in your ear and that the tall trees
blowing in the wind are sea sounds.
No one believes that tonight is the journey
across dark water to the last continent
no one named.  Do you hear
the waves breaking, even in the darkness,
radiant and full? Close your eyes, close
them and follow us toward the first light.

How to follow that? Prosaically.

Let’s see… And shall I shill once again? I shall: The Plume Anthology of Poetry V 3— is on sale now.

For more on this issue’s cover art and forthcoming Featured Selections, please see the Editor’s Note.

Finally, in place of David Cudar’s book recommendations, which will return next month, allow me to briefly draw your attention to one of Plume’s most steadfast — and gifted — poets, Mark Irwin, whose new book American Urn: Selected Poems 1987 — 2014 is now available.

Two poems might give a sense of the project — but only a sense. Its range is vast and its particulars unpredictable. There are more wonders where these came from, believe me.


Walking farther there, I am glad we
age slowly, discovering now in memory
similar frontiers of a physical world, visiting
as though for the first time
ruins of a once great city, yet novel

in the crumbling light.  We trip
and stumble, unaware, youthful in the obscurity
of shadow, a kind of spring
in itself. Itself, where I touch places, gone, often
confused to find a new home
not torn and built of green, but of a crumbling

orange, and there,there, as though walking
through fire, taking pleasure in the fleeting
walls and lingering agoras, I glimpse
ghost bodies and caress the flesh
boats of their past as I walk toward
what could be mountains or oceans, till finally
I am swimming through the lit windows of a name.


They are the earth we have forgotten.
And the great continent of the head knows this
and will look right through you from the brown stones
of the eyes. And I would know them as a child knows
the brown-humped land that listens
for the prairie wind that is the bellows of their lungs.
A friend and I once stopped, astonished by the mile-long
herd, and by the slow train of the hooves
drumming up an expired music like wind like God like sun.
Still I marvel as the late Nebraska light gilds the horns
and the ponderous mass of fur, while the foothills blue,
Recalling the cold declining length of the rifle’s bore.
They are the color of the earth thrust up, and history
still roams in the matted rags of hair, in the bleached litter
of bones, and in the chalky cliffs of the skull.

Now, then.

Much more news later, in detail, on readings, ventures, poets as always paring things to their core.

I do hope you enjoy the issue!

Daniel Lawless

Editor, Plume