Newsletter Issue #80 March, 2018

Newsletter Issue #80 March, 2018
March 4, 2018 Plume
Readers:  Welcome to PlumeIssue 80

March: and my thoughts turn not to AWP and other assorted tasks, though they should, but thanks to Jeff Friedman, instead to Phillip Levine, circa 1972. Specifically, to that best of all Levine’s work, They Feed They Lion – a book I carried around in my jeans’ back pocket for months, and a poem about which the author observes “I would say that the best poem I ever wrote came easily, came rather quickly: “They Feed They Lion.” It’s about a reaction to the riots and the sort of urban rebellion of the ’60s in Detroit. And it tries to reach into the depths of what causes things like this.” I was 18, druggy, going nowhere in late high school – but reading was everything to me: is, in fact, primarily how I recall that year – Ashberry, Szymborska, Merrill’s Braving the Elements, Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Cioran’s De l’inconvénient d’être né, Laxness, Ōe, Guillevic, Merton’s just-discovered Raids on the Unspeakable

Yet – Levine, above all, and that title, of course. I remember reading the poem aloud with my first college writing professor become friend, the poet Ron Seitz, a couple of years later – we really did such things.  Today, I went back to it, pulled down from the dusty shelves. And again was astonished and delighted to find it had not dated in the least, was still as powerful and beautiful and timely as in that other benighted era, in Louisville.  Did I read it aloud? I did. Summoning, here in Florida, Ron’s spirit to lend its voice, in my empty study, its final incantatory stanza rocking the walls, scaring the cat, tumbling out the opened window onto the placid lawn —

From my five arms and all my hands,

From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,

From my car passing under the stars,

They Lion, from my children inherit,

From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,

From they sack and they belly opened

And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth

They feed they Lion and he comes.

A fine memory. But now to Jeff’s consideration of another Levine poem – one from a book published more than a quarter century later, whose power is quieter, plainer, even, but no less a marvel.

Jeff Friedman on Philip Levine’s “The Mercy” 

I’m introducing Philip Levine’s poem “The Mercy,” the title poem of his collection The Mercy, published in 1999, when Levine was 71. The collection, his 17th, is dedicated to his mother.

As he aged, he pursued his notion of a poetry that embodies a simple truth—that “must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme.” “The Mercy,” in my opinion, is one of the best examples of this later style and one of Levine’s finest poems.

The storytelling is masterful, braiding together his mother’s recollection of her journey as a 9-year-old girl to America on a ship named “The Mercy” with the history of “The Mercy” that Levine reads in the library.

On the voyage his mother eats her first banana and her first orange. She tries to eat the banana without peeling it. (I remember my mother telling me that my grandmother did the same thing with a banana.)

The poem starts with a statement of the historical fact or truth followed by the description of a simple act of kindness, the young Scottish seaman giving the little girl a bite of the orange and then wiping her mouth.

I love the sharp specific details and vivid imagery; the poet even tells us the color of the bandana used to wipe the little girl’s mouth.  I love how the image of the orange tells its own story, accumulating layers of meaning as the poem progresses. The music of “The Mercy” is created through ordinary language and a strong line given shape by assonance, alliteration and parallelism.

The poem is also about finding a language in which to speak. The mother prays in Russian and Yiddish, but now she must learn the word for “orange” and a new language for a new world experience, just as Levine has entered a new phase of life and feels he must find a new language for his poetry.

The narrative shifts when Levine enters the poem to explain that he’s found the history of “The Mercy” “on the yellowing pages of a book/I located in a windowless room of the library/on 42nd Street.” Again, Levine’s telling the stories of the names of the lost as he did in his earlier books.

But while he says that one story ends, the poem broadens to include an endless list of ships from other countries, all with their own stories, and in a few moving lines he tells the story of the Italian miners who rediscover the same nightmare they left at home.

At this point, the poem alchemizes the individual history into a collective experience.

I love how Levine brings the poem back to the voyage of the little girl, and the experience of eating the orange, and how eating the orange becomes a metaphor for mercy. The poem starts with a factual truth, then breaks through to find a much deeper truth.

The last lines are brilliant and beautiful,

She learns that mercy is something you can eat

again and again while the juice spills over

your chin, you can wipe it away with the back

of your hands and you can never get enough.

The Mercy

The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island

Eighty-three years ago was named “The Mercy.”

She remembers trying to eat a banana

without first peeling it and seeing her first orange

in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman

who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her

with a red bandana and taught her the word,

“orange,” saying it patiently over and over.

A long autumn voyage, the days darkening

with the black waters calming as night came on,

then nothing as far as her eyes could see and space

without limit rushing off to the corners

of creation. She prayed in Russian and Yiddish

to find her family in New York, prayers

unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored

by all the powers that swept the waves of darkness

before she woke, that kept “The Mercy” afloat

while smallpox raged among the passengers

and crew until the dead were buried at sea

with strange prayers in a tongue she could not fathom.

“The Mercy,” I read on the yellowing pages of a book

I located in a windowless room of the library

on 42nd Street, sat thirty-one days

offshore in quarantine before the passengers

disembarked. There a story ends. Other ships

arrived, “Tancred” out of Glasgow, “The Neptune”

registered as Danish, “Umberto IV,”

the list goes on for pages, November gives

way to winter, the sea pounds this alien shore.

Italian miners from Piemonte dig

under towns in western Pennsylvania

only to rediscover the same nightmare

they left at home. A nine-year-old girl travels

all night by train with one suitcase and an orange.

She learns that mercy is something you can eat

again and again while the juice spills over

your chin, you can wipe it away with the back

of your hands and you can never get enough.

The poem has resisted rhetorical flourishes and pumped up language to insist on its own simple truth. Levine is one of my favorite poets.

Throughout his career, Philip Levine published numerous books of poetry, including News of the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009); Breath (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004); The Simple Truth (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), which won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize; What Work Is (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), which won the 1991 National Book Award;Ashes: Poems New and Old (Atheneum, 1979), which received the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the first American Book Award for Poetry; 7 Years From Somewhere (Atheneum, 1979), which won the 1979 National Book Critics Circle Award; The Names of the Lost (1975), which won the 1977 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets; and They Feed They Lion (Atheneum, 1972).

Jeff Friedman’s seventh book of poems, Floating Tales, has just been published by Plume Editions/Madhat Press. His poems, flash stories, and translations have appeared in Poetry International, Poetry, Agni Online, New England Review, The Antioch Review, American Poetry Review, Indiana Review, Missouri Review, Sentence, Smokelong Quarterly, The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Poetry, Flash Fiction Funny, The New Republic, and KYSO Flash.

Next, a couple of AWP notes – book signings from Plume Editions authors Paul Hoover and Sally Bliumis-Dunn:

Finally, our own Plume Readings flyers:

Almost there…

Our cover art this month comes from Daido Moriyama, per Artnet, a Japanese street photographer best known for his confrontational, black-and-white images depicting the contrast of traditional values and modern society in postwar Japan. Notable for his rejection of technical precision in favor of the grainy and high-contrast images produced by a compact camera, the artist captures a diaristic experience of wandering city streets. “The city has everything: comedy, tragedy, eulogy, eroticism,” he has remarked. “It is the ideal setting, the place where people’s desires are interwoven. It has remained and will always remain my natural element.” Born on October 10, 1938 in Osaka, Japan, Moriyama studied graphic design before taking lessons with photographer Takeji Iwamiya. Moving to Tokyo in 1961, he worked as an assistant to the experimental filmmaker and photographer Eiko Hosoe, and began producing and publishing his own collections of street photography. In 1967, Moriyama was awarded the New Artist Award from the Japan Photo-Critics Association. In 2016, Moriyama was the subject of the exhibition “In Color,” held at the Galleria Franca Sozzani in Milan, bringing together his lesser known color photographs from the 1960s to the 1980s. He continues to lives and works in Tokyo, Japan. Today, the artist’s works are held in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Fotomuseum Wintherthur in Switzerland, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, among others.

A fascinating interview with the artist appeared in Aperture , Summer 2010. 

That’s it for, now, I think. See  some of you, at least, in Tampa!

I do hope you enjoy the issue.

Daniel Lawless

Editor, Plume 

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