By Jean Macpherson
I never met Philip Levine except through his published words. If I had to write about the one thing that most attracted me to his work it is his fearless ability to express working-class traits with abandon in poetry. I myself come from a sociologically well-defined poor-to-working-class family. Both of my parents, and their parents, for many many years, were factory workers. I recall so easily after we moved to New Hampshire, walking down the steep hill from elementary school to meet our mother at the mill. For a long time my father continued commuting to Connecticut to work in a textile factory in Plainfield. When he came home on the weekends he often brought scraps, or even a barrel of fabric home for our mother, who somehow continued to find pleasure and comfort in sewing, even though she mechanically mitred corners all day. Eventually dad found a factory job in the North Country and the commute stopped. I remember the last barrel of fabric contained a lot of flannel in tiny floral prints with subtle stripes; we made blankets for stuffed animals and pajamas we could not afford to buy.
Mr. Levine spent parts of his life working in Detroit factory lines and these experiences deeply informed his poetic inclinations. In the United States we have severe class attitudes, defining ourselves into categories which I have done here. Early 17th and 18th European history developed terminology adopted and carried on world-wide to this day including forms of address such as Mr. and Mrs. or Ms.; and let’s not forget 20th and 21st century terms such as They, Zer and Per. All these verbal atonements of respect indicate or suggest some level of class structure within our poor, working class, middle class, upper class structures. Arguably, these formations in our society prevail, but we all know that realistically not all forms are recognized as existing. We have heard for years the political arguments on the ‘disappearing middle class’ as if it ever is anyway. Mr. Levine’s work profusely spoke and expressed ideas on these issues, at least for me, someone who at one point believed that a college education would elevate me above others that did not complete or pursue these milestones, but I continued working three or four jobs just to get by. I am in no way suggesting that education is an immobile tactic to ‘get where you want to go,’ but my own personal ideals in my 20s were indicative of a desire to succeed, and unfortunately money has an insidious way of defining who we are – if we let it.
Perhaps the most important lesson is remembering where we come from. In “The Lesson,” Mr. Levine begins the poem with recall and reflection: “a doctor who smoked black shag/ and walked his dog each morning” (28) saves his brothers life by removing a chicken bone from his throat. Following this story he continues further into the past “before the invention of smog,/before Fluid Drive, the eight-hour day,” and tells us that he was born from the bruised sky (28). My father was born into factory work. My mother was born into factory work. Although pride comes with our ability to work with our hands, take in the hours of each day’s toil, and accept the filth that lingers in the creases of our skin after washing, we do not have to be categorized by a class system, a system that exists only if we say it does. Later in the poem, Levine writes “I knew then what I know/ now: the past, not the future, was mine.” Regardless of our ideals, goals, and desires for something better, we each have a past that stays with us and these, the past, makes our holy names follow the tracks. In “And the Trains Go On” Levine’s narrative approach reveals another important lesson: “I often wonder whose father /he was” and as he continues, this story of someone’s father turns violent when the police find him “and beat him/until the ink of his birth smudged/and surrendered it’s separate vowels” (u.p). We each belong to someone, and someone belongs to us. We are bigger than historical labels professing categorical identities. I choose not to accept it. I have finally learned the lesson I needed and it “grip[s]/ my arm hard and lean[s] way out/and shout[s] out the holy names/of the lost neither of us is scared/and our tears mean nothing.” We cannot fear our past; we can only take what we know, continue on a journey and accept ourselves without label and prejudice.
Fox, Margalit. “Philip Levine, a Poet of Grit, Sweat, and Labor, Dies at 87.” New York Times, 15 Feb 2015. Web. 16 Feb 2015.
Levine, Philip. “The Lesson.” Breath. New York: Knopf, 2004.
————– “And the Trains Go On.” New Selected Poems. New York: Knopf, 1991.
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