arts & entertainment
"THEY FEED THEY LION"
From They Feed They Lion: Poems
Poet from page 97
that was mine, and I enjoyed speak-
ing in that voice': he says. "The poems
were inspired by the cadences of
preaching, which I heard on the radio.
"I would borrow the vocabulary of
Old Testament language, mix it with
American speech and compose poems
about the natural world, which I
stopped doing when I was 17."
A favorite teacher introduced Levine
to the writing of Wilfred Owens, a
World War I British poet, and he found
the complex samples inspirational
before exploring less intimidating free verse in col-
Levine earned a bachelor's degree from Wayne
State University and a master's degree from the
University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He later was
awarded the Jones Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford.
As Levine explored his skills, with publication start-
ing in his 20s, he taught for many years at California
State University, Fresno, where he is professor
emeritus in the English Department. He also taught
at New York University, as distinguished writer-in-
residence, as well as at Columbia, Princeton, Brown
and Tufts universities.
"I don't think I wrote anything I really would like
today until I was 30',' explains Levine, who served as
a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from
2000-2006.1 left Detroit when I was 26 and had a
lot to learn. There was a huge growth in my abilities
when I studied with John Berryman in Iowa.
"I found him a magnificently congenial and
inspiring teacher and brutal but honest critic. I stud-
ied with him for 15 weeks, and they were immensely
influential in the way I wrote.
"Living in Detroit was extremely influential in
what I chose to write about, but it had very little
influence on the way I wrote about it. Spending some
years in an automobile factory and then going into
academia made for a vivid contrast, and my memory
of the earlier is much stronger?'
Levine lived in Spain for two years with his wife,
Frances, an actress turned painter, and three sons.
He found the landscapes dramatic and the cities
striking, additional impetus for his poems.
"There are a lot of poems about New York:' he
says. "I started living here at the end of the 1960s
and [was affected] by the city's power and variety."
Levine has returned often to Michigan. He has
done readings, and he came to see the effects of the
1967 Detroit riots, which led to his poem "They Feed
They Lion': which first appeared in one of his first
collections, They Feed They Lion: Poems (1972).
"I am very proud of
being Jewish," says
Philip Levine. "I couldn't
compare [the Jewish
people] to any other
people in terms of the
enormous gifts they
gave to Western
Family ties, another theme for which Levine
employed some identity disguises, also meant visits
with his identical twin, Edward, who lives in Royal
Oak and has expressed impressions of the Motor
City through representational paintings.
The suburban Detroiter showcased the neigh-
borhoods and factories his brother described with
"I've always been very proud of my brother and
proud of his work," says Edward Levine, whose
core career was buying and selling parts for heavy
vehicles. "He worked very hard, and that rubbed off
The twins, although pursuing different artistic
interests, shared in athletic activities at the Jewish
Community Center, attendance at Wayne State
University and employment in the factories.
While Levine's Russian-Jewish heritage did not
draw him to religion, Jewish references and Yiddish
terms occasionally appear in his collections.
"I am very proud of being Jewish:' Philip Levine
says. "I felt that Jewish people were utterly remark-
able. I couldn't compare them to any other people
in terms of the enormous gifts they gave to Western
"When I was 16 or 17, the giants were Einstein,
Freud and fabulous composers, musicians and
painters. Jews were just making their presence felt in
"My wife is not Jewish so technically [our] chil-
dren are not Jewish. I don't know how they would
answer a question about whether they are Jewish,
but I'm quite sure they would say 'yes?"
Levine calls himself "indulgent" toward his four
"I love being with them': he says. "Last winter, I
had some physical problems when I was supposed
to give a poetry reading, and I just wasn't up to the
long drive. My grandson [volunteered] to drive, and
spending three days with him was such a pleasure:'
Levine, a solid jazz fan as reflected in his work,
writes in the mornings, sitting in a comfortable
nook in his New York home. Mornings
also are for reading, from the sports and
cultural pages of newspapers to Spanish
Afternoons are more every day, tak-
ing care of whatever tasks have to get
done, exercising at a nearby gym and
giving time to reflection.
"I don't know what workers are
experiencing today, but I do know
that the factories are more auto-
mated and the jobs are different':
Poet on page 99
September 22 2011
Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.
Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
Out of the bones' need to sharpen and the muscles' to stretch,
They Lion grow.
Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
"Come home, Come home!" From pig balls,
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,
From the furred ear and the full jowl come
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose
They Lion grow.
From the sweet glues of the trotters
Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower
Of the hams the thorax of caves,
From "Bow Down" come "Rise Up,"
Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
The grained arm that pulls the hands,
They Lion grow.
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.
"WHAT WORK IS"
From What Work Is
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is — if you're
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it's someone else's brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, "No,
we're not hiring today," for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who's not beside you or behind or
ahead because he's home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You've never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you're too young or too dumb,
not because you're jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don't know what work is.