Monday, April 13, 2009

Philip Levine's The Mercy

Just finished reading Philip Levine's The Mercy, an incredible book of poems. It was written in the years following his receipt of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award (so you know they're going to be pretty good...), and boy, he didn't let me down.

He grew up in blue-collar Detroit, and worked in factories, automotive equipment shops, etc. and experienced the working-class life for a long time before final moving out to Fresno, California. His previous location looms over the entire book though, as would be expected. What a change of scenery to go from 'greasy restaurants and abandoned urban decay' to 'picturesque, sunny hills were not a drip of grime has ever been smeared.' The book is filled with striking characters both lay and intelligent, boring and intriguing, but all entertaining. Especially in the way in which Levine writes: slowly, carefully, using simple phrasing and comfortable poem beginnings, easily accessible metaphors and resounding stories and harsh truths.

I recommend it without hesitation to anyone who appreciated or is enthralled by the working-class or blue-collar life, especially of mid-20th century Detroit--tough, working-class and racially mixed neighborhoods where bars and debauchery were more numerous than schools and the upscale establishments we see in most of suburban or urban New England. (Though there are rural areas that may bear a similar resemblance.)

He has inspired several ideas for poems, including some about those 'working-class heroes' that I knew growing up, and a poem I think I will title Harsh Realities. Though it is much different than Levine's harsh realities, I think the inspiration will be apparent and, if it continues the way it has begun, Levine will approve with a dignified smile.

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