Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Phillip Levine - Cataloguing Life

Levine’s poems at first seem to be catalogues, but in their steadfastness and severity, rise to accomplish much more. In “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives,” Levine is able to show nobility in a pig, an animal so misaligned in life and who in death is horribly slaughtered, disemboweled, and dismembered. The nobility is not in the life or eventual end of the pig, but in its unwillingness to fear that fate. Being familiar with The Jungle and the slaughterhouses in American urban centers at the turn of the century, I was first struck by almost rural nature of this scene. The idea of going to market contrasts so heavily in my mind with the abysmal cruelty of the pork industry not only at the turn of the century, but that which still continues today. The pig never fears this and goes boldly to face his fate.
The same is true of the acid-miner in “Fear and Fame,” in which he catalogues the daily life of a miner working a double shift. Again, Levine itemizes out the menial tasks that consume the worker’s life, and yet finds nobility in them. The miner is drawn to the idea of fame, yet can never achieve it through his hard work. The most interesting moment in this poem, for me, was in line 28, when he references his nickname, yet does not provide it. Levine, in examining this mundane nameless worker, establishes the idea of how the priorities of the modern world are out of line, idolizing those individuals that are less noble than the simple worker that is unwilling to give up.
Finally, Levine universalizes this theme of unwillingness to succumb to the oppression of society in “They Feed They Lion.” In this poem, Levine seems to catalogue myriad forms of societal oppression and how that oppression has led to freedom. Ultimately, Levine appears to me to be a poet concerned with the ways in which society can drive the spirit of the individual down. His poems speak to the pride of hard work and the nobility in toil.

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