Closer to Paradise

At least we haven't killed the poets. Yet. Philip Levine's new poetry is alert but hopeful.

Octogenerian Phillip Levine, who was born in Detroit of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents and worked in the mind-wrenching, body-breaking auto plants before he took up his poetic calling, has won two National Book Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. His seventeenth and newest collection of poetry, News of The World (Knopf), with a captivating cover design by Jason Booher, includes:
News of the World

Once we were out of Barcelona the road climbed past small farm-
houses hunched down on the gray, chalky hillsides. The last person
we saw was a girl in her late teens in a black dress & gray apron
carrying a chicken upside down by the claws. She looked up &
smiled. An hour later the land opened into enormous green meadows.
At the frontier a cop asked in guttural Spanish almost as bad
as mine why were we going to Andorra. “Tourism,” I said. Laughing,
he waved us through. The rock walls of the valley were so
abrupt the town was only a single street wide. Blue plumes of
smoke ascended straight into the darkening sky. The next morning
we found what we’d come for: the perfect radio, French-made,
portable, lightweight, slightly garish with its colored dial &
chromed knobs, inexpensive. “Because of the mountains, reception
is poor,” the shop owner said, so he tuned in the local Communist
station beamed to Spain. “Communist?” I said. Oh yes, they’d
come twenty- five years ago to escape the Germans, & they’d stayed.
“Back then,” he said, “we were all reds.” “And now?” I said. Now
he could sell me anything I wanted. “Anything?” He nodded. A
tall, graying man, his face carved down to its essentials. “A Cadillac?”
I said. Yes, of course, he could get on the phone & have it out
front—he checked his pocket watch—by four in the afternoon.
“An American film star?” One hand on his unshaved cheek, he
gazed upward at the dark beamed ceiling. “That could take a week.”
Here’s something to know about Levine, from Bread of Time:
I was in that magical state in which nothing could hurt me or sidetrack me; I had achieved that extraordinary level of concentration we call inspiration. When I closed my eyes and looked back into the past, I did not see the blazing color of the forges of nightmare or the torn faces of the workers. I didn’t hear the deafening ring of metal on metal, or catch under everything the sweet stink of decay. Not on that morning. Instead I was myself in the company of men and women of enormous sensitivity, delicacy, consideration. I saw us touching each other emotionally and physically, hands upon shoulders, across backs, faces pressed to faces. We spoke to each other out of the deepest centers of our need, and we listened. In those terrible places designed to rob us of our bodies and our spirits, we sustained each other.
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