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The Riot That Found Its Threnody : THE BREAD OF TIME: Toward an Autobiography, By Philip Levine (Alfred A. Knopf: $23; 296 pp.)

January 16, 1994|RICHARD EDER

"I don't understand. I don't understand," Federico Garcia Lorca exclaimed when he arrived in New York. Out of the bewildered encounter between the finely surreal singer of slain gypsies and flowers that bleed, and Manhattan's stink and clangor, came "Poet in New York." A poet can write out of any state of spirit as long as he trusts it. Lorca trusted his dismay.

And he taught Philip Levine to trust his. Levine came to poetry in the course of a dozen years alternately spent studying and working in the hot-metal foundries of Detroit's auto industry. Illegitimate, not knowing who his father was, raised in near-poverty by a keen-spirited mother, he wore his blue collar with pride; particularly when he took a course from the languidly patrician Robert Lowell, whom he loathed. He also wore it with a sense of artistic constriction. Had he lived in the '30s, he might have settled into Socialist Realism. In the supremely disengaged '50s, his proletarian condition, leftist convictions and passion for the old Spanish Republic had no place to lodge. But there was more to it than that.

After working the overnight shift at Chevrolet Gear & Axle, he would try to write, he tells us in one of these autobiographical essays. It didn't work. What stopped him was not weariness or unfashionability. It was his own sensibility. How could you write poetry about the gritty reality of America's working life? His rage was rhetoric-sized but he despised rhetoric. He loved Whitman, but there can be no other Whitman. He loved Keats, Stevens, William Carlos Williams and the fine, shining craft.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 6, 1994 Home Edition Book Review Page 8 Book Review Desk 2 inches; 69 words Type of Material: Correction
In a review of "The Bread of Time" by Philip Levine (Jan. 16), Richard Eder referred to the poet as born illegitimate. The book is a series of first-person sketches, essentially autobiographical, and fictional in avowed but unspecified part. Eder regrets getting the part wrong, thanks the utterly legitimate Levine for a gentlemanly letter, abashedly apologizes to his mother, and points out the risks if New Autobiography is going to take on the fictional liberties of the New Journalism.

In this doubt, he tells us, he came upon "Poet in New York." Outrage shatters the sheer heaviness of things--derricks, subways, office-buildings--and the heaviness of outrage is lifted, in turn, by the childlike joyfulness of Lorca's imagery. "A wooden wind from the south," Levine quotes from a dockside passage, "slanting through the black mire/ spits on the broken boats and drives tacks into shoulders./ A south wind that carries/ tusks, sunflowers, alphabets,/ and a battery with drowned wasps."

"Never in poetry written in English had I found such a direct confrontation of one image with another or heard such violence held in abeyance and enclosed in so perfect a musical form," Levine writes. "What in my work had been chaotic rant was in his a stately threnody circling around a center of riot." It validated Levine's own rioting center; it told him that he might find a threnody of his own to circle it. It took years, he tells us. It was achieved--though he doesn't tell us--in his great collection "What Work Is," published two years ago.

The pieces in "The Bread of Time" are a series of experiments in remembering rather than a whole organized act of memory. In suggesting the present simultaneity of discrete past images, Levine sometimes introduces bits that don't very clearly fit. He can strut his blue collar, as in his mockery of a young academic who "pranced before us reading some sprightly little paper for 'Notes and Queries.' " He prefers bowling, he lets us know.

His wandering method works perfectly, though, in his portrait of his mother. She lived in Europe for a while, worked for years and in near-poverty in Detroit to raise her children and, when they were grown, skipped to California. Philip visits her when she is 80; she is sardonic and free. She shows an odd familiarity with the Italian poet Gabriele d'Annunzio--Levine pauses to wonder if he could be his father--and translates one of his poems for him. "It's a lot worse than it sounds," she assures him. "It loses a lot in the original." Truly, a poet's mother.

After sketching a mannered professor who taught him James Joyce at college, Levine touches upon various aspects of his own life and his growing sense of aging. Suddenly the professor is back, no longer caricatured but a contemporary in Levine's own autumnal process. The professor ends his course with Joyce's injunction that a reader should spend a lifetime reading what it took him, Joyce, a lifetime to write.

"I am that reader," Professor Prescott tells his departing students, "and I can tell you that it was a wasted life."

The three best pieces are about Levine's poetic mentors. He portrays John Berryman as a man stretched past his own long gawkiness in his passion to impart what poetry must be. His voice went so high that "it seemed that only a dog could hear it." His class was a battlefield; Berryman would tear the poems apart or praise them; either way, the students were goaded to make them better. "Levine, this will never do," still rings in the writer's ears, along with, "One must be ruthless with one's own writing or someone else will" and--when one student turned in a magnificent sonnet--"Say that better in 1,000 words and you're a genius."

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