Essay originally appeared in Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine (Prairie Lights Books: 2013)
“Mystery? It’s all a mystery.”
I’ve flown back from Thailand for the funeral, suburban Philadelphia. The afternoon before the interment, we drive to the church three, maybe four times: delivering lilies, depositing and retrieving aunts and cousins, standing at the lectern imagining the nave full of family and strangers. Each trip, there and back, we pass a road-killed stag on the edge of the pike. Shoulders tense with rigor-mortis, crown of antlers like undead coral on the macadam: the white belly unbroken. No one moves it from the road. Just before dusk, we drive home to gather in the kitchen, to linger in the kitchen with beer and sauvignon blanc, the ham and gratin potatoes a neighbor’s left. When we pass the deer this time, there are two vultures on the curb—petaled, beauty rose faces; beaks suggesting an antler half-swallowed—shifting from foot to foot, waiting for the evening traffic to lull. So that they can approach, begin their work. Someone’s sure to call someone to come and gather the deer now, now that the scavengers have arrived. I wonder how much of the beast they’ll make part of themselves before the body is hauled away.
I hadn’t thought about “A Walk with Tom Jefferson” in a while. The poem—a six-hundred line saunter through a condemned landscape of arsoned homes, a terra nullius that a former autoworker has retaken as garden—had intrigued me when I’d first come across it as a teenager. Here was a poet who had set himself forth into a poem the way Thoreau says we must walk—“through this actual world.” But I had been daunted by the idea that a poem might need to contain so much knowing about nature, industry, labour, migration, memory, husbandry, history, the Bible, gardening, property.
The poem came to mind last night as Anna and I walked home from our friend’s apartment, past a vacant lot of papaya saplings, banana plants, mango trees that no one owns. At dinner, our friend described his work with communities living at the edge of forests outside Chiang Mai, in the north. There, as elsewhere in rural Thailand, modern models of private ownership have gradually encroached on centuries-old rights to communal stewardship of the forests. Seeing their rights vanish—rights recognized by a Lanna king some seven hundred years ago—many people in these forest communities have begun to commit acts of civil disobedience, deliberate trespass against the theft of what they see, they know, as communally theirs.
As we talked, his husband served us tilapia on green pumpkin, watermelon grown from compost seed, bruschetta with mozzarella he’d made from buffalo milk bought north of the city. And our friend—his name in Thai means ‘revolution’—described the design of property rights models, stakeholder processes, re-enfranchisement he was trying to help create, to give people back to their land.
In his poem, Levine asks:
What were we making out
of this poor earth good
for so much giving and taking?
The factories—Dodge Main, Chevy Gear & Axle, Cadillac, Ford Rouge—are their own answer. Tomatoes, summer squash, radishes, sweet corn, beets, cabbages: the answer that Tom plants and nurtures and gleans from the land that he pretends is his.
Dear Phil —
A guy came today to see about the mold in the room that’ll be the baby’s. It’s currently my study. Every few weeks we find something else filmed with a fine, blue mold. A raincoat, a Brooklyn Dodgers cap, my damn books: I went at them with vinegar and baking soda, cursing. My friend Kathy, a cartoonist I know here, came over to translate, as my Thai is still terrible. An architect friend told us these were the guys who’d gone into homes after the flood waters finally fell in January, scrubbing away the two meters of fetid grime: factory runoff, decomposed fauna and flora, the rich biodiversity of mold blossoming in the greenhouse air. Turns out these guys don’t know anything about mold—“I’m not a doctor,” he says, however one says that in Thai. “I can’t figure out what’s in the air,” Kathy translates. Fantastic.
Kathy was up ’til five this morning illustrating these poems by Nick Gulig, a Thai-American guy from Wisconsin here on a Fulbright. You’d like him. Serious about poetry, funny—digs boxing and dark, folk harmonies. He’s writing these fine, strange poems—told me he’s never written about a city before living in Bangkok. Except the poems aren’t about Bangkok. He’s smart enough to let the poems unfold in an invented landscape rather than this actual place, this city that I keep trying to build into my own poems. But maybe it took being here to create the pressure necessary to let his imagination work the memory—fragments of memory—into some new reality: the poem. Hell, that’s probably not the way Nick thinks about it: but his poems remind me of something I’d forgotten, something you tried to teach me once rejigging reality in a poem.
So Mari asked me to write something about what it’s been like knowing you these past years. I keep picturing one of those poetry events where the major and minor poets of America stand up to say things like “let me tell you about Phil Levine,” or “what can I say about Philip Levine?” or “let me tell you about the Phil that I know.” The inevitable speeches that’d follow would be beautifully wrought, saccharine, obsequious—sounding as though you’re recently six feet under even though you’re sitting in the front row of the theater, bemused. I’ll try to avoid that. So, let me tell you about Phil Levine…
But what’s happening in Fresno—are you getting good writing done? How is Franny’s garden? Tell me what you’re reading—I’m still working my way through that collection of Lorca letters I found. Did he ever put on that puppet show in Grenada, the one that was going to be true and beautiful, “something of art, which we need so badly.” (This is serious business, this puppetry.)
Give my love to Franny, and give Lorraine a hug for me when you get back to Brooklyn. Anna and I are still looking for boy names if you have any kicking around the house.
Okay, I’m off to buy vinegar.
Be well, Col
A father and son pry a gravestone out of the speedwell and wood sorrel. With sponge and toothbrush, they clean earth from the rills of eroded, remnant aleph and daleth and mem that the fishtail and lettering chisels left in the stone. Around them the green light and mosquito heat stretch through the retaken wilderness ruin of the cemetery out to the encircling wall. After taking the city, the soldiers smashed the tombstones, sold the choice pieces to masons and used others as paving stones—scattering the unearthed bones. Years later, many of the pieces were dug up, gathered together. And because it was impossible to restore and make each individual memorial whole again, someone began to take these shards of names and dates and made a mosaic of this breakage, this shattered evidence of lives.
I met Phil Levine for the first time in Krakow, after a reading he gave in a synagogue at the edge of the Kazimierz, the old Jewish Quarter. I recollect only scraps of what we talked about: salt mines, Franny’s garden, Lorca. I don’t think I asked him about what I’d been thinking about all day, since the morning talk he’d given: “Writing Under the Sign of Memory.” He’d talked about his decision to leave Detroit when he was twenty six, how his friends had convinced him that there were better ways to live. “I was being exploited,” he said. But what had lingered with me was this: “My anger,” he said, “my anger was so large that I couldn’t find a technique to find my way out of it.”
This wasn’t an abstraction for him—he needed to find a practice of poetry that would allow him to write beyond his anger. He wanted to write about the world he knew, the people he’d grown up with, worked alongside. But he hadn’t yet found a way to write about this life—or, more, he hadn’t found a way to let his imagination translate these memories and experiences into a new life, a new reality as poems. “Memory is all the imagination has to work on,” he’d said, riffing on Coleridge. His memories of these men and women had only been snapshots before, he said. But then he gradually found a way to see these people “as noble as they truly were.” Only then, he said, “could I write them as Caravaggios.”
That afternoon, after my friend Lorraine and I walked, quiet, through that retaken god’s acre of cemetery, we sat inside the synagogue, inside the sphere that Phil’s poems created. As he read, I gathered in my notebook what shards of memory and poem and imagination swerved towards me:
mercy is something you can eat again and again
(German soldiers in this synagogue, their silhouettes
(my grandfather’s tweed jacket, cologne and sweat and rain
I began a career in root vegetables—
(they do not see this language as the scrawl of frightened birds
In this temple used as a stable after its congregants—bankers, writers, mothers, grandfathers, industrialists, their children—were taken to be murdered a hundred kilometers out in the countryside at Birkenau and Auschwitz, I knew that I hadn’t found it yet. I hadn’t found the technique that would allow me to shape these meanderings, impressions, snapshots I collected, harvested. I look back now and see myself full of fragments. I see myself seeking a physic that would allow these broken pieces of the world to cohere, to craft some new mosaic. Even if that mosaic left so much unanswered.
“Too much bird bird bird in the poem. Too many birds,” Phil is saying about the poem at hand: my poem.
We’re sitting around the table in a windowless room off Washington Square. Windowless: but there are portraits of poets where windows might be. Each of our faces betrays something: uncertainty, engagement, a desire to take a swing at the poem at hand.
The poem seemed to want to be about watching a friend cook dinner while she describes climbing a mountain to witness a sky burial. But things were not going well. “No, that person never felt that”—of a bit of dialogue I’d invented for this soul I’d shanghaied into the poem. “It’s damn confusing,” Phil said. “You’ve got to re-arrange the reality of the poem.”
“I want more from this speaker,” Phil says of my failing poem. I’d tried to describe a “sky burial,” the Parsi ceremony where the dead are offered to the vultures of the Himalayan plateau. But I didn’t understand what I was writing about, not quite. “You have to be pretty angry to feed someone to the birds,” Phil said, confused about what I’d described because I was confused about what I was describing. “The poem loses its anger because of the ending”—I hadn’t realized it was an angry poem.
“You need to read Hardy’s “Transformations,” he said. “Have you read that?” I hadn’t. He quoted Hardy:
So, they are not underground,
But as nerves and veins abound
In the growths of upper air
—No. I hadn’t found the technique to say whatever it was I trying to say. Not yet.
A few months later, I tried again and wrote a new poem in dialogue with the failure of this first poem: “Ars Poetica with Vulture.” While still wide-ranging, still asking the reader to shift between landscapes and images, this new poem took the difficulty of knowing as its form, its lyrical meandering shape. Writing this poem, I tried to keep in mind the last thing Phil had said about the first, failed poem in that room full of poets trying to figure out what kind of poet they wanted to be, what kind of poet we were. I’d written:
Would you want
to be given to a bird, hear creatures crating psalms
of your flesh in their bodies? This is grotesque
& beautiful, but only if you let it be.
“No,” Phil said, looking at me and then back to the poem, “that’s wrong. It’s beautiful whether or not you let it be.”
The deer was gone the next morning when we drove to my grandfather’s funeral. In the cemetery behind the church, we stood in the cold, bright winter daylight as the priest said his words. A Lieutenant Commander in the Navy presented my grandmother with the ensign. The ground was frozen: we would need to wait until spring before interring his ashes in the ground. Before we went inside, I saw two vultures circling something a ways off, above the empty deciduous trees.
“When you lose that avenue to the past,” Phil wrote me in an email after the funeral, after I’d returned to Bangkok, “it’s usually gone forever.” But poems can be a kind of wayfinding into that irrevocably lost past. They give shape to that absence: a map built of fragments. Imagination, Coleridge writes, “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate.” So perhaps fragments are all we have: of memory, yes, but also of language, of what Thoreau would call “the actual world.”
During the years I worked in New York City, building rooftop gardens, my grandfather wrote me letters full of stories about the German and Hmong immigrants he worked alongside in the hammer and ax factory outside Philadelphia. From memory, he’d draw free-hand diagrams of the the drop forges, maps of the assembly line, sketches of the antique chests of drawers, chairs, or desks he’d find abandoned in fields and try to restore: sanding them down, scrapping away layers of paint, dovetailing-in pieces of walnut or cherry to replace what had been lost, broken, or destroyed by ignorance and neglect.
Becoming a poet is discovering how to combat the destruction of language and history, the desecration of human dignity and the earth, with acts of imagination that re-cast these fragments, make a new whole. Phil Levine taught me this. He’s helped me to recognize the kind of work I do, to be patient as I learn my craft, to harness my sadness, frustration, and anger with the actual world, and try to turn it into something. He’s taught me to savage and bless the poems, the mosaics I’ve made.
After the funeral, before I fly back to Thailand, I meet Phil and Franny and Lorraine at Teresa’s, a polish restaurant in Brooklyn Heights. We order pirogies, blintzes, Żywiec, red wine. We laugh a lot. We argue about something and some of us grow quiet for a little while. I try to talk about living in Bangkok, but can’t quite find the words. Say I am trying to write an essay about the flood, the riots and fires, about the lèse majesté laws, about what you can’t say. I feel like I might be getting close to it. We talk about parents and grandparents. And we don’t talk about poems.
Before Lorraine and I walk back to the subway, I tell Phil and Franny that Anna is pregnant, that we’re having a baby in May. Phil asks whether we know if it’s a boy or girl yet. We want to wait, I say, keep it a mystery. He smiles and shakes his head, “A mystery? It’s all a mystery.”
It’s beautiful whether or not I let it be.