“The problem with your poems,” Wallace Stevens is reported to have said to Robert Frost, “is that they have subjects.” This division between poetry as style and poetry as substance continues to separate and consternate literary circles. It would be hard to imagine Philip Levine’s poetry without its subjects. No other poet of his period has so fiercely and searchingly spoken for something. Most readers recognize Levine as the voice of the working-class, namely auto workers in the factories of Detroit. But he has equally claimed the landscapes of California’s central valley and Spain, as well as Spanish revolutionaries, anarchists, martyrs, and poets.
All of these subjects are present in News of the World, Levine’s 19th book of poems, but they are overshadowed by a mightier subject: time. The book opens with a magnificent evocation of “Our Valley,” where mountains are said to ‘maintain that huge silence we think of as divine.’ The word silence appears more than a dozen times throughout the collection, and many of the poems find the speaker confronting his own or someone else’s mortality. In a lovely, haunting poem called “Burial Rites,” the speaker visits his mother’s burial site and imagines his own remains next to hers, ‘a tiny me taking nothing, giving/nothing, empty, and free at last.’ But it’s not all serious business. Levine marshals a good deal of whimsy and sly humor into these poems. In the title poem, the speaker has traveled to Andorra where he discovers a shop owner who promises to supply him with anything. A wise-guy, the speaker asks about an American film star. “One hand on the unshaved cheek, he gazed upward at the dark beamed ceiling. ‘That could take a week.’
Jason Myers is a writer whose work has appeared in AGNI, BOOKFORUM, and Tin House.