News of the World

Philip Levine
  • Review
By – August 26, 2011
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.

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