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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Number 45: Philip Levine "They Feed They Lion"

They Feed They Lion

Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.

Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
Out of the bones' need to sharpen and the muscles' to stretch,
They Lion grow.

Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
"Come home, Come home!" From pig balls,
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,
From the furred ear and the full jowl come
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose
They Lion grow.

From the sweet glues of the trotters
Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower
Of the hams the thorax of caves,
From "Bow Down" come "Rise Up,"
Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
The grained arm that pulls the hands,
They Lion grow.

From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.

--Philip Levine

Hap Notes: Philip Levine (born 1928) grew up in a working class home in Detroit, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. He often speaks in his poetry of his jobs in the auto industry or his brother's job at the ice plant (his poem "You Can Have It" addresses this.) But this poem is about the distilling anger of the working man and, most specifically, the African-American working/lower class.

Levine said he wrote this poem in response to the 1967 Detroit Riot. The riot started after a police raid of an after-hours bar, street slang called an establishment like this a "blind pig." Confrontations with patrons and observers evolved into a 5-day riot that left 43 dead, 467 injured and resulted in 7,200 arrests and 2,000 buildings destroyed. LBJ sent in army troups to quell the disturbance. The only riot that exceeds this one is the 1992 L.A. Riot after the Rodney King verdicts. Levine calls the poem a "celebration of anger."

The poem smolders like tinder from the open stanzas- a litany of the oppressed, the poor, the over-worked working man living in the detritus of an industrial society. The poem builds as the refrain repeats, "They lion grow." The loose prosody of the poem allows you to think of the phrase as "their lion grows" and "They, lion, grow." Levine's use of what some would call Ebonics is from poetic admiration. He's not making fun of this clause, he's honoring it for its meaning, scansion and force.

By the end of the poem the smoldering is about to flare out into explosions of flame and pent-up anger. The narrator is revealed as a white man who understands the reasons for the impending flow of anger and violence.

Breaking off briefly to say here that Ebonics and the various other phonological American English dialect varieties are a wonderful and spirited expression of our melting pot culture. Our language has so many foreign words and expressions in it we come closer to being Esperanto all the time. Have you ever read the Gullah New Testament? It's a powerful and wondrous thing. I am 14th generation American, both my grandmother's and my grandfather's people were here in the late 1600s from England (that's right- we probably were stupid with the Native Americans-it's shameful)- you are more than likely my distant cousin if your family has been here longer than one generation. I am doubtful that your original American ancestors spoke English. I love the way America takes in every culture and enjoys and celebrates it- yours, too, but not only yours. I am happily amazed by the varieties of words and slang and accents we have- it's world treasure chest of phrases and words and sounds. If you want to speak and read strictly the King's English I suggest you move to England. Do it soon. Please. (Will now get off soapbox.)

Levine got his degree by taking night school at Wayne State while he worked at an auto plant. He later studied poetry at the University of Iowa with Robert Lowell and John Berryman. Levine said Berryman was a brilliant teacher. Levine also admitted in an interview several years ago that he never paid for the class, he couldn't afford it, he just showed up every day. Berryman often commented on how Levine was left off the roles and Levine usually made some comment about bureaucratic snafus at the college and Berryman accepted this answer. Levine has won a National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

Levine was strongly influenced by the work of Thomas Hardy, William Butler Yeats and William Carlos Williams. Levine is somewhat of a storyteller in his poems and while some of his poetry is autobiographical be aware that he is telling you a story and it's not always actually about him. For example, in the poems where he talks about his sister- he didn't have a sister. His many characters speak but they are not all personally confessional in nature.

Here's a Levine quote which may help you with the poem a bit:

"I was working alongside a guy in Detroit -- a black guy named Eugene -- when I was probably about twenty-four. He was a somewhat older guy, and we were sorting universal joints, which are part of the drive-shaft of a car. The guy who owned the place had bought used ones, and we were supposed to sort the ones that could be rebuilt and made into usable replacement parts from the ones that were too badly damaged. So we spread them out on the concrete floor, and we were looking at them carefully, because we were the guys who'd then do the job of rebuilding them. We had two sacks that we were putting them in -- burlap sacks -- and at one point Eugene held up a sack, and on it were the words "Detroit Municipal Zoo." And he laughed, and said, "They feed they lion they meal in they sacks." That's exactly what he said! And I thought, This guy's a genius with language. He laughed when he said it, because he knew that he was speaking an English that I didn't speak, but that I would understand, of course. He was almost parodying it, even though he appreciated the loveliness of it. It stuck in my mind, and then one night just after the riots in Detroit -- I'd gone back to the city to see what had happened -- somehow I thought of that line. "There's a poem there," I said. "But I don't know what it is. And I'm just going to walk around for a couple of days and see what accumulates."

You can find more Levine here:

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