When I heard of the death of the poet Philip Levine, I thought of his brother, Ed, who wasn’t mentioned in the New York Times front-page obit. I’d never met Ed, but I remember the way Philip talked about him. It was with love, of course, and with respect for the way Ed made a good living for himself as a businessman, a far better living than Philip, as a poet, ever could make. Still, Philip, sometimes referred to as the Poet of the Proletariat, professed that he had what he needed — a nice sport coat, a pair of pants to go with it whenever he was invited to a fancy occasion, and enough in his bank account for him and his wife to travel wherever and whenever they wanted to. In the poetry “industry,” that’s rare.
On that day in Brooklyn Heights many years ago — I interviewed him in advance of his appearance at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival — he talked too of growing up in Detroit and then going on to teach college in Fresno, California. “Yes,” he said, “Why not leave one shit hole for another.” We also talked about his poetry, of course, and specifically about his collection, The Mercy, which was the name of the ship that brought his mother to America. The opening lines of the title poem:
The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island
Eighty-three years ago was named “The Mercy.”
She remembers trying to eat a banana
without first peeling it and seeing her first orange
in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman
who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her
with a red bandana and taught her the word,
“orange,” saying it patiently over and over.
The poem reminded me about the randomness of life. What would have happened had she not been able to take The Mercy, or if the Scot had never taught he the secrets of ordinary fruit, or if much later she had drummed some sense into the twin who wanted to be a poet: “Son, poets don’t eat bananas or oranges, just cat food and noodles. So don’t follow your dream.”
Because that never happened, Philip went on to record what no one else was writing about, the gritty factory floor and its legacy, and a world view shaped by that legacy.
I still think of the night he opened the fifth season of our poetry festival in Farmington, Connecticut. It was an uncommonly brisk June evening, and when he took the podium, he wrapped a scarf around his neck and said, “Everyone here was so nice to me. They told me how to get here. They told me that there would be a large and welcoming crowd. But no one told me I’d freeze my ass off.”
I presumed at that moment that his brother Ed faced no such discomfort back in his warm and wealthy Detroit suburb.