Saturday, November 17, 2007

Tribute to Poet Philip Levine, 80th Birthday

The first real snow landed yesterday, a key element Vermont's November magic: a mingling of deer hunting season, bare tree limbs, and winter white that arrives for a day, makes the animal tracks easy to follow for a few hours, and vanishes a day later, with a wild gray promise to return in quantity. Who could long to be anywhere else at this season?

But if you're near New York, or have a yen to zip into the city for a taste of holiday festivities, here's a solid poetic reason to be there:

PHILIP LEVINE 80th BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION (courtesy of Random House)

If you're in New York City on Thursday, November 29, 2007, don't miss a special 80th birthday tribute and reading featuring Philip Levine with Kate Daniels, E. L. Doctorow, Edward Hirsch, Galway Kinnell, Yusuf Komunyakaa, Malena Mörling, Sharon Olds, Tom Sleigh, Gerald Stern, Jean Valentine, and Charles Wright.

Philip Levine was born in Detroit and is the author of 16 collections of poetry, most recently Breath. His other books include The Simple Truth, which won the Pulitzer Prize; What Work Is, which won the National Book Award; The Names of the Lost; Ashes: Poems New and Old and 7 Years From Somewhere, both of which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is the distinguished Poet-in-Residence in the Creative Writing Program at NYU.

Co-sponsored with the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center, the Academy of American Poets, Cave Canem Foundation, Cooper Union, Knopf, Poets House, Society of America and Poets & Writers.

The details in a nutshell:

Philip Levine 80th Birthday Tribute
Thursday, November 29th, 7:00pm
Great Hall, Cooper Union, East 7th Street
Free and Open to the Public

Here's one of my favorite Levine poems, as different as possible from Vermont's photo imagery -- and yet, the one time I met Levine was here in the Green Mountains.

Coming Close
by Philip Levine

Take this quiet woman, she has been
standing before a polishing wheel
for over three hours, and she lacks
twenty minutes before she can take
a lunch break. Is she a woman?
Consider the arms as they press
the long brass tube against the buffer,
they are striated along the triceps,
the three heads of which clearly show.
Consider the fine dusting of dark down
above the upper lip, and the beads
of sweat that run from under the red
kerchief across the brow and are wiped
away with a blackening wrist band
in one odd motion a child might make
to say No! No! You must come closer
to find out, you must hang your tie
and jacket in one of the lockers
in favor of a black smock, you must
be prepared to spend shift after shift
hauling off the metal trays of stock,
bowing first, knees bent for a purchase,
then lifting with a gasp, the first word
of tenderness between the two of you,
then you must bring new trays of dull
unpolished tubes. You must feed her,
as they say in the language of the place.
Make no mistake, the place has a language,
and if by some luck the power were cut,
the wheel slowed to a stop so that you
suddenly saw it was not a solid object
but so many separate bristles forming
in motion a perfect circle, she would turn
to you and say, "Why?" Not the old why
of why must I spend five nights a week?
Just, "Why?" Even if by some magic
you knew, you wouldn't dare speak
for fear of her laughter, which now
you have anyway as she places the five
tapering fingers of her filthy hand
on the arm of your white shirt to mark
you for your own, now and forever.

From What Work Is by Philip Levine, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

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