Pushcart 2015: Philip Levine, “Albion” (Poetry) from Threepenny Review, #132

Map of the Lower Mississippi's evolving floodplains, from cartographer Harold Fisk's 1944 report, Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River.

Map of the Lower Mississippi’s evolving floodplains, from cartographer Harold Fisk’s 1944 report, Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River.

On narrow roads twisting
between the farms, if farms
these were and not fallow
fields set off by stone walls
too low to keep anything
in or out.

What business do I have posting about poetry, any poetry, let alone the work of a former US Poet Laureate? That my feeds were flooded with sorrows and tributes last February upon his death intimidates me further: Can I do him justice? No, I can’t, but I’ve admitted all along I have no idea what I’m doing. This is my classroom; this is how I’m learning. So I hope Mr. Levine will understand, and his many admirers will not take offense, should I get it wrong. But while my expertise and knowledge may be insufficient, I had some very strong impressions as I read this poem (available online, thank you, Threepenny Review).

The first was what seemed like multiple references to Robert Frost. A stone wall, birch trees, the word “undergrowth”. Granted, none of those things are so unusual. But the wall is “too low to keep anything in or out”; the undergrowth “separated us”; and the birch tree, paired with sycamores, calling to mind not a Frost poem, but a quotation from an included in one of his early collections: “Zaccheus he did climb the tree our lord to see”.

That was forty years ago
or more. We were still
young or young enough,
and new to the adventure,
so of course we kept going,…

All of these appear in the first half of the poem, which, by the way, is the second thing I noticed: what seems to me like a clear division into the first 30 lines, recounting a memory, and the second 30 lines, reconsidering that memory in light of greater experience gained since then. I’m probably overreaching, but I wonder if there’s a looking back at a poetic life itself, a muse – an escape, an elevated perspective, via birches and the sycamore – a lifelong companion.

I also notice some microrhythms and line breaks. It’s interesting I’ve been noticing these details so much this year; maybe I’m just stuck on the concrete, it’s a phase I’m going through as a result of too many poetry classes and not enough poetry. Pretty much any text can be seen in a pattern – I did quite a con job in college on the fig tree dream segment of The Bell Jar to get through an assignment on rhythm – and I don’t have the experience to tell the difference between coincidence, sophistry, and authentic nuance. Still, the phrase “stone walls” does have a spondaic meter that sounds like a stone wall, and adding “too low” to that just emphasizes it over four beats. I also like that the undergrowth that separated us is hyphenated via line break.

I can’t recall how long we
stood there nailed to the spot,
hand in hand, expectant,
as though anything
could tell us where we were.

Then there’s the multiple reading of those lines. “As though anything could tell us” has both a negative sense – a sarcastic, “sure, like anything could do that” sense – and a more positive sense: hold your breath, pay attention, because it could be anything, the slightest little detail, that could have meaning. I can’t help but assume the phrasing was chosen deliberately to show how easy it is to turn things around, to see ourselves as lost when we’re just waiting. And to mark the different perspectives: forty years ago, youth saw the expectant meaning; now age, burdened with the futility of many lost expectations, nevertheless admires and perhaps envies the naïveté it once possessed.

And again, that theme I wondered about with the first story: looking forward and back at the same time (we look forward in youth, back in old age, but can we do a bit more of both at all times?) and the human capacity to interpret reality in different ways, depending on one’s inclination. Can anything tell us where we are? Because right now (always, really, but now is where we are always most likely to get lost), I think we really need to know.

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