#159. LAST LINES FROM TWO MASTERS. Two of the remarkable books of American poetry recently published, The Last Shift, by Philip Levine (Knopf, 2016) and Dead Man’s Float, by Jim Harrison (Copper Canyon, 2016) are the final individual collections of two poets recently deceased. Both had solid careers behind them, such as poets have in this country; it defies justice or belief that anyone could publish such books as Levine’s Sweet Will or What Work Is, or Harrison’s Songs of Unreason or Poems for Yesenin and not be famous, feted, and wealthy, but it is not ever likely to be. Pardon me while I spit bitters.
There are similarities in the men’s work: their poems wander through clusters of images and events, but everything works to effect, everything adds up, not so much in the way of logical argument but of poetic means, ending with a perfectly clinched and realized dramatic situation. Look on the works of Levine or Harrison and then at the Q.E.D. simplicity or the verbal thrashing about of most beginners (or, worse, the new commercial poetry aimed at the allowances and attention spans of unsuspecting adolescents) and you’ll see the distance between good and bad. Levine is always and everywhere an urban poet, vivid not just of the smoking industrial landscape but entirely of the people who go on within it; he is always named as a working-class poet, which gives an edge to his voice: he has never been told that what he has to say will automatically be heard or welcome. The people in his poems are working hard to pay their bills, likely drinking hard to forget them, “guys in greasy, dark wool jackets,” “women alone rising from / single beds meant for sleeping…women with men / yearning to be free of us.” Like most Americans, he is never just American, but has his family memories pulled along from his Jewish and Ukrainian past, and he is sharp on the flavors that the immigrant communities brought to working-class life. (His grandfather tells him stories of a heroic imagined dog, Tommy Doggy, who, it was known, was Jewish, as “on Shabbos he would bark only in Hebrew.”) There are other landscapes, Andalusia in particular, and natural landscapes in their city shapes: “a row of tattered Chinese elms / to shade the past year’s garbage, / a fenced-in copper beech thicker / than a sedan.” And throughout there is a glory of charged language, poetry of long experience, and, in the title piece, one of the best death poems in our literature. The Last Shift is a sustained, completing work, a fine and passionate note to go out on.
Dead Man’s Float, as with Levine’s book, completes a lot of Harrison’s themes and furthers their profusion and beauty. As aging and illness attempt to enclose him, Harrison still ventures into the world and wants us to stop wandering around in inattention. For landscapes, he has the winter winds of Michigan and the deserts around Arizona for his particulars. There is dissolution and illness, some of it remembered (“I was nineteen and mentally / infirm when I saw the prophet Isaiah.”), much of it present—the prose poem “Hospital” gets that experience down as precisely as you could ever need. His patron saints are Mandelstam, Machado and Lorca, as compared to Levine’s Neruda. Like Levine, he’s a dog man, which means that much humor creeps in. From “He Dog”: “I don’t bark at cars. They’re beneath contempt. / I bark at the rising sun when it rises / red out of a forest fire. / I bark at thunder out of pure envy, / the mighty noise this sky dog makes.” There are many flowers, and many birds (“the creature the least / like us, therefore utterly enviable.”) “A very old robin drops dead / on the lawn, a first for me. Millions / of birds die but we never see it—they like / privacy in this holy, fatal moment or so / I think.” Here is Harrison’s last work, that aging and illness have quite thoroughly failed to take captive. “Shall we gather at the river, this beautiful river?”