When he gets off work at Packard, they meet
outside a diner on Grand Boulevard. He’s tired,
a bit depressed, and smelling the exhaustion
on his own breath, he kisses her carefully
on her left cheek. Early April, and the weather
has not decided if this is spring, winter, or what.
The two gaze upwards at the sky which gives
nothing away: the low clouds break here and there
and let in tiny slices of a pure blue heaven.
The day is like us, she thinks; it hasn’t decided
what to become. The traffic light at Linwood
goes from red to green and the trucks start up,
so that when he says, “Would you like to eat?”
she hears a jumble of words that mean nothing,
though spiced with things she cannot believe,
“wooden Jew” and “lucky meat.” He’s been up
late, she thinks, he’s tired of the job, perhaps tired
of their morning meetings, but when he bows
from the waist and holds the door open
for her to enter the diner, and the thick
odor of bacon frying and new potatoes
greets them both, and taking heart she enters
to peer through the thick cloud of tobacco smoke
to the see if “their booth” is available.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there were no
second acts in America, but he knew neither
this man nor this woman and no one else
like them unless he stayed late at the office
to test his famous one liner, “We keep you clean
Muscatine,” on the woman emptying
his waste basket. Fitzgerald never wrote
with someone present, except for this woman
in a gray uniform whose comings and goings
went unnoticed even on those December evenings
she worked late while the snow fell silently
on the window sills and the new fluorescent lights
blinked on and off. Get back to the two, you say.
Not who ordered poached eggs, who ordered
only toast and coffee, who shared the bacon
with the other, but what became of the two
when this poem ended, whose arms held whom,
who first said “I love you” and truly meant it,
and who misunderstood the words, so longed
for, and yet still so unexpected, and began
suddenly to scream and curse until the waitress
asked them both to leave. The Packard plant closed
years before I left Detroit, the diner was burned
to the ground in ‘67, two years before my oldest son
fled to Sweden to escape the American dream.
“And the lovers?” you ask. I wrote nothing about lovers.
Take a look. Clouds, trucks, traffic lights, a diner, work,
a wooden shoe, East Moline, poached eggs, the perfume
of frying bacon, the chaos of language, the spices
of spent breath after eight hours of night work.
Can you hear all I feared and never dared to write?
Why the two are more real than either you or me,
why I never returned to keep them in my life,
how little I now mean to myself or anyone else,
what any of this could mean, where you found
the patience to endure these truths and confessions?
Today, Philip Levine was officially named the Poet Laureate of the United States. About the appointment, the librarian of Congress James Billington said, “He’s the laureate, if you like, of the industrial heartland. It’s a very, very American voice. I don’t know that in other countries you get poetry of that quality about the ordinary workingman.”
Globally, perhaps this one-year appointment in the U.S. seems insignificant. The Nobel Prize committee—not to be confused with the U.S. Poet Laureate committee—seems to regard American literature as insignificant, anyway; they have not awarded an American with their prize since Toni Morrison, in 1993. The permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize committee, Horace Engdahl commented in 2008, “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.”
Perhaps this “ordinary workingman” of Philip Levine isn’t important globally; perhaps our lives don’t translate. But he or she—this “ordinary workingman”—needs a voice in American literature. After all, we Americans live in a world where our Congressmen can’t seem to stop bickering long enough to pass our budget and pay our citizens. Is anyone truly listening to what the common man (or woman) wants? Is anyone feeling like we are part of a nation united by our goals? Philip Levine’s poems provide the voice for the common man (woman)—and unity—that we are in short supply of. His poems provide another version of history that is personal to you and to me.
Czeslaw Milosz, 1980 Nobel Laureate from Poland, emphasized the importance of personal history:
…unless we can relate it to ourselves personally, history will always be more or less of an abstraction, and its content the clash of impersonal forces and ideas. Although generalizations are necessary to order its vast, chaotic material, they kill the individual detail that tends to stray from the schema. Doubtless every family archive that perishes, every account book that is burned, every effacement of the past reinforces classifications and ideas at the expense of reality. Afterward, all that remains of entire centuries is a kind of popular digest. And not one of us today is immune to that contagion. (qtd. in Patricia Hampl’s “Czeslaw Milosz and Memory” in I Could Tell You Stories)
Philip Levine writes poetry, not memoir. But his is our shared memory, Americans’ escape from the contagion of popular digest, so that all that remains of this half-century is not politics and money.