On Sunday, I was lucky enough to snag a last minute ticket to the New Yorker Festival event, ‘Poets Read Their Work’, featuring Michael Dickman, Jorie Graham, Terrance Hayes, Philip Levine and Tracy K. Smith. I was there for Smith, whose work in Life on Mars I have previously raved about. It’s transcendent. And yet, possibly because of the heights of my expectation, I ended up being blown away more by the other poets.
I had heard of Terrance Hayes, and read one or two of his poems, but the others were a mystery. More’s the shame. I can’t wait to buy their books. Well, I can’t wait until I have the money to buy their books, especially Levine’s, because he was a revelation. A small old man with a wiry moustache, and silver hair flecked with black, he read third. I remember wondering what he’d sound like; his hands were trembling, and he didn’t get up and stand at the podium like the others had. Said he was afraid he’d pitch over into the second row.
Given this, I thought his voice might be soft, that I might have to strain to hear him, but I was wrong; his voice was strong, with a rasp and gravel to it that is wonderful to listen to and which also adds a layer of authenticity to the often workaday subject matter of his poems. At least, of the ones I’ve read since then, and of those I heard him deliver. I don’t mean to say his poetry is ordinary; it isn’t. You can read one which is simplicity itself, elevated to great heights with his succinct lines, his understated musicality, and you can read one rough as rocks, rough as hell, rough as Detroit which hits you square in the gut – in the feels, as my generation would likely say.
I had planned to share Terrance Hayes poem ‘Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy’, which is utterly gorgeous and absolutely worthwhile reading, until I came across the poem ‘What Work Is’ when I was binge-reading all I could about Mr. Levine, and found myself nearly in tears by the end. Holding them back, just barely. Don’t take that as a slight. Nearly in tears. Honestly, I’m always holding them back. I’m so practiced at it, that I sometimes struggle to simply cry, which is a tragedy I’d love to undo – a scar I’d love to unstitch. So, to have anything bring tears to my eyes is a beautiful thing, even if I only hold them briefly, then blink them back.
This poem made me think about my brother, and miss him so fiercely it was an actual shock to my system. Mostly because my brother is an idiot. I love him dearly. He’ll never say no to me if what I ask is within his ability to give, but somehow, the scars – there’s that word again, I am riddled with them – of childhood and adolescence still linger over our relationship. And so when I think of him, my first thought is not of love, not usually, but closer to irritation. An irritation laced with affection. Ah, he’s such a fuckhead, such a baffoon, what am I saying, but I love him anyway, and I always will. When I read this poem, I was buffeted by everything I have ever thought and felt about him, by the insane bond only brothers can have.
Such was its power, it has redrawn the lens through which I view him, and everything. I fucking love this poem for that, and Levine too. If I ever get to meet the man, I’m going to give him a hug. A big old man hug. If you’re interested in reading more about him, too, check out this fantastic interview he did with the Paris Review. But enough rambling, here, see for yourself what I’m talking about, and since it’s a short poem I’ll post it here, too.
What Work Is by Philip Levine