The Mercy

The Mercy

by Philip Levine

Paperback(Reprint)

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Overview

Philip Levine's new collection of poems (his first since The Simple Truth was awarded the Pulitzer Prize) is a book of journeys: the necessary ones that each of us takes from innocence to experience, from youth to age, from confusion to clarity, from sanity to madness and back again, from life to death, and occasionally from defeat to triumph. The book's mood is best captured in the closing lines of the title poem, which takes its name from the ship that brought the poet's mother to America: A nine-year-old girl travels all night by train with one suitcase and an orange. She learns that mercy is something you can eat again and again while the juice spills over your chin, you can wipe it away with the back of your hands and you can never get enough.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375701351
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/28/2000
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 96
Product dimensions: 5.68(w) x 8.91(h) x 0.24(d)

About the Author

Philip Levine was born in 1928 in Detroit, where he was formally educated in the public schools and at Wayne University (now Wayne State University). After a succession of industrial jobs, he left the country before settling in Fresno, California, where he taught at the university there until his retirement. He has received many awards for his books of poems, most recently the National Book Award in 1991 for What Work Is, and the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth.

Hometown:

Fresno, California

Date of Birth:

January 10, 1928

Place of Birth:

Detroit, Michigan

Education:

B.A., Wayne State University; M.F.A., Iowa Writers Workshop, University of Iowa

Read an Excerpt

The Unknowable

Practicing his horn on the Williamsburg Bridge hour after hour, "woodshedding" the musicians called it, but his woodshed was the world.
The enormous tone he borrowed from Hawkins that could fill a club to overflowing blown into tatters by the sea winds teaching him humility, which he carries with him at all times, not as an amulet against the powers of animals and men that mean harm or the lure of the marketplace.
No, a quality of the gaze downward on the streets of Brooklyn or Manhattan.
Hold his hand and you'll see it, hold his eyes in yours and you'll hear the wind singing through the cables of the bridge that was home,
singing through his breath--no rarer than yours,
though his became the music of the world thirty years ago. Today I ask myself how he knew the time had come to inhabit the voice of the air and how later he decided the time had come for silence,
for the world to speak any way it could?
He wouldn't answer because he'd find the question pompous. He plays for money.
The years pass, and like the rest of us he ages, his hair and beard whiten, the great shoulders narrow. He is merely a man--
after all--a man who stared for years into the breathy, unknowable voice of silence and captured the music.

The Return

All afternoon my father drove the country roads between Detroit and Lansing. What he was looking for
I never learned, no doubt because he never knew himself,
though he would grab any unfamiliar side road and follow where it led past fields of tall sweet corn in August or in winter those of frozen sheaves.
Often he'd leave the Terraplane beside the highway to enter the stunned silence of mid-September,
his eyes cast down for a sign, the only music his own breath or the wind tracking slowly through the stalks or riding above the barren ground. Later he'd come home, his dress shoes coated with dust or mud,
his long black overcoat stained or tattered at the hem, sit wordless in his favorite chair,
his necktie loosened, and stare at nothing. At first my brothers and I tried conversation, questions only he could answer: Why had he gone to war?
Where did he learn Arabic? Where was his father?
I remember none of this. I read it all later,
years later as an old man, a grandfather myself,
in a journal he left my mother with little drawings of ruined barns and telephone poles, receding toward a future he never lived, aphorisms from Montaigne, Juvenal, Voltaire, and perhaps a few of his own: "He who looks for answers finds questions."
Three times he wrote, "I was meant to be someone else,"
and went on to describe the perfumes of the damp fields.
"It all starts with seeds," and a pencil drawing of young apple trees he saw somewhere or else dreamed.

I inherited the book when I was almost seventy and with it the need to return to who we were.
In the Detroit airport I rented a Taurus;
the woman at the counter was bored or crazy:
Did I want company? she asked; she knew every road from here to Chicago. She had a slight accent,
Dutch or German, long black hair, and one frozen eye.
I considered but decided to go alone,
determined to find what he had never found.
Slowly the autumn morning warmed, flocks of starlings rose above the vacant fields and blotted out the sun.
I drove on until I found the grove of apple trees heavy with fruit, and left the car, the motor running,
beside a sagging fence, and entered his life on my own for maybe the first time. A crow welcomed me home, the sun rode above, austere and silent,
the early afternoon was cloudless, perfect.
When the crow dragged itself off to another world,
the shade deepened slowly in pools that darkened around the trees; for a moment everything in sight stopped.
The wind hummed in my good ear, not words exactly,
not nonsense either, nor what I spoke to myself,
just the language creation once wakened to.
I took off my hat, a mistake in the presence of my father's God, wiped my brow with what I had,
the back of my hand, and marveled at what was here:
nothing at all except the stubbornness of things.

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