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  • The Mercy
  • Written by Philip Levine
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  • The Mercy
  • Written by Philip Levine
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Written by Philip LevineAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Philip Levine


List Price: $12.99


On Sale: September 07, 2011
Pages: 96 | ISBN: 978-0-307-55788-9
Published by : Knopf Knopf
The Mercy Cover

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poetry (18)
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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.


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.
Philip Levine

About Philip Levine

Philip Levine - The Mercy

Photo © Frances Levine

Philip Levine was born in 1928 in Detroit and was formally educated there, in the public schools and at Wayne University (now Wayne State University). After a succession of industrial jobs, he left the city for good and lived in various parts of the country before settling in Fresno, California, where he taught at the state university until his retirement. For twelve autumns he served as poet in residence at New York University. He has received many awards for his books of poems, including the National Book Award in 1991 for What Work Is and the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth. In 2011 he was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States. He divides his time between Fresno, California, and Brooklyn, New York.


"Narrative poems of remarkable honesty and beauty--lines that speak softly and need not raise their voice to capture our full attention."
-- Sarah Manguso, Boston Book Review

"The Mercy is a book for the twenty-first century, revealing the diversity out of which Americans emerged and toward which we continue . . . In our rapidly changing world, we need such vision."
--Kate Daniels, Southern Review

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