The Mercy: Poems

Updated June 26, 2020 | Infoplease Staff
Author: Philip Levine
Publisher: Knopf

Philip Levine is a poet for people who've forgotten poetry and slipped into the meter and cadence of 9-to-5. Refreshingly narrative, his poems tell stories. They twist around to arrive at an ending whose quiet insight sparks reevaluation of the situation from which they emerged.

The Mercy maps a blue-collar geography between Detroit and New York City, infused throughout with a muted refrain of hope. Exemplary Salt and Oil, an exquisite elegy to “Three young men in dirty work clothes,” chronicles but does not sentimentalize. Levine's gift for making simple language sing stems in part from the fact that he does not foreground intellect and allusion but instead allows “the least little daily miracle” to resonate with its own wisdom. Levine's tender portraiture is reminiscent of an Edward Hopper painting; in his democratic detail he echoes Walt Whitman.

With a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize under his belt, Levine continues to delight with this latest collection. He's like The Unknowable's jazzman on the Williamsburg Bridge, suspending Brooklyn's hard-working immigrant soul and Manhattan's vaulting ambition:

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.

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