Poems of Detroit by Philip Levine

Detroit Book Depository

It’s embarrassing to admit as a poet, but I hadn’t read a lot of Philip Levine’s poetry before moving to the Detroit area. And even then, I discovered it incidentally. Yet Philip Levine’s poetry about Detroit proved welcome reading to a newcomer trying to uncover what this scarred and divided city is all about.

Levine wrote the style of poetry that I aspire to. His poetry is visceral. It provides a glimpse into the heart of a working-class Detroiter, and gives us a tremendous understanding of what sense of place. His poetry transports you to a moment in time, generally a moment in time somewhere in Detroit. I invite you to read a few of these poems from Philip Levine from The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry:

Rain Downriver

It has been raining now since
long before dawn, and the windows
of the Arab coffee house of Delray
are steamed over and no one looks
in or out. If I were on my way
home from the great chemical plant
on a bus of sodden men, heads rolling
with each swerve or lurch, I would get
off just here by the pale pink temple
and walk slowly the one block back
and swing open the doors on blue smoke
and that blurred language in which two
plus two means the waters of earth
have no end or beginning. I would sit
down at an empty table and open
a newspaper in which the atoms
of each meaningless lie are weighed
and I would order one bitter cup
and formally salute the ceiling,
which is blue like heaven but is
coming down in long bandages
revealing the wounds of the last rain.
In this state, which is not madness
but Michigan, here in the suburbs
of the City of God, rain brings back
the gasoline we blew in the face
of creation and sulphur which will not
soften iron or even yellow rice.
If the messenger entered now
and called out, You are my people!
the tired waiter would waken and bring
him a coffee and an old newspaper
so that he might read in the wrong words
why the earth gives us each day
and later brings darkness to hide
what we did with it. Rain in winter
began first in the mind of God
as only the smallest thought,
but as the years passed quietly
into each other leaving only
the charred remains of empty hands
and the one glass that never overflowed
it came closer like the cold breath
of someone who has run through snow
to bring you news of a first birth
or to give you his abrupt, wet blessing
on the forehead. So now I go back
out into it. From a sky I can no longer see, the fall of evening
glistens around my shoulders that
also glisten, and the world is mine.

Belle Isle, 1949

We stripped in the first warm spring night
and ran down into the Detroit River
to baptize ourselves in the brine
of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles,
melted snow. I remember going under
hand in hand with a Polish highschool girl
I’d never seen before, and the cries
our breath made caught at the same time
on the cold, and rising through the layers
of darkness into the final moonless atmosphere
that was this world, the girl breaking
the surface after me and swimming out
on the starless waters towards the lights
of Jefferson Ave. and the stacks
of the old stove factory unwinking.
Turning at last to see no island at all
but a perfect calm dark as far
as there was sight, and then a light
and another riding low out ahead
to bring us home, ore boats maybe, or smokers
walking alone. Back panting
to the gray coarse beach we didn’t dare
fall on, the damp piles of clothes,
and dressing side by side in silence
to go back where we came from.

Sweet Will

The man who stood beside me
34 years ago this night fell
on to the concrete, oily floor
of Detroit Transmission, and we
stepped carefully over him until
he wakened and went back to his press.

It was Friday night, and the others
told me that every Friday he drank
more than he could hold and fell
and he wasn’t any dumber for it
so just let him get up at his
own sweet will or he’ll hit you.

“At his own sweet will,” was just
what the old black man said to me,
and he smiled the smile of one
who is still surprised that the dawn
graying the cracked and broken windows
could start us all to singing in the cold.

Stash rose and wiped the back of his head
with a crumpled handkerchief and looked
at his own blood as though it were
dirt and puzzled as to how
it got there and then wiped the ends
of his fingers carefully one at a time

the way the mother wipes the fingers
of a sleeping child, and climbed back
on his wooden soda-pop case to
his punch press and hollered at all
of us over the oceanic roar of work,
addressing us by our names and nations–

“Nigger, Kike, Hunky, River Rat,”
but he gave it a tune, an old tune,
like “America The Beautiful.” And he danced
a little two-step and smiled showing
the four stained teeth left in the front
and took another suck of cherry brandy.

In truth it was no longer Friday,
for night had turned to day as it
often does for those who are patient,
so it was Saturday in the year of ’48
in the very heart of the city of man
where your Cadillac cars get manufactured.

In turht all those people are dead,
they have gone up to heaven singing
“Time on My Hands” or “Begin the Beguine,”
and the Cadillacs have all gone back
to earth, and nothing that we made
that night is worth more than me.

And in truth I’m not worth a thing
what with my feet and my two bad eyes
and my one long nose and my breath
of old lies and my sad tales of men
who let the earth break them back,
each one, to dirty blood or bloody dirt.

Not woth a thing! Just like it was said
at my magic birth when the stars
collided and fire fell from great space
into great space, and people rose one
by one from cold beds to tend a world
that runs on and on at its own sweet will.

Image Source: Just Close Your Eyes

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