Book Review: Phillip Levine’s news of the world

Book Review by Matthew W Larrimore

Even with a Master’s degree in English with a concentration in poetry, I don’t always read a book of poetry from front to back, the order the author intended; something about books of poetry tempt me to explore them randomly. Sometimes, especially with excellent books, that temptation should be denied. Such is the case with the current U.S. Poet Laureate, Philip Levine’s most recent collection of poetry, news of the world.

Readers new to poetry, to Levine or who have been turned off by poetry, should know that Levine is not the typical esoteric poet whose voice and technique drives away as many readers as it attracts. Instead, Levine speaks with plain words. His points, though complex and nuanced, are easily discerned even by a novice reader of poetry. Levine’s vision of the world is intense and unwavering.

As the book progresses the themes become clearer, an ebb and flow of emotion manipulates the reader, and the narrator’s voice becomes distinct. In this his sixteenth collection of poetry, Levine masterfully constructs an entire world from the same topics he has been visiting since his first publication. Visions of concrete characters inhabiting dirty street life, performing manual labor are joined by Levine’s questioning of the American and the western way of life.

It may be surprising to some readers who are not familiar with Levine, how often he utilizes visions of the natural world to enhance his poetic vision. This is especially evident in the first section. The first poem titled Our Valley creates a pastoral scene. Set in the Pacheco Pass of California, it has an old world, last century feel, complete with a fig Orchard and references to pine trees, the ocean, and mountains. Through the description of place, Levine’s narrator questions the nature of the sleepy unconnected life envied by many. The reader may draw parallels to the lack of personal connections that defines much of modern life.  The poem ends with a stirring statement that encapsulates the questioning of life that pervades Levine’s work; it also exhibits the surprising use of natural imagery, and displays Levine’s mastery of sound and rhythm that can be witnessed throughout this stirring collection.

As the book progresses into the second section, it migrates from the nature references to explore tiny scenes from the streets of Detroit and then to the country beyond, exploring what it means to be American and later, to be human. In the final section the reader is treated to Levine’s images of Europe through explorations of themes that surround World War II before, during, and after the war.

For me one highlight is the poem During the War. I questioned the point of view from which the poem is written. It is hard to determine if the narrator is Japanese or American. I puzzled over the references to a boy of thirteen dying on Midway Island during the war, juxtaposed against his name being Michael. Here and throughout the book I believe Levine asks his reader to stretch his or her point of view beyond the expected, beyond normal and safe, if only for a minute, to consider what our fellow human beings might have experienced regardless of their identity.

There is one complaint I would make about this collection. The tone Levine uses, the voice of his narrator is so strong, so uniform, that the individuality of each poem can become lost. Levine’s characterization of the people, places, and things, tangible and abstract is so consistent, it can overwhelm the experience of the single work of poetry. The reader can remedy this easily. It is possible to read the entire volume in a single sitting, do not. Read each of the four sections separately, pausing to reflect on each. Or, subdivide the sections; read half of a section at a time. Levine’s poems are dense and sophisticated. The reader needs to take time to digest the meaning of each one.

news of the world manages to bring the reader on a trip that considers point of view in many ways. It says, “Here! Here is the world. Here is what it is like for me, for her, for them. Here is what is important.” This is a book well worth the read, if for no other reason than to have a few minutes to consider the news of the world from Levine’s perspective.

Pages: 80  ISBN: 978-0-307-27223-2  Publisher Knopf

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.