Literary Criticism

Mark Levine’s “Unemployment” Poems

The July/August ’12 issue of POETRY features three new poems by Mark Levine, each entitled “Unemployment.” These poems are essentially all of a piece, and the mood recalls the mystic interiors Levine explored in his first three collections, Debt, Enola Gay and The Wilds. But where assumed personas often dominated his stagecraft, the persona in the “Unemployment” seems very real, subverted by and subservient to the emotional environment in which he now finds himself exposed. Doubtlessly, this has enhanced the beauty of the expression in these poems. Mr. Levine likes the fine points of composition and is a skilled technician, and his craft shows much refinement in the “Unemployment” poems. The metaphors are like cairns in the narrative, extremely suggestive and moving, and the emotional track of the poems becomes ever more wrenching as we move from No. 1 to No. 3. Of course, the apparent theme of the poems plays upon the present financial malaise that has left many Americans actually unemployed. But the “unemployed” poet is his persona and something more is at stake. Levine’s last book, The Wilds, received a poor review from none other than America’s preeminent organ of poetry, POETRY, and one cannot help think that these poems were in part a response. Here, unemployment is a psychological state, a feeling of not being able to move purposefully in one’s desired “calling” because of a sense that one’s talents are not good enough and therefore not desired by the outside world. The individual American caught up in the jaws of something he does not understand, where he or she is no longer wanted, becomes an emblem for the poet. In Levine’s case, it is the threat of not being able to do the thing he most loves. Yet, as we move through the poems, Mr. Levine also finds unemployment a fulcrum for his defiance of the status quo, his own personal “occupy” moment, which galvanizes the writing at the same time he feels the world turn its cold shoulder.

The poet begins “Unemployment(1),” “I had a calling./I took the call./ It was all I could do to follow the voice streaming into me/Like traffic on the runway where I lay/to gather.” The irresistible calling of the poet, which involves a very public act of exposure at great personal sacrifice, is painfully blunted by the growing perception that his art is not being accepted. To hear the “geese bleat/In the firmament” and fly into the “jet’s jets,” which would otherwise be a hackneyed modernist figuration for the clash between nature and technology, is here made to stand for the fate of poets who follow the herd into the modern poetry machine, ultimately resulting in a fall from grace. We, therefore, see that Mr. Levine employs a succession of symbols to illustrate the tension between the modern poetry machine that he resists (“I could have fallen too”) and the poet’s perception of his current place in the scheme of things (“sutured to the bottomless/Freeze-out lake”). He finds himself embittered by his reaction to criticism, which he characterizes as insensitive (“For at the moment I am employed counting the holes/In the sound absorbing tiles/Keeping a running record of the interlocutor’s/Chides”). Such “employment” is the poet’s cruel joke at his present circumstances, but even this shows the undefeated spirit. The figuration may be synonymous with the condemned, but he is one poet who will not serve in the heaven that the modern poetry machine contrives to create. So much so that the end of “Unemployment(1)” is very dark: “I feel at one with extinction/By my own hand/(Inner hand).” A virtual suicide doing what he loves. Although he has every right to identify with any generation of poets whose rebellion and originality were their distinction, he now finds himself among a very few poets of this kind, and his self-doubt painfully emanates with the words: “or perhaps/It felt that way.”

“Unemployment(2)” continues the theme of alienation, where the poet feels at an impasse in a world turned upside down, so that the implied optimism of a To Do List is now a “Not to do list.” Certainly, Mr. Levine invokes Gregor Samsa as a kindred spirit (“I was rambling across the undercarpeting/Strewn with imperceptible tacks/In one shapeless slip-on”), and he clearly says he is unable to manage another evolution of the soul (as Wallace Stevens described it in “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”) in the service of otherwise prescriptive art (“I haven’t another trip around the sun/Left in me.”). He likens the sound of his misery to mulish “braying” (not praying), where neither god nor man intercedes (“But who should answer but no one”). Interestingly, in “Unemployment(2),” when the poet addresses the reader-audience (but perhaps it is himself or his progeny) as “Son of mine” and “Speak to me/Son, vague one,” a familiar and entreating tone transforms what otherwise might be taken for a bitter complaint into an effort to explain himself more clearly. In so doing, Mr. Levine involves the reader in the dilemma faced by artists, where there is a tendency to pigeon-hole creative artists within a school or type so that they may be more easily recognized. But that sort of type-casting is problematic in that it asks the poet to assume a style of poetic dress that ultimately is inappropriate: “Let us sit a bit in this ill-starred/Suit in the form-filling/Chamber of subtraction/Listing”). For a creative soul, the act of conforming to the “form-filling/Chamber of subtraction” is a surrendering of all individuality in service to the expectations of modern readers (and critics) that the author shrink the footprint of his soul (his creative self) in order to cravenly secure some kind of common acceptance. Although, he implicitly understands (even as he recalcitrantly would reject) that the public nature of his art involves a certain rapprochement, the rhetorical question (“Speak to me/Son, vague one. For this is where it thickens. . .) is more a statement of his impossible position in the accepted scheme (“Me here and it there and me there and them here/And you with the soul”). But when he leaps the morbid conventions, so fertile to common poets, he does so with an original flair (“I’ll cross that gravid boneyard/All the day poking/Radishes for remembrance”), for his art must remain one of personal discretion (“For this is a private matter/Between a man and his scaffolding/And it shall remain so/Privation permitting”). Here privation, an economic hurdle, is also the thing that drives us toward poetry. The bold assertion of his personal right to his art dispels any suggestion that Levine is a loser.

In this way, unemployment becomes a state of mind in which the poet’s restless spirit has flown to a freedom of sorts, just as the material aspects of his existence remain earthbound, as indicated in the opening lines to “Unemployment (3),” “Out of cash, out of well-fitting trousers,/. . . out of my keeper’s/Reach,” as the poet refuses to accept an assigned role, perhaps to the detriment of material gain, and ends with successive images of defiance (“I wish to set myself afire/But may not,” with “fire” doing double duty as an analogue for the poet’s inspiration, as well as the complex between self-immolation and phoenix-like renewal). The creative act is destructive insofar as it supplants the given order with a new one. Levine marks his desire for recognition and yet wants no part of it if he has to demand it (“And I would not sit down, demanding/To do so”); he will not play the boor just to get attention. Yet the poem is just this sort of cri de coeur. The most heartrending images of his dilemma are the final lines in “Unemployment (3). After encountering a master musician (i.e., another poet), he states: “I sat beside him, looking for a sound/A chest sound. Not listening; I don’t listen/Anymore. I make music/But I don’t listen.” The dilemma is in the disorientation wrought by the experience of making art. The creative artist, in making music (poetry), must exclude the “listening” that would deter him from the creative act. By the same token, not listening implies the inability to appreciate the beauty of one’s own art as well. Mr. Levine could be the deaf Beethoven or another cawing black crow; he doesn’t seem to know for sure.

Once upon a time a plaintive John Lennon sang in Strawberry Fields, “No one I think is in my tree, I mean I must be high or low.” In such words one of the greatest composers in the history of popular music doubted his own genius. Mr. Levine has accomplished a similar transcendence here. By giving this skeletal view of the poem, I certainly have eviscerated its elemental beauty. This evocative piece, so astutely written, is attuned to the interior dialogue that is resonating within the hearts and minds of so many of us today. We can only hope that Mr. Levine develops this concept and shows us the way from Inferno to Paradiso.

© Steven M. Critelli 2012


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