Breath by Philip Levine

Breath by Philip Levine seems to function mostly as a narrative—it is, essentially, a snapshot of the author’s life. His poems have a straightforward form that generally doesn’t break into stanzas; this structure gives the entire book a very “prosey” feel. Because of this simplistic form, line is very important in the book and Levine uses it to bring meaning to the poems. Some of the themes that come up in the book include Levine’s hometown and state—Detroit, Michigan. The location is important to the continuous references the poet makes to the industry and factories, particularly those relating to automobiles. Levine plays a lot with the past, and contrasts it with the present in a few of his poems. His frequent mention of different Uncles and the names of people in his past, bring the reader to an awareness of the importance of history in the book. This is reinforced by the references to WWII, which transport the reader to the time period about which Levine is speaking. One other recurring image in the book is that of winter, and snow. The book seems to stay in the same season throughout its entirety—these descriptions of cold and winter set the overall tone of the book. I really enjoyed Breath, mostly I think because the poet appeared to know himself so well; his introspective maturity was extremely apparent throughout the poems. With its basic form and striking images, Levine’s book was a compelling read.

One of my favorite poems in the book is “A View of Home,” mostly because of its striking imagery. The poem deals with the industrial yards of Detroit in a thoroughly depressing way—a few images that stood out to me include “ore boats beached and fuming,” “satanic stove factory,” and “our river/ is salted with blown truck tires,/ nonunion organizers, dead carp/ floating silver side up…” (Levine 27). Levine’s use of alliteration highlights the dirtiness and general gloominess of the city, but perhaps the most foreboding image in the poem is that of the speaker’s great-uncle who is leaving Detroit to “die for good/ Czar Nicholas” (27). Although Levine makes no further mention of this simple, fatalistic comment in the poem, the continuing dismal imagery sets an appropriate tone. By mentioning the native homeland of the family, Levine also forces the reader to remember the history of the characters in the book. I feel like the point of the poem was really to highlight the irony of the great-uncle’s bliss and excitement about his return to Russia by surrounding it with truly depressing images of the city he was escaping. Levine seems to be commenting that the true tragedy of the poem is not the miserable conditions existing in industrial Detroit, but the seemingly pointless death of his oblivious great-uncle.

One other work that I thought represented Levine’s general attitude in the book is “The Great Truth,” a poem about a semi-permanent “uncle” of the author. Once again, the work is characterized by its imagery, although it reads more like prose than “A View of Home.” The main focus of the poem is Levine’s memories of his Uncle Nate—it has a very reflective tone. The concept of the past is a huge part of this work, of course, and a distinction between an earlier memory and current sentiment is separated in the work by an indented stanza break. The poem is another that mentions Detroit industry and the brutality of the city. One of my favorite images is the description of Uncle Nate’s return from prison: “[he] took a murderous night job in the forge room/ at Cadillac…”(8). The use of the word “murderous” is ironic and very effective. Levine’s word choice in “The Great Truth” stands out as one of the most successful parts of the poem, along with Levine’s compelling depiction of character. As the reflection in the first half of the work moves into a more somber realization of present-day, the implications of Uncle Nate’s role in the author’s life and consequent impressions on his person become devastatingly apparent. The final lines of the poem seem to sum up its general message: “Up ahead of what little I could see of sky/ lightened as though urging me toward something/ waiting for me more than half a century, some/ great truth to live by now that it was too late/ to live in the world other than I do.” (9).

Despite its somber themes and overall gray imagery, Breath is inspiring in that it captures the remarkable past of the author in a strikingly beautiful way. The stark images of Detroit in the 1940’s bring the reader to an inescapable place where he or she cannot resist being overtaken by Levine’s art. Breath is a truly successful and mature book.