my name, no longer a portion
of me, no longer inflated
or bruised, no longer stewing
in a rich compost of memory
or the simpler one of bone, kitty-
litter, the roots of the eucalyptus
I planted back in '73,
a tiny me taking nothing, giving
nothing, empty, free at last.
--Philip Levine, "Burial Rites" (from News of the World; New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011) Photo: Detroit Jewish News.
Philip Levine, who died on Valentine's Day, was born in Detroit to immigrant Russian Jewish parents, and wrote poetry while he held various blue collar jobs, including working the night shift at the Chevrolet Gear and Axle plant. He later taught at Fresno State University in California, won a Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards, and was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2011 through 2012. After he retired from teaching, he divided his time between California and my neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights, which he came to consider his real home. In the Cortland Review video clip below, which I embedded in a Brooklyn Heights Blog post in November of 2013, he walked around the neighborhood and talked about what inspired him.
Addendum: his Heights neighbor, Michael Bourne, remembers him fondly:
It was pelting rain in Brooklyn and I was out with my son, then about four, headed to the grocery store. Directly across the street, I saw a lanky elderly man, his iron-gray hair matted with rain, on the top step of his stoop, banging on the front door of his brownstone and shouting up at the third-floor window to be let in. It was the poet Philip Levine. I had seen him around the neighborhood for years, and may have even waved to him the way one does to familiar-looking strangers, but now I recognized him because just a couple weeks before his picture had been in the paper when he was appointed the nation’s Poet Laureate.Full story here.