Cover image for The mercy : poems
The mercy : poems
Levine, Philip, 1928-2015.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Physical Description:
viii, 81 pages ; 24 cm

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS3562.E9 M47 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Philip Levine's new collection of poems (his first sinceThe Simple Truthwas awarded the Pulitzer Prize) is a book of journeys: the necessary ones that each of us takes from innocence to experience, from youth to age, from confusion to clarity, from sanity to madness and back again, from life to death, and occasionally from defeat to triumph. The book's mood is best captured in the closing lines of the title poem, which takes its name from the ship that brought the poet's mother to America:                  A nine-year-old girl travels all night by train with one suitcase and an orange. She learns that mercy is something you can eat again and again while the juice spills over your chin, you can wipe it away with the back of your hands and you can never get enough.

Author Notes

Philip Levine was born in Detroit, Michigan on January 10, 1928. Starting at the age of 14, he held a series of industrial jobs including working in a soap factory, hefting cases of soft drinks at a bottling plant, manning a punch press at Chevrolet Gear and Axle, and operating a jackhammer at Detroit Transmission. He received bachelor's and master's degrees in English from Wayne State University and a master of fine arts from the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

His first collection of poetry, On the Edge, was published in 1961. His other poetry collections included 1933, Not This Pig, They Feed They Lion, A Walk with Tom Jefferson, The Mercy, and Breath. He won numerous awards during his lifetime including the 1977 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for The Names of the Lost, the 1979 National Book Critics Circle Award for Ashes: Poems New and Old and 7 Years from Somewhere, the 1987 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for his body of work, the National Book Award for Ashes: Poems New and Old in 1980 and for What Work Is in 1991, and a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth. He was appointed the Library of Congress 18th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry from 2011 to 2012.

His poetry appeared in several publications including The New Yorker and Harper's Magazine. He also published a collection of autobiographical essays entitled Bread of Time and edited an anthology entitled The Essential Keats. He died of pancreatic cancer on February 14, 2015 at the age of 87.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In one intense memory poem near the end of a book full of them, Levine says, with a kind of celebratory exasperation, "How ordinary it all was . . . Why can't I ever let it go?" To a reader, the answer is obvious: the midcentury moment in this and so many other poems is the focal point of Levine's life, the center of solid, blue-collar personal experience from which he looks backward to his parents' immigration and forward to his own unfolding story, which has reached old age. He seldom puts his present-day self squarely into a poem, and when he does in "The Return," he reports trying out a habit of his father's long ago, whiling away an afternoon driving "the country roads between Detroit and Lansing." Not surprisingly, he discovers "nothing at all except the stubbornness of things" --crows and apple trees and the sun, which defy human lives with their cyclical perdurability that Levine's beautiful scrutiny of the past strives to discern in his typical American life--and ours. (Reviewed March 15, 1999)0375401385Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

"Work was something that thrived on fire, that without/ fire couldn't catch its breath or hang on for life," Levine recalls of the working-class Detroit of his childhood. This 18th collection continues a career-long project of lending permanence to modern, work-governed life. Typically, Levine tirelessly uncovers "the daily round of the world,/ three young men in dirty work clothes/ on their way under a halo/ of torn clouds and famished city birds," slightly tempering a bitter reality with the steady, romantic presence of "the wind/ bringing hope in the morning/ and carrying off our exhaust / as the light goes each evening." The result is an inclusive archive of American experience sympathetically human, dramatized in his signature persona poems like "After Leviticus" and "The Evening Turned Its Back Upon Her Voice," which infuse fleeting things ("the few pale tulips and irises"; "salami cut so thin/ the light shone through the slices") with the power to shape self-awareness. While he shares with James Wright the rare ability to honor the dignity of human labor, this volume, more than the last two (The Simple Truth; What Work Is), does so to the near banishment of much else‘compelling phrasing, avoidance of the trite. There is some respite, however, at the volume's end, where an account of his mother's ocean journey to America on "The Mercy" is followed by her private funeral, in "The Secret": "you weren't/ there as you're not in this haze,/ nor in the first evening breeze." (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This is distinguished poet Levine's 18th book of poems and his first since The Simple Truth (LJ 11/1/94) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Levine's is above all, perhaps, the art that conceals art: his elegiac ruminations on his upbringing in Detroit and his ancestors and friends are so unobtrusively and cleanly made that their emotional and intellectual richness arrive almost as an aftertaste. In his search for the "nothing at all except the stubbornness of things" that lies behind memory and longing, Levine explores, with unprecedented clarity, the humility, the difficulty, and the silences of immigrant and working-class life in America. His work, like the mercy of the title poem, "is something you can eat again and again...and you can never get enough." Highly recommended.ÄGraham Christian, Andover-Harvard Theological Lib., Cambridge, MA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The Unknowable Practicing his horn on the Williamsburg Bridge hour after hour, "woodshedding" the musicians called it, but his woodshed was the world. The enormous tone he borrowed from Hawkins that could fill a club to overflowing blown into tatters by the sea winds teaching him humility, which he carries with him at all times, not as an amulet against the powers of animals and men that mean harm or the lure of the marketplace. No, a quality of the gaze downward on the streets of Brooklyn or Manhattan. Hold his hand and you'll see it, hold his eyes in yours and you'll hear the wind singing through the cables of the bridge that was home, singing through his breath--no rarer than yours, though his became the music of the world thirty years ago. Today I ask myself how he knew the time had come to inhabit the voice of the air and how later he decided the time had come for silence, for the world to speak any way it could? He wouldn't answer because he'd find the question pompous. He plays for money. The years pass, and like the rest of us he ages, his hair and beard whiten, the great shoulders narrow. He is merely a man-- after all--a man who stared for years into the breathy, unknowable voice of silence and captured the music. Excerpted from The Mercy: Poems by Philip Levine All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.