Philip Levine’s They Feed They Lion, from his 1972 collection of the same name, is a poem requiring multiple readings to be fully appreciated. As singular work of art and seething indictment of racism, its focus is the race riots of Detroit, also known as ‘The Great Rebellion’, occurring in July 1967.
Levine (1928-2015), a former US Poet Laureate and Pullitzer Prize winner, died in February of this year from pancreatic cancer. He has often been perceived as a Whitmanesque champion of the struggles endured by America’s manual workers, but his scope is far wider, extending across the range of social divides in American society, in all their septic injuriousness. He described They Feed They Lion as a “celebration of anger”, and indeed the poem is a harrowing depiction of gathering doom, of apocalypse, of a chaos that is unwittingly sown by ignorant and unthinking hands.
Levine’s words throb with an irate physicality, and yet he lists such portentous details as “the acids of rage, the candor of tar”, or “the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower/Of the hams the thorax of caves,” with the keen, cool eye of a court stenographer.
For me, what makes They Feed They Lion so unique is its lack of moralisation, its refusal to proffer a unified and cut-down solution to such a complex crisis. The words themselves and the horrors they describe are enough for a conclusion to be drawn.
Levine often accuses himself as being, through the lens of his own privilege and social standing, partially to blame for the cause of such unrest. Especially striking to me is the line: “From my five arms and all my hands,/From all my white sins forgiven, they feed”. He is not alone bearing witness to injustice but also admitting complicity. He too has fed an encouraged fed the growth of the eponymous lion, a signifier not of progress or a brighter future but of self-fulfilling chaos.
Nor is the poem to be read as simply a curious artefact from the literary and political past. They Feed They Lion resonates as strongly as ever in 2015 – consider the current refugee crisis, the multitudes fleeing from all manner of political turmoil seeking a better existence abroad, only to be met by drowning, traffickers, and reprehensible xenophobia of both official and unofficial hues.
The sense of gathering disaster in Levine’s poem, deployed in the rich vernacular of black America as well as the incantatory tempo of the Biblical prophets (“They lion, from my children inherit”), is, to me, one of Levine’s finest accomplishments as both a poet and a man with his eyes open wide to the injustices of the world.
They Feed They Lion by Philip Levine
Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.
Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
Out of the bones’ need to sharpen and the muscles’ to stretch,
They Lion grow.
Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
“Come home, Come home!” From pig balls,
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,
From the furred ear and the full jowl come
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose
They Lion grow.
From the sweet glues of the trotters
Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower
Of the hams the thorax of caves,
From “Bow Down” come “Rise Up,”
Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
The grained arm that pulls the hands,
They Lion grow.
From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.
Daniel Wade is a 24-year-old poet and author from Dublin. Since 2007, his energies have been geared chiefly towards poetry, although he tries to write in as wide a range of mediums as possible, including fiction, radio drama, stage plays and screenplays. His work has been previously published in in Optic, Limerick Revival, Wordlegs (e-publication), The Stony Thursday Book (ed. Paddy Bushe), HeadSpace Magazine, the Seven Towers 2014 Census, the Bray Arts Journal, The Sea (charity anthology in aid of the RNLI), Sixteen Magazine (e-publication) and the Hennessey New Irish Writers’ page of the Irish Times. In June 2015, his radio drama, The Outer Darkness, was broadcast on Dublin South FM. A prolific performer, he has also read my work at various festivals, including the Electric Picnic, Body and Soul, Noeliefest and the West Belfast Festival. He is a past graduate of Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT), where he studied English and Journalism.