Not This Pig – Philip Levine
As far as titles for books of poetry go, Not This Pig could very well be one of my favorites. I picked up a couple Philip Levine books after he recently became the new Poet Laureate of the United States. This was the first book I received a few months back and I’ve had the pleasure of reading through it a number of times. Levine has an uncanny ability to write poetry that doesn’t just demand to be read, but demands to be read aloud. Early in the collection with the poem “In A Grove Again” I found myself doing just that. The opening stanza describes how “We stand in a grove where it’s not snowing/ with snow in our hair and on the tops of our shoes/ and along the life of the boughs that bring/ forth the blossoms of snow.” The speaker for a majority of these poems is almost never alone. He is experiencing these instances with others and, sometimes, with the reader of the poem as well. “Who are you?” accomplishes the latter. In this poem, the speaker places the reader into the role of his six-year-old son.
The realizations that come through some of the poems are surprising in their ability to grasp towards some ultimate truth in a seemingly common or mundane situation. Two poems stood out to me as demonstrating this ability. “To a Child Trapped in a Barber Shop” is a brief coming of age poem describing a kid’s first trip to the barber. The speaker of the poem identifies with the child saying, “We’ve all been here before” and culminates in the brief line towards the end of the poem stating simply “we stopped crying.” The other poem, “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives,” is where the title of the collection is derived. The poem is written from the perspective of a pig walking towards the slaughterhouse. It begins humorously with the pig taking pride in his “massive buttocks slipping/ like oiled parts with each light step,” but transitions as the pig shows he knows where he is headed. The tension of the poem rises as it nears the end as the pig notices that the person herding him towards his death shows worries that the pig may put up a fight. The poem though ends with a stark refusal to fight the fate he has been handed by consumers stating “No. Not this pig.”
All that said, there were a few poems that were overly weird or just confusing. I always have a hard time following poems that go on for pages and “Silent in America” does just that. It’s a speedbump to the collection and drew me out of my enjoyment. There are also several poems that seem to deal with rape and odd sexual content. In “The Morning After the Storm” it was hard to tell if the speaker of the poem had raped someone or not. The two other sexual poems were just very weird. One “The Midget” seemed to be about running into a drunk little person that tries to offer sex to the speaker of the poem for no apparent reason. “Baby Villon” also has some slight sexual tension that feels just out of place.
All that aside though, the good far outweighs the occasional hiccups of some hard to follow poems. If you are into reading poems that have nice concrete messages that are truly surprising in their simplicity it would be worth your time to give this one a read.
3/4 – Worth checking out