THEY FEED THEY LION
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.
Philip Levine’s They Feed They Lion
It's no wonder that the Bible is a storytelling masterpiece. The use of literary techniques, such as anaphora (repetition of the same word or phrase to start numerous lines), was groundbreaking. The influence the Bible has had on ensuing generations of writers continues to remain monumental, case in point: Philip Levine’s They Feed They Lion. The poem’s incantations combine with volatile and strange images to leave readers mesmerized. Like the writers of the Bible, Levine charts a history around central themes. Exploitation, greed, and consumption---often disguised, but heavily utilized---are at the forefront of this poem. When these serious topics collide with an authentic, psalm-like voice, the resulting string of images is ominous and prepares the way for a shocking arrival.
I can’t help but read this poem and hear strains of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, although the brands of disillusionment that Levine and Kerouac subscribe to are vastly different. While both express frustration with a societal system that rewards hard work at high risk (but low cost for employers), Levine’s take on the plight of the average worker is desperate, dangerous, and determined to break free. Kerouac’s characters sought to “live” restlessly, traveling and experiencing because they knew the alternative was to end up like the workers that populate Levine’s They Feed They Lion. Maybe it doesn’t matter how you get out, or how you make the decision to leave, but that you do break free.
The list that Levine begins the poem with is startling. “Out of” the gritty foods, fuels, and tools of manual labor, “They Lion grow.” Many essays of criticism I’ve read on this poem suggest this strange syntax of “They Lion grow” is meant to imitate the speech patterns of the factory workers and other laborers Levine grew up with and amongst in Detroit. I enjoy this unorthodox wording that defines the poem and serves as a frightening refrain. The lion that consistently grows throughout the poem is disturbing because it grows inside these average folks scraping away to survive. People in this poem are always a quantity to be measured, they are “stumps” or “bones” or “muscles’ to stretch.” And these people are the most susceptible to the harshness of the world, the reality that comes knocking on their doors whether they have the owed money or not. With the frenetic pace Levine employs in this poem, it seems effortless and natural that “Earth is eating trees, fence posts, / Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones.” Levine reverses the course of nature, flipping it so that the unnatural is natural. I see clear brilliance in this move and I credit this brilliance to a preponderance of vivid images, an excellent command of syntax, and a trance-like repetition and refrain that propels the poem and pauses it for a breather at just the right moments.
How can I write about this poem and not devote my attention to the shocking and disturbing ending. Ingrained policies and prophecies would have us believe that a returning “he” in the final stanza is a good thing. Christian theology and teaching would intrinsically point to the resurgence of Jesus Christ. But is there anything in this poem up to that point to make one believe that Jesus is present, or would even return to the desolate landscape Levine has captured? The workers, compared to animals (pigs) throughout the poem, is far from the beautiful view of unique human beings created in the image of God. The poem’s land is one where workers, the nature of their work, and the distant, mysterious owners all are complicit, to varying degrees, in the growth of the proverbial lion. When the poem reaches its crescendo in the final stanza, pulling on children, forgiveness, and a car passing under the stars---seemingly positive images---we should be prepared for these unlikely beacons of hope to mutate before our eyes, but there is an awesome quality to the precise destruction that Levine leaves us with. The “belly opened / And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth / They feed they Lion and he comes.” There is an amplified level of terror in this end, particularly because the ultimate evil, the impending “he” that very well could be the anti-Christ, lies within. He springs from the open belly and the oil stained earth (a side question, just who is responsible for the oil-stains on earth? The answer to that is a large indicator of if this "he" character is good or bad). The abrupt end with this distressing revelation is a near perfect contrast to the repetition, anaphora, and stunted syntax that has fueled the poem up to that point. Using biblical literary techniques, utilized previously to prepare the way for the Lord, to prepare the way for an anti-Lord is haunting. While I don't want to live in this type of world, I do want to read about it.