On Philip Levine’s “To Cipriano, in the Wind” – Michigan Quarterly Review

On Philip Levine’s “To Cipriano, in the Wind”

Where did your words go,
Cipriano spoken to me 38 years
ago in the back of Peerless Cleaners,
where raised on a little wooden platform
you bowed to the hissing press
and under the glaring bulb the scars
across your shoulders—“a gift
of my country”—gleamed like old wood.
“Dignidad,” you said into my boy’s
wide eyes, “without is no riches.”
And Ferrente, the dapper Sicilian
coatmaker, laughed.  What could
a pants presser know of dignity?
That was the winter of ’41, it
would take my brother off to war,
where you had come from, it would
bring great snowfalls, graying 
in the streets, and the news of death
racing through the halls of my school.
I was growing.  Soon I would be
your height, and you’d tell me
eye to eye, “Some day the world
is ours, some day you will see.”
And your eyes burned in your fine
white face until I thought you
would burn.  That was the winter
of ’41, Bataan would fall
to the Japanese and Sam Baghosian
would make the long march
with bayonet wounds in both legs,
and somehow in spite of burning acids
splashed across his chest and the acids
of his own anger rising toward his heart
he would return to us and eat
the stale bread of victory.  Cipriano,
do you remember what followed
the worst snow?  It rained all night
and in the dawn the streets gleamed,
and within a week wild phlox leaped
in the open fields.  I told you
our word for it, “Spring,” and you said,
“Spring, spring, it always come after.”
Soon the Germans rolled east
into Russia and my cousins died.  I
walked alone in the warm spring winds
of evening and said, “Dignity.”  I said
your words, Cipriano, into the winds.
I said, “Someday this will all be ours.”
Come back, Cipriano Mera, step
out of the wind and dressed in the robe
of your pain tell me again that this
world will be ours.  Enter my dreams
or my life, Cipriano, come back
out of the wind.

—Philip Levine, “To Cipriano, in the Wind” (c. 1978)

Philip Levine was a poet of the night shift, a product of the industrial heartland, a romantic anarchist who repeatedly proclaimed Whitman’s line, “Vivas to those who have failed.”  His life’s work was a long assault on isolation, a struggle against the enclosures of suffering, the private, hermetic, sealed-off nature of our lives.  Over time, he increasingly asserted a Keatsian faith in the boundlessness of human possibility.  His work began in rage—it practically breaks apart from anger—but then ripened toward elegy and culminated in celebration.  All three moods—rage, elegy, celebration—are present in his poem “To Cipriano, in the Wind,” which appeared in his tenth collection, One for the Rose (1981).    

Levine grew up in a lower-middle-class Jewish family in Detroit in the 1930s, and the Depression shaped him.  His mother was a widow working full-time to make ends meet—his father died in 1933 when he was five years old—and he and his two brothers, one a twin, worked their way through school in a series of low-paying jobs.  He toiled in an ice factory and a bottling company, at Railroad Express, Cadillac, Chevy Gear and Axle, Wyandotte Chemical.  This was the norm then—my parents came from the same milieu in Chicago—but Levine’s soul-crushing jobs became the basis for a lifetime work in poetry.  He labored beside African Americans and immigrants of all kinds, especially Jews, Italians, and Poles, a quirky amalgam who sympathetically people his poems.  He had a heightened sense of fascism—Father Coughlin praised Hitler and raged about Jewish bankers on the radio; his right-wing movement was called Social Justice—and a nervous alertness to politics.  Levine attended what would become Wayne State University, worked full-time, and then left Detroit.  He went to the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, where he studied with John Berryman, and Stanford University, where he bristled under the tutelage of Yvor Winters, and then started a long teaching career at Fresno State University.  He also taught for recurring one-semester stints at Tufts and New York University.  But Levine never lost his ambition to become the poet of his hometown and vowed not to forget the gritty world he came from, the folks he worked with, the stubborn ones who dug in and wouldn’t yield or give up.  He made his early emblems the thistle and the fist.   

Levine wrote with concentrated fury about what he called “the stupid jobs” of his youth, and his first books firmly established his working-class loyalties and themes.  He primarily wrote about three cities: Detroit, Fresno, and Barcelona, all defined as landscapes of desolation, rugged cities of the enraged, the exhausted, and the exploited.  He was determined to include a social class of people who have often been missing from poetry.  His first book, On the Edge (1963), published when he was thirty-five years old, was a book of free-floating despair, forged by a slightly archaic formalism, alienated even from itself.  His second book, Not This Pig (1968), exchanged despair for determination, digging in its heels.  Levine was still writing in syllabics then and the urban furies reign in these tightly contained lyrics.  A pig who refuses to squeal or break down on its way to be slaughtered at market becomes a tough, metaphorical stand-in for his human counterpart, the worker who refuses to give up dignity.

In the 1960s, Levine abandoned his early formalism, the syllabic poetry he once called “the language of princes,” and developed an increasingly narrative and supple free-verse style, a more open approach to the dramatic lyric.  They Feed They Lion (1972) stands as his most eloquent book of industrial Detroit, evoking the world of grease shops and foundries, the city “pouring fire.”  The title poem celebrates the African American social insurrection, the Detroit riots of 1967.  The oppressed speak through wildly destructive action.  This is the peak point of his lyric of rage.  

Levine’s following two books, 1933 (1974) and The Names of the Lost (1976), marked a significant turning point in his work, as he became a poet absorbed by the deep past.  A feeling of tenderness entered his work that had not been there before, a divergent mode of masculinity.  The collection 1933 memorializes his father, eulogizes his older family members, and powerfully evokes “the blind night of Detroit,” while The Names of the Lost explicitly links the people of his childhood, whom “no one remembers,” with his doomed heroes from the Spanish Civil War, especially the anarchists Buenaventura Durruti and Francisco Ascaso.  These martyred figures struggled against injustice and exploitation and kept alive a vision of the self that is freed from tyranny.  He often reiterated their chant, “we shall inherit.”  As models they offered the American poet an escape from self-lacerating irony and paralysis.  They gave him a politics, a vision of a new world.  There is a plaintiveness in 7 Years from Somewhere (1979) that turns into the challenged optimism of One for the Rose (1981).  

This constellation of features brings us to “To Cipriano, in the Wind,” which consists of one long stanza, a single stichic block of fifty-four lines.  The sentences unroll across lines, generating narrative momentum and pressing the poem forward.  Levine loved Yeats’s three-beat or trimeter line, especially enacted in “Easter, 1916,” and he mostly follows the triple-beat template.  He often hits a strong beat on the first word or two after the enjambment and thus gives the line an extra spring.    

The poem is addressed to “Cipriano,” a tutelary political and spiritual guide, first to the thirteen-year-old student-worker, then to the older poet.  Who was he?  In a memoir-essay called “The Spanish Civil War in Poetry,” Levine recalls how he took a job delivering dry cleaning on foot in the summer of 1941.  He often had to wait around and at first listened to a Bulgarian tailor, a long-winded Communist theologian, whom he transforms into Ferrante, a dapper Sicilian, in the poem, but later turned his attention to a pants presser who worked in un-pressed pleated trousers and a sleeveless undershirt in the intense heat.  He had scars on his back as a result of his imprisonment for his loyalty to the Spanish anarchist cause.  Levine later forgot his name and christened him Cipriano Mera, who commanded an Italian anarchist militia unit in Barcelona in 1936.  He also rechristened the name of the dry-cleaning establishment—there is no Peerless Cleaners in Michigan’s “AQD Historic Dry-Cleaning List”—to get the full effect of the word peerless, which means incomparable, unsurpassed.  This, too, heightens the allegorical character of the poem.

Levine observed how Cipriano worked with alarming suddenness, which he initially took to be theatrical, but soon understood differently: “Within some months I began to read in his movements not a disregard for work but rather the affirmation that all work was worth doing with elegance and precision, and that useful work granted a share of dignity to the worker.”  Cipriano spoke poor English with a heavy accent, but Levine could follow his argument about the unending struggle that every single person needs to wage for equality and independence.  What struck him most forcefully was that despite all his defeats, Cipriano “was animated by an amazing optimism.”  He embodied the human spirit.  In Levine’s poem, Cipriano is now “in the wind,” which is to say that he is missing, gone, possibly forever.  His spirit is in the wind; it, too, seems absent from the world, but something to be called upon, perhaps retrievable.  

Levine was obsessed with Spain and the Spanish Civil War, and he read closely the poetry written by English leftists of the 1930s, especially W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender.  However, his greater debt is to the politically committed Spanish and Latin American surrealists: Federico García Lorca (“What in my work had been a chaotic rant against capitalism was in his a steady threnody circling around a center of riot”), Rafael Alberti, Miguel Hernández, Antonio Machado, Pablo Neruda, and César Vallejo, especially his elegy for the martyred worker-hero Pedro Rojas, who is a sort of Spanish everyman, “With His Index Finger He Used to Write on the Air…” “Long live the comrades,” Vallejo declaims, “on the honor roll of the air!”  Levine fantasized a strong resemblance between Vallejo and Cipriano, both physically (“spare, essential, shabbily dressed”) and spiritually: “Like Cipriano,” he said, Vallejo “was intellectually ferocious: they were two serious men obsessed with the need for change.”  By this sleight of hand, he turns his mentor into a brother of the greatest Peruvian modern poet.  He does something similar when he describes reading George Orwell’s memoir Homage to Catalonia, finding Cipriano’s face in Orwell’s descriptions of an Italian militiaman: “It was the face of a man who would commit murder and throw away his life for a friend—the kind of face you expect in an Anarchist.”  Levine keeps finding ways to connect personally through Cipriano to the loyalist cause, the anarchist dream, of the Spanish Civil War.  

Levine is known for his use of the American vernacular, working in the tradition of William Carlos Williams, and pitching his poems at the level of speech.  This last point is partly true—he does mine and import into his poems the way people speak—but to my ear, most of his poems are launched at a higher register than ordinary speech.  They traffic back and forth between the colloquial and something grander, more rhetorical.  Levine loved Williams but owed an even greater debt to William Blake and John Keats, and to Hart Crane and Dylan Thomas.  He builds on Walt Whitman, and like Whitman he takes the American quotidian and infuses it with something operatic.  He said that Whitman could have sponsored his poem “when in his introduction to Leave of Grass he advised the American poet to go among powerful, uneducated people and take off his hat to no one.”

Levine begins “To Cipriano” by asking not where Cipriano has gone, but “Where did your words go / Cipriano?”  Cipriano is characterized by what he said, like a poet.  This sentence, which stretches across six lines, is not posed as a genuine question—there is no question mark at the end of it—but as a rhetorical statement.  The scene is decidedly unromantic, the back of a dry cleaner.  Yet, there is slight but purposeful elevation here—Cipriano was “raised on a little wooden platform” and “bowed,” as if in prayer, “to the hissing press.”  The speaker observes his scars, which Cipriano ironically calls “a gift / of my country,” gleaming “like old wood,” something dry that can still burn.  Cipriano’s wartime experience provides backdrop to everything he says.  His optimism is far from naïve, but well-paid for.  So, too, the visible light is heightened under “the glaring bulb.”  The intense light highlights the secret truth of this lyric, which poses as a realistic poem, a memory, but is in actuality a visionary political one.    

Pause a moment over the fact that Cipriano uses a Spanish word, Dignidad, and not the Italian, la dignità, to define dignity.  The dandyish tailor mocks him, but this is a set-up, since Levine is learning what matters from his true teacher, Cipriano, who says: “without is no riches.”  In English, we tend to define dignity as a personal trait of calm decorum, a form of self-respect.  But as a Spanish political idea, it resonates much more deeply: as a democratic ideal, the respect and esteem that all human beings deserve.  There is a long philosophical tradition running from Plato and Aristotle to Kant that recognizes the dignity of the individual as a political ideal of virtue and value related to the polis or city-state.  Although the word does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, it has recently been viewed as the basis for human rights.  

If you were a photojournalist filming this poem—Levine especially loved the war photography of Robert Capa—you’d make the camera pan back to give a documentary or historical overview: “That was the winter of ’41.”  This has the quality of a photomontage or newsreel and gives you a feeling of epic sweep.  It situates the individual in a larger historical context.  The tense changes—“it / would”—and the poet thereafter intermingles what is happening in Detroit with what is happening overseas.  He matches his fear for his older brother (“it / would take my brother off to war”) to the outsize weather at home (“great snowfalls” and “the news of death”).  The speaker is going to school and growing up, but he is getting his genuine education from Cipriano, who explains to him: “Some day the world / is ours, some day you will see.”  Cipriano’s slightly mangled tenses create their own form of poetry—they heighten the value of what he says.  He speaks with overriding intensity here, as if searing his hopeful words into his young disciple so that they truly register: “And your eyes burned in your fine / white face until I thought you / would burn.”

Notice the rhetorical repetition of “That was the winter / of ’41,” but now with a different line break and thus a different emphasis.  Once more, we get a historical overview as Levine connects his budding knowledge of the Spanish Civil War to what is happening during World War II.  He moves quickly and personalizes the Bataan Death March through the figure of Sam Baghosian, who makes the long march “with bayonet wounds in both legs.”  I suspect that Levine is fictionalizing a fact here, taking the name of a person he knew or read about in Fresno, which was filled with Armenians who fought in World War II, and projecting back to Detroit.  He probably took his memory of someone who did return to Detroit crippled from the war, someone he might have known through his older brother but whose name he didn’t know or couldn’t remember and christened him with a name that later resonated.  What is true is the fear and rage he recollects at the memory of seeing such a devastated survivor, a shattered warrior.  The fury wells up.  He clenches the feeling by employing and enjambing an identical rhyme, the only one in the poem (“the burning acids / splashed across his chest and the acids / of his own anger”).  These acids would corrode Baghosian’s heart when he returned to “eat / the stale bread of victory.”  This word acids brings back the opening of the third line in “They Feed They Lion”: “Out of the acids of rage.”  Mark Twain said that “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

As the speaker’s anger threatens to overcome him, he turns once more to address Cipriano, but now more intimately.  He asks him to recall how the snow turned to rain, the streets “gleamed,” and the season changed from winter to spring.  Now the student is teaching his mentor the English word spring, which Cipriano understands in a larger, more symbolic way.  There are only two lines in the entire poem where the sentence and the lineation coincide, and this is one of them: “Spring, spring, it always comes after.”  That’s why it comprises a subject rhyme with a subsequent line: “I said, ‘Someday this will be ours.’”  Spring suggests regeneration here and Cipriano echoes Shelley’s rhetorical question at the end of “Ode to the West Wind”: “O Wind, / If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?”

War leaves a bitter taste, and so do the mounting personal losses: “Soon the Germans rolled east / into Russia and my cousins died.”  All this turns out to be a test of character for the speaker, who has enormous trouble holding onto a hopeful message, a spring that comes after.  Hence, he remembers trying to console himself by repeating Cipriano’s iconic word, dignity.  He spoke into the winds, which had become a confusing plurality, a sort of whirlwind, and tried to reassure himself: “I said, ‘Someday this will all be ours.’”  We are six lines from the end and the poem marks a structural turn.  The tense changes from the past to the present, and now the speaker is no longer a boy but a man.  For the first time, he calls on Cipriano more formally by his full name, Cipriano Mera, emphasizing the conjunction of the pants presser in Detroit and the military figure of the Second Spanish Republic.  

I love the way the rhetoric reaches a high, pleading, feverish pitch at the end of the poem: 

Come back, Cipriano Mera, step
out of the wind and dressed in the robe
of your pain tell me again that this
world will be ours.  Enter my dreams
or my life, Cipriano, come back
out of the wind.

Here, the speaker aggressively calls on Cipriano four times: Come backstep outEnter my dreams / or my lifecome back.  He breaks the neck of the modernist injunction to avoid mixing a concrete and an abstraction, and he pleads with Cipriano to return “dressed in the robe / of your pain.”  Levine intentionally defies the credo, established by Ezra Pound (“Don’t use such an expression as ‘dim lands of peace’”), and purposefully breaks the line on the word robe.  Cipriano’s scars have been transmuted into a “robe of pain,” a phrase that Neruda or Vallejo might have written.  It is both an accurate description of the scars left on a prisoner of war, and an invocation of something larger, something allegorical, some cosmic Pain.  I want to keep the final lines in mind in order to think about the charged meaning of the wind here.

At the beginning of the poem, Levine addresses Cipriano, who seems to be in the wind because he has slipped away, like a fugitive.  But by the end of the poem, he speaks to Cipriano in the wind for another reason altogether.  He is seeking inspiration, which means in-breathing, and thereby also invoking the visionary tradition in poetry.  He is calling on Cipriano to come back to him as a consoling presence, a prophetic voice.  Think of the prophet Ezekiel, who held each of us responsible for our own actions, and beheld a whirlwind coming out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire unfolding itself (Ezekiel 1: 4).  Or think of how the wind operates with such liberating force in “Ode to the West Wind.”  As a Romantic poet and democratic anarchist, Shelley embraces the West Wind because it pushes aside the “dead leaves” and nurtures the “winged-seed.”  Listen to his invocation: “Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere; / Destroyer and Preserver; hear, oh hear!”  Levine invokes Cipriano as a visionary source of the wind itself, a “destroyer and preserver,” pushing things ahead when the world will be ours.  Levine’s politics were utopian.  He has lost faith and calls on Cipriano Mera, his unlikely mentor, to return to reassure him that the dream of a just world is still vibrant and alive. 

Philip Levine was a poet of joy as well as of suffering.  He called on an otherwise unknown figure to remember a pledge, not to a flag, but to a future, a democratic ideal.  When I think of Cipriano, the pants presser, and Cipriano Mera, a bricklayer by trade as well as a lieutenant colonel in the Spanish Republican Army, I think of something that Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “I am Defeated all the time; yet to Victory I am born.”

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