By Kathy Fagan
A few years back I observed a class by a then-new colleague of mine at Ohio State, Marcus Jackson, a young Black poet from Toledo who’d studied with Philip Levine at NYU. He was teaching a handful of poems he called “Poems With and Without Zip Codes,” and one of the poems was Phil’s “Soloing,” from toward the end of What Work Is; it’s the poem about the John Coltrane dream that the elderly mother tells her visiting adult son. He’s driven over the Grapevine with roses from Fresno in the backseat, and he almost didn’t come at all—but there they are, thinking of Coltrane’s music together in the heaven they both, separately, believed California would be.
And there Marcus and I were, long-ago and not-so-long ago students of Phil’s, listening to a mutual student of ours read Phil’s poem aloud, far from California, much closer to Detroit, in the frigid gray of a Columbus, Ohio, winter. That’s what it’s like now—for me. With Phil in neither New York nor California, he’s everywhere instead: in a piece of music, a red carnation, a Lewis Hine photo, a classroom filled with his grand-students. It seems to me only trauma, love, and art abide with us this way.
Larry Levis wrote in his widely reprinted essay on Phil, “Whenever I try to imagine the life I might have had if I hadn’t met Levine . . . I can’t imagine it. That is, nothing at all appears . . . . When I try to do this, no one’s there; it seems instead that I simply had never been at all.” In a Boston Review tribute to C.D. Wright, a line from a poem written for and by one of her former students, Laynie Browne, goes: “You introduced me to the selves I had not yet met.”
I’ve been lucky to have written several pieces on Phil—for Chris Buckley’s anthologies, for David Young at FIELD magazine, for Mari L’Esperance & Tomas Morin’s lovefest of personal recollections, Coming Close—but I wanted to share two very brief stories here about my first encounters with Phil that I haven’t told before.
Story 1: I was a first-generation college student, and as part of my financial aid package at Fresno State, I worked 20 hours a week in the library’s reference department. My first semester of workshop with Phil, I’d see him in reference or down the hall at periodicals pretty often. I never greeted him because, of course, I assumed he didn’t know who I was. And he never pushed it, but if our eyes met, he’d nod. If possible, I’d almost always try, after he left, to sneak a look at what he’d been reading. More than once in my department it was a book shelved almost directly across from the reference desk, titled The Dictionary of Angels. I suspect Phil and I were the only people to look at it. I own my own copy now.
Story 2: Same semester, first workshop with Phil, I’m 18, it’s the late 70s. I don’t fully understand workshop expectations, I stay mostly silent, I turn in very little. At some point Mr. Levine, as I call him, warns me that I’m in danger of flunking the class. I’m a scholarship student. I say, “What can I do, Mr. Levine, I don’t want to flunk the class.” He says, “Come to my office and bring me everything you’ve written this semester.” Which I do, in longhand, in a spiral notebook. I’d written a lot actually but finished nearly nothing. He can see this as I sit terrified across from him. “I don’t know what to do here,” he says. “You’re writing but not turning anything in! What do we do?” I’m silent. “What kind of grade do you think you deserve?” I don’t know what to say. I’ve never been in a teacher’s office, never mind a professor’s, much less a poet’s office before. I’m not a grade grubber, but I’m used to working hard and earning As. I mutter something about how sorry I am I’ve disappointed him, could I do extra credit to earn a C. And he says, “How about a B? Finish one of these poems, turn it in, and I’ll give you a B.”
Things improved after that, but to say Phil was my mentor is to wrongly revise my relationship with him. Mentorship implies teacher and student know what they’re engaged in while they’re engaging in it. I, for one, had no idea. Phil, to me, was simply a funny, righteously angry, middle-aged guy who knew how to do what I wanted to do. He was capable of both acerbic overstatement and the most inanely tender observation.
He possessed the no-bullshit demeanor of a working man, the rigor of an artist, and the soul of a dreamer, like his hero Lorca. He spoke of angels without apology, he admiringly retold the jokes his wife made, he loved his cat but mourned the birds she killed, he wrote NO in all caps with thick ink on a poem you’d labored over. To have these aspects of oneself mirrored—the attentiveness, passion, and compassion—was to know oneself to be truly alive in his vivid presence. He was not always right, but he was honestly and fully there, and he abides with us now in the squads of poets he left behind who minister to squads of younger poets; he abides with us in poems like “Soloing,” “They Feed They Lion,” “You Can Have It,” and hundreds more. He’s left a Dictionary of Angels open on the table for us—it’s filled with our names.
Kathy Fagan’s sixth poetry collection is Bad Hobby (Milkweed Editions, 2022). Her previous book, Sycamore (Milkweed, 2017), was a finalist for the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Award. She’s been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and her work has appeared in venues such as The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Poetry, The Nation, The New Republic, Kenyon Review, The Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and Best American Poetry. Fagan co-founded the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where she teaches poetry and co-edits The Journal/OSU Press Wheeler Poetry Prize Series.