On "Animals Are Passing from Our Lives"
William H. Pritchard
The most memorable speaker in Philip Levine's last volume of poems was a pig, who, being led to market, contemplates himself with some admiration: "It's wonderful how I jog / on four honed-down ivory toes / my massive buttocks slipping / like oiled parts with each light step." Haughtily determined to see it through, he proceeds without evasions, superior to his captor - a boy who imagines he'll collapse squealing on his side.
from The New York Times Book Review (1972).
Levine says that his poems "mostly record my discovery of the people, places, and animals I am not, the ones who live at all cost and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoosa gesture they don't needwould have them say, 'Don't tread on me' or 'Once more with feeling' or 'No pasaran' or 'Not this pig.'" It is not simply that he discovers these figures, but that he assumes their stubborn roles; his poems never really provide moderating or intermediary voices between the reader and the survivors they describe. There is no protection in "Animals are Passing from our Lives" from Levine's famous pig on his way to market, the pig who already smells the block and the blade.
[quotes ll. 15-24]
We are, of course, put in the position of that boy driving him to market, whose metaphors are from the world of typewriters and TV. What we finally have to admire is the way the poem recoils from us and tries not to use our language.
from "The Entranced Procession of the Dead." Parnassus 3:1 (Fall/Winter 1974).
Excited, his senses heightened with fear, the pig smells the blade and block, and can picture the flies and consumers landing on his rearranged parts. Not only does this pig have a lively imagination, he also has a profound sense of his own dignity. . . .
Levine himself has explained that the poem celebrates the quality of digging in one's heels, and that this fastidious pig has resolved to act with more dignity than the human beings he will feed. But as fine as pigs are, they are not the subject of this poem. This pig represents a type of human being, those who have sacrificed their bodies in the marketplace. In "No. Not this pig," one hears the echo of every person who has ever resolved to be as dignified as possible as he or she marched into an office, factory, mine, or war. In this vein it seems right to recall that this poem was composed in the mid-1960s, when nonviolent resisters as well as dutiful soldiers were passing from our lives.
From Imagine (1984).
The book's key figure is a preternaturally self-conscious pig being driven to market who staunchly refuses to squeal or break down. The pig in the elegiacally titled poem "Animals Are Passing from Our Lives,", a Bartleby of the animal world, can already smell "the sour, grooved block... / the blade that opens the hole / and the pudgy white fingers / / that shake out the intestines / like a hankie," but he refuses to fall down in cowardice or terror, resolutely keeping his dignity, proclaiming "No. Not this pig." In a way, the pig is a tough, metaphorical stand-in for his human counterpart, the worker who refuses to give up his dignity or be objectified.
From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.
That poem celebrates the quality of digging in your heels. Even the little pig will not do things the way people expect him to. He's going to die his own way. There's a lot of abuse being heaped on the culture that's taking him to his death. Even though he knows he's dying for an appalling society, he's not going to beg for his life. They're not going to make a pig out of him. They call him a pig, they treat him like a pig, they'll kill him like a pig, but he's going to act with more dignity than a human being.
From an interview with David Remnick (Michigan Quarterly Review, 1980).
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