In 1976, I was 28, and had been in the curator job for about a year. The program had fallen into a little bit of slump; we didn't really take care of our guests well. When Phil Levine showed up as Elliston Poet for ten weeks in the fall, I found I could remedy this lack on our part and have a ball in the process. Phil and I, and my wife, Maureen Bloomfield, also a poet, just hit it off; in his usual outspoken way, Phil terrified most of the department, so we had plenty of time together. The ones he didn't terrify, he alienated by beating them at tennis. "He's so fucking competitive," one of them said once. "I thought he was a poet." I nodded sagely, "Yeah, I know what you mean. Poets usually aren't competitive." But talk about pushing the dark back with funny! Phil was 48, angry, edgy, passionate, warm, sentimental, full of stories and jokes, and a great poet--just being around him made you feel all things were possible. This was his first extended residency away from home, and he missed his wife, Franny, terribly. He spoke of her and his three sons constantly at first, along with stories of his family's two years in Barcelona, the Spanish Civil War, Lorca, poetry, matadors and jockeys--and of course Detroit. Ford Rouge, Lemon, the auto parts business, his twin brother, Eddie, a painter, the escape to Iowa City, the friendships with Berryman and Gunn and Justice, et al. I'd never had such an introduction to a life and work as that; tonight I feel very grateful and affectionate.
As I said, Phil was lonely--Cincinnati is a cold place in many ways, and the university was already becoming the soulless corporate entity of the present day--and all he wanted to do was hang out and talk, eat and drink. And teach. Maureen and I lived in a tiny constricted apartment, in a building since torn down, on Jefferson Avenue. We were on the first floor; you had to knock on our living room window, so we'd know to go out into the hall and open the outer door. One of us would hear a knock, and there would be Phil in his little black raincoat, and we would be off. Or we'd put big rib-eyes on the broiler--Maureen, now a vegan, cringes at this memory--and eat and drink into the night. We loved him. We became something of a surrogate family to him; he called us his kinder, and we WERE kids, so it was okay. At 28 and 26, we were a lot younger than our years. It was not all smooth sailing. Phil felt neglected by the English Department, and painful as it is to say, repelled by the values he saw it as embracing. He said it was "ruled at the top by five or six Mandarins, while the work of the place was done by the slave labor below." The Cincinnati Reds baseball team won its second straight World Series during Phil's stay; and Phil thought the Art Museum reflected the town's values in that it collected valuable "things" instead of dedicating itself to the glories of the human spirit. These two ideas came together at one of his Elliston lectures, when he declared, infamously to many, "You get the baseball team you can afford, and the art museum you deserve." Phil's digs at the Vernon Manor were no picnic, either. This was right before that grand personage underwent a sweeping, and successful, renovation, and had become, in effect, a rather sad old-age home. Phil used to keep us in stitches about the sounds he heard on the other side of the wall each night, as yet another patron gave up the ghost. He swore people were dying every night there, and it's true I did see a hearse once waiting patiently in the circular drive. But mostly, as I've indicated, the ten weeks went back too quickly and most enjoyably. One of my sweetest memories is of the poet John Ficociello inviting us to dinner, then torturing us with the slowest making of homemade fettucine noodles in modern history. The martinis were strong, the talk was great, and the food was attacked when it finally showed up. I remember we were talking about movies, and Phil was trying to get across how his generation had been formed by them. I said I knew what he meant, and quoted Fred Astaire in TOP HAT, singing, "Putting on my top hat, polishing my nails!" I knew I was being perverse, as did Fic. And of course Phil, ever the tough guy, looked aghast. "I meant Jimmy Cagney," he said.
Before he left, Phil wanted to give us a gift, so he flew us to Detroit, to see the neighborhoods of his youth and get a better understanding of that powerhouse of a city. We stayed in Royal Oak, near Eddie's house. Eddie still ran the car parts business Phil had worked in, too, along with Lemon and the other men, whom we were able to meet. What can I say? I loved Eddie, too. Can you imagine two Phil Levines? One was already improbable to me. And meeting Lemon was, apart from meeting that dignified and wise presence himself, was a bit of history, to Maureen and me. Next day the poet and lawyer, Larry Joseph, who was then attached to the Michigan State Attorney General's office, and who'd published at least one book of poems, drove Phil, Maureen, and I around Detroit. We started at 8:00 AM and finished after 5:00, with Larry, an impassioned Detroit lover, giving us an incredible history lesson as we drove. We went to all Phil's old neighborhoods, the Ford Rouge plant, old houses, old businesses, old haunts. Phil rode shotgun and looked shell-shocked, but for us it was amazing, absolutely unforgettable. Larry, a brilliant poet and a brilliant lawyer, was also a brilliant historian and tour guide. Still, the most amazing moment was yet to come. Toward the end of the day, we stopped at a particular white house; I don't know if Phil directed Larry to stop, or if Larry knew to. Anyway, Phil told a story so startling to me that I've never forgotten it. Phil said he had had a short career as a second-story man--he'd once been a thief in the night! He said he'd got caught one night on a stair landing--or maybe he'd "caught" himself doing this, and realized how stupid it was, and stopped. And maybe, of course, he only did it that one time; or maybe even he was telling a story about how he THOUGHT about doing it, and never actually followed through. Who knows. But what a story.
The next day we went out to the race track where Eddie had a part-ownership of a horse, and spent the day watching the races and hanging out with the jockeys. Eddie, not surprisingly, is an accomplished painter, who uses a formal, elegiac approach to pop subject matter, mostly beer cans and jockeys. What a duo they were. That night we went to a club to see Kenny Burrell, the great jazz guitarist, and a childhood friend of Phil's and Eddie's. The wonderfully acerbic critic Wilfred Sheed once said, of the Midwest:
"Why hulking agglomerates like Cincinnati and Detroit never developed their own culture is beyond me." Phil Levine could never get his head around Cincinnati--and I've never been able to, either, completely--but for ten weeks in the fall of 1976, that was okay.