I was very pleased this morning to hear the news that Philip Levine has been named the next Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress. I’ve loved his poetry ever since I began to seriously read and write poems as a teenager. When my genetic eye disease was diagnosed a few years later, I discovered that I’d internalized one of Levine’s poems and clung to it like a lifeline when I needed it most. I told the story in my 2004 essay Not This Pig:
Several days after my diagnosis, when I thought more about the prospect of becoming a guinea pig in a research project, an answer came clear in my mind. “Not this pig.” This was my first oral formula, a mnemonic device like Homer’s “wine-dark sea,” a cluster of words that can summon from memory a complex array of feelings and experiences. It became my way of claiming and reclaiming the terms of an evolving relationship with the genetic imaginary. Read more
Not This Pig is the title of a book of poems by Levine, and the last line of a defiant poem called “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives.” With Levine’s encouragement, the line became the title of my memoir. It had a succession of academic-sounding working titles incorporating the concepts of “Dignity, Imagination, and Informed Consent.” Most people who heard its first iteration at Gallaudet University’‘s 2003 conference on Genetics, Disability, and Deafness remembered it as Not This Pig. As a line of poetry and an oral formula, it goes straight to the emotional center of what I was trying to express.
I couldn’t borrow or steal such a line without asking the poet to read my essay. Call it informed consent. Levine’s hand-written note remains one of my most cherished literary memories.
Forty years after it was first published, Levine’s 1968 book is still in print. Here’s the poem that gave it its name:
Animals Are Passing From Our Lives
by Philip Levine
It’s wonderful how I jog
on four honed-down ivory toes
my massive buttocks slipping
like oiled parts with each light step.
I’m to market. I can smell
the sour, grooved block, I can smell
the blade that opens the hole
and the pudgy white fingers
that shake out the intestines
like a hankie. In my dreams
the snouts drool on the marble,
suffering children, suffering flies,
suffering the consumers
who won’t meet their steady eyes
for fear they could see. The boy
who drives me along believes
that any moment I’ll fall
on my side and drum my toes
like a typewriter or squeal
and shit like a new housewife
or that I’ll turn like a beast
cleverly to hook his teeth
with my teeth. No. Not this pig.