Image by Frances Levine

Poem introduction

This poem grew out of my return to Detroit - the City where I grew up - after the riots on 1967. Called 'The Race Riots' in the press, called 'The Great Rebellion' by the City itself. It was during the Vietnam war, we were fighting two racial wars - one in American cities, and one in South East Asia. And as I went back to the City I discovered, in the language of that day, that I was part of the problem, not part of the solution. I was now middle-aged, I was middle-class and I was white. And I was to some degree, just overwhelmed.

They Feed They Lion

They Feed They Lion

Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.

 Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
Out of the bones’ need to sharpen and the muscles’ to stretch,
They Lion grow.

 Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
“Come home, Come home!” From pig balls,
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,
From the furred ear and the full jowl come
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose
They Lion grow.

 From the sweet glues of the trotters
Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower
Of the hams the thorax of caves,
From “Bow Down” come “Rise Up,”
Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
The grained arm that pulls the hands,
They Lion grow.

From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.


'They Feed the Lion' from New Selected Poems (Alfred A Knopf, 1991), © Philip Levine 1991, used by permission of Alfred A Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

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