Immigrants Touched by Grace

Chaplin, Purviance in "The Immigrant"

Chaplin, Purviance in “The Immigrant”

Friday

One of my joys in life is listening to New Yorker fiction and poetry podcasts. It’s worth subscribing to the magazine just to get unlimited access to them, but I believe that you can get 10 articles and podcasts a month even without a subscription. In the latest poetry podcast, poet Andrea Cohen joins poetry editor Paul Muldoon to read and discuss Philip Levine’s “The Mercy.”

By giving a face to immigrants, the poem is a good corrective to those GOP politicians who are stripping such people of their humanity. In the Scottish seaman, we see empathy at work as he gives Levine’s mother a gift that she will stay with her for the rest of her life.

Cohen and Muldoon note that the greatness of the poem is due in part to the way that Levine skirts sentimentality without ever falling into it. There are dark times as well as moments of grace, such as the small pox deaths and the Italian miners who “rediscover the same nightmare they left at home.” The magnificent final line, however, propels the poem to a transcendent level.

The Mercy

By Philip Levine

The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island
eighty-three years ago was named “The Mercy.” 
She remembers trying to eat a banana
without first peeling it and seeing her first orange
in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman
who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her
with a red bandana and taught her the word, 
“orange,” saying it patiently over and over. 
A long autumn voyage, the days darkening
with the black waters calming as night came on, 
then nothing as far as her eyes could see and space
without limit rushing off to the corners 
of creation. She prayed in Russian and Yiddish
to find her family in New York, prayers
unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored
by all the powers that swept the waves of darkness
before she woke, that kept “The Mercy” afloat
while smallpox raged among the passengers
and crew until the dead were buried at sea
with strange prayers in a tongue she could not fathom. 
“The Mercy,” I read on the yellowing pages of a book
I located in a windowless room of the library
on 42nd Street, sat thirty-one days
offshore in quarantine before the passengers
disembarked. There a story ends. Other ships
arrived, “Tancred” out of Glasgow, “The Neptune”
registered as Danish, “Umberto IV,” 
the list goes on for pages, November gives
way to winter, the sea pounds this alien shore. 
Italian miners from Piemonte dig 
under towns in western Pennsylvania 
only to rediscover the same nightmare
they left at home. A nine-year-old girl travels
all night by train with one suitcase and an orange. 
She learns that mercy is something you can eat
again and again while the juice spills over
your chin, you can wipe it away with the back
of your hands and you can never get enough.

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