I thought I was raising a feminist…until Phillip Levine came along

My son and I were hanging out in the reading room. I was preparing for the class I am teaching, and he was reading his Marvel encyclopedia. He picked up the Phillip Levine collection, What Work Is, which I was culling poems from to share with my class. I suggested that he read the M. Degas poem, about a kid in Middle School in Detroit in 1942 whose teacher draws a line on the blackboard then gets the class to daydream and meditate on the images the line provokes. My son wasn’t that impressed. He flipped through the book until he reached the poem “Growth.” Then, he said: “My teacher keeps making us use “SEE.” It’s supporting detail, example, and extension. It’s so annoying! I get it, I get it. Everything has all three, and they come in that order.”
“Do you really think so? Check it against that poem, there,” I said.
He read it out loud:

In the soap factory where I worked
when I was fourteen, I spoke to
no one and only one man spoke
to me and then to command me
to wheel the little cars of damp chips
into the ovens. While the chips dried
I made more racks, nailing together
wood lath and ordinary screening
you’d use to keep flies out, racks
and more racks each long afternoon,
for this was a growing business
in a year of growth. The oil drums
of fat would arrive each morning,
too huge for me to tussle with,
reeking of the dark, cavernous
kitchens of the Greek and Rumanian
restaurants, of cheap hamburger joints,
White Towers and worse. …

“Yeah,” he said, “it has SEE. There’s a supporting detail, an example, then the poem has a bunch of extensions.”
I shrugged. “Yeah.”
“A woman wrote this, right?” he said.
“No. A man. Phillip Levine. Why?”
“It just sounds like women’s writing.”
“How?”
“It sounds like a woman.”
“Why?”
“It just does.”
“Point out a sentence.”
“‘In the soap factory where I worked when I was fourteen, I spoke to no one and only one man spoke to me and then to command me.’ It sounds like a woman.”
“Why?”
“It just sounds like one.”
“Why? What makes it woman-ish?”
“Because!”
“Because why?”
“Because he’s complaining!”

I didn’t even get a chance to try to control myself. I died of laughter.
So much for my feminist parenting style. All undone by a Phillip Levine poem.

3 thoughts on “I thought I was raising a feminist…until Phillip Levine came along

  1. I have learned that complaining is a sign of helplessness.

    Does that mean he thinks women are helpless? 🙂

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