They Feed They Lion
poem based on two dreams, late 1960s, by Philip Levine.
In 1953 I was working in a Detroit grease shop with a tall, slender black man with a wonderful wit and disposition. His name was Lemon Still Jr., and he was a delight to work with. One day we were dividing used crosses that are the heart of a universal joint, which is a component of a transmission and not an enormous reefer. One pile was junk, the other pile was made up of those which could be refinished and sold as new. Before we stuffed the hopeless ones into a burlap sack, Lemon held the bag before me and pointed at the white lettering which read, "Detroit Municipal Zoo," and he uttered a single memorable sentence, "They feed they lion they meal in they sacks." I was stunned by the sentence itself as well as Lemon's ability to simplify English grammar by reducing all third-person pronouns to the one "they." I don't know how many years passed before I forgot that moment, but in the late 1960s it came back to me via an unforgettable dream.
I dreamed I was hired by the boss of the same grease shop to serve as a night watchman. In the dream I said good night to the boss and to Lemon and took up my duties to patrol a large fenced yard behind the shop in which the company's one truck was parked. Outside the fence in the dark were gangs of jeering teenagers, but none dared invade the property because I had as helpers not guard dogs but an enormous lion and an even larger elephant. The two animals walked ahead of me, and the teenage boys scattered in every direction, and then suddenly the elephant stopped and let go an enormous turd. And I awakened. And for some reason I remembered Lemon's astounding sentence.
Some weeks later I attended a wedding party for a former student of mine, a lovely woman whose two brothers and mother had also been my students: I was the family poet and English teacher, and I was treated with great regard. After the wedding I danced--this was the late 1960s and everyone was encouraged to dance no matter how awkward he was. And so I danced, drank, and even had a few tokes of pot. I went home long after midnight feeling no pain, in fact feeling quite wonderful, for dancing outside in the Fresno heat I'd shed most of the toxins I'd taken into myself. I was tired and happy, and I fell into a profound sleep from which I awakened at six in the morning with the day just breaking outside my window. In my dream I had started to write a poem which began, "They Feed They Lion."
Before I could get any farther I'd awakened. I did not need to write it down; I knew I would not forget, and so I rolled over and went back to sleep. When I awakened that Sunday morning I did not sit down and try to write the poem. I felt I was still not ready, though I could feel it taking shape in my mind. I waited two more days during which I drank nothing alcoholic, exercised, and lived in moderation as the poem grew in me. On Tuesday morning I rose early and simply wrote it out, and except for one wrong move as I began the final stanza, which I quickly corrected by restarting the stanza, it came exactly as it still is for better or for worse.
They Feed They Lion
Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Though the poem arrived after a joyous occasion, the wedding party of someone I cared for, it is not a joyous poem, and though it was written in a state of great calm it is far from peaceful. It is, I believe, the most potent expression of rage I have written, rage at my government for the two racial wars we were then fighting, one in the heart of our cities against our urban poor, the other in Asia against a people determined to decide their own fate. The poem was written one year after what in Detroit is still called "The Great Rebellion" although the press then and now titled it a race riot. I had recently revisited the city of my birth, and for the first time I saw myself in the now ruined neighborhoods of my growing up not as the rebel poet but as what I was, middle-aged, middle-class, and as one writer of the time would have put it "part of the problem." Out of a dream and out of the great storm of my emotions the poem was born.
Philip Levine is a poet who worked industrial jobs in Detroit for years (he has written elsewhere that it nearly killed him). His poetry often addresses work and class. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for The Simple Truth. "They Feed They Lion" is from New Selected Poems (1991); his comments on its dream-origins are from an essay titled "Dream Song" in Night Errands: How Poets Use Dreams (ed. Roderick Townley, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998).
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