M. L. Liebler
Wayne State University Press
88 Pages; Print, $15.99
Say the words “Detroit poet” in cultured literary circles, subset poetry salons, and the most common response will be Philip Levine. He was, after all, born there. True enough, but it doesn’t really exhaust the topic.
I’m not going to argue here whether the recently deceased Levine was a true Detroiter in any meaningful sense. But real deal Motown has some genuine poets very much with us. Three come to mind: the erudite and emotionally powerful Lawrence Joseph, the velvety and dangerous Toi Derricotte, and M. L. Liebler, the burly bard of Detroit’s soul, spirit, and heart.
Liebler has managed to fly under the national radar, while in Detroit he is larger than life and well-respected, nearly as recognized and loved as Aretha Franklin and Jose Cabrera. His many books, his tireless avocation for poetry in schools, his kindness to other poets, his honesty, his musicality, the immense joy he conveys to his audience when in performance, his appetite for life, are all underappreciated by the poetry outside of his native and holy city.
The best way to remedy that is to look at his poems.
In “For Irena—Girl in Siberia,” from Wide Awake in Someone Else’s Dream (2008), a young poet says to her visiting American teacher she desires to live forever.
I tell her it’s only a train ride away—easy— To Moscow, but she doesn’t have the ruble, And time is not kind to those who wait.
Beautiful, lyrical; sad, compressed; simple language, wise and deep. So unlike the cookie cutter personal memoir poem that unfortunately seems to be everywhere and nowhere in our public space, narrow private concerns are in fashion.
Gramps, you never needed muchBecause you knew,As I am learning now,It was neverAbout you. How silentYour joy must have beenIn your old battered ChryslerThat you drove back and forthTo work at the plant
He is the son and grandson of auto workers; the endless back-breaking assembly line, disrespected, thrown away.
We get up with hope, never realizing it is ourlabor that keeps the world together.
The unimagined power of labor:From the mud up to the heavens…
We do it over and over again. Persistence, selflessness.
He attends the church inside his heart, remembers the history of his blood, looks at the tortured world.
He sings these poems in order to live as a more human being.
What he writes of Allen Ginsberg is applicable to him:
Hipster, futurist, teacher of the theater and poetry of backroom cafes Who knew the way to the heart was through song and word and not Through the lackluster academy and institutions that built themselves Upon their own self-pride while quickly diminishing and condemning The outside world of the streets into the skull cages of formalism.
The title poem, “I Want to Be Once,” is just a few well-made lines:
When I pass,From this world to another,I want to be greetedBy my old dogWhom I loved moreThan much of my own life.
I want to, once again,Feel her warm fur,Kiss her tender ears,Pet that old tired pooch,And run together, onceMore, down the long corridorsOf memory.
Sometimes ML can be a bit too didactic, at least for my taste:
Jericho, now, we all march around you,Not to tumble walls, but to pray homage.Our simple prayer to an everlasting city.
But pure poetry instincts save him and perhaps begin to repair the broken world as well.
On the factory roofThe night’s blacknessSeems hungry and cold.Below the workersTremble in the chillHeads hung lowWalking and thinkingWorking and prayingThis plant is closingThe men areStaying insideUntil they getOne big unionFor all. 1937. Detroit,And this darkness will not hold.
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