“When I hit him he comes apart like a perfect puzzle”: On Phil Levine’s “Angel Butcher”

by on Dec.30, 2014

For a poet that later became known for his poems that supposedly authentically depict working class factory life in the Detroit factories, Levine’s early poetry is almost allegorical – complete with the kind of poetic artifice that is generally believed to be opposed to the authentic.

For one thing, it’s full of angels! This might be the last figure one might least expect to find in authentic depiction of factory work.

And of course that’s why they are so prevalent. Throughout Levine’s early work, when he began to depict factory work, there are angels and almost always they are subjected to violence. For example in “Sunday Afternoon,” the angels are not being worshipped, rather they are attacked: “On the body/of the Angel without teeth/I counted seventeen welts/scored with a bicycle chain.” Instead of the most pristine, the Angel is toothless – as if the poem had ruined its holy beauty – and then inflicted extreme, crude violence on its body, as if the violence itself had to be debased.

This violence against angels is probably most noticeable in the famous “Angel Butcher,” one of my favorite Levine poem. On one very relevant level, this is a poem about a butcher – which stands in for any violent, numbing work – who butchers all that is beautiful within him (the “angel”), the way one has to when one works these numbing jobs: “ we talk about growing up and losing the strange things we never understood and settling.” The “settling” is then enacted as the butcher kills the angel. Along the same line, the violence enacted by the speaker is a kind of displaced violence of blue collar work against worker’s bodies; a return of the repressed, a gothic fable about industrial work.

In a memoiristic essay in his book Bread of Time, Levine refers to the factories in which he worked in his youth as “those terrible places designed to rob us of our bodies and our spirits, we sustained each other.” This adds another layer to “Angel Butcher”: Is butchering someone the same as “sustaining” them? Is slaughtering someone the same as defending against the loss of “spirit”?

In the poem, the angel wants to be butchered “like a rabbit” and the speaker complies. The angel is the customer, he wants to be killed, he orders his own murder. The angel’s body plays a key role in the poem. There is the unsettling description of his thin, vulnerable body: not only does he want to die like a rabbit, his wrist is small “like the throat of a young hen” as he undresses for the butcher, removing his “robe.” His fragile and vulnerable body – vulnerable because it is a body – the angel becomes like an animal. That is to say, the butcher doesn’t have to “settle”; the angel returns him to “animals.”

Why does the angel get naked for the murder? There’s definitely a sexual element to the murder. The angel may be a he, but he is also “smiling/like a young girl.” This erotic element of the angel reoccurs in most of Levine’s many angel poems. In “The Second Angel,” the speaker carries an angel “home” like a bride and accidentally “bruise[s]” the angel’s head by hitting it on a doorpost. But instead of reaching the wedding bed, the strange couple end up “roadside,” where the speaker lays the angel “like a doll,/his eyes still open, seeing,/his wings breathing in and out /in the winds of traffic.” Instead of getting fucked, the angel becomes artifice (doll) and roadkill (the traffic blowing his “bloodless wings” around).

This connection between murdering and fucking angels in/as acts of artifice becomes most overt in the poem “Waking An Angel.” Here the poem starts out as a depiction of domestic harmony. An undefined “she” – we read it as the wife or lover – says “we have been good” but the speaker isn’t so sure. Afterall, “there was sand//as white as powdered glass overflowing/teh vessel of the hyacinth,” as if artifice was taking over nature due to something the couple has done – perhaps because they have become a couple, perhaps because they have had sex and thus perhaps not been “good” at all (according to the Bible). And this physical stuff of artifice is “on my own tongue” when he waks up “in the dark” and starts to “rock” this “she” “gently.” She replies “O, O, O.” Is he fucking her or – as in the title of the poem – “waking” her up?

In “Angel Butcher” we get something similar: the angel undresses as for sex but the speaker murders him instead. The result in “Angel Butcher” is that the speaker’s own body is renewed and metaphorizied:

“When I hit
him he comes apart like a
perfect puzzle or an
old flower.
And my legs
dance and twitch for hours.”

Through this beautiful erotic butchery, the speaker’s own body begins to “dance and twitch for hours.” It reminds me of Olympia in Hoffman’s “The Sandman,” source of Freud’s famous essay “The Uncanny.” Levine’s speaker becomes artifice, becomes doll-like (like the “second angel” who becomes roadkill), but he also regains his body (“my lungs flower”). Artifice and body – which are so often treated as opposites – are in fact closely aligned. The violence of art brings his body back to life.
Instead of a protest against the violence of industry, Levine’s poem to me suggests that the violence of art – perhaps a displaced, “return of the repressed” violence of industry, perhaps an anti-industrial revolutionary violence (as in his famous poem “They Feed They Lions”) – is what “sustains” the speaker. Unlike a “settling” aesthetic of describing daily life (at the abbatoir or any other place), the violent, extreme art of “angel butchering” brings him to life, sustains him. Art it seems is both like murder and like sex (homosexual – non-reproductive and non-productive).

If the angel might initially align Levine’s poem with some kind of transcendence, it seems that ultimately it’s in fact the opposite of transcendence that sustains Levine: giving the angel a body and inflicting pain on it, killing it.

Anselm Kiefer's Book with Wings2

17 comments for this entry:
  1. adam s

    I dig this post, especially “as if the violence itself had to be debased.” Violating violence seems like a dynamic out of Dickinson. I like the quotations, and enjoy how angels have gone gnarly. It’s cool to have a poet I think of as boring–based on poems of last fifteen years etc–be brought back thrumming, flashing.

  2. Johannes

    Thanks Adam. I had kind of written off Levine as well, and b/c he was coming to our campus I went back and read the old stuff and it’s some pretty angry, pretty great stuff.

  3. adam s

    Quotation wise, I particularly like “I counted seventeen welts/scored with a bicycle chain.” The “I counted” bit is engaging–it at-first seemed, to me, a bit like a locution mistakenly thinking writing and speech are commensurate; but then it became clear it’s something else: seventeen welts counted, but there could be more that didn’t make the count; and I like how the first verb is “counted,” and the second “scored”–great sinister punning; lastly, I like how one’s given the detail of what did the scoring/welting, and that it’s a bicycle chain is great–in some ways it’s just a plain old vehicle part, and thus fit for being adapted as weapon; but then bicycles connote gentle transport–friendly folks who try and curb automotive clotting or are out for a Sunday afternoon ride through the park, so these particular chains have gone rather awry.

  4. adam s

    “Art it seems is both like murder and like sex (homosexual – non-reproductive and non-productive).” I get how homosexual sex is non reproductive–but not sure why it’s not productive; what makes hetero sex productive in ways that would not apply to homo-fucks? I mean I get these descriptors when applied to art, but less so sex. I wish sexy poetry weren’t so rare–it seems like it’s one of its most unsustainable qualities–which I guess makes sense: connotation is going to pretty immediately deform, make it so that world after world impinges and one’s left with so much more than hot bodies, riveting sinews etc. There’s something so aesthetic and unadorned about sex, which is a tough combo for poems–but maybe explains why Herbert, with his incredibly elaborate plainness, sometimes gets there. And yes, I’m assuming a naked state here which is not true to all sex.

  5. Johannes

    I mean – it doesn’t produce children. I guess I’m thinking about how in Christian discussions, sex should be about reproducing or else it’s about pleasure.

  6. adam s

    Ok, so the productive bit was really just a repetition of reproductive.

  7. Johannes

    No I meant to tie it in to the labor in the poem.

  8. adam s

    Afterwards I guessed that, but everything in parentheses modifies homosexual so got confused. I kind of wish labor were spelled labour in USA–or am I making up this is English spelling? But then again I do wish for proliferative spellings so I guess simultaneously I don’t. I love when spelling was less fixed, was happy to throw in extra consonants etc. I feel like s used to look like f–this should be a revitalized dynamic!

  9. Brian

    I can’t believe he still lives in Fresno!

  10. adam s

    Have you read Erica Doyle’s Proxy?

  11. Johannes

    I think I read a little of it but have not had chance to really read it. Why? /J

  12. adam s

    Just curious/because I think it’s rad. It’s not angelic is for sure.

  13. adam s

    I like the angel-winged podium. Seems almost like a photo-shopped Durer.

  14. Johannes

    That’s an Anselm Kiefer sculpture. I like how his work seems on one hand so pious and monumental and at the same time always bordering on kitsch.

  15. adam s

    I like how I can’t tell if it’s a painting or a sculpture and/or a photo of a sculpture in front of a painting. Hmm, so it’s a photo of a sculpture in a room with some rather fancy walls? I like the image most as a painting, so am just going to think of it as one even if it isn’t.

  16. Matt Miller

    Hi Johannes, I enjoyed this reading of some of Levine’s early work. Like Adam suggested, you do a great job dusting off some old work and showing its relevance. What’s your favorite of his earlier books? I’m a fan of Ashes.

  17. Johannes

    Thanks Matt, I think They Feed They Lions is probably my favorite. But there are poems even in his first book (like the one about the horse in Nagasaki) that are really good. He came and read at Notre Dame in the fall and that occasioned my re-reading a bunch of his stuff. And he was a fun guy. /Johannes