Winner of the 2012 T. S. Eliot Prize
Poet David Livewell beckons you to follow him down the streets where he spent his childhood in North Philadelphia. This prize-winning collection guides readers through the working-class neighborhood of Kensington, not as tourists or passersby, but as open-eyed observers of the visceral and unique spirit of the locales and its inhabitants. Through his use of metrics and poetic forms, Livewell skillfully weaves together harsh urban narratives with tragic regional history to create a colorful mosaic of colonial hope, industrialization, religion, racism, memory, and the current state of the American dream. These poems give a voice to people and places, both past and present, whose untold stories of suffering, survival, love, and family will resonate with readers from diverse worlds.
David Livewell has an affectionate way of collecting his thoughts, the poems’ impulses, his personal and shared history. In the book’s beginning he collects “Philly Things”: at the summation he and his loved ones collect together. He writes with a formal “at-homeness,” with classic rhythm he warms with imagery of the environment he shares with local and national history. Wasps on a baseball diamond, “flame-cast shadows” singeing walls: Livewell’s poems glisten with surprises of light. Through listing the abundance of his interests, he concludes, “The breathtaking and painstaking are one.” It is a book of marvelous acceptance.
—Sandra McPherson, 2012 T. S. Eliot Prize judge
David Livewell has stared into the heart of old Philadelphia neighborhoods—into their history, into their ruin, into their resilience—and seen a whole world. He writes with grit and grace. The past is his passion, and he suffers its extremes in poems that can blaze or glow or sear—but are always real poems, poems whose warmth one wants to hold one’s hands up to again and again.
—J. D. McClatchy
I’m glad that David Livewell’s fine poems are achieving a deserved recognition.
David Livewell’s poems are as sharp-edged, bright, and lyrical as cut crystal. There is something both tough-minded and tender about this work, which is so admirably concise and yet so resonant. Livewell can evoke a complicated life in a dozen perfect lines or summon a snowy evening from childhood fragrant with loss. This fine book reveals a poet of deep feeling and exquisite skill.
Emerson told us “America is a poem in our eyes.” David Livewell presents a vision different from Emerson’s or Whitman’s transcendentalism—“Come breathe again the fumes of factories, / the yeast and hops of Ortlieb’s brewery / wafting toward the rancid river.” Yet there are moments of elevation; “Each treetop blazed a headdress through the air;” and his grandfather’s lens “Shot a celestial power through a man / And turned mere light into eternal flame.” On a wartime sailor’s peacoat bought in a thrift shop, “Surely the anchor buttons / weighed at his homesick heart.” Here is a very personal, identifiable outlook on gritty city life. Livewell’s memories of “where the past and present intertwine” present surprisingly ordinary subjects, a pencil sharpener, an old rotary telephone, a doctor’s sterilizer. All is not grim, though; here, too, are poems of tenderness (a sonnet, “Lines Against Dyeing”) and of love for his young children. This is a memorable collection, well worthy of the T. S. Eliot Prize.