The rage and rebellion of the Detroit riots, captured in one poem

Fifty years ago this month, a protest in Detroit turned into a riot, which turned into five days of violence that left dozens dead, thousands arrested and a city engulfed in flames. While the event is mostly remembered as a riot, others see it as a revolution — a demonstration of force by frustrated black Americans against aggressive policing in the city, set off by the late-night raid of an unlicensed black club.

Detroit-born poet Philip Levine(1928-2015) wrote the poem “They Feed They Lion” in 1968, a year after the riots, as a way to chronicle the rage he saw in the city over the failures of its institutions.

But Levine had been attuned to that feeling for years; working in Detroit auto shops in the 1950s, he told Detroit Magazine: “I saw that the people that I was working with … were voiceless in a way. In terms of the literature of the United States they weren’t being heard.” He said that his life work became trying to speak for them as best he could.

In 1955, Levine won the Pulitzer Prize for his book of poetry “The Simple Truth,” which examined Detroit’s industrial landscape through quiet elegy and prayer.

The poem “They Feed They Lion,” by contrast, is not a calm poem, Levine wrote later:

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.

But while Levine saw himself as part of the problem, others did not. In 2011, he was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 2011; he is today considered the voice of a place, and a generation. Black poet and novelist Al Young wrote of him: “How can anyone not love the people-friendly, humanity-championing poetry of Philip Levine?” Fifty years later, Levine’s poem about the race riots helps us remember and understand that time.

“They Feed They Lion”
By Philip Levine

Out of burlap sacks, out of bearing butter,
Out of black bean and wet slate bread,
Out of the acids of rage, the candor of tar,
Out of creosote, gasoline, drive shafts, wooden dollies,
They Lion grow.

Out of the gray hills
Of industrial barns, out of rain, out of bus ride,
West Virginia to Kiss My Ass, out of buried aunties,
Mothers hardening like pounded stumps, out of stumps,
Out of the bones’ need to sharpen and the muscles’ to stretch,
They Lion grow.

Earth is eating trees, fence posts,
Gutted cars, earth is calling in her little ones,
“Come home, Come home!” From pig balls,
From the ferocity of pig driven to holiness,
From the furred ear and the full jowl come
The repose of the hung belly, from the purpose
They Lion grow.

From the sweet glues of the trotters
Come the sweet kinks of the fist, from the full flower
Of the hams the thorax of caves,
From “Bow Down” come “Rise Up,”
Come they Lion from the reeds of shovels,
The grained arm that pulls the hands,
They Lion grow.

From my five arms and all my hands,
From all my white sins forgiven, they feed,
From my car passing under the stars,
They Lion, from my children inherit,
From the oak turned to a wall, they Lion,
From they sack and they belly opened
And all that was hidden burning on the oil-stained earth
They feed they Lion and he comes.

Below, listen to Levine read “They Feed They Lion” aloud:

“They Feed They Lion” from NEW SELECTED POEMS by Philip Levine, copyright © 1984, 1991 by Philip Levine. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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