US-24 is a highway with its tail in the Colorado Rockies and its nose in Southeastern Lower Michigan. Telegraph Road, Michigan’s section of US-24, runs from Monroe to someplace north of Pontiac. No one is really sure where it ends; even the road signs are of no help. Signs at two different locations read “US-24 ENDS.” Running north-south, the stretch of road is an anomaly in the US road system, where even-numbered highways supposedly indicate an east-west course. Not a thoroughfare of romance like Woodward or Jefferson, it skirts the extreme northwestern edge of the territory marking the city of Detroit between Eight Mile Road and Florence Street, south of West McNichols. Indeed, Telegraph Road lies at the outskirts of most of the communities it encounters, never central to a town’s life, always peripheral.
US-24 appears in the literature of the area as a symbolic exit out of, or begrudging entrance into, Detroit, whether the passage is physical or imaginative. True to the road’s history as one of the State’s first telegraph lines, US-24 often represents a connection to lands beyond the borders of Michigan or even the United States. Poet Philip Levine visits US-24 several times in his work.
In a few poems, Levine shows the life of men working on a road construction crew on US-24, a road that “reached all the way / to the kingdom of Toledo and beyond” (“Naming,” Breath 55). These are men “dignified / by dirt” (“Making It New,” New 164) getting nowhere on this patch of gravel, men who “aren’t / ever gonna make Monroe” (165), or anywhere else for that matter. These men, like many of Levine’s characters, are survivors, inheritors of the ironic joke of getting nowhere working on the highway. And Levine honors their existence:
I can remember the little fire of paper and scraps in a bleached-out oil drum in the snow on the shoulder of US 24 where we stamped our feet and took the day’s first drink even before the day had come leaking one flaring match at a time. Suddenly the shapes of men, parked cars, the long road stretching to another state south of us, a world no one hoped for was here on a cold day in late 1952. And if it was work you wanted, there was plenty of it to get you through the day. (“Dawn, 1952,” 7 Years 56)
These are men of little consequence and, Levine reminds us, of great importance.
In “I Could Believe” we meet another figure of little consequence, an American veteran of the Spanish Civil War, the speaker of the poem. The speaker owns a brace of portrait studios in World War II-era Detroit and makes a decent living. However, he is haunted by guilt and the memory of seven men who traded their lives for his; to him, at least, men of great importance. Sometimes, the burden of undeserved success, an undeserved life, becomes too much. In the speaker’s voice Levine writes
Here US 24 telegraphs the speaker to another place, far beyond Detroit or even beyond Spain. It transports him, and the reader, to an emotional realm where “except/for the dying I could/believe” (177).
In Levine’s work US-24 allows us access into the worlds of men who cannot escape Detroit or cannot escape events in lands 7,000 miles away. Somehow, we no longer seem to be traveling along the periphery.
Michael Martin is Visiting Instructor of English at Marygrove College. He received his B.A. in English from Marygrove and his M.A. in Liberal Studies from the University of Detroit Mercy. He has published poetry and essays in The Midwest Quarterly, Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, Chiron Review, Witness, Maxis Review, and many other publications.
Photos by Frank Rashid
Levine, Philip. 7 Years from Somewhere. New York: Atheneum, 1979.
---. Breath. New York: Knopf, 2004.
---. New Selected Poems. New York: Knopf, 2002.
Updated October 7, 2007