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Durfee Middle School Situated on the curve of Collingwood at LaSalle on Detroit’s west side, Durfee Intermediate School (now Durfee K-8) was built in 1927 and originally served a working class population, including the children of European immigrants and a sizable number of Jewish students. The student body has gone through various permutations and now is composed primarily of African American children. Though battered somewhat by use and time, Durfee is still an impressive building, escutcheoned on every side with the State of Michigan Seal and crowned with an imperial copper bell tower, green as the Statue of Liberty. Reliefs of a Forties-era boy and girl, limestone effigies of Dick and Jane, the noses long since struck from their sculpted faces, greet visitors at the main entranceway. Near these images, permanent magic maker graffiti reads “bitch ass Durfee,” the marginalia of some disgruntled scholar.
One alumnus is Detroit-born poet Philip Levine who attended Durfee in the early Forties. In the poem “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School,” Levine explores the artistic impact of a particular moment, an event in which the speaker of the poem, a boy in junior high, discovers learning is not the regurgitation of facts, but a search for meaning. This moment may not exist for every student, but it exists for Philip Levine, even if only in the matrix where memory meets imagination.
Levine places the poem in history, dating it “Detroit, 1942.” Levine also places the poem in the imagination, in everytime, by having the painter Edgar Degas give a lesson on aesthetics to a class of typical eighth graders: the loudmouth, “Freddie;” the apple-polisher, “Gertrude Bimmler;” the pragmatist, “Louis Warshowsky;” and the kid-who-can’t-wait-till-school’s-out, the speaker. In the movement of the poem, we accompany the speaker through his experience of Degas who has simply drawn a diagonal line on the blackboard and asked his mostly bewildered students, “‘What have I done?’” (5). The initial responses range from Freddie’s smart-assed “‘You’ve broken a piece /of chalk’” (7-8) to the intellectual Gertrude’s sycophantic yet incongruous, “‘M. Degas, / you have created the hypotenuse /of an isosceles triangle’”(13-15). The speaker craves only the escape of the approaching lunch hour and the possibility of a Milky Way bar. However, when Gertrude conjectures that Degas has “‘begun/to separate the dark from the dark’” (36-37) the speaker experiences a paradigm shift. “I looked back for help,” he tells us, “but now / the trees bucked and quaked, and I / knew this could go on forever” (38-40). His world will never be the same.
In “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School,” Levine mythologizes his own genesis as a poet. Levine identifies 1942, when he was fourteen and a student at Durfee, as seminal in his artistic development: “That autumn I found poetry” (Bread of Time 44). In much of his work, Levine works toward preserving a world that would otherwise disappear down the gullet of “progress.” Levine left Detroit in 1953, but it remains a part of his being. In his poetry, he uses the city and its various autobiographical landmarks, like Durfee, to illustrate his concerns about preservation and progress.
Returning to one’s hometown and finding it utterly changed can have serious psychological repercussions. Places invested with meaning disappear. As Robert Frost considered his poetry a momentary stay against confusion, one may argue that Levine’s work is a momentary stay against destruction. He describes this destruction, this violation of the integral landscape, in relation to his work:
One of the earliest motives in my writing is in a way a response to that. It was an effort to slow down this voracious eating of time of everything that I cared for. I hope to preserve some image, a verbal image. I didn’t have the power to preserve any other kind of image. (Don’t Ask 62)
In “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School,” Levine combines memory, imagination and craft to erect an image of a building, and by extension of a city: an image that can last, separating the dark from the dark.
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, the Chiron Review, Witness, Maxis Review, and many other publications.
Photo by Anna Fedor.
Levine, Philip. The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography. New York: Knopf, 1994.
---. Don’t Ask. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1981.
---. What Work Is. New York: Knopf, 1991.