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The Mercy by Paul Levine

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  The irony of the ship’ s name is not lost on us as Levine proceeds to tell us about the trials that were suffered by those traveling on this particular ship.   His nine-year-old mother was presumably traveling alone as “ She prayed in Russian and Yiddish / to find her family in New York” (14), but she was to find no mercy here as her prayers went “ unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored / by all the powers that swept the waves of darkness” (15-16).   She is surrounded by people who do not even speak her language and is left to languish on the ship for 31 days in quarantine while smallpox rages through the passengers “ until the dead were buried at sea” (19).   There was to be no mercy for those onboard who might fall victim to the disease, as long as it was not permitted to enter the city itself.   Switching focus for a moment, Levine tells his readers that “ Italian miners from Piemonte dig / under towns in western Pennsylvania / only to rediscover the same nightmare / they left at home” (30-33), indicating that even though all these people came to this country seeking new fortunes, most met with the same fate or worse that they had envisioned leaving behind in the old world.   Like the orange that was offered to her as a special treat by a sailor, his mother, and many more just like her has learned that mercy, while sweet and lovely when it comes, is infrequently provided to such as her.

The concept that this was both a one-time voyage and a constant event that is established in this unique blending of points of view is continued in the figurative language that connects these thoughts together and establishes the singular case of thousands of young people who traveled to America seeking a better life.   The first hint of this use of language appears in Levine’ s image of a young girl and a seaman, carefully repeating the word ‘ orange’ over and over again during the long voyage.   Here we see not only the careful attention provided this girl by the sailor but also the singular experience of this attention that it would stand out so clearly against the rest of the lonely voyage.    

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