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On a gloomy, greyly monochromatic night in a time and place deliberately left unspecified, the speaker is driving his car from "West Virginia to Kiss My Ass"—through the Appalachian wastelands of tin-roofed huts, junked autos, "black bean and wet slate bread." As he drives, his thoughts become a catalogue of both what he sees and what, through inference, he knows is outside the car window: "wooden dollies," "industrial barns," "Mothers hardening like pounded stumps," slaughtered hogs gone into at length in strophes 3 and 4. These observations pass in a frenzied rush, and the sense is that of pressure building at a threatening rate. The speaker does not understand this pressure on a conscious level: he is a stranger in this land and merely reports what his senses receive. On the unconscious level, however—the level of the inexpressible, the "talking in tongues"—he does understand. As the poem ends, this building pressure finally bursts, and he knows.

What is this relentless pressure? What is its source? On first reading, this source seems to be primarily the anger and frustrations of the poor lying in wait along the side of the road—frustrations and anger that grow without purpose, building to some breaking point as emphasized by the frequent repetition of the clause "They lion grow" in lines 5, 11, 18, and 25. This pressured sense is intensified by two devices: first, the constant repetition of the preposition "out of" in strophes 1 and 2, and the preposition "from" in strophes 3-5; second, the graded lengthening of strophe lengths from five lines in the first, six lines in the second, seven lines in the third and fourth (an important stall to be discussed later), and the ultimate eight lines in the final fifth. Furthermore, the building repetition of that ominous and unspecified "They Lion" increases the feeling of some impending doom: from only one mention per strophe in the first three, "They lion" is stated twice in strophe 4 and thrice in strophe 5. Finally, in strophe 5, we have correlative repetitions adding to the effect of' "They Lion": "they feed" (line 27), "they sack and they belly opened" (line 31), "They feed they Lion and he comes" (line 33). Who is this "they"? What is this "lion"?

On second reading, an apocalyptic undercurrent becomes evident. Yeats's "rough beast" in "The Second Coming" is called to mind:

. . . somewhere in the sands of the desert A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

Yeats's poem is a vision of universal apocalypse and rebirth; as one reads "They Feed They Lion," the same vision appears. From a religious standpoint, other references are brought to mind: an allusion to the biblical maxim "the meek shall inherit the earth" with line 29, "from my children inherit"; a reference to the woodhewn tabernacle in line 30, "From the oak turned to a wall"; a reference to sacrifice, the sacking of towns (especially Old Testament sackings), and the earlier slaughter of the hog In line 31, "From they sack and they belly opened"; and finally, a reference to the prophesied fiery Apocalypse in line 32, "And all that was hidden burning in the oil-stained earth." These biblical references all appear in the penultimate four lines of the poem: all are conditions feeding They Lion until, ultimately, in line 33, "he comes."

The poem, then, is a contemporary vision of the Second Coming; the question remains, however, of just who is prophesied to come. It is significant to note that although "he comes" falls on a line numbered the same as the year of Jesus Christ's death, the "he" is not capitalized as it traditionally would be if referring specifically to Christ. Perhaps instead "he" is either one of the poor or simply the poor as a group: in any case, to increase the threat, Levine leaves this unclear . You can't prepare against an enemy you don't know.

In the Gospel of John, Christ says that "the poor always ye have with you" (John 12:8). This is not refuted in the poem. Furthermore, John is the most mystical of the Gospels: in the book's beginning there is a long discussion of opposing light and dark. This light and dark imagery is also central to this poem: "black bean and wet slate bread" (line 2), "grey hills" (line 6), "white sins" (line 27). Even in the phrase "the candor of tar" (line 3), an obsolete meaning for "candor" is "whiteness"—so that, rephrased, we have "the whiteness of (black) tar" or "the whiteness of blackness." This clash of white and black thus informs the poem's narrative line: as one drives along West Virginia highways late at night with the radio on, one invariably hears the black revivalists preaching a gospel of redemption and rebirth. This is exactly what we have in the poem—the rhetoric of the revival. And since the rhetoric is that of a black preacher, John's black and white imagery gets reversed—i.e., black is good, white is bad ("white sins"). Thus, the poor here are specifically blacks, oppressed by whites. Paradoxically, the speaker is white ("my white sins"), yet he has assumed the voice and message of the black revivalist at the end. Being one of the oppressors, this only intensifies the panicked, threatened feeling that much more.

In terms of both revival rhetoric and poetic form, several similarities can be seen. First, there are almost no rhymes, unless one wants to consider the constant reiteration of "o" and "u" vowel sounds—a device which adds to the effect of impending doom. Also, in the beginning, there are frequent end-stops and caesuras which contribute to the initial slow pace, powerful build-up, and resultant Primitive Baptist ritualism of the end. Only in the fourth and fifth strophes do we switch to enjambment—and then basically because our revivalist is now excited, is racing towards the climax, and no longer has time to stop at the end of every line. The refrain "They Lion grow" adds to this build-up; furthermore, "Lion grow" is a transparent pun for the words "lie and grow," thus conveying what those poor are doing, and why this speaker should grow afraid. The poem is basically in five-stress per line accentuals (although it is arguable that some lines deviate to four or six); in other words, the speaker is speaking in breath-stops, as would a revivalist. Finally, not only is "They Lion grow" an emphatic refrain, but also the three stresses to this concluding line of each strophe serve to hammer the message home.

Thus the poem is a litany for the oppressed, in the voice of the oppressed, as told by one of the threatened oppressors. The rhetoric is that of the pulpit. The tropes are few and, where present, almost primitive—the personification of tar as having candor and earth as eating trees, the simile of mothers hardening like stumps. Involved here, however, is a constant switching between inanimate and animate, between the dead and the living. This becomes most important in the two stalled strophes on the butchered hog. Through his sacrifice, this hog almost assumes a property of rebirth ("From 'Bow Down' come 'Rise Up'"), which immediately transfigures into the image of a common laborer with a shovel at the end of strophe 4 ("The grained arm that pulls the hands"). Thus, the hog becomes an extended metaphor for the rising poor. It is also with these two strophes that the repetition changes from "out of" to "from"—from a preposition locating one in space to one implying a more specific cause and effect. At the end of strophe 4, we finally discover what the poem is about; it is here, too, that the voice changes to first person. There is a minor, though pregnant pause. The speaker has also realized the poem's meaning and hurriedly leaves the scene before the threat becomes too real.