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For The Country

Written by: Philip Levine | Biography
 THE DREAM

This has nothing to do with war 
or the end of the world. She 
dreams there are gray starlings 
on the winter lawn and the buds 
of next year's oranges alongside 
this year's oranges, and the sun 
is still up, a watery circle 
of fire settling into the sky 
at dinner time, but there's no 
flame racing through the house 
or threatening the bed. When she 
wakens the phone is ringing 
in a distant room, but she 
doesn't go to answer it. No 
one is home with her, and the cars 
passing before the house hiss 
in the rain. "My children!" she 
almost says, but there are no 
longer children at home, there 
are no longer those who would 
turn to her, their faces running 
with tears, and ask her forgiveness.

THE WAR

The Michigan Central Terminal 
the day after victory. Her brother 
home from Europe after years 
of her mother's terror, and he still 
so young but now with the dark 
shadow of a beard, holding her 
tightly among all the others 
calling for their wives or girls. 
That night in the front room 
crowded with family and neighbors -- 
he was first back on the block -- 
he sat cross-legged on the floor 
still in his wool uniform, smoking 
and drinking as he spoke of passing 
high over the dark cities she'd 
only read about. He'd wanted to 
go back again and again. He'd wanted 
to do this for the country, 
for this -- a small house with upstairs 
bedrooms -- so he'd asked to go 
on raid after raid as though 
he hungered to kill or be killed.

THE PRESIDENT

Today on television men 
will enter space and return, 
men she cannot imagine. 
Lost in gigantic paper suits, 
they move like sea creatures. 
A voice will crackle from out 
there where no voices are 
speaking of the great theater 
of conquest, of advancing 
beyond the simple miracles 
of flight, the small ventures 
of birds and beasts. The President 
will answer with words she 
cannot remember having 
spoken ever to anyone.

THE PHONE CALL

She calls Chicago, but no one 
is home. The operator asks 
for another number but still 
no one answers. Together 
they try twenty-one numbers, 
and at each no one is ever home. 
"Can I call Baltimore?" she asks. 
She can, but she knows no one 
in Baltimore, no one in 
St. Louis, Boston, Washington. 
She imagines herself standing 
before the glass wall high 
over Lake Shore Drive, the cars 
below fanning into the city. 
East she can see all the way 
to Gary and the great gray clouds 
of exhaustion rolling over 
the lake where her vision ends. 
This is where her brother lives. 
At such height there's nothing, 
no birds, no growing, no noise. 
She leans her sweating forehead 
against the cold glass, shudders, 
and puts down the receiver.

THE GARDEN

Wherever she turns her garden 
is alive and growing. The thin 
spears of wild asparagus, shaft 
of tulip and flag, green stain 
of berry buds along the vines, 
even in the eaten leaf of 
pepper plants and clipped stalk 
of snap bean. Mid-afternoon 
and already the grass is dry 
under the low sun. Bluejay 
and dark capped juncos hidden 
in dense foliage waiting 
the sun's early fall, when she 
returns alone to hear them 
call and call back, and finally 
in the long shadows settle 
down to rest and to silence 
in the sudden rising chill.

THE GAME

Two boys are playing ball 
in the backyard, throwing it 
back and forth in the afternoon's 
bright sunshine as a black mongrel 
big as a shepherd races 
from one to the other. She 
hides behind the heavy drapes 
in her dining room and listens, 
but they're too far. Who are 
they? They move about her yard 
as though it were theirs. Are they 
the sons of her sons? They've 
taken off their shirts, and she 
sees they're not boys at all -- 
a dark smudge of hair rises 
along the belly of one --, and now 
they have the dog down thrashing 
on his back, snarling and flashing 
his teeth, and they're laughing.

AFTER DINNER

She's eaten dinner talking 
back to the television, she's 
had coffee and brandy, done 
the dishes and drifted into 
and out of sleep over a book 
she found beside the couch. It's 
time for bed, but she goes 
instead to the front door, unlocks 
it, and steps onto the porch. 
Behind her she can hear only 
the silence of the house. The lights 
throw her shadow down the stairs 
and onto the lawn, and she walks 
carefully to meet it. Now she's 
standing in the huge, whispering 
arena of night, hearing her 
own breath tearing out of her 
like the cries of an animal. 
She could keep going into 
whatever the darkness brings, 
she could find a presence there 
her shaking hands could hold 
instead of each other.

SLEEP

A dark sister lies beside her 
all night, whispering 
that it's not a dream, that fire 
has entered the spaces between 
one face and another. 
There will be no wakening. 
When she wakens, she can't 
catch her own breath, so she yells 
for help. It comes in the form 
of sleep. They whisper 
back and forth, using new words 
that have no meaning 
to anyone. The aspen shreds 
itself against her window. 
The oranges she saw that day 
in her yard explode 
in circles of oil, the few stars 
quiet and darken. They go on, 
two little girls up long past 
their hour, playing in bed.



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