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Magpiety

Written by: Philip Levine | Biography
 You pull over to the shoulder
 of the two-lane
road and sit for a moment wondering
 where you were going
in such a hurry. The valley is burned
 out, the oaks
dream day and night of rain
 that never comes.
At noon or just before noon
 the short shadows
are gray and hold what little
 life survives.
In the still heat the engine
 clicks, although
the real heat is hours ahead.
 You get out and step
cautiously over a low wire
 fence and begin
the climb up the yellowed hill.
 A hundred feet
ahead the trunks of two
 fallen oaks
rust; something passes over
 them, a lizard
perhaps or a trick of sight.
 The next tree
you pass is unfamiliar,
 the trunk dark,
as black as an olive's; the low
 branches stab
out, gnarled and dull: a carob
 or a Joshua tree.
A sudden flaring-up ahead,
 a black-winged
bird rises from nowhere,
 white patches
underneath its wings, and is gone.
 You hear your own
breath catching in your ears,
 a roaring, a sea
sound that goes on and on
 until you lean
forward to place both hands
 -- fingers spread --
into the bleached grasses
 and let your knees
slowly down. Your breath slows
 and you know
you're back in central
 California
on your way to San Francisco
 or the coastal towns
with their damp sea breezes
 you haven't
even a hint of. But first
 you must cross
the Pacheco Pass. People
 expect you, and yet
you remain, still leaning forward
 into the grasses
that if you could hear them
 would tell you
all you need to know about
 the life ahead. 

 . . .

Out of a sense of modesty
 or to avoid the truth
I've been writing in the second
 person, but in truth
it was I, not you, who pulled
 the green Ford
over to the side of the road
 and decided to get
up that last hill to look
 back at the valley
he'd come to call home.
 I can't believe
that man, only thirty-two,
 less than half
my age, could be the person
 fashioning these lines.
That was late July of '60.
 I had heard
all about magpies, how they
 snooped and meddled
in the affairs of others, not
 birds so much
as people. If you dared
 to remove a wedding
ring as you washed away
 the stickiness of love
or the cherished odors of another
 man or woman,
as you turned away
 from the mirror
having admired your new-found
 potency -- humming
"My Funny Valentine" or
 "Body and Soul" --
to reach for a rough towel
 or some garment
on which to dry yourself,
 he would enter
the open window behind you
 that gave gratefully
onto the fields and the roads
 bathed in dawn --
he, the magpie -- and snatch
 up the ring
in his hard beak and shoulder
 his way back
into the currents of the world
 on his way
to the only person who could
 change your life:
a king or a bride or an old woman
 asleep on her porch. 

 . . .

Can you believe the bird
 stood beside you
just long enough, though far
 smaller than you
but fearless in a way
 a man or woman
could never be? An apparition
 with two dark
and urgent eyes and motions
 so quick and precise
they were barely motions at all?
 When he was gone
you turned, alarmed by the rustling
 of oily feathers
and the curious pungency,
 and were sure
you'd heard him say the words
 that could explain
the meaning of blond grasses
 burning on a hillside
beneath the hands of a man
 in the middle of
his life caught in the posture
 of prayer. I'd
heard that a magpie could talk,
 so I waited
for the words, knowing without
 the least doubt
what he'd do, for up ahead
 an old woman
waited on her wide front porch.
 My children
behind her house played
 in a silted pond
poking sticks at the slow
 carp that flashed
in the fallen sunlight. You
 are thirty-two
only once in your life, and though
 July comes
too quickly, you pray for
 the overbearing
heat to pass. It does, and
 the year turns
before it holds still for
 even a moment.
Beyond the last carob
 or Joshua tree
the magpie flashes his sudden
 wings; a second
flames and vanishes into the pale
 blue air.
July 23, 1960.
 I lean down
closer to hear the burned grasses
 whisper all I
need to know. The words rise
 around me, separate
and finite. A yellow dust
 rises and stops
caught in the noon's driving light.
 Three ants pass
across the back of my reddened
 right hand.
Everything is speaking or singing.
 We're still here.



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