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Ode For Mrs. William Settle

Written by: Philip Levine | Biography
 In Lake Forest, a suburb of Chicago,
a woman sits at her desk to write
me a letter.
She holds a photograph of me up to the light, one taken 17 years ago in a high school class in Providence.
She sighs, and the sigh smells of mouthwash and tobacco.
If she were writing by candlelight she would now be in the dark, for a living flame would refuse to be fed by such pure exhaustion.
Actually she is in the dark, for the man she's about to address in her odd prose had a life span of one 125th of a second in the eye of a Nikon, and then he politely asked the photographer to get lost, whispering the request so as not to offend the teacher presiding.
Those students are now in their thirties, the Episcopal girls in their plaid skirts and bright crested blazers have gone unprepared, though French-speaking, into a world of liars, pimps, and brokers.
2.
7% have died by their own hands, and all the others have considered the act at least once.
Not one now remembers my name, not one recalls the reading I gave of César Vallejo's great "memoriam" to his brother Miguel, not even the girl who sobbed and had to be escorted to the school nurse, calmed, and sent home in a cab.
Evenings in Lake Forest in mid-December drop suddenly; one moment the distant sky is a great purple canvas, and then it's gone, and no stars emerge; however, not the least hint of the stockyards or slaughterhouses is allowed to drift out to the suburbs, so it's a deathless darkness with no more perfume than cellophane.
"Our souls are mingling now somewhere in the open spaces between Illinois and you," she writes.
When I read the letter, two weeks from now, forwarded by my publisher, I will suddenly discover a truth of our lives on earth, and I'll bless Mrs.
William Settle of Lake Forest for giving me more than I gave her, for addressing me as Mr.
Levine, the name my father bore, a name a man could take with courage and pride into the empire of death.
I'll read even unto the second page, unstartled by the phrase "By now you must have guessed, I am a dancer.
" Soon snow will fall on the Tudor houses of the suburbs, turning the elegant parked sedans into anonymous mounds; the winds will sweep in over the Rockies and across the great freezing plains where America first died, winds so fierce boys and men turn their backs to them and simply weep, and yet in all that air the soul of Mrs.
William Settle will not release me, not even for one second.
Male and female, aged and middle-aged, we ride it out blown eastward toward our origins, one impure being become wind.
Above the Middle West, truth and beauty are one though never meant to be.



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