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Late Light

Written by: Philip Levine | Biography
 Rain filled the streets 
once a year, rising almost 
to door and window sills, 
battering walls and roofs 
until it cleaned away the mess 
we'd made. My father told 
me this, he told me it ran 
downtown and spilled into 
the river, which in turn 
emptied finally into the sea. 
He said this only once 
while I sat on the arm 
of his chair and stared out 
at the banks of gray snow 
melting as the March rain 
streaked past. All the rest 
of that day passed on 
into childhood, into nothing, 
or perhaps some portion hung 
on in a tiny corner of thought. 
Perhaps a clot of cinders 
that peppered the front yard 
clung to a spar of old weed 
or the concrete lip of the curb 
and worked its way back under 
the new growth spring brought 
and is a part of that yard 
still. Perhaps light falling 
on distant houses becomes 
those houses, hunching them 
down at dusk like sheep 
browsing on a far hillside, 
or at daybreak gilds 
the roofs until they groan 
under the new weight, or 
after rain lifts haloes 
of steam from the rinsed, 
white aluminum siding, 
and those houses and all 
they contain live that day 
in the sight of heaven. 

II 

In the blue, winking light 
of the International Institute 
of Social Revolution 
I fell asleep one afternoon 
over a book of memoirs 
of a Spanish priest who'd 
served his own private faith 
in a long forgotten war. 
An Anarchist and a Catholic, 
his remembrances moved 
inexplicably from Castilian 
to Catalan, a language I 
couldn't follow. That dust, 
fine and gray, peculiar 
to libraries, slipped 
between the glossy pages 
and my sight, a slow darkness 
calmed me, and I forgot 
the agony of those men 
I'd come to love, forgot 
the battles lost and won, 
forgot the final trek 
over hopeless mountain roads, 
defeat, surrender, the vows 
to live on. I slept until 
the lights came on and off. 
A girl was prodding my arm, 
for the place was closing. 
A slender Indonesian girl 
in sweater and American jeans, 
her black hair falling 
almost to my eyes, she told 
me in perfect English 
that I could come back, 
and she swept up into a folder 
the yellowing newspaper stories 
and photos spilled out before 
me on the desk, the little 
chronicles of death themselves 
curling and blurring 
into death, and took away 
the book still unfinished 
of a man more confused 
even than I, and switched off 
the light, and left me alone. 

III 

In June of 1975 I wakened 
one late afternoon in Amsterdam 
in a dim corner of a library. 
I had fallen asleep over a book 
and was roused by a young girl 
whose hand lay on my hand. 
I turned my head up and stared 
into her brown eyes, deep 
and gleaming. She was crying. 
For a second I was confused 
and started to speak, to offer 
some comfort or aid, but I 
kept still, for she was crying 
for me, for the knowledge 
that I had wakened to a life 
in which loss was final. 
I closed my eyes a moment. 
When I opened them she'd gone, 
the place was dark. I went 
out into the golden sunlight; 
the cobbled streets gleamed 
as after rain, the street cafes 
crowded and alive. Not 
far off the great bell 
of the Westerkirk tolled 
in the early evening. I thought 
of my oldest son, who years 
before had sailed from here 
into an unknown life in Sweden, 
a life which failed, of how 
he'd gone alone to Copenhagen, 
Bremen, where he'd loaded trains, 
Hamburg, Munich, and finally 
-- sick and weary -- he'd returned 
to us. He slept in a corner 
of the living room for days, 
and woke gaunt and quiet, 
still only seventeen, his face 
in its own shadows. I thought 
of my father on the run 
from an older war, and wondered 
had he passed through Amsterdam, 
had he stood, as I did now, 
gazing up at the pale sky, 
distant and opaque, for the sign 
that never comes. Had he drifted 
in the same winds of doubt 
and change to another continent, 
another life, a family, some 
years of peace, an early death. 
I walked on by myself for miles 
and still the light hung on 
as though the day would 
never end. The gray canals 
darkened slowly, the sky 
above the high, narrow houses 
deepened into blue, and one 
by one the stars began 
their singular voyages.



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