Philip Levine |
A blue jay poses on a stake
meant to support an apple tree
A strong wind
on this clear cold morning
barely ruffles his tail feathers.
When he turns his attention
toward me, I face his eyes
A week ago
my wife called me to come see
this same bird chase a rat
into the thick leaves
of an orange tree.
We came as
close as we could and watched
the rat dig his way into an orange,
claws working meticulously.
Then he feasted, face deep
into the meal, and afterwards
washed himself in juice, paws
by the whiteness of the belly,
how open it was and vulnerable,
I suggested I fetch my .
She said, "Do you want to kill him?"
There are oranges
enough for him, the jays, and us,
across the fence in the yard
next door oranges rotting
on the ground.
There is power
in the name rat, a horror
that may be private.
was a boy and heir to tales
of savagery, of sleeping men
and kids eaten half away before
they could wake, I came to know
I was afraid
that left alive the animal
would invade my sleep, grown
immense now and powerful
with the need to eat flesh.
I was wrong.
Night after night
I wake from dreams of a city
like no other, the bright city
of beauty I thought I'd lost
when I lost my faith that one day
we would come into our lives.
The wind gusts and calms
shaking this miniature budding
apple tree that in three months
has taken to the hard clay
of our front yard.
In one hop
the jay turns his back on me,
dips as though about to drink
the air itself, and flies.
Philip Levine |
All afternoon my father drove the country roads
between Detroit and Lansing.
What he was looking for
I never learned, no doubt because he never knew himself,
though he would grab any unfamiliar side road
and follow where it led past fields of tall sweet corn
in August or in winter those of frozen sheaves.
Often he'd leave the Terraplane beside the highway
to enter the stunned silence of mid-September,
his eyes cast down for a sign, the only music
his own breath or the wind tracking slowly through
the stalks or riding above the barren ground.
he'd come home, his dress shoes coated with dust or mud,
his long black overcoat stained or tattered
at the hem, sit wordless in his favorite chair,
his necktie loosened, and stare at nothing.
my brothers and I tried conversation, questions
only he could answer: Why had he gone to war?
Where did he learn Arabic? Where was his father?
I remember none of this.
I read it all later,
years later as an old man, a grandfather myself,
in a journal he left my mother with little drawings
of ruined barns and telephone poles, receding
toward a future he never lived, aphorisms
from Montaigne, Juvenal, Voltaire, and perhaps a few
of his own: "He who looks for answers finds questions.
Three times he wrote, "I was meant to be someone else,"
and went on to describe the perfumes of the damp fields.
"It all starts with seeds," and a pencil drawing
of young apple trees he saw somewhere or else dreamed.
I inherited the book when I was almost seventy
and with it the need to return to who we were.
In the Detroit airport I rented a Taurus;
the woman at the counter was bored or crazy:
Did I want company? she asked; she knew every road
from here to Chicago.
She had a slight accent,
Dutch or German, long black hair, and one frozen eye.
I considered but decided to go alone,
determined to find what he had never found.
Slowly the autumn morning warmed, flocks of starlings
rose above the vacant fields and blotted out the sun.
I drove on until I found the grove of apple trees
heavy with fruit, and left the car, the motor running,
beside a sagging fence, and entered his life
on my own for maybe the first time.
A crow welcomed
me home, the sun rode above, austere and silent,
the early afternoon was cloudless, perfect.
When the crow dragged itself off to another world,
the shade deepened slowly in pools that darkened around
the trees; for a moment everything in sight stopped.
The wind hummed in my good ear, not words exactly,
not nonsense either, nor what I spoke to myself,
just the language creation once wakened to.
I took off my hat, a mistake in the presence
of my father's God, wiped my brow with what I had,
the back of my hand, and marveled at what was here:
nothing at all except the stubbornness of things.
Philip Levine |
Still sober, César Vallejo comes home and finds a black ribbon
around the apartment building covering the front door.
He puts down his cane, removes his greasy fedora, and begins
to untangle the mess.
His neighbors line up behind him
wondering what's going on.
A middle-aged woman carrying
a loaf of fresh bread asks him to step aside so she
can enter, ascend the two steep flights to her apartment,
and begin the daily task of preparing lunch for her Monsieur.
Vallejo pretends he hears nothing or perhaps he truly
hears nothing so absorbed is he in this odd task consuming
his late morning.
Did I forget to mention that no one else
can see the black ribbon or understand why his fingers
seem so intent on unraveling what is not there? Remember
when you were only six and on especially hot days you
would descend the shaky steps to the cellar hoping at first
that someone, perhaps your mother, would gradually
become aware of your absence and feel a sudden seizure
of anxiety or terror.
Of course no one noticed.
sat for hours beside the phone waiting, and now and then
gazed at summer sunlight blazing through the parlor curtains
while below, cool and alone, seated on the damp concrete
you watched the same sunlight filter through the rising dust
from the two high windows.
Beside the furnace a spider
worked brilliantly downward from the burned-out, overhead bulb
with a purpose you at that age could still comprehend.
1937 would last only six more months.
It was a Thursday.
Rain was promised but never arrived.
The brown spider worked
with or without hope, though when the dusty sunlight caught
in the web you beheld a design so perfect it remained
in your memory as a model of meaning.
untangled the black ribbon no one else saw and climbed
to his attic apartment and gazed out at the sullen rooftops
stretching southward toward Spain where his heart died.
I know this.
I've walked by the same building year after year in late evening
when the swallows were settling noiselessly in the few sparse trees
beside the unused canal.
I've come when the winter snow
blinded the distant brooding sky.
I've come just after dawn,
I've come in spring, in autumn, in rain, and he was never there.
More great poems below...
Philip Levine |
If the shoe fell from the other foot
who would hear? If the door
opened onto a pure darkness
and it was no dream? If your life
ended the way a book ends
with half a blank page and the survivors
gone off to Africa or madness?
If my life ended in late spring
of 1964 while I walked alone
back down the mountain road?
I sing an old song to myself.
the way the snow remains, gray
and damp, in the deep shadows of the firs.
I wonder if the bike is safe hidden
just off the highway.
the road, black and winding, falls
away, and there is the valley where
I lived half of my life, spectral
I sigh with gratitude,
and then I feel an odd pain rising
through the back of my head,
and my eyes go dark.
I bend forward
and place my palms on something rough,
the black asphalt or a field of stubble,
and the movement is that of the penitent
just before he stands to his full height
with the knowledge of his enormity.
For that moment which will survive
the burning of all the small pockets
of fat and oil that are the soul,
I am the soul stretching into
the furthest reaches of my fingers
and beyond, glowing like ten candles
in the vault of night for anyone
who could see, even though it is
12:40 in the afternoon and I
have passed from darkness into sunlight
so fierce the sweat streams down
into my eyes.
I did not rise.
A wind or a stray animal or a group
of kids dragged me to the side
of the road and turned me over
so that my open eyes could flood heaven.
My clothes went skittering down
the road without me, ballooning
out into any shape, giddy
My coins, my rings,
the keys to my house shattered
like ice and fell into the mountain
thorns and grasses, little bright points
that make you think there is magic
in everything you see.
No, it can't
be, you say, for someone is speaking
calmly to you in a voice you know.
Someone alive and confident has put
each of these words down exactly
as he wants them on the page.
You have lived through years
of denial, of public lies, of death
falling like snow on any head
You're not a child.
You know the real thing.
here, as I always was, faithful
to a need to speak even when all
you hear is a light current of air
tickling your ear.
But what if that dried bundle
of leaves and dirt were not dirt
and leaves but the spent wafer
of a desire to be human? Stop the car,
turn off the engine, and stand
in the silence above your life.
how the grass mirrors fire, how
a wind rides up the hillside
steadily toward you until it surges
into your ears like breath coming
and going, released from its bondage
to blood or speech and denying nothing.
Philip Levine |
Of course Crane's
been drinking and has no idea who
this curious Andalusian is, unable
even to speak the language of poetry.
The young man who brought them
together knows both Spanish and English,
but he has a headache from jumping
back and forth from one language
For a moment's relief
he goes to the window to look
down on the East River, darkening
below as the early light comes on.
Something flashes across his sight,
a double vision of such horror
he has to slap both his hands across
his mouth to keep from screaming.
Let's not be frivolous, let's
not pretend the two poets gave
each other wisdom or love or
even a good time, let's not
invent a dialogue of such eloquence
that even the ants in your own
house won't forget it.
greatest poetic geniuses alive
meet, and what happens? A vision
comes to an ordinary man staring
at a filthy river.
Have you ever
had a vision? Have you ever shaken
your head to pieces and jerked back
at the image of your young son
falling through open space, not
from the stern of a ship bound
from Vera Cruz to New York but from
the roof of the building he works on?
Have you risen from bed to pace
until dawn to beg a merciless God
to take these pictures away? Oh, yes,
let's bless the imagination.
us the myths we live by.
the visionary power of the human—
the only animal that's got it—,
bless the exact image of your father
dead and mine dead, bless the images
that stalk the corners of our sight
and will not let go.
The young man
was my cousin, Arthur Lieberman,
then a language student at Columbia,
who told me all this before he died
quietly in his sleep in 1983
in a hotel in Perugia.
A good man,
Arthur, he survived graduate school,
later came home to Detroit and sold
pianos right through the Depression.
He loaned my brother a used one
to compose his hideous songs on,
which Arthur thought were genius.
What an imagination Arthur had!
Philip Levine |
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park.
You know what work is--if you're
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it's someone else's brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, "No,
we're not hiring today," for any
reason he wants.
You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who's not beside you or behind or
ahead because he's home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You've never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you're too young or too dumb,
not because you're jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don't know what work is.
Philip Levine |
Filaments of light
slant like windswept rain.
The orange seller hawks
into the sky, a man with a hat
stops below my window
and shakes his tassels.
in Tetuan, the room filling
with the first colors, and water running
in a tub.
A row of sparkling carp
iced in the new sun, odor
of first love, of childhood,
the fingers held to the nose,
or hours while the clock hummed.
The fat woman in the orange smock
places tiny greens at mouth
and tail as though she remembered
or yearned instead for forests, deep floors
of needles, and the hushed breath.
Blue nosed cannisters
as fat as barrels silently
"Nitro," he says.
On the roof he shows me
where Reuban lay down
to fuck-off and never woke.
"We're takin little whiffs
all the time.
of glass work their way
through the canvas gloves
Lifting my black glasses
in the chemical light, I stop
to squeeze one out and the asbestos
glows like a hand in moonlight
or a face in dreams.
Pinpoints of blue
along the arms, light rushing
down across the breasts
missing the dry shadows
and rises on her knees
and smiles and far down
to the sudden embroidery of curls
the belly smiles
that three times stretched slowly moonward
in a hill of child.
Sun through the cracked glass,
bartender at the cave end
peeling a hard-boiled egg.
in the afternoon,
the dogs asleep, the river
must bridge seven parched flats
to Cordoba by nightfall.
It will never make it.
never make it.
Like the old man
in gray corduroy asleep
under the stifled fan, I have
no more moves,
stranded on an empty board.
From the high hill
behind Ford Rouge, we could see
the ore boats pulling
down river, the rail yards,
and the smoking mountain.
East, the city spreading
Clair, miles of houses,
factories, shops burning
in the still white snow.
"Share this with your brother,"
he said, and it was always winter
and a dark snow.
Philip Levine |
My brother comes home from work
and climbs the stairs to our room.
I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop
one by one.
You can have it, he says.
The moonlight streams in the window
and his unshaven face is whitened
like the face of the moon.
He will sleep
long after noon and waken to find me gone.
Thirty years will pass before I remember
that moment when suddenly I knew each man
has one brother who dies when he sleeps
and sleeps when he rises to face this life,
and that together they are only one man
sharing a heart that always labours, hands
yellowed and cracked, a mouth that gasps
for breath and asks, Am I gonna make it?
All night at the ice plant he had fed
the chute its silvery blocks, and then I
stacked cases of orange soda for the children
of Kentucky, one gray boxcar at a time
with always two more waiting.
We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
I think now we were never twenty.
In 1948 the city of Detroit, founded
by de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purposes
of Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,
for there was no such year, and now
that year has fallen off all the old newspapers,
calendars, doctors' appointments, bonds
wedding certificates, drivers licenses.
The city slept.
The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters.
Then the bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,
and that grass died.
I give you back 1948.
I give you all the years from then
to the coming one.
Give me back the moon
with its frail light falling across a face.
Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it.
Philip Levine |
The doctor fingers my bruise.
"Magnificent," he says, "black
at the edges and purple
" Seated, he spies for clues,
gingerly probing the slack
flesh, while I, standing, fazed, pull
for air, losing the battle.
Faced by his aged diploma,
the heavy head of the X-
ray, and the iron saddle,
I grow lonely.
He finds my
secrets common and my sex
nor lovely, though he is on
the hunt for significance.
The shelved cutlery twinkles
behind glass, and I am on
the way out, "an instance
of the succumbed through extreme
" He is alarmed
at last, and would raise me, but
I am floorward in a dream
of lowered trousers, unarmed
and weakly fighting to shut
the window of my drawers.
There are others in the room,
voices of women above
white oxfords; and the old floor,
the friendly linoleum,
I whisper, "my love,"
and am safe, tabled, sniffing
spirits of ammonia
in the land of my fellows.
"Open house!" my openings
sing: pores, nose, anus let go
their charges, a shameless flow
into the outer world;
and the ceiling, equipped with
intelligence, surveys my
The doctor is thrilled
by my display, for he is half
the slave of necessity;
I, enormous in my need,
justify his sciences.
"We have alternatives," he
" (And my blood
whitens as on their dull trays
the tubes dance.
I must study
the dark bellows of the gas
machine, the painless maker.
and learning to live with it.
Oh, but I am learning fast
to live with any pain, ache,
growth to keep myself intact;
and in imagination
I hug my bruise like an old
Pooh Bear, already attuned
to its moods.
"Oh, my dark one,
tell of the coming of cold
and of Kings, ancient and ruined.
Philip Levine |
I walk among the rows of bowed heads--
the children are sleeping through fourth grade
so as to be ready for what is ahead,
the monumental boredom of junior high
and the rush forward tearing their wings
loose and turning their eyes forever inward.
These are the children of Flint, their fathers
work at the spark plug factory or truck
bottled water in 5 gallon sea-blue jugs
to the widows of the suburbs.
You can see
already how their backs have thickened,
how their small hands, soiled by pig iron,
leap and stutter even in dreams.
I would like
to sit down among them and read slowly
from The Book of Job until the windows
pale and the teacher rises out of a milky sea
of industrial scum, her gowns streaming
with light, her foolish words transformed
into song, I would like to arm each one
with a quiver of arrows so that they might
rush like wind there where no battle rages
shouting among the trumpets, Hal Ha!
How dear the gift of laughter in the face
of the 8 hour day, the cold winter mornings
without coffee and oranges, the long lines
of mothers in old coats waiting silently
where the gates have closed.
Ten years ago
I went among these same children, just born,
in the bright ward of the Sacred Heart and leaned
down to hear their breaths delivered that day,
burning with joy.
There was such wonder
in their sleep, such purpose in their eyes
dosed against autumn, in their damp heads
blurred with the hair of ponds, and not one
turned against me or the light, not one
said, I am sick, I am tired, I will go home,
not one complained or drifted alone,
unloved, on the hardest day of their lives.
Eleven years from now they will become
the men and women of Flint or Paradise,
the majors of a minor town, and I
will be gone into smoke or memory,
so I bow to them here and whisper
all I know, all I will never know.
Philip Levine |
A good man is seized by the police
and spirited away.
someone brags that he shot him once
through the back of the head
with a Walther 7.
65, and his life
ended just there.
Those who loved
him go on searching the cafés
in the Barrio Chino or the bars
near the harbor.
A comrade swears
he saw him at a distance buying
two kilos of oranges in the market
of San José and called out, "Andrés,
Andrés," but instead of turning
to a man he'd known since child-
hood and opening his great arms
wide, he scurried off, the oranges
tumbling out of the damp sack, one
after another, a short bright trail
left on the sidewalk to say,
Farewell! Farewell to what? I ask.
I asked then and I ask now.
heard the story fifty years ago;
it became part of the mythology I
hauled with me from one graveyard
to another, this belief in the power
of my yearning.
The dead are every-
where, crowding the narrow streets
that jut out from the wide boulevard
on which we take our morning walk.
They stand in the cold shadows
of men and women come to sell
themselves to anyone, they stride
along beside me and stop when I
stop to admire the bright garlands
or the little pyramids of fruit,
they reach a hand out to give
money or to take change, they say
"Good morning" or "Thank you," they
turn with me and retrace my steps
back to the bare little room I've
come to call home.
they stand beside me staring out
over the soiled roofs of the world
until the light fades and we are
all one or no one.
They ask for
so little, a prayer now and then,
a toast to their health which is
our health, a few lies no one reads
incised on a dull plaque between
a pharmacy and a sports store,
the least little daily miracle.
Philip Levine |
He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, "What have I done?"
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, "You've broken a piece
Degas did not smile.
"What have I done?" he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke.
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle.
" Degas mused.
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
"It is possible,"
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
"that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn.
" I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this would go on another forty
It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I'd be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way.
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty one
as though in complicity with Gertrude,
who added confidently, "You've begun
to separate the dark from the dark.
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and I
knew this could go on forever.
Philip Levine |
I do not want a plain box, I want a sarcophagus
With tigery stripes, and a face on it
Round as the moon, to stare up.
I want to be looking at them when they come
Picking among the dumb minerals, the roots.
I see them already -- the pale, star-distance faces.
Now they are nothing, they are not even babies.
I imagine them without fathers or mothers, like the first gods.
They will wonder if I was important.
I should sugar and preserve my days like fruit!
My mirror is clouding over --
A few more breaths, and it will reflect nothing at all.
The flowers and the faces whiten to a sheet.
I do not trust the spirit.
It escapes like steam
In dreams, through mouth-hole or eye-hole.
I can't stop it.
One day it won't come back.
Things aren't like that.
They stay, their little particular lusters
Warmed by much handling.
They almost purr.
When the soles of my feet grow cold,
The blue eye of my tortoise will comfort me.
Let me have my copper cooking pots, let my rouge pots
Bloom about me like night flowers, with a good smell.
They will roll me up in bandages, they will store my heart
Under my feet in a neat parcel.
I shall hardly know myself.
It will be dark,
And the shine of these small things sweeter than the face of Ishtar.
Philip Levine |
The ship that took my mother to Ellis Island
Eighty-three years ago was named "The Mercy.
She remembers trying to eat a banana
without first peeling it and seeing her first orange
in the hands of a young Scot, a seaman
who gave her a bite and wiped her mouth for her
with a red bandana and taught her the word,
"orange," saying it patiently over and over.
A long autumn voyage, the days darkening
with the black waters calming as night came on,
then nothing as far as her eyes could see and space
without limit rushing off to the corners
She prayed in Russian and Yiddish
to find her family in New York, prayers
unheard or misunderstood or perhaps ignored
by all the powers that swept the waves of darkness
before she woke, that kept "The Mercy" afloat
while smallpox raged among the passengers
and crew until the dead were buried at sea
with strange prayers in a tongue she could not fathom.
"The Mercy," I read on the yellowing pages of a book
I located in a windowless room of the library
on 42nd Street, sat thirty-one days
offshore in quarantine before the passengers
There a story ends.
arrived, "Tancred" out of Glasgow, "The Neptune"
registered as Danish, "Umberto IV,"
the list goes on for pages, November gives
way to winter, the sea pounds this alien shore.
Italian miners from Piemonte dig
under towns in western Pennsylvania
only to rediscover the same nightmare
they left at home.
A nine-year-old girl travels
all night by train with one suitcase and an orange.
She learns that mercy is something you can eat
again and again while the juice spills over
your chin, you can wipe it away with the back
of your hands and you can never get enough.
Philip Levine |
The sun came up before breakfast,
perfectly round and yellow, and we
dressed in the soft light and shook out
our long blond curls and waited
for Maid to brush them flat and place
the part just where it belonged.
We came down the carpeted stairs
one step at a time, in single file,
gleaming in our sailor suits, two
four year olds with unscratched knees
and scrubbed teeth.
on silver dishes with silver covers
and was set in table center, and Mother
handed out the portions of eggs
and bacon, toast and juice.
hear the ocean, not far off, and boats
firing up their engines, and the shouts
of couples in white on the tennis courts.
I thought, Yes, this is the beginning
of another summer, and it will go on
until the sun tires of us or the moon
rises in its place on a silvered dawn
and no one wakens.
My brother flung
his fork on the polished wooden floor
and cried out, "My eggs are cold, cold!"
and turned his plate over.
out loud, and Mother slapped my face,
and when I cleared my eyes the table
was bare of even a simple white cloth,
and the steaming plates had vanished.
My brother said, "It's time," and we
struggled into our galoshes and snapped
them up, slumped into our pea coats,
one year older now and on our way
to the top through the freezing rains
of the end of November, lunch boxes
under our arms, tight fists pocketed,
out the door and down the front stoop,
heads bent low, tacking into the wind.