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Best Famous Philip Levine Poems

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by Philip Levine | |

The Return

 Suddenly the window will open
and Mother will call
it's time to come in

the wall will part
I will enter heaven in muddy shoes

I will come to the table
and answer questions rudely

I am all right leave me
Head in hand I sit and sit.
How can I tell them about that long and tangled way.
Here in heaven mothers knit green scarves flies buzz Father dozes by the stove after six days' labour.
No--surely I can't tell them that people are at each other's throats.

by Philip Levine | |

The Return

 See, they return; ah, see the tentative
 Movements, and the slow feet,
 The trouble in the pace and the uncertain

See, they return, one, and by one,
With fear, as half-awakened;
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind,
 and half turn back;
These were the "Wing'd-with-Awe,"
Gods of the wingèd shoe! With them the silver hounds, sniffing the trace of air! Haie! Haie! These were the swift to harry; These the keen-scented; These were the souls of blood.
Slow on the leash, pallid the leash-men!

by Philip Levine | |

The Dead

 Revolving in oval loops of solar speed,
Couched in cauls of clay as in holy robes,
Dead men render love and war no heed,
Lulled in the ample womb of the full-tilt globe.
No spiritual Caesars are these dead; They want no proud paternal kingdom come; And when at last they blunder into bed World-wrecked, they seek only oblivion.
Rolled round with goodly loam and cradled deep, These bone shanks will not wake immaculate To trumpet-toppling dawn of doomstruck day : They loll forever in colossal sleep; Nor can God's stern, shocked angels cry them up From their fond, final, infamous decay.

by Philip Levine | |

Making Light Of It

 I call out a secret name, the name
of the angel who guards my sleep,
and light grows in the east, a new light
like no other, as soft as the petals
of the blown rose in late summer.
Yes, it is late summer in the West.
Even the grasses climbing the Sierras reach for the next outcropping of rock with tough, burned fingers.
The thistle sheds its royal robes and quivers awake in the hot winds off the sun.
A cloudless sky fills my room, the room I was born in and where my father sleeps his long dark sleep guarding the name he shared with me.
I can follow the day to the black rags and corners it will scatter to because someone always goes ahead burning the little candle of his breath, making light of it all.

by Philip Levine | |

The Grave Of The Kitchen Mouse

 The stone says "Coors" 
The gay carpet says "Camels" 
Spears of dried grass 
The little sticks the children gathered 
The leaves the wind gathered 

The cat did not kill him 
The dog did not, not the trap 
Or lightning, or the rain's anger 
The tree's claws 
The black teeth of the moon 

The sun drilled over and over 
Dusk of his first death 
The earth is worn away 
A tuft of gray fur ruffles the wind 
One paw, like a carrot 
Lunges downward in darkness 
For the soul 

Dawn scratching at the windows 
Counted and closed 
The doors holding 
The house quiet 
The kitchen bites its tongue 
And makes bread

by Philip Levine | |

Late Moon

 2 a.
December, and still no mon rising from the river.
My mother home from the beer garden stands before the open closet her hands still burning.
She smooths the fur collar, the scarf, opens the gloves crumpled like letters.
Nothing is lost she says to the darkness, nothing.
The moon finally above the town, The breathless stacks, the coal clumps, the quiet cars whitened at last.
Her small round hand whitens, the hand a stranger held and released while the Polish music wheezed.
I'm drunk, she says, and knows she's not.
In her chair undoing brassiere and garters she sighs and waits for the need to move.
The moon descends in a spasm of silver tearing the screen door, the eyes of fire drown in the still river, and she's herself.
The little jewels on cheek and chin darken and go out, and in darkness nothing falls staining her lap.

by Philip Levine | |

The Unknowable

 Los Angeles hums
a little tune --
trucks down
the coast road
for Monday Market
packed with small faces
blinking in the dark.
My mother dreams by the open window.
On the drainboard the gray roast humps untouched, the oven bangs its iron jaws, but it's over.
Before her on the table set for so many her glass of fire goes out.
The childish photographs, the letters and cards scatter at last.
The dead burn alone toward dawn.

by Philip Levine | |

Berenda Slough

 Earth and water without form, 
change, or pause: as if the third 
day had not come, this calm norm 
of chaos denies the Word.
One sees only a surface pocked with rushes, the starved clumps pressed between water and space -- rootless, perennial stumps fixed in position, entombed in nothing; it is too late to bring forth branches, to bloom or die, only the long wait lies ahead, a parody of perfection.
Who denies this is creation, this sea constant before the stunned eye's insatiable gaze, shall find nothing he can comprehend.
Here the mind beholds the mind as it shall be in the end.

by Philip Levine | |


 The air lay soffly on the green fur 
of the almond, it was April 

and I said, I begin again 
but my hands burned in the damp earth 

the light ran between my fingers 
a black light like no other 

this was not home, the linnet 
settling on the oleander 

the green pod swelling 
the leaf slowly untwisting 

the slashed egg fallen from the nest 
the tongue of grass tasting 

I was being told by a pulse slowing 
in the eyes 

the dove mourning in shadow 
a nerve waking in the groin 

the distant hills 
turning their white heads away 

told by the clouds assembling 
in the trees, told by the blooming 

of a black mouth beneath the rose 
the worm sobbing, the dust 

settling on my eyelid, told 
by salt, by water, told and told.

by Philip Levine | |


 The first purple wisteria 
I recall from boyhood hung 
on a wire outside the windows 
of the breakfast room next door 
at the home of Steve Pisaris.
I loved his tall, skinny daughter, or so I thought, and I would wait beside the back door, prostrate, begging to be taken in.
Perhaps it was only the flowers of spring with their sickening perfumes that had infected me.
When Steve and Sophie and the three children packed up and made the move west, I went on spring after spring, leaden with desire, half-asleep, praying to die.
Now I know those prayers were answered.
That boy died, the brick houses deepened and darkened with rain, age, use, and finally closed their eyes and dreamed the sleep of California.
I learned this only today.
Wakened early in an empty house not lately battered by storms, I looked for nothing.
On the surface of the rain barrel, the paled, shredded blossoms floated.

by Philip Levine | |


 I bend to the ground 
to catch 
something whispered, 
urgent, drifting 
across the ditches.
The heaviness of flies stuttering in orbit, dirt ripening, the sweat of eggs.
There are small streams the width ofa thumb running in the villages of sheaves, whole eras of grain wakening on the stalks, a roof that breathes over my head.
Behind me the tracks creaking like a harness, an abandoned bicycle that cries and cries, a bottle of common wine that won't pour.
At such times I expect the earth to pronounce.
I say, "I've been waiting so long.
" Up ahead a stand of eucalyptus guards the river, the river moving east, the heavy light sifts down driving the sparrows for cover, and the women bow as they slap the life out of sheets and pants and worn hands.

by Philip Levine | |

Mad Day In March

 Beaten like an old hound 
Whimpering by the stove, 
I complicate the pain 
That smarts with promised love.
The oilstove falls, the rain, Forecast, licks at my wound; Ice forms, clips the green shoot, And strikes the wren house mute.
May commoner and king, The barren bride and nun Begrudge the season's dues.
May children curse the sun, Sweet briar and grass refuse To compromise the spring, And both sower and seed Choke on the summer's weed.
Those promises we heard We heard in ignorance; The numbered days we named, And, in our innocence, Assumed the beast was tamed.
On a bare limb, a bird, Alone, arrived, with wings Frozen, holds on and sings.

by Philip Levine | |

Making It Work

 3-foot blue cannisters of nitro 
along a conveyor belt, slow fish 
speaking the language of silence.
On the roof, I in my respirator patching the asbestos gas lines as big around as the thick waist of an oak tree.
"These here are the veins of the place, stuff inside's the blood.
" We work in rain, heat, snow, sleet.
First warm spring winds up from Ohio, I pause at the top of the ladder to take in the wide world reaching downriver and beyond.
Sunlight dumped on standing and moving lines of freight cars, new fields of bright weeds blowing, scoured valleys, false mountains of coke and slag.
At the ends of sight a rolling mass of clouds as dark as money brings the weather in.

by Philip Levine | |

The Drunkard

 from St.
Ambrose He fears the tiger standing in his way.
The tiger takes its time, it smiles and growls.
Like moons, the two blank eyes tug at his bowels.
"God help me now," is all that he can say.
"God help me now, how close I've come to God.
To love and to be loved, I've drunk for love.
Send me the faith of Paul, or send a dove.
" The tiger hears and stiffens like a rod.
At last the tiger leaps, and when it hits A putrid surf breaks in the drunkard's soul.
The tiger, done, returns to its patrol.
The world takes up its trades; the man his wits, And, bottom up, he mumbles from the deep, "Life was a dream, Oh, may this death be sleep.

by Philip Levine | |

The Turning

 Unknown faces in the street 
And winter coming on.
I Stand in the last moments of The city, no more a child, Only a man, -- one who has Looked upon his own nakedness Without shame, and in defeat Has seen nothing to bless.
Touched once, like a plum, I turned Rotten in the meat, or like The plum blossom I never Saw, hard at the edges, burned At the first entrance of life, And so endured, unreckoned, Untaken, with nothing to give.
The first Jew was God; the second Denied him; I am alive.

by Philip Levine | |

Holy Day

 Los Angeles hums
a little tune --
trucks down
the coast road
for Monday Market
packed with small faces
blinking in the dark.
My mother dreams by the open window.
On the drainboard the gray roast humps untouched, the oven bangs its iron jaws, but it's over.
Before her on the table set for so many her glass of fire goes out.
The childish photographs, the letters and cards scatter at last.
The dead burn alone toward dawn.

by Philip Levine | |

The Helmet

 All the way 
on the road to Gary 
he could see 
where the sky shone 
just out of reach 
and smell the rich 
smell of work 
as strong as money, 
but when he got there 
the night was over.
People were going to work and back, the sidewalks were lakes no one walked on, the diners were saying time to eat so he stopped and talked to a woman who'd been up late making helmets.
There are white hands the color of steel, they have put their lives into steel, and if hands could lay down their lives these hands would be helmets.
He and the woman did not lie down not because she would praise the steel helmet boarding a train for no war, not because he would find the unjewelled crown in a surplus store where hands were sold.
They did not lie down face to face because of the waste of being so close and they were too tired of being each other to try to be lovers and because they had to sit up straight so they could eat.

by Philip Levine | |

A Theory Of Prosody

 When Nellie, my old pussy
cat, was still in her prime,
she would sit behind me
as I wrote, and when the line
got too long she'd reach
one sudden black foreleg down
and paw at the moving hand,
the offensive one.
The first time she drew blood I learned it was poetic to end a line anywhere to keep her quiet.
After all, many morn- ings she'd gotten to the chair long before I was even up.
Those nights I couldn't sleep she'd come and sit in my lap to calm me.
So I figured I owed her the short cat line.
She's dead now almost nine years, and before that there was one during which she faked attention and I faked obedience.
Isn't that what it's about— pretending there's an alert cat who leaves nothing to chance.

by Philip Levine | |


 Remember how unimportant 
they seemed, growing loosely 
in the open fields we crossed 
on the way to school.
We would carve wooden swords and slash at the luscious trunks until the white milk started and then flowed.
Then we'd go on to the long day after day of the History of History or the tables of numbers and order as the clock slowly paid out the moments.
The windows went dark first with rain and then snow, and then the days, then the years ran together and not one mattered more than another, and not one mattered.
Two days ago I walked the empty woods, bent over, crunching through oak leaves, asking myself questions without answers.
From somewhere a froth of seeds drifted by touched with gold in the last light of a lost day, going with the wind as they always did.

by Philip Levine | |


 Iron growing in the dark, 
it dreams all night long 
and will not work.
A flower that hates God, a child tearing at itself, this one closes on nothing.
Friday, late, Detroit Transmission.
If I live forever, the first clouded light of dawn will flood me in the cold streams north of Pontiac.
It opens and is no longer.
Bud of anger, kinked tendril of my life, here in the forged morning fill with anything -- water, light, blood -- but fill.

by Philip Levine | |

How Much Earth

 Torn into light, you woke wriggling 
on a woman's palm.
Halved, quartered, shredded to the wind, you were the life that thrilled along the underbelly of a stone.
Stilled in the frozen pond you rinsed heaven with a sigh.
How much earth is a man.
A wall fies down and roses rush from its teeth; in the fists of the hungry, cucumbers sleep their lives away, under your nails the ocean moans in its bed.
How much earth.
The great ice fields slip and the broken veins of an eye startle under light, a hand is planted and the grave blooms upward in sunlight and walks the roads.

by Philip Levine | |

An Abandoned Factory Detroit

 The gates are chained, the barbed-wire fencing stands, 
An iron authority against the snow, 
And this grey monument to common sense 
Resists the weather.
Fears of idle hands, Of protest, men in league, and of the slow Corrosion of their minds, still charge this fence.
Beyond, through broken windows one can see Where the great presses paused between their strokes And thus remain, in air suspended, caught In the sure margin of eternity.
The cast-iron wheels have stopped; one counts the spokes Which movement blurred, the struts inertia fought, And estimates the loss of human power, Experienced and slow, the loss of years, The gradual decay of dignity.
Men lived within these foundries, hour by hour; Nothing they forged outlived the rusted gears Which might have served to grind their eulogy.

by Philip Levine | |

Detroit Grease Shop Poem

 Four bright steel crosses,
universal joints, plucked
out of the burlap sack --
"the heart of the drive train,"
the book says.
Stars on Lemon's wooden palm, stars that must be capped, rolled, and anointed, that have their orders and their commands as he has his.
Under the blue hesitant light another day at Automotive in the city of dreams.
We're all here to count and be counted, Lemon, Rosie, Eugene, Luis, and me, too young to know this is for keeps, pinning on my apron, rolling up my sleeves.
The roof leaks from yesterday's rain, the waters gather above us waiting for one mistake.
When a drop falls on Lemon's corded arm, he looks at it as though it were something rare or mysterious like a drop of water or a single lucid meteor fallen slowly from nowhere and burning on his skin like a tear.

by Philip Levine | |

Premonition At Twilight

 The magpie in the Joshua tree 
Has come to rest.
Darkness collects, And what I cannot hear or see, Broken limbs, the curious bird, Become in darkness darkness too.
I had been going when I heard The sound of something called the night; I had been going but I stopped To see the bird restrain his flight.
The bird in place, the shadows dropped As if they waited in the light Before I came for centuries For something I could never see; And what it was became itself, And then the bird, and then the tree; And then the force behind the breeze Became at last the whole of me.

by Philip Levine | |

Belle Isle 1949

 We stripped in the first warm spring night
and ran down into the Detroit River
to baptize ourselves in the brine
of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles,
melted snow.
I remember going under hand in hand with a Polish highschool girl I'd never seen before, and the cries our breath made caught at the same time on the cold, and rising through the layers of darkness into the final moonless atmosphere that was this world, the girl breaking the surface after me and swimming out on the starless waters towards the lights of Jefferson Ave.
and the stacks of the old stove factory unwinking.
Turning at last to see no island at all but a perfect calm dark as far as there was sight, and then a light and another riding low out ahead to bring us home, ore boats maybe, or smokers walking alone.
Back panting to the gray coarse beach we didn't dare fall on, the damp piles of clothes, and dressing side by side in silence to go back where we came from.