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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 House

 They are building a house
half a block down
and I sit up here
with the shades down
listening to the sounds,
the hammers pounding in nails,
thack thack thack thack,
and then I hear birds,
and thack thack thack,
and I go to bed,
I pull the covers to my throat;
they have been building this house
for a month, and soon it will have
its people.
sleeping, eating, loving, moving around, but somehow now it is not right, there seems a madness, men walk on top with nails in their mouths and I read about Castro and Cuba, and at night I walk by and the ribs of the house show and inside I can see cats walking the way cats walk, and then a boy rides by on a bicycle and still the house is not done and in the morning the men will be back walking around on the house with their hammers, and it seems people should not build houses anymore, it seems people should not get married anymore, it seems people should stop working and sit in small rooms on 2nd floors under electric lights without shades; it seems there is a lot to forget and a lot not to do, and in drugstores, markets, bars, the people are tired, they do not want to move, and I stand there at night and look through this house and the house does not want to be built; through its sides I can see the purple hills and the first lights of evening, and it is cold and I button my coat and I stand there looking through the house and the cats stop and look at me until I am embarrased and move North up the sidewalk where I will buy cigarettes and beer and return to my room.
from "All's Normal Here" - 1985

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!

More great poems below...

by Philip Levine | |

Last Words

 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.

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 | |

Small Game

 In borrowed boots which don't fit 
and an old olive greatcoat, 
I hunt the corn-fed rabbit, 
game fowl, squirrel, starved bobcat, 
anything small.
I bring down young deer wandered from the doe's gaze, and reload, and move on leaving flesh to inform crows.
At dusk they seem to suspect me, burrowed in a corn field verging their stream.
The unpecked stalks call them.
Nervous, they yield to what they must: hunger, thirst, habit.
Closer and closer comes the scratching which at first sounds like sheaves clicked together.
I know them better than they themselves, so I win.
At night the darkness is against me.
I can't see enough to sight my weapon, which becomes freight to be endured or at best a crutch to ease swollen feet that demand but don't get rest unless I invade your barn, which I do.
Under my dark coat, monstrous and vague, I turn down your lane, float through the yard, and roost.
Or so I appear to you who call me spirit or devil, though I'm neither.
What's more, under all, I'm white and soft, more like yourself than you ever would have guessed before you claimed your barn with shot gun, torch, and hounds.
Why am I here? What do I want? Who am I? You demand from the blank mask which amuses the dogs.
Leave me! I do your work so why ask?

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 | |

Passing Out

 The doctor fingers my bruise.
"Magnificent," he says, "black at the edges and purple cored.
" 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 neither objectionable 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 fantasy.
" 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, departs.
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 produce.
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 says, "Removal.
" (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.

by Philip Levine | |

In A Vacant House

 Someone was calling someone; 
now they've stopped.
Beyond the glass the rose vines quiver as in a light wind, but there is none: I hear nothing.
The moments pass, or seem to pass, and the sun, risen above the old birch, steadies for the downward arch.
It is noon.
Privacy is one thing, but to be alone, to speak and not to be heard, to speak again the same word or another until one can no longer distinguish the presence of silence or what the silence is there for.
No one can begin anew naming by turn beast, fowl, and bush with the exact word.
Beyond the fence the sparse wood Yields; light enters; nighthawk, owl, and weasel have fled.
To know the complete absence of fear, not to fear what is not there becomes the end, the last brute quiver of instinct.
One moves, or tries to move, among facts, naming one's self and one's acts as if they were real.
Dead leaves cling to the branch, and the root grips to endure, but no cry questions the illusion of sky.

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 | |


 Vous êtes sorti sain et sauf des basses 
calomnies, vous avey conquis les coeurs.
Zola, J'accuse One was kicked in the stomach until he vomited, then made to put back into his mouth what they had brought forth; when he tried to drown in his own stew he was recovered.
"You are worse than a nigger or Jew," the helmeted one said.
"You are an intellectal.
I hate your brown skin; it makes me sick.
" The tall intense one, his penis wired, was shocked out of his senses in three seconds.
Weakened, he watched them install another battery in the crude electric device.
The genitals of a third were beaten with a short wooden ruler: "Reach for your black balls.
I'll show you how to make love.
" When two of the beaten passed in the hall they did not know each other.
"His face had turned into a wound: the nose was gone, the eyes ground so far back into the face they too seemed gone, the lips, puffed pieces of cracked blood.
" None of them was asked anything.
The clerks, the police, the booted ones, seemed content to inflict pain, to make, they said, each instant memorable and exquisite, reform the brain through the senses.
"Kiss my boot and learn the taste of French shit.
" Reader, does the heart demand that you bend to the live wound as you would bend to the familiar body of your beloved, to kiss the green flower which blooms always from the ground human and ripe with terror, to face with love what we have made of hatred? We must live with what we are, you say, is enough.
I taste death.
I am among you and I accuse you where, secretly thrilled by the circus of excrement, you study my strophes or yawn into the evening air, tired, not amused.
Remember what you have said when from your pacific dream you awaken at last, deafened by the scream of your own stench.
You are dead.

by Philip Levine | |

In A Light Time

 The alder shudders in the April winds 
off the moon.
No one is awake and yet sunlight streams across the hundred still beds of the public wards for children.
At ten do we truly sleep in a blessed sleep guarded by angels and social workers? Do we dream of gold found in secret trunks in familiar rooms? Do we talk to cats and dogs? I think not.
I think when I was ten I was almost an adult, slightly less sentimental than now and better with figures.
No one could force me to cry, nothing could convince me of God's concern for America much less the fall of a sparrow.
I spit into the wind, even on mornings like this, the air clear, the sky utterly silent, the fresh light flooding across bed after bed as though something were reaching blindly -- for we are blindest in sunlight -- for hands to take and eyelids to caress and bless before they open to the alder gone still and the winds hushed, before the children waken separately into their childhoods.

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 | |

Red Dust

 This harpie with dry red curls 
talked openly of her husband, 
his impotence, his death, the death 
of her lover, the birth and death 
of her own beauty.
She stared into the mirror next to our table littered with the wreck of her appetite and groaned: Look what you've done to me! as though only that moment she'd discovered her own face.
Look, and she shoved the burden of her ruin on the waiter.
I do not believe in sorrow; it is not American.
At 8,000 feet the towns of this blond valley smoke like the thin pipes of the Chinese, and I go higher where the air is clean, thin, and the underside of light is clearer than the light.
Above the tree line the pines crowd below like moments of the past and on above the snow line the cold underside of my arm, the half in shadow, sweats with fear as though it lay along the edge of revelation.
And so my mind closes around a square oil can crushed on the road one morning, startled it was not the usual cat.
If a crow had come out of the air to choose its entrails could I have laughed? If eagles formed now in the shocked vegetation of my sight would they be friendly? I can hear their wings lifting them down, the feathers tipped with red dust, that dust which even here I taste, having eaten it all these years.

by Philip Levine | |

The Whole Soul

 Is it long as a noodle 
or fat as an egg? Is it 
lumpy like a potato or 
ringed like an oak or an 
onion and like the onion 
the same as you go toward 
the core? That would be 
suitable, for is it not 
the human core and the rest 
meant either to keep it 
warm or cold depending 
on the season or just who 
you're talking to, the rest 
a means of getting it from 
one place to another, for it 
must go on two legs down 
the stairs and out the front 
door, it must greet the sun 
with a sigh of pleasure as 
it stands on the front porch 
considering the day's agenda.
Whether to go straight ahead passing through the ranch houses of the rich, living rooms panelled with a veneer of fake Philippine mahogany and bedrooms with ermined floors and tangled seas of silk sheets, through adobe walls and secret gardens of sweet corn and marijuana until it crosses several sets of tracks, four freeways, and a mountain range and faces a great ocean each drop of which is known and like no other, each with its own particular tang, one suitable to bring forth the flavor of a noodle, still another when dried on an open palm, sparkling and tiny, just right for a bite of ripe tomato or to incite a heavy tongue that dragged across a brow could utter the awful words, "Oh, my love!" and mean them.
The more one considers the more puzzling become these shapes.
I stare out at the Pacific and wonder -- noodle, onion, lump, double yolked egg on two legs, a star as perfect as salt -- and my own shape a compound of so many lengths, lumps, and flat palms.
And while I'm here at the shore I bow to take a few handfuls of water which run between my fingers, those poor noodles good for holding nothing for long, and I speak in a tongue hungering for salt and water without salt, I give a shape to the air going out and the air coming in, and the sea winds scatter it like so many burning crystals settling on the evening ocean.

by Philip Levine | |

The Waters Chant

 Seven years ago I went into 
the High Sierras stunned by the desire 
to die.
For hours I stared into a clear mountain stream that fell down over speckled rocks, and then I closed my eyes and prayed that when I opened them I would be gone and somewhere a purple and golden thistle would overflow with light.
I had not prayed since I was a child and at first I felt foolish saying the name of God, and then it became another word.
All the while I could hear the water's chant below my voice.
At last I opened my eyes to the same place, my hands cupped and I drank long from the stream, and then turned for home not even stopping to find the thistle that blazed by my path.
Since then I have gone home to the city of my birth and found it gone, a gray and treeless one now in its place.
The one house I loved the most simply missing in a row of houses, the park where I napped on summer days fenced and locked, the great shop where we forged, a plane of rubble, the old hurt faces turned away.
My brother was with me, thickened by the years, but still my brother, and when we embraced I felt the rough cheek and his hand upon my back tapping as though to tell me, I know! I know! brother, I know! Here in California a new day begins.
Full dull clouds ride in from the sea, and this dry valley calls out for rain.
My brother has risen hours ago and hobbled to the shower and gone out into the city of death to trade his life for nothing because this is the world.
I could pray now, but not to die, for that will come one day or another.
I could pray for his bad leg or my son John whose luck is rotten, or for four new teeth, but instead I watch my eucalyptus, the giant in my front yard, bucking and swaying in the wind and hear its tidal roar.
In the strange new light the leaves overflow purple and gold, and a fiery dust showers into the day.

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 | |

On The Meeting Of García Lorca And Hart Crane

 Brooklyn, 1929.
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 to another.
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.
The two 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.
It gives us the myths we live by.
Let's bless 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!

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.