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For The Country


This has nothing to do with war 
or the end of the world.
She dreams there are gray starlings on the winter lawn and the buds of next year's oranges alongside this year's oranges, and the sun is still up, a watery circle of fire settling into the sky at dinner time, but there's no flame racing through the house or threatening the bed.
When she wakens the phone is ringing in a distant room, but she doesn't go to answer it.
No one is home with her, and the cars passing before the house hiss in the rain.
"My children!" she almost says, but there are no longer children at home, there are no longer those who would turn to her, their faces running with tears, and ask her forgiveness.
THE WAR The Michigan Central Terminal the day after victory.
Her brother home from Europe after years of her mother's terror, and he still so young but now with the dark shadow of a beard, holding her tightly among all the others calling for their wives or girls.
That night in the front room crowded with family and neighbors -- he was first back on the block -- he sat cross-legged on the floor still in his wool uniform, smoking and drinking as he spoke of passing high over the dark cities she'd only read about.
He'd wanted to go back again and again.
He'd wanted to do this for the country, for this -- a small house with upstairs bedrooms -- so he'd asked to go on raid after raid as though he hungered to kill or be killed.
THE PRESIDENT Today on television men will enter space and return, men she cannot imagine.
Lost in gigantic paper suits, they move like sea creatures.
A voice will crackle from out there where no voices are speaking of the great theater of conquest, of advancing beyond the simple miracles of flight, the small ventures of birds and beasts.
The President will answer with words she cannot remember having spoken ever to anyone.
THE PHONE CALL She calls Chicago, but no one is home.
The operator asks for another number but still no one answers.
Together they try twenty-one numbers, and at each no one is ever home.
"Can I call Baltimore?" she asks.
She can, but she knows no one in Baltimore, no one in St.
Louis, Boston, Washington.
She imagines herself standing before the glass wall high over Lake Shore Drive, the cars below fanning into the city.
East she can see all the way to Gary and the great gray clouds of exhaustion rolling over the lake where her vision ends.
This is where her brother lives.
At such height there's nothing, no birds, no growing, no noise.
She leans her sweating forehead against the cold glass, shudders, and puts down the receiver.
THE GARDEN Wherever she turns her garden is alive and growing.
The thin spears of wild asparagus, shaft of tulip and flag, green stain of berry buds along the vines, even in the eaten leaf of pepper plants and clipped stalk of snap bean.
Mid-afternoon and already the grass is dry under the low sun.
Bluejay and dark capped juncos hidden in dense foliage waiting the sun's early fall, when she returns alone to hear them call and call back, and finally in the long shadows settle down to rest and to silence in the sudden rising chill.
THE GAME Two boys are playing ball in the backyard, throwing it back and forth in the afternoon's bright sunshine as a black mongrel big as a shepherd races from one to the other.
She hides behind the heavy drapes in her dining room and listens, but they're too far.
Who are they? They move about her yard as though it were theirs.
Are they the sons of her sons? They've taken off their shirts, and she sees they're not boys at all -- a dark smudge of hair rises along the belly of one --, and now they have the dog down thrashing on his back, snarling and flashing his teeth, and they're laughing.
AFTER DINNER She's eaten dinner talking back to the television, she's had coffee and brandy, done the dishes and drifted into and out of sleep over a book she found beside the couch.
It's time for bed, but she goes instead to the front door, unlocks it, and steps onto the porch.
Behind her she can hear only the silence of the house.
The lights throw her shadow down the stairs and onto the lawn, and she walks carefully to meet it.
Now she's standing in the huge, whispering arena of night, hearing her own breath tearing out of her like the cries of an animal.
She could keep going into whatever the darkness brings, she could find a presence there her shaking hands could hold instead of each other.
SLEEP A dark sister lies beside her all night, whispering that it's not a dream, that fire has entered the spaces between one face and another.
There will be no wakening.
When she wakens, she can't catch her own breath, so she yells for help.
It comes in the form of sleep.
They whisper back and forth, using new words that have no meaning to anyone.
The aspen shreds itself against her window.
The oranges she saw that day in her yard explode in circles of oil, the few stars quiet and darken.
They go on, two little girls up long past their hour, playing in bed.

Poem by Philip Levine
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Book: Reflection on the Important Things