Philip Levine |
On March 1, 1958, four deserters from the French Army of North Africa,
August Rein, Henri Bruette, Jack Dauville, & Thomas Delain, robbed a
government pay station at Orleansville.
Because of the subsequent
confession of Dauville the other three were captured or shot.
was given his freedom and returned to the land of his birth, the U.
from a last camp near St.
I dig in the soft earth all
afternoon, spacing the holes
a foot or so from the wall.
Tonight we eat potatoes,
tomorrow rice and carrots.
The earth here is like the earth
nowhere, ancient with wood rot.
How can anything come forth,
I wonder; and the days are
all alike, if there is more
than one day.
If there is more
of this I will not endure.
I have grown so used to being
watched I can no longer sleep
without my watcher.
I fought against, the dark cape,
crimsoned with terror that
I so hated comforts me now.
Thomas is dead; insanity,
prison, cowardice, or slow
has found us all, and all men
turn from us, knowing our pain
is not theirs or caused by them.
from a hospital in Algiers
Dear Suzanne: this letter will
not reach you because I can't
write it; I have no pencil,
no paper, only the blunt
end of my anger.
if I had words how could I
report the imperfect failure
for which I began to die?
I might begin by saying
that it was for clarity,
though I did not find it in
entered each act, unsure
of who I was and what I
did, touching my face for fear
I was another inside
my head I played back pictures
of my childhood, of my wife
even, for it was in her
I found myself beaten, safe,
and furthest from the present.
It is her face I see now
though all I say is meant
for you, her face in the slow
agony of sexual
I cannot see you.
The dark wall ribbed with spittle
on which I play my childhood
brings me to this bed, mastered
by what I was, betrayed by
those I trusted.
The one word
my mouth must open to is why.
from a hotel in Tampa, Florida
From Orleansville we drove
south until we reached the hills,
then east until
the road stopped.
I was nervous
and couldn't eat.
over, told us when to think
and when to shit.
We turned north and reached Blida
by first dawn and the City
by morning, having dumped our
weapons beside an empty
We were free.
We parted, and to this hour
I haven't seen them, except
in photographs: the black hair
and torn features
of Thomas Delain captured
a moment before his death
on the pages of the world,
smeared in the act.
myself with their
betrayal: alone I hurled
them into freedom, inner
freedom which I can't find
nor ever will
until they are dead.
In my mind
Delain stands against the wall
precise in detail, steadied
for the betrayal.
C'Est Moi," he cried,
but the irony was lost.
I returned to the U.
nothing goes well.
I stay up
too late, don't sleep,
and am losing weight.
I say, is dead, but what use
telling myself what I won't
The hotel quiets
early at night,
the aged brace themselves for
another sleep, and offshore
the sea quickens its pace.
old, caught in a strange country
for which no man would die.
from a journal found on his person
At night wakened by the freight
trains boring through the suburbs
of Lyon, I watched first light
corrode the darkness, disturb
what little wildlife was left
in the alleys: birds moved from
branch to branch, and the dogs leapt
at the garbage.
even the hearts of the young
who had only their hearts.
heard the war coming; the long
wait was over, and we moved
along the crowded roads south
not looking for what lost loves
fell by the roadsides.
at all cost, that was my youth.
Here in the African night
wakened by what I do not
know and shivering in the heat,
listen as the men fight
Loosed from their weapons
they cry out, frightened and young,
who have never been children.
Once merely to be strong,
to live, was moral.
these uniforms we accept
the evil we were chosen
to deliver, and no act
human or benign can free
us from ourselves.
Wait, sleep, blind
soldiers of a blind will, and
listen for that old command
dreaming of authority.
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 |
Some days I catch a rhythm, almost a song
in my own breath.
I'm alone here
in Brooklyn Heights, late morning, the sky
above the St.
George Hotel clear, clear
for New York, that is.
The radio playing
"Bird Flight," Parker in his California
tragic voice fifty years ago, his faltering
"Lover Man" just before he crashed into chaos.
I would guess that outside the recording studio
in Burbank the sun was high above the jacarandas,
it was late March, the worst of yesterday's rain
had come and gone, the sky washed blue.
could have seen for miles if he'd looked, but what
he saw was so foreign he clenched his eyes,
shook his head, and barked like a dog--just once--
and then Howard McGhee took his arm and assured him
he'd be OK.
I know this because Howard told me
years later that he thought Bird could
lie down in the hotel room they shared, sleep
for an hour or more, and waken as himself.
The perfect sunlight angles into my little room
above Willow Street.
I listen to my breath
come and go and try to catch its curious taste,
part milk, part iron, part blood, as it passes
from me into the world.
This is not me,
this is automatic, this entering and exiting,
my body's essential occupation without which
I am a thing.
The whole process has a name,
a word I don't know, an elegant word not
in English or Yiddish or Spanish, a word
that means nothing to me.
Howard truly believed
what he said that day when he steered
Parker into a cab and drove the silent miles
beside him while the bright world
unfurled around them: filling stations, stands
of fruits and vegetables, a kiosk selling trinkets
from Mexico and the Philippines.
It was all
so actual and Western, it was a new creation
coming into being, like the music of Charlie Parker
someone later called "glad," though that day
I would have said silent, "the silent music
of Charlie Parker.
" Howard said nothing.
He paid the driver and helped Bird up two flights
to their room, got his boots off, and went out
to let him sleep as the afternoon entered
the history of darkness.
I'm not judging
Howard, he did better than I could have
now or then.
Then I was 19, working
on the loading docks at Railway Express
coming day by day into the damaged body
of a man while I sang into the filthy air
the Yiddish drinking songs my Zadie taught me
before his breath failed.
Now Howard is gone,
eleven long years gone, the sweet voice silenced.
"The subtle bridge between Eldridge and Navarro,"
they later wrote, all that rising passion
a footnote to others.
I remember in '85
walking the halls of Cass Tech, the high school
where he taught after his performing days,
when suddenly he took my left hand in his
two hands to tell me it all worked out
for the best.
Maybe he'd gotten religion,
maybe he knew how little time was left,
maybe that day he was just worn down
by my questions about Parker.
To him Bird
was truly Charlie Parker, a man, a silent note
going out forever on the breath of genius
which now I hear soaring above my own breath
as this bright morning fades into afternoon.
Music, I'll call it music.
It's what we need
as the sun staggers behind the low gray clouds
blowing relentlessly in from that nameless ocean,
the calm and endless one I've still to cross.
Philip Levine |
Rain filled the streets
once a year, rising almost
to door and window sills,
battering walls and roofs
until it cleaned away the mess
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
out into the golden sunlight;
the cobbled streets gleamed
as after rain, the street cafes
crowded and alive.
far off the great bell
of the Westerkirk tolled
in the early evening.
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
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.
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
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.
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 |
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 |
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 |
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.
Philip Levine |
The first time I drank gin
I thought it must be hair tonic.
My brother swiped the bottle
from a guy whose father owned
a drug store that sold booze
in those ancient, honorable days
when we acknowledged the stuff
was a drug.
Three of us passed
the bottle around, each tasting
for this? People had to have
it, the way we had to have
the women we never got near.
(Actually they were girls, but
never mind, the important fact
was their impenetrability.
Leo, the third foolish partner,
suggested my brother should have
swiped Canadian whiskey or brandy,
but Eddie defended his choice
on the grounds of the expressions
"gin house" and "gin lane," both
of which indicated the preeminence
of gin in the world of drinking,
a world we were entering without
understanding how difficult
exit might be.
Maybe the bliss
that came with drinking came
only after a certain period
it to the holy man's self-flagellation
to experience the fullness of faith.
(He was very well read for a kid
of fourteen in the public schools.
So we dug in and passed the bottle
around a second time and then a third,
in the silence each of us expecting
"You get used
to it," Leo said.
like it but you get used to it.
I know now that brain cells
were dying for no earthly purpose,
that three boys were becoming
even as they took into themselves
these spirits, but I thought then
I was at last sharing the world
with the movie stars, that before
long I would be shaving because
I needed to, that hair would
sprout across the flat prairie
of my chest and plunge even
to my groin, that first girls
and then women would be drawn
to my qualities.
some of this took place, but
first the bottle had to be
emptied, and then the three boys
had to empty themselves of all
they had so painfully taken in
and by means even more painful
as they bowed by turns over
the eye of the toilet bowl
to discharge their shame.
lay cigarettes, the futility
of guaranteed programs of
exercise, the elaborate lies
of conquest no one believed,
forms of sexual torture and
rejection undreamed of.
lay our fifteenth birthdays,
acne, deodorants, crabs, salves,
butch haircuts, draft registration,
the military and political victories
of Dwight Eisenhower, who brought us
Richard Nixon with wife and dog.
Any wonder we tried gin.