Philip Levine was an American poet best known for his poems about working-class Detroit. He taught for more than thirty years in the English department of California State University, Fresno and held teaching positions at other universities as well.
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Famous Philip Levine Poems
And The Trains Go On
We stood at the back door
of the shop in the night air
while a line of box cars
of soured wheat and pop bottles
uncoupled and was sent creaking
down our spur. Once, when I
unsealed a car and the two
of us strained the door open
with a groan of rust, an old man
stepped out and tipped his hat.
‘It’s all yours, boys!’
and he went off, stiff-legged,
smelling of straw and shit.
I often wonder whose father
he was and how long he kept
moving until the police
found him, ticketless, sleeping
in a 2nd class waiting room
and tore the cardboard box
out of his hands and beat him
until the ink of his birth smudged
and surrendered its separate vowels.
In the great railyard of Milano
the dog with the white throat
and the soiled muzzle crossed
and recrossed the tracks
‘searching for his master,’
said the boy, but his grandfather
said, ‘No. He was sent by God
to test the Italian railroads.’
When I lie down at last to sleep
inside a boxcar of coffins bound
for the villages climbing north
will I waken in a small station
where women have come to claim
what is left of glory? Or will
I sleep until the silver bridge
spanning the Mystic River jabs
me awake, and I am back
in a dirty work shirt that says Phil,
24 years old, hungry and lost, on
the run from a war no one can win?
I want to travel one more time
with the wind whipping in
the open door, with you to keep
me company, back the long
tangled road that leads us home.
Through Flat Rock going east
picking up speed, the damp fields
asleep in moonlight. You stand
beside me, breathing the cold
in silence. When you grip
my arm hard and lean way out
and shout out the holy names
of the lost neither of us is scared
and our tears mean nothing.
Breakfasts With Joachim
Sunday morning at Mel’s Country Kitchen,
the place quiet, the locals bowing
to their heaped plates, Joachim let go with,
‘The Jews done it! ‘ A dozen forks clattered,
the place grew eerie, and then he added
in fake Okie, ‘Moses went up that hill
to bring back God’s word for us here.’
Everyone went back to stuffing their faces;
Joachim nibbled on dry toast and sipped
his unsweetened tea. Why he wanted people
to think he was a gun-toting redneck
I never knew. Except for his time in Spain
I doubted he’d fired a gun. He wouldn’t talk
about those years except to say, only once,
‘I was just a kid looking for adventure.’
I found his name in an obscure history
of the Lincoln Brigade: ‘Joachim Barron,
missing in action, Teruel, 1937,’
a notation he refused to clarify.
After breakfast we drove to the river
to exercise his little gray mongrel, Ginsberg,
who adored him. ‘Howl! ‘ he commanded.
The mutt raised his muzzle and let go
with a long, mournful wail. I confess
I adored him, too, especially then, walking
the river bank overgrown with burdocks,
milkweed, thistles in early October.
Joachim in his blue suit and cordovans
bowing to inspect whatever dried blooms
he found and to confer their Latin
designations. ‘Gold! ‘ he once shouted, holding
out a stone as Ginsberg danced around him.
‘Really,’ I said. ‘No, beautiful, worthless mica.’
With spit he brought the grays and browns
swimming to the surface. The true gold
was Joachim, dressed like a viceroy except
for a tired black and red scarf, brought back
from Spain, stained with the earth of Catalunya,
‘What they buried the good Machado in
in ’39.’ His perfect loafers sinking
in mud, he recited the opening stanzas
of ‘The Crime Was in Granada’ and added,
‘The only bad poem he ever wrote.’
Even when he was most alive I doubt
he knew he embodied what he worshipped,
the exquisite in the commonplace, or that
he dreamed the daily world could turn
on him that fast and all he treasured turn
to dust or nothing and leave me hunting
for what I’d never find, salt for the spirit.
Los Angeles hums
a little tune —
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
The childish photographs,
the letters and cards
scatter at last.
The dead burn alone
I bend to the ground
across the ditches.
The heaviness of
in orbit, dirt
ripening, the sweat
the width ofa thumb
running in the villages
of sheaves, whole
eras of grain
the stalks, a roof
that breathes over
the tracks creaking
like a harness,
an abandoned bicycle
that cries and cries,
a bottle of common
wine that won’t
At such times
I expect the earth
to pronounce. I say,
“I’ve been waiting
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.
Los Angeles hums
a little tune —
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
The childish photographs,
the letters and cards
scatter at last.
The dead burn alone
Submitted by Glenn Cooper
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?
The day comes slowly in the railyard
behind the ice factory. It broods on
one cinder after another until each
glows like lead or the eye of a dog
possessed of no inner fire, the brown
and greasy pointer who raises his muzzle
a moment and sighing lets it thud
down on the loading dock. In no time
the day has crossed two sets of tracks,
a semi-trailer with no tractor, and crawled
down three stories of the bottling plant
at the end of the alley. It is now
less than five hours until mid-day
when nothing will be left in doubt,
each scrap of news, each banished carton,
each forgotten letter, its ink bled of lies,
will stare back at the one eye that sees
it all and never blinks. But for now
there is water settling in a clean glass
on the shelf beside the razor, the slap
of bare feet on the floor above. Soon
the scent of rivers borne across roof
after roof by winds without names,
the aroma of opened beds better left
closed, of mouths without teeth, of light
rustling among the mice droppings
at the back of a bin of potatoes.
The old man who sleeps among the cases
of empty bottles in a little nest of rags
and newspapers at the back of the plant
is not an old man. He is twenty years
younger than I am now putting this down
in permanent ink on a yellow legal pad
during a crisp morning in October.
When he fell from a high pallet, his sleeve
caught on a nail and spread his arms
like a figure out of myth. His head
tore open on a spear of wood, and he
swore in French. No, he didn’t want
a doctor. He wanted toilet paper
and a drink, which were fetched. He used
the tiny bottle of whisky to straighten
out his eyes and the toilet paper to clean
his pants, fouled in the fall, and he did
both with seven teenage boys looking on
in wonder and fear. At last the blood
slowed and caked above his ear, and he
never once touched the wound. Instead,
in a voice no one could hear, he spoke
to himself, probably in French, and smoked
sitting back against a pallet, his legs
thrust out on the damp cement floor.
In his white coveralls, crisp and pressed,
Teddy the Polack told us a fat tit
would stop a toothache, two a headache.
He told it to anyone who asked, and grinned —
the small eyes watering at the corners —
as Alcibiades might have grinned
when at last he learned that love leads
even the body beloved to a moment
in the present when desire calms, the skin
glows, the soul takes the light of day,
even a working day in 1944.
For Baharozian at seventeen the present
was a gift. Seeing my ashen face,
the cold sweats starting, he seated me
in a corner of the boxcar and did
both our jobs, stacking the full cases
neatly row upon row and whistling
the songs of Kate Smith. In the bathroom
that night I posed naked before the mirror,
the new cross of hair staining my chest,
plunging to my groin. That was Wednesday,
for every Wednesday ended in darkness.
One of those teenage boys was my brother.
That night as we lay in bed, the lights
out, we spoke of Froggy, of how at first
we thought he would die and how little
he seemed to care as the blood rose
to fill and overflow his ear. Slowly
the long day came over us and our breath
quieted and eased at last, and we slept.
When I close my eyes now his bare legs
glow before me again, pure and lovely
in their perfect whiteness, the buttocks
dimpled and firm. I see again the rope
of his sex, unwrinkled, flushed and swaying,
the hard flat belly as he raises his shirt
to clean himself. He gazes at no one
or nothing, but seems instead to look off
into a darkness I hadn’t seen, a pool
of shadow that forms before his eyes,
in my memory now as solid as onyx.
I began this poem in the present
because nothing is past. The ice factory,
the bottling plant, the cindered yard
all gave way to a low brick building
a block wide and windowless where they
designed gun mounts for personnel carriers
that never made it to Korea. My brother
rises early, and on clear days he walks
to the corner to have toast and coffee.
Seventeen winters have melted into an earth
of stone, bottle caps, and old iron to carry
off the hard remains of Froggy Frenchman
without a blessing or a stone to bear it.
A little spar of him the size of a finger,
pointed and speckled as though blood-flaked,
washed ashore from Lake Erie near Buffalo
before the rest slipped down the falls out
into the St. Lawrence. He could be at sea,
he could be part of an ocean, by now
he could even be home. This morning I
rose later than usual in a great house
full of sunlight, but I believe it came
down step by step on each wet sheet
of wooden siding before it crawled
from the ceiling and touched my pillow
to waken me. When I heave myself
out of this chair with a great groan of age
and stand shakily, the three mice still
in the wall. From across the lots
the wind brings voices I can’t make out,
scraps of song or sea sounds, daylight
breaking into dust, the perfume of waiting
rain, of onions and potatoes frying.
December, and still no mon
rising from the river.
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
while the Polish music wheezed.
I’m drunk, she says,
and knows she’s not. In her chair
undoing brassiere and garters
and waits for the need
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
staining her lap.
The Distant Winter
from an officer’s diary during the last war
The sour daylight cracks through my sleep-caked lids.
“Stephan! Stephan!” The rattling orderly
Comes on a trot, the cold tray in his hands:
Toast whitening with oleo, brown tea,
Yesterday’s napkins, and an opened letter.
“Your asthma’s bad, old man.” He doesn’t answer,
And turns to the grey windows and the weather.
“Don’t worry, Stephan, the lungs will go to cancer.”
I speak, “the enemy’s exhausted, victory
Is almost ours…” These twenty new recruits,
Conscripted for the battles lost already,
Were once the young, exchanging bitter winks,
And shuffling when I rose to eloquence,
Determined not to die and not to show
The fear that held them in their careless stance,
And yet they died, how many wars ago?
Or came back cream puffs, 45, and fat.
I know that I am touched for my eyes brim
With tears I had forgotten. Death is not
For these car salesmen whose only dream
Is of a small percentage of the take.
Oh my eternal smilers, weep for death
Whose harvest withers with your aged aches
And cannot make the grave for lack of breath.
Did you wet? Oh no, he had not wet.
How could he say it, it was hard to say
Because he did not understand it yet.
It had to do, maybe, with being away,
With being here where nothing seemed to matter.
It will be better, you will see tomorrow,
I told him, in a while it will be better,
And all the while staring from the mirror
I saw those eyes, my eyes devouring me.
I cannot fire my rifle, I’m aftaid
Even to aim at what I cannot see.
This was his voice, or was it mine I heard?
How do I know that in this foul latrine
I calmed a soldier, infantile, manic?
Could he be real with such eyes pinched between
The immense floating shoulders of his tunic?
Around the table where the map is spread
The officers gather. Now the colonel leans
Into the blinkered light from overhead
And with a penknife improvises plans
For our departure. Plans delivered by
An old staff courier on his bicycle.
One looks at him and wonders does he say,
I lean out and I let my shadow fall
Shouldering the picture that we call the world
And there is darkness? Does he say such things?
Or is there merely silence in his head?
Or other voices which the silence rings?
Such a fine skull and forehead, broad and flat,
The eyes opaque and slightly animal.
I can come closer to a starving cat,
I can read hunger in its eyes and feel
In the irregular motions of its tail
A need that I could feel. He slips his knife
Into the terminal where we entrain
And something seems to issue from my life.
In the mice-sawed potato fields dusk waits.
My dull ones march by fours on the playground,
Kicking up dust; The column hesitates
As though in answer to the rising wind,
To darkness and the coldness it must enter.
Listen, my heroes, my half frozen men,
The corporal calls us to that distant winter
Where we will merge the nothingness within.
And they salute as one and stand at peace.
Keeping an arm’s distance from everything,
I answer them, knowing they see no face
Between my helmet and my helmet thong.
But three more days and we’ll be moving out.
The cupboard of the state is bare, no one,
Not God himself, can raise another recruit.
Drinking my hot tea, listening to the rain,
I sit while Stephan packs, grumbling a bit.
He breaks the china that my mother sent,
Her own first china, as a wedding gift.
“Now that your wife is dead, Captain, why can’t
The two of us really make love together?”
I cannot answer. When I lift a plate
It seems I almost hear my long-dead mother
Saying, Watch out, the glass is underfoot.
Stephan is touching me. “Captain, why not?
Three days from now and this will all be gone.
It no longer is!” Son, you don’t shout,
In the long run it doesn’t help the pain.
I gather the brittle bits and cut my finger
On the chipped rim of my wife’s favorite glass,
And cannot make the simple bleeding linger.
“Captain, Captain, there’s no one watching us.”
Salts And Oils
In Havana in 1948 I ate fried dog
believing it was Peking duck. Later,
in Tampa I bunked with an insane sailor
who kept a .38 Smith and Wesson in his shorts.
In the same room were twins, oilers
from Toledo, who argued for hours
each night whose turn it was
to get breakfast and should he turn
the eggs or not. On the way north
I lived for three days on warm water
in a DC-6 with a burned out radio
on the runway at Athens, Georgia. We sang
a song, “Georgia’s Big Behind,” and prayed
for WWIII and complete, unconditional surrender.
Napping in an open field near Newport News,
I chewed on grass while the shadows of September
lengthened; in the distance a man hammered
on the roof of a hangar and groaned how he
was out of luck and vittles. Bummed a ride
in from Mitchell Field and had beet borscht
and white bread at 34th and 8th Avenue.
I threw up in the alley behind the YMCA
and slept until they turned me out.
I walked the bridge to Brooklyn
while the East River browned below.
A mile from Ebbetts Field, from all
that history, I found Murray, my papa’s
buddy, in his greasy truck shop, polishing
replacement parts. Short, unshaven, puffed,
he strutted the filthy aisles,
a tiny Ghengis Khan. He sent out for soup
and sandwiches. The world turned on barley,
pickled meats, yellow mustard, kasha,
rye breads. It rained in October, rained
so hard I couldn’t walk and smoke, so I
chewed pepsin chewing gum. The rain
spoiled Armistice Day in Lancaster, Pa.
The open cars overflowed, girls cried,
the tubas and trombones went dumb,
the floral displays shredded, the gutters
clogged with petals. Afterwards had ham
on buttered whole-wheat bread, ham
and butter for the first time
on the same day in Zanesville with snow
forecast, snow, high winds, closed roads,
solid darkness before 5 p.m. These were not
the labors of Hercules, these were not
of meat or moment to anyone but me
or destined for story or to learn from
or to make me fit to take the hand
of a toad or a toad princess or to stand
in line for food stamps. One quiet morning
at the end of my thirteenth year a little bird
with a dark head and tattered tail feathers
had come to the bedroom window and commanded
me to pass through the winding miles
of narrow dark corridors and passageways
of my growing body the filth and glory
of the palatable world. Since then I’ve
been going out and coming back
the way a swallow does with unerring grace
and foreknowledge because all of this
was prophesied in the final, unread book
of the Midrash and because I have to
grow up and because it pleases me.
The New World
A man roams the streets with a basket
of freestone peaches hollering, “Peaches,
peaches, yellow freestone peaches for sale.”
My grandfather in his prime could outshout
the Tigers of Wrath or the factory whistles
along the river. Hamtramck hungered
for yellow freestone peaches, downriver
wakened from a dream of work, Zug Island danced
into the bright day glad to be alive.
Full-figured women in their negligees
streamed into the streets from the dark doorways
to demand in Polish or Armenian
the ripened offerings of this new world.
Josef Prisckulnick out of Dubrovitsa
to Detroit by way of Ellis Island
raised himself regally to his full height
of five feet two and transacted until
the fruit was gone into those eager hands.
Thus would there be a letter sent across
an ocean and a continent, and thus
would Sadie waken to the news of wealth
without limit in the bright and distant land,
and thus bags were packed and she set sail
for America. Some of this is true.
The women were gaunt. All day the kids dug
in the back lots searching for anything.
The place was Russia with another name.
Joe was five feet two. Dubrovitsa burned
to gray ashes the west wind carried off,
then Rovno went, then the Dnieper turned to dust.
We sat around the table telling lies
while the late light filled an empty glass.
Bread, onions, the smell of burning butter,
small white potatoes we shared with no one
because the hour was wrong, the guest was late,
and this was Michigan in 1928.
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
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.
You pull over to the shoulder
of the two-lane
road and sit for a moment wondering
where you were going
in such a hurry. The valley is burned
out, the oaks
dream day and night of rain
that never comes.
At noon or just before noon
the short shadows
are gray and hold what little
In the still heat the engine
the real heat is hours ahead.
You get out and step
cautiously over a low wire
fence and begin
the climb up the yellowed hill.
A hundred feet
ahead the trunks of two
rust; something passes over
them, a lizard
perhaps or a trick of sight.
The next tree
you pass is unfamiliar,
the trunk dark,
as black as an olive’s; the low
out, gnarled and dull: a carob
or a Joshua tree.
A sudden flaring-up ahead,
bird rises from nowhere,
underneath its wings, and is gone.
You hear your own
breath catching in your ears,
a roaring, a sea
sound that goes on and on
until you lean
forward to place both hands
— fingers spread —
into the bleached grasses
and let your knees
slowly down. Your breath slows
and you know
you’re back in central
on your way to San Francisco
or the coastal towns
with their damp sea breezes
even a hint of. But first
you must cross
the Pacheco Pass. People
expect you, and yet
you remain, still leaning forward
into the grasses
that if you could hear them
would tell you
all you need to know about
the life ahead.
. . .
Out of a sense of modesty
or to avoid the truth
I’ve been writing in the second
person, but in truth
it was I, not you, who pulled
the green Ford
over to the side of the road
and decided to get
up that last hill to look
back at the valley
he’d come to call home.
I can’t believe
that man, only thirty-two,
less than half
my age, could be the person
fashioning these lines.
That was late July of ’60.
I had heard
all about magpies, how they
snooped and meddled
in the affairs of others, not
birds so much
as people. If you dared
to remove a wedding
ring as you washed away
the stickiness of love
or the cherished odors of another
man or woman,
as you turned away
from the mirror
having admired your new-found
potency — humming
“My Funny Valentine” or
“Body and Soul” —
to reach for a rough towel
or some garment
on which to dry yourself,
he would enter
the open window behind you
that gave gratefully
onto the fields and the roads
bathed in dawn —
he, the magpie — and snatch
up the ring
in his hard beak and shoulder
his way back
into the currents of the world
on his way
to the only person who could
change your life:
a king or a bride or an old woman
asleep on her porch.
. . .
Can you believe the bird
stood beside you
just long enough, though far
smaller than you
but fearless in a way
a man or woman
could never be? An apparition
with two dark
and urgent eyes and motions
so quick and precise
they were barely motions at all?
When he was gone
you turned, alarmed by the rustling
of oily feathers
and the curious pungency,
and were sure
you’d heard him say the words
that could explain
the meaning of blond grasses
burning on a hillside
beneath the hands of a man
in the middle of
his life caught in the posture
of prayer. I’d
heard that a magpie could talk,
so I waited
for the words, knowing without
the least doubt
what he’d do, for up ahead
an old woman
waited on her wide front porch.
behind her house played
in a silted pond
poking sticks at the slow
carp that flashed
in the fallen sunlight. You
only once in your life, and though
too quickly, you pray for
heat to pass. It does, and
the year turns
before it holds still for
even a moment.
Beyond the last carob
or Joshua tree
the magpie flashes his sudden
wings; a second
flames and vanishes into the pale
July 23, 1960.
I lean down
closer to hear the burned grasses
whisper all I
need to know. The words rise
around me, separate
and finite. A yellow dust
rises and stops
caught in the noon’s driving light.
Three ants pass
across the back of my reddened
Everything is speaking or singing.
We’re still here.
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. Dauville
was given his freedom and returned to the land of his birth, the U.S.A.
from a last camp near St. Remy
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. The thing
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. My dear,
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
release. 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. Thomas took
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
road. 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. I tortured
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. “La France
C’Est Moi,” he cried,
but the irony was lost. Since
I returned to the U.S.
nothing goes well. I stay up
too late, don’t sleep,
and am losing weight. Thomas,
I say, is dead, but what use
telling myself what I won’t
believe. The hotel quiets
early at night,
the aged brace themselves for
another sleep, and offshore
the sea quickens its pace. I
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. Winter numbed
even the hearts of the young
who had only their hearts. We
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. To flee
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
with sleep. Loosed from their weapons
they cry out, frightened and young,
who have never been children.
Once merely to be strong,
to live, was moral. Within
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.
“Hill of Jews,” says one,
named for a cemetery
long gone.”Hill of Jove,”
says another, and maybe
Jove stalked here
once or rests now
where so many lie
who felt God swell
the earth and burn
along the edges
of their breath.
Almost seventy years
since a troop of cavalry
jingled up the silent road,
dismounted, and loaded
their rifles to deliver
the fusillade into
the small, soft body
of Ferrer, who would
not beg God’s help.
Later, two carpenters
came, carrying his pine
coffin on their heads,
two men out of movies
not yet made, and near dark
the body was unchained
and fell a last time
onto the stones.
Four soldiers carried
the box, sweating
and resting by turns,
to where the fresh hole
waited, and the world went
back to sleep.
The sea, still dark
as a blind eye,
grumbles at dusk,
the air deepens and a chill
suddenly runs along
my back. I have come
foolishly bearing red roses
for all those whose blood
spotted the cold floors
of these cells. If I
could give a measure
of my own for each
endless moment of pain,
well, what good
would that do? You
are asleep, brothers
and sisters, and maybe
that was all the God
of this old hill could
give you. It wasn’t
he who filled your
lungs with the power
to raise your voices
against stone, steel,
the pain exploding
in your own skulls,
against the unbreakable
walls of the State.
No, not he. That
was the gift only
the dying could hand
from one of you
to the other, a gift
like these roses I fling
off into the night.
You chose no God
but each other, head,
belly, groin, heart, you
chose the lonely road
back down these hills
empty handed, breath
steaming in the cold
March night, or worse,
the wrong roads
that led to black earth
and the broken seed
of your body. The sea
spreads below, still
as dark and heavy
as oil. As I
descend step by step
a wind picks up and hums
through the low trees
along the way, like
the heavens’ last groan
or a song being born.
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. Later
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. At first
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.
“I’ve been where it hurts.” the Kid
He becomes Sierra Kid
I passed Slimgullion, Morgan Mine,
Camp Seco, and the rotting Lode.
Dark walls of sugar pine –,
And where I left the road
I left myself behind;
Talked to no one, thought
Of nothing. When my luck ran out
Lived on berries, nuts, bleached grass.
Driven by the wind
Through great Sonora pass,
I found an Indian’s teeth;
Turned and climbed again
Without direction, compass, path,
Without a way of coming down,
Until I stopped somewhere
And gave the place a name.
I called the forests mine;
Whatever I could hear
I took to be a voice: a man
Was something I would never hear.
He faces his second winter in the Sierra
A hard brown bug, maybe a beetle,
Packing a ball of sparrow shit —
What shall I call it?
Shit beetle? Why’s it pushing here
At this great height in the thin air
With its ridiculous waddle
Up the hard side of Hard Luck Hill?
And the furred thing that frightened me —
Bobcat, coyote, wild dog —
Flat eyes in winter bush, stiff tail
Holding his ground, a rotted log.
Grass snakes that wouldn’t die,
And night hawks hanging on the rim
Of what was mine. I know them now;
They have absorbed a mind
Which must endure the freezing snow
They endure and, freezing, find
A clear sustaining stream.
He learns to lose
She was afraid
The little Digger girl.
Pah Utes had killed
Her older brother
Who may have been her lover
The way she cried
Over his ring —
The heavy brass
On the heavy hand.
She carried it for weeks
Clenched in her fist
As if it might
Keep out the loneliness
Or the plain fact
That he was gone.
When the first snows
Began to fall
She stopped her crying, picked
Berries, sweet grass,
Mended her clothes
And sewed a patchwork shawl.
We slept together
But did not speak.
It may have been
The Pah Utes took
Her off, perhaps her kin.
I came back
To find her gone
With half the winter left
To face alone —
The slow grey dark
The dark tipped grass
Between the numbed pines.
Night after night
For four long months
My face to her dark face
We two had lain
Till the first light.
Civilization comes to Sierra Kid
They levelled Tater Hill
And I was sick.
First sun, and the chain saws
Coming on; blue haze,
Dull blue exhaust
Rising, dust rising, and the smell.
Moving from their thatched huts
The crazed wood rats
By the thousand; grouse, spotted quail
Abandoning the hills
For the sparse trail
On which, exposed, I also packed.
Six weeks. I went back down
Through my own woods
Afraid of what I knew they’d done.
There, there, an A&P,
And not a tree
For Miles, and mammoth hills of goods.
Fat men in uniforms,
Young men in aprons
With one face shouting, “He is mad!”
I answered: “I am Lincoln,
The aging son of Appleseed.
“I am American
And I am cold.”
But not a one would hear me out.
Oh God, what have I seen
That was not sold!
They shot an old man in the gut.
Mad, dying, Sierra Kid enters the capital
What have I changed?
I unwound burdocks from my hair
And scalded stains
Of the black grape
And hid beneath long underwear
The yellowed tape.
Who will they find
In the dark woods of the dark mind
Now I have gone
Into the world?
Across the blazing civic lawn
A shadow’s hurled
And I must follow.
Something slides beneath my vest
Like melted tallow,
Thick but thin,
Burning where it comes to rest
On what was skin.
Who will they find?
A man with no eyes in his head?
Or just a mind
Calm and alone?
Or just a mouth, silent, dead,
The lips half gone?
Will they presume
That someone once was half alive
And that the air
Was massive where
The sickening pyracanthus thrive
Staining his tomb?
I came to touch
The great heart of a dying state.
Here is the wound!
It makes no sound.
All that we learn we learn too late,
And it’s not much.
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.
Newspaper says the boy killed by someone,
don’t say who. I know the mother, waking,
gets up as usual, washes her face
in cold water, and starts the coffee pot.
She stands by the window up there on floor
sixteen wondering why the street’s so calm
with no cars going or coming, and then
she looks at the wall clock and sees the time.
Now she’s too awake to go back to bed,
she’s too awake not to remember him,
her one son, or to forget exactly
how long yesterday was, each moment dragged
into the next by the force of her will
until she thought this simply cannot be.
She sits at the scarred, white kitchen table,
the two black windows staring back at her,
wondering how she’ll go back to work today.
The windows don’t see anything: they’re black,
eyeless, they give back only what’s given;
sometimes, like now, even less than what’s given,
yet she stares into their two black faces
moving her head from side to side, like this,
just like I’m doing now. Try it awhile,
go ahead, it’s not going to kill you.
Now say something, it doesn’t matter what
you say because all the words are useless:
“I’m sorry for your loss.” “This too will pass.”
“He was who he was.” She won’t hear you out
because she can only hear the torn words
she uses to pray to die. This afternoon
you and I will see her just before four
alight nimbly from the bus, her lunch box
of one sandwich, a thermos of coffee,
a navel orange secured under her arm,
and we’ll look away. Under your breath make
her one promise and keep it forever:
in the little store-front church down the block,
the one with the front windows newspapered,
you won’t come on Saturday or Sunday
to kneel down and pray for life eternal.
He tells me in Bangkok he’s robbed
Because he’s white; in London because he’s black;
In Barcelona, Jew; in Paris, Arab:
Everywhere and at all times, and he fights back.
He holds up seven thick little fingers
To show me he’s rated seventh in the world,
And there’s no passion in his voice, no anger
In the flat brown eyes flecked with blood.
He asks me to tell all I can remember
Of my father, his uncle; he talks of the war
In North Africa and what came after,
The loss of his father, the loss of his brother,
The windows of the bakery smashed and the fresh bread
Dusted with glass, the warm smell of rye
So strong he ate till his mouth filled with blood.
“Here they live, here they live and not die,”
And he points down at his black head ridged
With black kinks of hair. He touches my hair,
Tells me I should never disparage
The stiff bristles that guard the head of the fighter.
Sadly his fingers wander over my face,
And he says how fair I am, how smooth.
We stand to end this first and last visit.
Stiff, 116 pounds, five feet two,
No bigger than a girl, he holds my shoulders,
Kisses my lips, his eyes still open,
My imaginary brother, my cousin,
Myself made otherwise by all his pain.
Three boys down by the river
search for crawdads. One has
hammered a spear from a
curtain rod, and head down,
jeans rolled up to his knees, wades
against the river’s current.
Barely seven, he’s the most
determined. He’ll go home
hours from now with nothing
to show for his efforts except
dirt and sweat and that residue
he’s unaware of sifting
down from a distant sky
and glinting like threads
of mica across his shoulders.
In the distance someone keeps
calling the names of the brothers
in the same order over
and over, but they don’t hear
what with the river bank gorged
with blue weed patches and all
the birds in hiding. Perhaps no
one is calling and it’s only
the voices of the air as
the late light of June hangs on
in the cottonwoods before
the dark gets the last word.
We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.
You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.
You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.
When he gets off work at Packard, they meet
outside a diner on Grand Boulevard. He’s tired,
a bit depressed, and smelling the exhaustion
on his own breath, he kisses her carefully
on her left cheek. Early April, and the weather
has not decided if this is spring, winter, or what.
The two gaze upwards at the sky which gives
nothing away: the low clouds break here and there
and let in tiny slices of a pure blue heaven.
The day is like us, she thinks; it hasn’t decided
what to become. The traffic light at Linwood
goes from red to green and the trucks start up,
so that when he says, ‘Would you like to eat?’
she hears a jumble of words that mean nothing,
though spiced with things she cannot believe,
‘wooden Jew’ and ‘lucky meat.’ He’s been up
late, she thinks, he’s tired of the job, perhaps tired
of their morning meetings, but when he bows
from the waist and holds the door open
for her to enter the diner, and the thick
odor of bacon frying and new potatoes
greets them both, and taking heart she enters
to peer through the thick cloud of tobacco smoke
to the see if ‘their booth’ is available.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there were no
second acts in America, but he knew neither
this man nor this woman and no one else
like them unless he stayed late at the office
to test his famous one liner, ‘We keep you clean
Muscatine,’ on the woman emptying
his waste basket. Fitzgerald never wrote
with someone present, except for this woman
in a gray uniform whose comings and goings
went unnoticed even on those December evenings
she worked late while the snow fell silently
on the window sills and the new fluorescent lights
blinked on and off. Get back to the two, you say.
Not who ordered poached eggs, who ordered
only toast and coffee, who shared the bacon
with the other, but what became of the two
when this poem ended, whose arms held whom,
who first said ‘I love you’ and truly meant it,
and who misunderstood the words, so longed
for, and yet still so unexpected, and began
suddenly to scream and curse until the waitress
asked them both to leave. The Packard plant closed
years before I left Detroit, the diner was burned
to the ground in ’67, two years before my oldest son
fled to Sweden to escape the American dream.
‘And the lovers?’ you ask. I wrote nothing about lovers.
Take a look. Clouds, trucks, traffic lights, a diner, work,
a wooden shoe, East Moline, poached eggs, the perfume
of frying bacon, the chaos of language, the spices
of spent breath after eight hours of night work.
Can you hear all I feared and never dared to write?
Why the two are more real than either you or me,
why I never returned to keep them in my life,
how little I now mean to myself or anyone else,
what any of this could mean, where you found
the patience to endure these truths and confessions?