Friday, October 2, 2015

Two Poems by Philip Levine

You Can Have It

My brother comes home from work
and climbs the stairs to our room.
I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop   
one by one. You can have it, he says.

The moonlight streams in the window   
and his unshaven face is whitened
like the face of the moon. He will sleep
long after noon and waken to find me gone.

Thirty years will pass before I remember   
that moment when suddenly I knew each man   
has one brother who dies when he sleeps   
and sleeps when he rises to face this life,

and that together they are only one man   
sharing a heart that always labors, hands   
yellowed and cracked, a mouth that gasps   
for breath and asks, Am I gonna make it?

All night at the ice plant he had fed
the chute its silvery blocks, and then I   
stacked cases of orange soda for the children   
of Kentucky, one gray boxcar at a time

with always two more waiting. We were twenty   
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.

In 1948 in the city of Detroit, founded
by de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purposes   
of Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,   
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,

for there was no such year, and now
that year has fallen off all the old newspapers,
calendars, doctors’ appointments, bonds,   
wedding certificates, drivers licenses.

The city slept. The snow turned to ice.   
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then bright grass rose   
between the thousands of cracked squares,

and that grass died. I give you back 1948.   
I give you all the years from then
to the coming one. Give me back the moon   
with its frail light falling across a face.

Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse   
for God and burning eyes that look upon   
all creation and say, You can have it.

Nelle 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 high school 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.

Philip Levine is the author of 25 books of poetry: On the Edge, Stone Wall Press, 1961, 1963; Silent in America: Vivas for Those Who Failed, Shaw Avenue Press, 1965;  Not This Pig, Wesleyan University Press, 1968; 5 Detroits, Unicorn Press, 1970; Thistles: A Poem Sequence, Turret Books, 1970; Red Dust, Kayak, 1971; Pili's Wall, Unicorn Press, 1971, 1980; They Feed They Lion, Atheneum, 1972, 1999; 1933, Atheneum, 1974; New Season, Graywolf Press, 1975; On the Edge and Over: Poems Old, Lost, and New, Cloud Marauder, 1976; The Names of the Lost, Windhover Press, 1976; 7 Years from Somewhere, Atheneum, 1979; Ashes: Poems New and Old, Atheneum, 1979; One for the Rose, Atheneum, 1981; Selected Poems, Atheneum, 1984; Sweet Will, Atheneum, 1985; A Walk with Tom Jefferson, Knopf, 1988; New Selected Poems, Knopf, 1991; What Work Is, Knopf, 1991; The Simple Truth, Knopf, 1994; Unselected Poems, Greenhouse Review Press, 1997; The Mercy, Knopf, 1999; Breath: Poems, Knopf, 2004; News of the World, Knopf, 2009.

His poems have been published in various periodicals such as Poetry, New York Review of Books, New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Hudson Review, Paris Review, Harper's, Washington Post, Nation, North American Review, and many others. Among his many awards and recognitions are the Ruth Lilly Prize in Poetry and the Wallace Stevens Award. He was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2006 and in 2011 was appointed poet laureate of the United States 

Philip Levine (January 10, 1928 - February 14, 2015)


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