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Philip Levine


Clouds Above the Sea
by Philip Levine

My father and mother, two tiny figures,
side by side, facing the clouds that move
in from the Atlantic. August, '33.
The whole weight of the rain to come, the weight
of all that has fallen on their houses
gathers for a last onslaught, and yet they
hold, side by side, in the eye of memory.
What was she wearing, you ask, what did he
say to make the riding clouds hold their breath?
Our late August afternoons were chilly
in America, so I shall drape her throat
in a silken scarf above a black dress.

I could give her a rope of genuine pearls
as a gift for bearing my father's sons,
and let each pearl glow with a child's fire.
I could turn her toward you now with a smile
so that we might joy in her constancy,
I could bury the past in dust rising,
dense rain falling, and the absence of sky
so that you could turn this page and smile.
My father and mother, two tiny figures,
side by side, facing the clouds that move
in from the Atlantic. They are silent
under the whole weight of the rain to come.

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If you were twenty-seven
and had done time for beating
our ex-wife and had
no dreams you remembered
in the morning, you might
lie on your bed and listen
to a mad canary sing
and think it all right to be
there every Saturday
ignoring your neighbors, the streets,
the signs that said join,
and the need to be helping.
You might build, as he did,
a network of golden ladders
so that the bird could roam
on all levels of the room;
you might paint the ceiling blue,
the floor green, and shade
the place you called the sun
so that things came softly to order
when the light came on.
He and the bird lived
in the fine weather of heaven;
they never aged, they
never tired or wanted
all through that war,
but when it was over
and the nation had been saved,
he knew they'd be hunted.
He knew, as you would too,
that he'd be laid off
for not being braver
and it would do no good
to show how he had taken
clothespins and cardboard
and made each step safe.
It would do no good
to have been one of the few
that climbed higher and higher
even in time of war,
for now there would be the poor
asking for their share,
and hurt men in uniforms,
and no one to believe
that heaven was really here.

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Late Moon
by Philip Levine


2 a.m.
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.

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The Helmet
by Philip Levine


All the way
on the road to Gary
he could see
where the sky shone
just out of reach
and smell the rich
smell of work
as strong as money,
but when he got there
the night was over.
People were going
to work and back,
the sidewalks were lakes
no one walked on,
the diners were saying
time to eat
so he stopped
and talked to a woman
who'd been up late
making helmets.
There are white hands
the color of steel,
they have put their lives
into steel,
and if hands could lay down
their lives these hands
would be helmets.
He and the woman
did not lie down
not because
she would praise
the steel helmet
boarding a train
for no war,
not because
he would find
the unjewelled crown
in a surplus store
where hands were sold,
They did not lie down
face to face
because of the waste
of being so close
and they were too tired
of being each other
to try to be lovers
and because they had
to sit up straight
so they could eat.
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by Philip Levine
Remember how unimportant
they seemed, growing loosely
in the open fields we crossed
on the way to school. We
would carve wooden swords
and slash at the luscious trunks
until the white milk started
and then flowed. Then we'd
go on to the long day
after day of the History of History
or the tables of numbers and order
as the clock slowly paid
out the moments. The windows
went dark first with rain
and then snow, and then the days,
then the years ran together and not
one mattered more than
another, and not one mattered.
Two days ago I walked
the empty woods, bent over,
crunching through oak leaves,
asking myself questions
without answers. From somewhere
a froth of seeds drifted by touched
with gold in the last light
of a lost day, going with
the wind as they always did.
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Something Has Fallen
by Philip Levine
Something has fallen wordlessly
and holds still on the black driveway.
You find it, like a jewel,
among the empty bottles and cans
where the dogs toppled the gargbage.
You pick it up, not sure
if it is stone or wood
or some new plastic made
to replace them both.
When you raise your sunglasses
to see exactly what you have
you see it is only a shadow
that has darkended your fingers,
a black ink or oil,
and your hand suddenly smells
of classrooms when the rain
pounded the windows and you
shuddered thinking of the cold
and the walk back to an empty house.
You smell all of your childhood,
the damp bed you struggled from
to dress in half-light and go out
into a world that never tired.
Later, your hand thickened and flat,
slid out of a rubber glove,
as you stood, your mask raised
to light a ciggarette and rest
while the acid tanks that were
yours to clean went on bathing
the arteries of broken sinks.
Remember, you were afraid
of the great hissing jugs.
There were stories of burnings,
of flesh shredded to lace.
On other nights men spoke
of rats as big as dogs.
Women spoke of men
who trapped them in corners.
Alsways there was grease that hid
the faces of worn faucets, grease
that had to be eaten one
finger-print at a time,
there was oil, paint, blood,
your own blood sliding across
your nose and running over
your lips with that bright, certain
taste that was neither earth
or air, and there was air,
the darkest element of all,
falling all night
into the bruised river
you slept beside, falling
into the glass of water
you filled two times for breakfast
and the eyes you turned upward
to see what time it was.
Air that stained everything
with its millions of small deaths,
they turned all five fingers
to grease or black ink or ashes.
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