RIP Philip Levine. 1928–2015
I admit that these kinds of entries are more about me than their subjects. After all, I did not know Philip Levine or Mark Strand personally. And yet the news of their passing leaves me with a true sense of loss. Maybe it’s a sense of losing who I was when I fell in love with their poems. I don’t know.
I met Philip Levine twice: once after a reading at NYU, and the other after a reading at Poets House. Unlike Strand, he was actually willing to have a conversation with me. I sent him a letter after that, and he replied. His letter was hand-written, in a thick, sepia ink. I keep it tucked away in the bookcase behind my desk.
That was years ago. More than a decade. I was still in my twenties. A different person, sure, but the same in that I found exquisite heartbreak in Levine’s two-fisted, smoke-flowered poems. I was sure we must be brothers. I too had wept over the death of John Keats––only it was the Bate biography––and prayed like him to be among the immortals.
My thoughts on Levine are more scattered than my recent thoughts on Strand. I don’t know when I first read him. Sometime in high school. His poems have moved me ever since. His ability to speak directly to the existential weight without losing hold of the heart is a rare gift these days––a gift for which he once took heat from Helen Vendler. She has an essay in which she scolds him for his “romantic turns,” and she does so in the way only a professional critic who thinks she’s a poet could. I can’t help but think of the advice Levine gave me––in that sepia letter––about critics like that: “F*** ’em.”
Levine was about as famous as a poet gets these days. He published in the major journals and magazines, he won the major poetry awards, and he served as the U.S. Poet Laureate. He also taught writing poetry for most of his adult life. So it surprised me when, at that Poets House reading, he said something like, You write a poem, it gets published, you read it and everyone claps, it goes in a book, the book wins an award, and then you go back to your apartment and stare at a blank piece of paper, and wonder how to write a poem.
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
of creation. 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
disembarked. There a story ends. Other ships
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.
WHAT WORK IS
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is–if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.
After driving all night long
I stopped for coffee and eggs
at a diner halfway to
New York City. The waitress
behind the counter looked up
from her magazine and said,
“Look who’s here!” clapped her hands
together and broke into
a huge smile. “Have I been here
before?” I asked. “Beats the shit
out of me,” she said and put
a glass of cloudy water
in front of me. “What’ll it be?”
One war was closing down
in Asia to be followed
by another. No longer
a kid, I wondered who was
I that a gray-haired woman
up all night in a road-side
hole would greet me like a star.
“What do you think of Sartre
and the Existentialists?”
I asked. “We get the eggs fresh
from down the road, my old man
bakes the bread and sweet rolls.
It’s all good.” It’s not often
you get the perfect answer
to such a profound question.
On the way back to the truck
I listened to the pebbles
crunching under my wing-tips,
watched two huge crows watching me
from a sad maple, smelled
the fishy air blowing in
from Lake Erie, and thought, “Some
things are too good to be true.”
DUST AND MEMORY
A small unshaven man, perhaps fifty,
with a peaked cap pulled sideways
to hid his features. He bowed his head
to the ground, groaned, rose to thrust
his head back in abandon, and flung
his body forward again. A supplicant
on his knees to what? The earth and sea
that had misused him? The power of pain?
The female God-face painted on the prow
of the fishing boat whose shade he hid in?
When the cap fell away I recognized a man
I passed each evening coming home at dusk,
a near neighbor to whom I’d never spoken
and never would. After dark I did not
steal back to find him gone or to hear
the sea, moonless, itself only a word
without consonants, repeated invisibly
in my head.
What is this about?
Wherever you are now, there is earth
somewhere beneath you waiting to take
the little you leave. This morning I rose
before dawn, dressed in the cold, washed
my face, ran a comb through my hair
and felt my skull underneath, unrelenting,
soon the home of nothing. The wind
that swirled the sand that day years ago
had a name that will outlast mine
by a thousand years, though made of air,
which is what I too shall become, hope-
fully, air that says quietly in your ear,
“I’m dust and memory, your two neighbors
on this cold star.” That wind, the Levante,
will howl through the sockets of my skull
to make a peculiar music. When you hear it,
remember it’s me, singing, gone but here,
warm still in the fire of your care.