philip levine

The day dies into the violet halos
of exhaust
No one takes my hand and leads me to bed
to the mouth to mouth agonies of darkness
When this passes
how will I know I was and I was alive
Who will take my hand
smelling of earth and
burning now to autumnal rust
Who will lead me to the ceremonies of sorrow
who will lead me.
—  Philip Levine, Burning 

‘I think I’m going mad,’

she said when I turned to face her. She placed
both hands on my shoulders, kissed each eyelid,
hugged me to her breasts and whispered wetly
in my bad ear words I’d never heard before.

When I got home my brother ate the bread
carefully one slice at a time until
nothing was left but a blank plate. 'Did you see her,’
he asked, 'the woman in hell, Michael’s wife?’

That afternoon I walked the crowded streets
looking for something I couldn’t name,
something familiar, a face or a voice or less,
but not these shards of ash that fell from heaven.

—  “During the War,” Philip Levine
I composed my first poems in the dark. In fact in the “double dark”: that is, at night in a small woods that only the moon lit and also totally without the guidance or knowledge or light, if you will, that great or good or even mediocre poetry might have given me. In truth I never thought of these early compositions as poems; I never thought of them as anything but what they were: secret little speeches addressed to the moon when the moon was visible and when the moon was not visible to all those parts of creation that crowded around and above me as well as those parts that eluded me, the parts I had no name for, no notion of except for the fact they were listening.
—  Philip Levine, My Lost Poets
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, hopefully,
air that says quietly in your ear,
“I’m dust and memory, your two neighbors
on this cold star.
—  Philip Levine, from Dust and Memory 
The Simple Truth | Philip Levine


I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields 
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me 
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste 
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way, 
she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat” she said,
“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”
Some things
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering 
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself, 
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste 
what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch 
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.

A Sleepless Night

April, and the last of the plum blossoms 
scatters on the black grass 
before dawn. The sycamore, the lime, 
the struck pine inhale 
the first pale hints of sky. 
An iron day, 
I think, yet it will come 
dazzling, the light 
rise from the belly of leaves and pour 
burning from the cups 
of poppies. 
The mockingbird squawks 
from his perch, fidgets, 
and settles back. The snail, awake 
for good, trembles from his shell 
and sets sail for China. My hand dances 
in the memory of a million vanished stars. 

A man has every place to lay his head. 


–Philip Levine

Night Words

A child wakens in a cold apartment.
The windows are frosted. Outside he hears
words rising from the streets, words he cannot
understand, and then the semis gear down
for the traffic light on Houston. He sleeps
again and dreams of another city
on a high hill above a wide river
bathed in sunlight, and the dream is his life
as he will live it twenty years from now.
No, no, you say, dreams do not work that way,
they function otherwise. Perhaps in the world
you’re right, but on Houston tonight two men
are trying to change a tire as snow gathers
on their shoulders and scalds their ungloved hands.
The older one, the father, is close to tears,
for he’s sure his son, who’s drunk, is laughing
secretly at him for all his failures
as a man and a father, and he is
laughing to himself but because he’s happy
to be alone with his father as he was
years ago in another life where snow
never fell. At last he slips the tire iron
gently from his father’s grip and kneels
down in the unstained snow and unbolts the wheel
while he sings of drinking a glass of wine,
the black common wine of Alicante,
in raw sunlight. Now the father joins in,
and the words rise between the falling flakes
only to be transformed into the music
spreading slowly over the oiled surface
of the river that runs through every child’s dreams.

By Philip Levine, the new US Poet Laureate.