Don’t scorn your life just because it’s not dramatic, or it’s impoverished, or it looks dull, or it’s workaday. Don’t scorn it. It is where poetry is taking place if you’ve got the sensitivity to see it, if your eyes are open.
Philip Levine, describing what he learned from William Carlos Williams
The day dies into the violet halos
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.
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.
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.
Let me begin again as a speck
of dust caught in the night winds
sweeping out to sea. Let me begin
this time knowing the world is
salt water and dark clouds, the world
is grinding and sighing all night, and dawn
comes slowly, and changes nothing.
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.
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 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.
Let me begin again as a speck of dust caught in the night winds sweeping out to sea. Let me begin this time knowing the world is salt water and dark clouds, the world is grinding and sighing all night, and dawn comes slowly, and changes nothing.
-Philip Levine, excerpt from the poem, “Let me begin again”