philip levine

“Poetry is like truth: on one level it simply is, and as such it is available to anyone. Anyone, that is, who will spend himself or herself to receive it, for no one has an inherent right to truth. One must earn it, and one earns the truth by honoring it, by treasuring it in a thousand daily acts, by shaping one’s life to both give it  and receive it. The emperors have their treasures, and we have ours. [Larry] Levis said it perfectly when he spoke in the voice of Whitman, which is the voice of American poetry; ‘To find me now will cost you everything.’”

Philip Levine, from My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry, ed. Edward Hirsch (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016)

A winter Tuesday, the city pouring fire,
Ford Rouge sulfurs the sun, Cadillac, Lincoln,
Chevy gray. The fat stacks
of breweries hold their tongues. Rags,
papers, hands, the stems of birches
dirtied with words.
Near the freeway
you stop and wonder what came off,
recall the snowstorm where you lost it all,
the wolverine, the northern bear, the wolf
caught out, ice and steel raining
from the foundries in a shower
of human breath. On sleds in the false sun
the new material rests. One brown child
stares and stares into your frozen eyes
until the lights change and you go
forward to work. The charred faces, the eyes
boarded up, the rubble of innards, the cry
of wet smoke hanging in your throat,
the twisted river stopped at the color of iron.
We burn this city every day.

Philip Levine, “Coming Home, Detroit, 1968”

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 
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 
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
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, “Let Me Begin Again”

Any Night

Look, the eucalyptus, the Atlas pine,
the yellowing ash, all the trees
are gone, and I was older than
all of them. I am older than the moon,
than the stars that fill my plate,
than the unseen planets that huddle
together here at the end of a year
no one wanted. A year more than a year,
in which the sparrows learned
to fly backwards into eternity.
Their brothers and sisters saw this
and refuse to build nests. Before
the week is over they will all
have gone, and the chorus of love
that filled my yard and spilled
into my kitchen each evening
will be gone. I will have to learn
to sing in the voices of pure joy
and pure pain. I will have to forget
my name, my childhood, the years
under the cold dominion of the clock
so that this voice, torn and cracked,
can reach the low hills that shielded
the orange trees once. I will stand
on the back porch as the cold
drifts in, and sing, not for joy,
not for love, not even to be heard.
I will sing so that the darkness
can take hold and whatever
is left, the fallen fruit, the last
leaf, the puzzled squirrel, the child
far from home, lost, will believe
this could be any night. That boy,
walking alone, thinking of nothing
or reciting his favorite names
to the moon and stars, let him
find the home he left this morning,
let him hear a prayer out
of the raging mouth of the wind.
Let him repeat that prayer,
the prayer that night follows day,
that life follows death, that in time
we find our lives. Don’t let him see
all that has gone. Let him love
the darkness. Look, he’s running
and singing too. He could be happy.

Philip Levine