Night Words

after Juan Ramon

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.


From THE MERCY (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)


 

 

 

Poems by Philip Levine

Black Stone On Top Of Nothing

Night Words

The Mercy