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Philip Levine

Visiting Poet

Philip Levine

Distinguished poet Philip Levine is the author of 16 collections of poems, including The Simple Truth, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, What Work Is, winner of the National Book Award, Ashes: Poems New & Old, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the first American Book Award for poetry, and, most recently, The Mercy(Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).

Levine was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, and has lived for many years in Fresno, California and New York City, where he teaches at NYU. Recipient of awards and honors too numerous to mention, he has also published books of essays, translated Gloria Fuertes and Jaime Sabines, and edited The Essential Keats.

Committed “to saving from oblivion what is thought of as ordinary life” (poet Edward Hirsch), Levine’s work celebrates memory, family, the working class, and the immigrant experience, and has been an inspiration to a generation of young American poets.

Select Poems

Still sober, César Vallejo comes home and finds a black ribbon

around the apartment building covering the front door.

He puts down his cane, removes his greasy fedora, and begins

to untangle the mess. His neighbors line up behind him

wondering what’s going on. A middle-aged woman carrying

a loaf of fresh bread asks him to step aside so she

can enter, ascend the two steep flights to her apartment,

and begin the daily task of preparing lunch for her Monsieur.

Vallejo pretends he hears nothing or perhaps he truly

hears nothing so absorbed is he in this odd task consuming

his late morning. Did I forget to mention that no one else

can see the black ribbon or understand why his fingers

seem so intent on unraveling what is not there? Remember

when you were only six and on especially hot days you

would descend the shaky steps to the cellar hoping at first

that someone, perhaps your mother, would gradually

become aware of your absence and feel a sudden seizure

of anxiety or terror. Of course no one noticed. Mother

sat for hours beside the phone waiting, and now and then

gazed at summer sunlight blazing through the parlor curtains

while below, cool and alone, seated on the damp concrete

you watched the same sunlight filter through the rising dust

from the two high windows. Beside the furnace a spider

worked brilliantly downward from the burned-out, overhead bulb

with a purpose you at that age could still comprehend.

1937 would last only six more months. It was a Thursday.

Rain was promised but never arrived. The brown spider worked

with or without hope, though when the dusty sunlight caught

in the web you beheld a design so perfect it remained

in your memory as a model of meaning. César Vallejo

untangled the black ribbon no one else saw and climbed

to his attic apartment and gazed out at the sullen rooftops

stretching southward toward Spain where his heart died. I know this.

I’ve walked by the same building year after year in late evening

when the swallows were settling noiselessly in the few sparse trees

beside the unused canal. I’ve come when the winter snow

blinded the distant brooding sky. I’ve come just after dawn,

I’ve come in spring, in autumn, in rain, and he was never there.

From THE MERCY (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)

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)

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.

From THE MERCY (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)

About Philip

Poetry Center Reading Dates: October 1999