I lay my head sideways on the desk,
My fingers interlocked under my cheekbones,
My eyes closed. It was a three-room schoolhouse,
White, with a small bell tower, an oak tree.
From where I sat, on still days, I'd watch
The oak, the prisoner of that sky, or read
The desk carved with adults' names: Marietta
Martin, Truman Finnell, Marjorie Elm;
The wood hacked or lovingly hollowed, the flies
Settling on the obsolete & built-in inkwells.
I remember, tonight, only details, how
Mrs. Avery, now gone, was standing then
In her beige dress, its quiet, gazelle print
Still dark with lines of perspiration from
The day before; how Gracie Chin had just
Shown me how to draw, with chalk, a Chinese
Ideogram. Where did she go, white thigh
With one still freckle, lost in silk?
No one would say for sure, so that I'd know,
So that all shapes, for days after, seemed
Brushstrokes in Chinese: countries on maps
That shifted, changed colors, or disappeared:
Lithuania, Prussia, Bessarabia;
The numbers four & seven; the question mark.
That year, I ate almost nothing.
I thought my parents weren't my real parents,
I thought there'd been some terrible mistake.
At recess I would sit alone, seeing
In the print of each leaf shadow, an ideogram—
Still, indecipherable, beneath the green sound
The bell still made, even after it had faded,
When the dust-covered leaves of the oak tree
Quivered, slightly, if I looked up in time.
And my father, so distant in those days,
Where did he go, that autumn, when he chose
The chaste, faint ideogram of ash, & I had
To leave him there, white bones in a puzzle
By a plum tree, the sun rising over
The Sierras? It is not Chinese, but English—
When the past tense, when you first learn to use it
As a child, throws all the verbs in the language
Into the long, flat shade of houses you
Ride past, & into town. Your father's driving.
On winter evenings, the lights would come on earlier.
People would be shopping for Christmas. Each hand,
With the one whorl of its fingerprints, with twenty
Delicate bones inside it, reaching up
To touch some bolt of cloth, or choose a gift,
A little different from any other hand.
You know how the past tense turns a sentence dark,
But leaves names, lovers, places showing through:
Gracie Chin, my father, Lithuania;
A beige dress where dark gazelles hold still?
Outside, it's snowing, cold, & a New Year.
The trees & streets are turning white.
I always thought he would come back like this.
I always thought he wouldn't dare be seen.
Larry Levis's Other Poems
Read this poem in other languages
This poem has not been translated into any other language yet.
Comments about this poem (Childhood Ideogram by Larry Levis )
(March 26, 1874 – January 29, 1963)
(12 July 1904 – 23 September 1973)
(4 April 1928 - 28 May 2014)
(16 August 1920 – 9 March 1994)
(03 April 1964)
(27 October 1914 – 9 November 1953)
(28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827)
(22 March 1941 -)
(18 November 1939)
(1 February 1902 – 22 May 1967)
- Happy Birthday stranger, ice johnson
- The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost
- Still I Rise, Maya Angelou
- Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Dylan Thomas
- Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes, Billy Collins
- Phenomenal Woman, Maya Angelou
- Invictus, William Ernest Henley
- If, Rudyard Kipling
- Annabel Lee, Edgar Allan Poe
- Autumn, Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin
Poem of the Day
- It's Not About Science, Just Satellites..., Frank James Ryan Jr...FjR
- Woman And Time..., Frank James Ryan Jr...FjR
- Firmament, Margaret Ann Newcomb
- Petits morceaux, Lubinda Lubinda
- For Edgar Allan Poe With All Gratitude..., Frank James Ryan Jr...FjR
- It Takes Tears to..., Rodney R. Cooper
- It Takes Tears, Rodney R. Cooper
- My life, Mario,Lucien,Rene Odekerken
- Don't leave me cozied-up homely, Mark Heathcote
- If You Were Here Today, Serena Blackinton