Philip Levine

(January 10, 1928 / Detroit, Michigan)

The Red Shirt


If I gave 5 birds
each 4 eyes
I would be blind
unto the 3rd
generation, if I
gave no one a word
for a day
and let the day
grow into a week
and the week sleep
until it was
half of my life
could I come home
to my father
one dark night?

On Sundays an odd light
grows on the bed
where I have lived
this half of my life
alight that begins
with the eyes
blinding first one
and then both
until at last
even the worn candles
in the flower box
lay down their heads.

Therefore I have come
to this red shirt
with its faultless row
of dark buttons, 7
by my count, as dark
as blood that poured
over my lips
when the first word
of hope jumped
and became a cry
of birds calling
for their wings,
a cry of new birds.

This is the red shirt
Adam gave to the Angel
of Death when he asked
for a son, this
is the flag Moses
waved 5 times
above his head
as he stumbled
down the waves
of the mountainous sea
bearing the Tables of 10,
this is the small cloth
mother put in
my lunch box
with bread and water.

This is my red shirt
in which I go to meet
you, Father of the Sea,
in which I will say
the poem I learned
from the mice. A row
of faultless buttons,
each one 10 years
and the eye of the bird
that beheld the first world
and the last, a field
of great rocks weeping,
and no one to see
me alone, day after
day, in my red shirt.

Submitted: Monday, January 13, 2003

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