Phillis Levin

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Rating: 4.33

Phillis Levin Poems

Now that the worst is over, they predict
Something messy and difficult, though not
Life-threatening. Clearly we needed


Of something, separate, not
Whole; a role, something to play
While one is separate or parting;

To fish from a cloud in the sky
You must find a comfortable spot,
Spend a day looking down
Patiently, clear-sighted.

Peer at your ceiling:
Where a light dangles, hook & line
Could be slipping through.

Under the hull of a boat
A fish will see things this way,

Looking up while swimming by — 

A wavering pole's refraction
Catching its eye.

What will you catch?
With what sort of bait?
Take care or you'll catch yourself,

A fish might say,
As inescapable skeins of shadow
Scatter a net
Over the face of the deep.

That the dead are real to us
Cannot be denied,
That the living are more real

When they are dead
Terrifies, that the dead can rise
As the living do is possible

Is possible to surmise,
But all the stars cannot come near
All we meet in an eye.

Flee from me, fear, as soot
Flies in a breeze, do not burn
Or settle in my sight,

I've tasted you long enough,
Let me savor
Something otherwise.

Who wakes beside me now
Suits my soul, so I turn to words
Only to say he changes

Into his robe, rustles a page,
He raises the lid of the piano
To release what's born in its cage.

If   words come back
To say they compromise
Or swear again they have died,

There's no news in that, I reply,
But a music without notes
These notes comprise, still

As spring beneath us lies,
Already something otherwise.

There is another room
You could spend time in.
What a shame not to enter
More often: walls a color

Hard to imagine, windows
Overlooking a shy garden.
From there it is easy to see
A neighbor pinning laundry,

Composing a line of forlorn
Collars and sleeves
Punctuated by buttons
Catching the afternoon sun,

Whose face was a stranger
Until their mother-of-pearl
Was torn from a bed in a reef.
Whenever a chance to return

Returns, you wonder why
You didn't sit in that sofa,
Alone or near someone
In a chair, watching

A robin abandon
The swaying branches,
Listening to rain on the roof,
Undersong of comfort,

Undersong of grief.
A lifetime could be wasted
Dreaming there, a lifetime
Wasted not dreaming there.

The letters that must be taken away
To find the word nestled inside

Or not yet born. Removing those letters,
Deciding how many, which ones,

Is a science that resembles forgetting,
Dismemberment in the service of song.

Finally a new word rises from its shell,
And if it cannot rise it calls out, saying

It's time to be said, I've been here
All along, but you were reading with-

Out speaking, seeking without seeing
A syllable alone is a seed of light.

There is a needle in the sky
Being threaded now, but the thread is blue:
That is why you cannot see it
Threading its way. When all is said and done
It will keep sewing—as long
As a tiny knot remains, as long as something
Whets the tip whenever the knot
Happens to untie, as long as the sun
Arouses the wind that catches
The thread again, twisting an end so that
It may begin. There is a needle
Pulling a thread through your veins,
A needle pulling the sap
From the root to the bole, a thread
Pulling a bird to a tree—
Tugging your heart as soon as you believe
There is nothing left.
There is a glistening filament, a cold
Instrument making its way
From once upon a time to now,
To tomorrow. Maybe the sun
Is a giant spool, maybe the needle
Cannot rest until it runs
Out of light, maybe a star is a random
Stitch unraveling . . .
Until a needle runs out of thread,
It is impossible to look
Into its eye.

They, too, labor,
And if we envy them we should remember
How brief their stay in the ether is.

Unfolding without reason, like forgiveness,
Or summoning
Themselves at the wind's bidding, they flee.

We do not know where they go, we go
As carelessly, as helplessly, finally
Too full of time.

But we are true
To ourselves so rarely, while they are always
Open to darkness, squandering light.

A floating prison, a dream-balloon,
The setting sun's chameleon, or the sliding
Screen of the moon—

When nothing else
Contains us we turn to them, and all
We ever gather appears less tangible.

When they came to the tomb
What did they see?
Only what they could not say.

Too empty, too cold
To say what they saw,
Too full to say empty

And cold, but full.
They said what they said,
Saw what they saw,

And knew they could not
Say what they saw.
They did not know

That whatever words they found
To say would fill the world
With those very words,

The best they could find
In that place, that time,
When all words fail or fall.

After the stone is rolled away,
After the sky refuses to reply,
Comes the heaviness of being here.


A day comes when nothing matters
And nothing will suffice.
The heart says: I cannot.
The soul says: I am not.

The window whose frame
Once held dawn
Gleams all night in desolation,
And the one tree

Untouched by blight
Offers a fruit you do not refuse,
An anguish impossible to conceive

Until this lucky day.
Weigh it in your hands, so heavy,
So light: is there more to wish for?


He saw a face swollen beyond ugliness
Of one who just a year ago
Was Adonis
Practicing routines of rapture:

A boy who could appear
To dodge the touch of time,
Immortal or immune—
A patient in a gown,
Almost gone.


In the beautiful school of medicine
He read about human suffering,
An unendurable drama
Until the screen of anaesthesia
And penicillin's manna.

But now, in myriad sheets
Of storefront glass refracting evening's
Razor blue, in a land of the freely
Estranged from the dead, he meets
That face and fear seizes his body.


His feet have carried him to bed.
He thinks he must be getting old
To so revise
His nature and his plan.

He shuts his eyes
And in his sleep he sees a gleaming bar,
The shore of pain.
It isn't far.
People live there.

No wonder some prefer a narrow hall,
A single room where doubts die
Until possibility, that odd flower,
Returns its face.

The doors close and open every day.

The doors close and open every day
And every day we hurtle toward the city.

Today I saw the usual human disaster:
Head in her chest, legs pocked with pink wounds,
Fingers wrapped tight around a white handbag.

Then the subway doors opened and children
Piled in: the whole car filled with their high
Broken music.

At the next stop they all poured out;
The car was vacant, solemn, the air
Settled and clear—but she was still there.

Outside a lilac bush blows to the wind,

And everywhere one looks
A pre-Socratic flux
Streams down avenues
Of taxicabs and radios,
Mortality's parade crowned with neon and chrome—

As if we were beasts evolving toward a sentence
That breaks and disperses before we arrive
At the city we promised to build.


Flame under the bubbling water.
Blue flame. Water ready for tea.

Amber infusion soon to be seeping,

Leaves about to uncurl. Here
Is a tin, a spoon, a cup, an open

Teapot saying, Nobody else but me

To nobody else but you: awaken,
Pour. What are you waiting for?

in memory of Jean Blecker Levin

Not a trace, those days, not a sign
On a map of where you were from,
That farm greener than green

Rolling hills, hay high as a barn
Under skies without end, joy
Rolling too, the way it used to.

Now that you're gone,
The name of the place reappears.


Not a map in the world
Will show where you are,
Now that you are long gone

Under the glowing ground,
Lending yourself to the grass,
Joined at last by Joe, who cried,

As they lowered you down,
"Jenny my love, my life."


Wherever you are, being
Nowhere, show me a way
To be here, you who are gone

Into bottomless loam: ivy
Climbing the walls of waking,
The walls of sleep, show me to

Two on a porch waiting
To see the flesh of their flesh.

I've decided to waste my life again,
Like I used to: get drunk on
The light in the leaves, find a wall
Against which something can happen,

Whatever may have happened
Long ago—let a bullet hole echoing
The will of an executioner, a crevice
In which a love note was hidden,

Be a cell where a struggling tendril
Utters a few spare syllables at dawn.
I've decided to waste my life
In a new way, to forget whoever

Touched a hair on my head, because
It doesn't matter what came to pass,
Only that it passed, because we repeat
Ourselves, we repeat ourselves.

I've decided to walk a long way
Out of the way, to allow something
Dreaded to waken for no good reason,
Let it go without saying,

Let it go as it will to the place
It will go without saying: a wall
Against which a body was pressed
For no good reason, other than this.

Miep managed to snap them up for 27.50 guilders. Burgundy-colored 
suede and leather  ...    
 — Anne Frank, Tuesday, August 10, 1943
When Miep took us home with her
She held us up in the air,

Eye-level with those eyes
You may know, eyes spelling

Sorrow-girl, wait-for-me,

One-day, hurry-back, don't-tell.
Two new hands took us in,

Skin cradling skin.
How empty we had been,

Only a little bit worn —
Not a penny, not a pebble

Dwelling within.
We became an altar,

An offering red as wine,
A wishing well.

She was made to carry us
Near and far,

We were made to bear
The pressure of her feet

In darkness, in light,
Their sweetness, their heat.

We were getting used to her.
Miep calls us a handsome pair.

For this you may see no need,
You may think my aim
Dead set on something

Devoid of conceivable value:
An Anthology of  Rain,
A collection of voices

Telling someone somewhere
What it means to follow a drop
Traveling to its final place of rest.

But do consider this request
If you have pressed your nose
Of any shape against a window,

Odor of metal faint, persistent,
While a storm cast its cloak
Over the shoulder of every cloud

In sight. You are free to say
Whatever crosses your mind
When you look at the face of time

In the passing of one drop
Gathering speed, one drop
Chasing another, racing to reach

A fork in the path, lingering
Before making a detour to join
Another, fattening on the way

Until entering a rivulet
Running to the sill.
So please accept this invitation:

You are welcome to submit,
There is no limit to its limit,
Even the instructions are a breeze

As long as you include
Nothing about yourself
Except your name. Your address

Remains unnecessary, for the rain
Will find you — if you receive it
It receives you (whether or not

You contribute, a volume
Is sent). And when you lift
The collection you may hear,

By opening anywhere, a drop
And its story reappear
As air turns to water, water to air.

Phillis Levin Biography

Phillis Levin is the author of four volumes of poetry, including May Day, which was published by Penguin in 2008 (pub date for this collection was April 29, 2008. Poet's other books of poems are Temples and Fields (University of Georgia Press, 1988), winner of the Norma Farber First Book Award; The Afterimage (Copper Beech Press, 1995); and Mercury (Penguin, 2001). I am the editor of The Penguin Book of the Sonnet: 500 Years of a Classic Tradition in English (Penguin Books, 2001). Poet's honors and awards include a Fulbright Fellowship to Slovenia, the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, a 2003 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and a 2007 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Philip Levin is a professor of English and poet-in-residence at Hofstra University and is a visiting professor in the graduate creative writing program at New York University.)

The Best Poem Of Phillis Levin

The Blizzard

Now that the worst is over, they predict
Something messy and difficult, though not
Life-threatening. Clearly we needed

To stock up on water and candles, making
Tureens of soup and things that keep
When electricity fails and phone lines fall.

Igloos rise on air conditioners, gargoyles
Fly and icicles shatter. Frozen runways,
Lines in markets, and paralyzed avenues

Verify every fear. But there is warmth
In this sudden desire to sleep,
To surrender to our common condition

With joy, watching hours of news
Devoted to weather. People finally stop
To talk to each other - the neighbors

We didn't know were always here.
Today they are ready for business,
Armed with a new vocabulary,

Casting their saga in phrases as severe
As last night's snow: damage assessment,
Evacuation, emergency management.

The shift of the wind matters again,
And we are so simple, so happy to hear
The scrape of a shovel next door.

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