Phillis Levin Poems

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The Blizzard

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;

Cloud Fishing

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.

Lenten Song

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.

Another Room

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.

On Either Side of the Word Lie

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.

A Needle in the Sky

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.

The Third Day

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?

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