For The Country - Poem by Philip Levine
This has nothing to do with war
or the end of the world. She
dreams there are gray starlings
on the winter lawn and the buds
of next year's oranges alongside
this year's oranges, and the sun
is still up, a watery circle
of fire settling into the sky
at dinner time, but there's no
flame racing through the house
or threatening the bed. When she
wakens the phone is ringing
in a distant room, but she
doesn't go to answer it. No
one is home with her, and the cars
passing before the house hiss
in the rain. "My children!" she
almost says, but there are no
longer children at home, there
are no longer those who would
turn to her, their faces running
with tears, and ask her forgiveness.
The Michigan Central Terminal
the day after victory. Her brother
home from Europe after years
of her mother's terror, and he still
so young but now with the dark
shadow of a beard, holding her
tightly among all the others
calling for their wives or girls.
That night in the front room
crowded with family and neighbors --
he was first back on the block --
he sat cross-legged on the floor
still in his wool uniform, smoking
and drinking as he spoke of passing
high over the dark cities she'd
only read about. He'd wanted to
go back again and again. He'd wanted
to do this for the country,
for this -- a small house with upstairs
bedrooms -- so he'd asked to go
on raid after raid as though
he hungered to kill or be killed.
Today on television men
will enter space and return,
men she cannot imagine.
Lost in gigantic paper suits,
they move like sea creatures.
A voice will crackle from out
there where no voices are
speaking of the great theater
of conquest, of advancing
beyond the simple miracles
of flight, the small ventures
of birds and beasts. The President
will answer with words she
cannot remember having
spoken ever to anyone.
THE PHONE CALL
She calls Chicago, but no one
is home. The operator asks
for another number but still
no one answers. Together
they try twenty-one numbers,
and at each no one is ever home.
"Can I call Baltimore?" she asks.
She can, but she knows no one
in Baltimore, no one in
St. Louis, Boston, Washington.
She imagines herself standing
before the glass wall high
over Lake Shore Drive, the cars
below fanning into the city.
East she can see all the way
to Gary and the great gray clouds
of exhaustion rolling over
the lake where her vision ends.
This is where her brother lives.
At such height there's nothing,
no birds, no growing, no noise.
She leans her sweating forehead
against the cold glass, shudders,
and puts down the receiver.
Wherever she turns her garden
is alive and growing. The thin
spears of wild asparagus, shaft
of tulip and flag, green stain
of berry buds along the vines,
even in the eaten leaf of
pepper plants and clipped stalk
of snap bean. Mid-afternoon
and already the grass is dry
under the low sun. Bluejay
and dark capped juncos hidden
in dense foliage waiting
the sun's early fall, when she
returns alone to hear them
call and call back, and finally
in the long shadows settle
down to rest and to silence
in the sudden rising chill.
Two boys are playing ball
in the backyard, throwing it
back and forth in the afternoon's
bright sunshine as a black mongrel
big as a shepherd races
from one to the other. She
hides behind the heavy drapes
in her dining room and listens,
but they're too far. Who are
they? They move about her yard
as though it were theirs. Are they
the sons of her sons? They've
taken off their shirts, and she
sees they're not boys at all --
a dark smudge of hair rises
along the belly of one --, and now
they have the dog down thrashing
on his back, snarling and flashing
his teeth, and they're laughing.
She's eaten dinner talking
back to the television, she's
had coffee and brandy, done
the dishes and drifted into
and out of sleep over a book
she found beside the couch. It's
time for bed, but she goes
instead to the front door, unlocks
it, and steps onto the porch.
Behind her she can hear only
the silence of the house. The lights
throw her shadow down the stairs
and onto the lawn, and she walks
carefully to meet it. Now she's
standing in the huge, whispering
arena of night, hearing her
own breath tearing out of her
like the cries of an animal.
She could keep going into
whatever the darkness brings,
she could find a presence there
her shaking hands could hold
instead of each other.
A dark sister lies beside her
all night, whispering
that it's not a dream, that fire
has entered the spaces between
one face and another.
There will be no wakening.
When she wakens, she can't
catch her own breath, so she yells
for help. It comes in the form
of sleep. They whisper
back and forth, using new words
that have no meaning
to anyone. The aspen shreds
itself against her window.
The oranges she saw that day
in her yard explode
in circles of oil, the few stars
quiet and darken. They go on,
two little girls up long past
their hour, playing in bed.
Comments about For The Country by Philip Levine
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