Last Words - Poem by Philip Levine
If the shoe fell from the other foot
who would hear? If the door
opened onto a pure darkness
and it was no dream? If your life
ended the way a book ends
with half a blank page and the survivors
gone off to Africa or madness?
If my life ended in late spring
of 1964 while I walked alone
back down the mountain road?
I sing an old song to myself. I study
the way the snow remains, gray
and damp, in the deep shadows of the firs.
I wonder if the bike is safe hidden
just off the highway. Up ahead
the road, black and winding, falls
away, and there is the valley where
I lived half of my life, spectral
and calm. I sigh with gratitude,
and then I feel an odd pain rising
through the back of my head,
and my eyes go dark. I bend forward
and place my palms on something rough,
the black asphalt or a field of stubble,
and the movement is that of the penitent
just before he stands to his full height
with the knowledge of his enormity.
For that moment which will survive
the burning of all the small pockets
of fat and oil that are the soul,
I am the soul stretching into
the furthest reaches of my fingers
and beyond, glowing like ten candles
in the vault of night for anyone
who could see, even though it is
12:40 in the afternoon and I
have passed from darkness into sunlight
so fierce the sweat streams down
into my eyes. I did not rise.
A wind or a stray animal or a group
of kids dragged me to the side
of the road and turned me over
so that my open eyes could flood heaven.
My clothes went skittering down
the road without me, ballooning
out into any shape, giddy
with release. My coins, my rings,
the keys to my house shattered
like ice and fell into the mountain
thorns and grasses, little bright points
that make you think there is magic
in everything you see. No, it can't
be, you say, for someone is speaking
calmly to you in a voice you know.
Someone alive and confident has put
each of these words down exactly
as he wants them on the page.
You have lived through years
of denial, of public lies, of death
falling like snow on any head
it chooses. You're not a child.
You know the real thing. I am
here, as I always was, faithful
to a need to speak even when all
you hear is a light current of air
tickling your ear. Perhaps.
But what if that dried bundle
of leaves and dirt were not dirt
and leaves but the spent wafer
of a desire to be human? Stop the car,
turn off the engine, and stand
in the silence above your life. See
how the grass mirrors fire, how
a wind rides up the hillside
steadily toward you until it surges
into your ears like breath coming
and going, released from its bondage
to blood or speech and denying nothing.
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