Philip Levine

(January 10, 1928 / Detroit, Michigan)

Sierra Kid - Poem by Philip Levine

"I've been where it hurts." the Kid

He becomes Sierra Kid

I passed Slimgullion, Morgan Mine,
Camp Seco, and the rotting Lode.
Dark walls of sugar pine --,
And where I left the road

I left myself behind;
Talked to no one, thought
Of nothing. When my luck ran out
Lived on berries, nuts, bleached grass.
Driven by the wind
Through great Sonora pass,

I found an Indian's teeth;
Turned and climbed again
Without direction, compass, path,
Without a way of coming down,
Until I stopped somewhere
And gave the place a name.

I called the forests mine;
Whatever I could hear
I took to be a voice: a man
Was something I would never hear.

He faces his second winter in the Sierra

A hard brown bug, maybe a beetle,
Packing a ball of sparrow shit --
What shall I call it?
Shit beetle? Why's it pushing here
At this great height in the thin air
With its ridiculous waddle

Up the hard side of Hard Luck Hill?
And the furred thing that frightened me --
Bobcat, coyote, wild dog --
Flat eyes in winter bush, stiff tail
Holding his ground, a rotted log.
Grass snakes that wouldn't die,

And night hawks hanging on the rim
Of what was mine. I know them now;
They have absorbed a mind
Which must endure the freezing snow
They endure and, freezing, find
A clear sustaining stream.

He learns to lose

She was afraid
Of everything,
The little Digger girl.
Pah Utes had killed
Her older brother
Who may have been her lover
The way she cried
Over his ring --

The heavy brass
On the heavy hand.
She carried it for weeks
Clenched in her fist
As if it might
Keep out the loneliness
Or the plain fact
That he was gone.

When the first snows
Began to fall
She stopped her crying, picked
Berries, sweet grass,
Mended her clothes
And sewed a patchwork shawl.
We slept together
But did not speak.

It may have been
The Pah Utes took
Her off, perhaps her kin.
I came back
To find her gone
With half the winter left
To face alone --
The slow grey dark

Moving along
The dark tipped grass
Between the numbed pines.
Night after night
For four long months
My face to her dark face
We two had lain
Till the first light.

Civilization comes to Sierra Kid

They levelled Tater Hill
And I was sick.
First sun, and the chain saws
Coming on; blue haze,
Dull blue exhaust
Rising, dust rising, and the smell.

Moving from their thatched huts
The crazed wood rats
By the thousand; grouse, spotted quail
Abandoning the hills
For the sparse trail
On which, exposed, I also packed.

Six weeks. I went back down
Through my own woods
Afraid of what I knew they'd done.
There, there, an A&P,
And not a tree
For Miles, and mammoth hills of goods.

Fat men in uniforms,
Young men in aprons
With one face shouting, "He is mad!"
I answered: "I am Lincoln,
Aaron Burr,
The aging son of Appleseed.

"I am American
And I am cold."
But not a one would hear me out.
Oh God, what have I seen
That was not sold!
They shot an old man in the gut.

Mad, dying, Sierra Kid enters the capital

What have I changed?
I unwound burdocks from my hair
And scalded stains
Of the black grape
And hid beneath long underwear
The yellowed tape.

Who will they find
In the dark woods of the dark mind
Now I have gone
Into the world?
Across the blazing civic lawn
A shadow's hurled

And I must follow.
Something slides beneath my vest
Like melted tallow,
Thick but thin,
Burning where it comes to rest
On what was skin.

Who will they find?
A man with no eyes in his head?
Or just a mind
Calm and alone?
Or just a mouth, silent, dead,
The lips half gone?

Will they presume
That someone once was half alive
And that the air
Was massive where
The sickening pyracanthus thrive
Staining his tomb?

I came to touch
The great heart of a dying state.
Here is the wound!
It makes no sound.
All that we learn we learn too late,
And it's not much.


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Read poems about / on: dark, winter, dog, alone, sick, brother, night, girl, son, snow, together, tree, hair, wind, sun, sleep, snake, lost, rose, running



Poem Submitted: Monday, January 13, 2003



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