Philip Levine

(January 10, 1928 / Detroit, Michigan)

The Present - Poem by Philip Levine

The day comes slowly in the railyard
behind the ice factory. It broods on
one cinder after another until each
glows like lead or the eye of a dog
possessed of no inner fire, the brown
and greasy pointer who raises his muzzle
a moment and sighing lets it thud
down on the loading dock. In no time
the day has crossed two sets of tracks,
a semi-trailer with no tractor, and crawled
down three stories of the bottling plant
at the end of the alley. It is now
less than five hours until mid-day
when nothing will be left in doubt,
each scrap of news, each banished carton,
each forgotten letter, its ink bled of lies,
will stare back at the one eye that sees
it all and never blinks. But for now
there is water settling in a clean glass
on the shelf beside the razor, the slap
of bare feet on the floor above. Soon
the scent of rivers borne across roof
after roof by winds without names,
the aroma of opened beds better left
closed, of mouths without teeth, of light
rustling among the mice droppings
at the back of a bin of potatoes.

*

The old man who sleeps among the cases
of empty bottles in a little nest of rags
and newspapers at the back of the plant
is not an old man. He is twenty years
younger than I am now putting this down
in permanent ink on a yellow legal pad
during a crisp morning in October.
When he fell from a high pallet, his sleeve
caught on a nail and spread his arms
like a figure out of myth. His head
tore open on a spear of wood, and he
swore in French. No, he didn't want
a doctor. He wanted toilet paper
and a drink, which were fetched. He used
the tiny bottle of whisky to straighten
out his eyes and the toilet paper to clean
his pants, fouled in the fall, and he did
both with seven teenage boys looking on
in wonder and fear. At last the blood
slowed and caked above his ear, and he
never once touched the wound. Instead,
in a voice no one could hear, he spoke
to himself, probably in French, and smoked
sitting back against a pallet, his legs
thrust out on the damp cement floor.

*

In his white coveralls, crisp and pressed,
Teddy the Polack told us a fat tit
would stop a toothache, two a headache.
He told it to anyone who asked, and grinned --
the small eyes watering at the corners --
as Alcibiades might have grinned
when at last he learned that love leads
even the body beloved to a moment
in the present when desire calms, the skin
glows, the soul takes the light of day,
even a working day in 1944.
For Baharozian at seventeen the present
was a gift. Seeing my ashen face,
the cold sweats starting, he seated me
in a corner of the boxcar and did
both our jobs, stacking the full cases
neatly row upon row and whistling
the songs of Kate Smith. In the bathroom
that night I posed naked before the mirror,
the new cross of hair staining my chest,
plunging to my groin. That was Wednesday,
for every Wednesday ended in darkness.

*

One of those teenage boys was my brother.
That night as we lay in bed, the lights
out, we spoke of Froggy, of how at first
we thought he would die and how little
he seemed to care as the blood rose
to fill and overflow his ear. Slowly
the long day came over us and our breath
quieted and eased at last, and we slept.
When I close my eyes now his bare legs
glow before me again, pure and lovely
in their perfect whiteness, the buttocks
dimpled and firm. I see again the rope
of his sex, unwrinkled, flushed and swaying,
the hard flat belly as he raises his shirt
to clean himself. He gazes at no one
or nothing, but seems instead to look off
into a darkness I hadn't seen, a pool
of shadow that forms before his eyes,
in my memory now as solid as onyx.

*

I began this poem in the present
because nothing is past. The ice factory,
the bottling plant, the cindered yard
all gave way to a low brick building
a block wide and windowless where they
designed gun mounts for personnel carriers
that never made it to Korea. My brother
rises early, and on clear days he walks
to the corner to have toast and coffee.
Seventeen winters have melted into an earth
of stone, bottle caps, and old iron to carry
off the hard remains of Froggy Frenchman
without a blessing or a stone to bear it.
A little spar of him the size of a finger,
pointed and speckled as though blood-flaked,
washed ashore from Lake Erie near Buffalo
before the rest slipped down the falls out
into the St. Lawrence. He could be at sea,
he could be part of an ocean, by now
he could even be home. This morning I
rose later than usual in a great house
full of sunlight, but I believe it came
down step by step on each wet sheet
of wooden siding before it crawled
from the ceiling and touched my pillow
to waken me. When I heave myself
out of this chair with a great groan of age
and stand shakily, the three mice still
in the wall. From across the lots
the wind brings voices I can't make out,
scraps of song or sea sounds, daylight
breaking into dust, the perfume of waiting
rain, of onions and potatoes frying.


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Read poems about / on: brother, october, rose, mirror, poem, dog, sea, memory, ocean, believe, light, house, hair, rain, song, water, fear, fire, home, wind



Poem Submitted: Monday, January 13, 2003



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