Philip Levine died yesterday. He was 87, a former US Poet Laureate and one of my favorite poets.

I’m not going to use this post to give you biographical and bibliographical information about Levine. You can google that easy enough. He’s worth the search. He is a true American voice. One of our Greats. A giant-killer who never looked away from the hard labor and factory work that have made us who we are.

I am not Jewish, nor did I grow up in Detroit, yet his poems always speak to me, speak for me. His poems are legion. Below is my favorite.  Now I’ll get out of the way and let his words tell the rest.

American Poet Philip Levine, 1928-2015

American Poet Philip Levine, 1928-2015

The Old Testament

My twin brother swears that at age thirteen

I’d take on anyone who called me kike

no matter how old or how big he was.

I only wish I’d been that tiny kid

who fought back through his tears, swearing

he would not go quietly. I go quietly

packing bark chips and loam into the rose beds,

while in his memory I remain the constant child

daring him to wrest Detroit from lean gentiles

in LaSalle convertibles and golf clothes

who step slowly into the world we have tainted,

and have their revenge. I remember none of this.

He insists, he names the drug store where I poured

a milkshake over the head of an Episcopalian

with quick fists as tight as croquet balls.

He remembers his license plate, his thin lips,

the exact angle at which this seventeen year old dropped

his shoulder to throw the last punch. He’s making

it up. Wasn’t I always terrified?

“Of course,” he tells me, “that’s the miracle,

you were even more scared than me, so scared

you went insane, you became a whirlwind,

an avenging angel.”

I remember planting

my first Victory Garden behind the house, hauling

dark loam in borrowed wagon, and putting in

carrots, corn that never grew, radishes that did.

I remember saving for weeks to buy a tea rose,

a little stick packed in dirt and burlap,

my mother’s favorite. I remember the white bud

of my first peony that one morning burst

beside the mock orange that cost me 69 cents.

(Fifty years later the orange is still there,

the only thing left beside a cage for watch dogs,

empty now, in what had become my tiny yard.)

I remember putting myself to sleep dreaming

of the tomatoes coming into fullness, the pansies

laughing in the spring winds, the magical wisteria

climbing along the garage, and dreaming of Hitler,

of firing a single shot from a foot away, one

that would tear his face into a caricature of mine,

tear stained, bloodies, begging for a moment’s peace.

–Phillip Levine, from The Simple Truth

Copyright 1995, Alfred A. Knopf, New York

Copyright 1995, Alfred A. Knopf, New York

For further reading today:

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