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.
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
For further reading today: