The Lesson

Early in the final industrial century
on the street where I was born lived
a doctor who smoked black shag
and walked his dog each morning
as he muttered to himself in a language
only the dog knew. The doctor had saved
my brother's life, the story went, reached
two stained fingers down his throat
to extract a chicken bone and then
bowed to kiss the ring-encrusted hand
of my beautiful mother, a young widow
on the lookout for a professional.
Years before, before the invention of smog,
before Fluid Drive, the eight-hour day,
the iron lung, I'd come into the world
in a shower of industrial filth raining
from the bruised sky above Detroit.
Time did not stop. Mother married
a bland wizard in clutch plates
and drive shafts. My uncles went off
to their world wars, and I began a career
in root vegetables. Each morning,
just as the dark expired, the corner church
tolled its bells. Beyond the church
an oily river ran both day and night
and there along its banks I first conversed
with the doctor and Waldo, his dog.
"Young man," he said in words
resembling English, "you would dress
heavy for autumn, scarf, hat, gloves.
Not to smoke," he added, "as I do."

 

Eleven, small for my age but ambitious,
I took whatever good advice I got,
though I knew then what I know
now: the past, not the future, was mine.
If I told you he and I became pals
even though I barely understood him
would you doubt me? Wakened before dawn
by the Catholic bells, I would dress
in the dark—remembering scarf, hat, gloves—
to make my way into the deserted streets
to where Waldo and his master ambled
the riverbank. Sixty-four years ago,
and each morning is frozen in memory,
each a lesson in what was to come.
What was to come? you ask. This world
as we have it, utterly unknowable,
utterly unacceptable, utterly unlovable,
the world we waken to each day
with or without bells. The lesson was
in his hands, one holding a cigarette,
the other buried in blond dog fur, and in
his words thick with laughter, hushed,
incomprehensible, words that were sound
only without sense, just as these must be.
Staring into the moist eyes of my maestro,
I heard the lost voices of creation running
over stones as the last darkness sifted upward,
voices saddened by the milky residue
of machine shops and spangled with first light,
discordant, harsh, but voices nonetheless.

Presented by

Philip Levine is the author of numerous books of poetry, including News of the World (2009), Breath (2004), and The Mercy (1999). He taught for many years at Fresno State in California and now divides his time between Fresno and New York City.

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