originally published November 1997
Audio: Hear Philip Levine read this poem (2:20)
Also by Philip Levine:
The Lesson (2003)
"He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do" (1999)
The Return (1998)
Ode For Mrs. William Settle (1993)
Holy Day (1973)
From the archives:
A Useful Poetry
An interview with Philip Levine
by Wen Stephenson (April 8, 1999)
Poet of the Factory Floor
by Peter Davison (April 1999)
A review of Philip Levine's collection, The Mercy.
A man roams the streets with a basket
of freestone peaches hollering, "Peaches,
peaches, yellow freestone peaches for sale."
My grandfather in his prime could outshout
the Tigers of Wrath or the factory whistles
along the river. Hamtramck hungered
for yellow freestone peaches, downriver
wakened from a dream of work, Zug Island danced
into the bright day glad to be alive.
Full-figured women in their negligees
streamed into the streets from the dark doorways
to demand in Polish or Armenian
the ripened offerings of this new world.
Josef Prisckulnick out of Dubrovitsa
to Detroit by way of Ellis Island
raised himself regally to his full height
of five feet two and transacted until
the fruit was gone into those eager hands.
Thus would there be a letter sent across
an ocean and a continent, and thus
would Sadie waken to the news of wealth
without limit in the bright and distant land,
and thus bags were packed and she set sail
for America. Some of this is true.
The women were gaunt. All day the kids dug
in the back lots searching for anything.
The place was Russia with another name.
Joe was five feet two. Dubrovitsa burned
to gray ashes the west wind carried off,
then Rovno went, then the Dnieper turned to dust.
We sat around the table telling lies
while the late light filled an empty glass.
Bread, onions, the smell of burning butter,
small white potatoes we shared with no one
because the hour was wrong, the guest was late,
and this was Michigan in 1928.
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.