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N O V E M B E R   1 9 9 4

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by Philip Levine

audioear picture Hear Philip Levine read this poem (in RealAudio).

(For help, see a note about the audio.)

Also by Philip Levine:
"He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do" (1999)
The Return (1998)
The New World (1997)
Ode For Mrs. William Settle (1993)
Holy Day (1973)

A Useful Poetry (April 8, 1999)
An Atlantic Unbound interview with Philip Levine.

Related link:
See a selection of poems by Philip Levine, with readings and commentary in RealAudio, presented by the Internet Poetry Archive.

Go to:
An Audible Anthology
Poetry Pages

You pull over to the shoulder
         of the two-lane
road and sit for a moment wondering
         where you were going
in such a hurry. The valley is burned
         out, the oaks
dream day and night of rain
         that never comes.
At noon or just before noon
         the short shadows
are gray and hold what little
         life survives.
In the still heat the engine
         clicks, although
the real heat is hours ahead.
         You get out and step
cautiously over a low wire
         fence and begin
the climb up the yellowed hill.
         A hundred feet
ahead the trunks of two
         fallen oaks
rust; something passes over
         them, a lizard
perhaps or a trick of sight.
         The next tree
you pass is unfamiliar,
         the trunk dark,
as black as an olive's; the low
         branches stab
out, gnarled and dull: a carob
         or a Joshua tree.
A sudden flaring-up ahead,
         a black-winged
bird rises from nowhere,
         white patches
underneath its wings, and is gone.
         You hear your own
breath catching in your ears,
         a roaring, a sea
sound that goes on and on
         until you lean
forward to place both hands
        -- fingers spread --
into the bleached grasses
         and let your knees
slowly down. Your breath slows
         and you know
you're back in central
on your way to San Francisco
         or the coastal towns
with their damp sea breezes
         you haven't
even a hint of. But first
         you must cross
the Pacheco Pass. People
         expect you, and yet
you remain, still leaning forward
         into the grasses
that if you could hear them
         would tell you
all you need to know about
         the life ahead.

.    .    .

Out of a sense of modesty
         or to avoid the truth
I've been writing in the second
         person, but in truth
it was I, not you, who pulled
         the green Ford
over to the side of the road
         and decided to get
up that last hill to look
         back at the valley
he'd come to call home.
         I can't believe
that man, only thirty-two,
         less than half
my age, could be the person
         fashioning these lines.
That was late July of '60.
         I had heard
all about magpies, how they
         snooped and meddled
in the affairs of others, not
         birds so much
as people. If you dared
         to remove a wedding
ring as you washed away
         the stickiness of love
or the cherished odors of another
         man or woman,
as you turned away
         from the mirror
having admired your new-found
         potency -- humming
"My Funny Valentine" or
         "Body and Soul" --
to reach for a rough towel
         or some garment
on which to dry yourself,
         he would enter
the open window behind you
         that gave gratefully
onto the fields and the roads
         bathed in dawn --
he, the magpie -- and snatch
         up the ring
in his hard beak and shoulder
         his way back
into the currents of the world
         on his way
to the only person who could
         change your life:
a king or a bride or an old woman
         asleep on her porch.

.    .    .

Can you believe the bird
         stood beside you
just long enough, though far
         smaller than you
but fearless in a way
         a man or woman
could never be? An apparition
         with two dark
and urgent eyes and motions
         so quick and precise
they were barely motions at all?
         When he was gone
you turned, alarmed by the rustling
         of oily feathers
and the curious pungency,
         and were sure
you'd heard him say the words
         that could explain
the meaning of blond grasses
         burning on a hillside
beneath the hands of a man
         in the middle of
his life caught in the posture
         of prayer. I'd
heard that a magpie could talk,
         so I waited
for the words, knowing without
         the least doubt
what he'd do, for up ahead
         an old woman
waited on her wide front porch.
         My children
behind her house played
         in a silted pond
poking sticks at the slow
         carp that flashed
in the fallen sunlight. You
         are thirty-two
only once in your life, and though
         July comes
too quickly, you pray for
         the overbearing
heat to pass. It does, and
         the year turns
before it holds still for
         even a moment.
Beyond the last carob
         or Joshua tree
the magpie flashes his sudden
         wings; a second
flames and vanishes into the pale
         blue air.
July 23, 1960.
         I lean down
closer to hear the burned grasses
         whisper all I
need to know. The words rise
         around me, separate
and finite. A yellow dust
         rises and stops
caught in the noon's driving light.
         Three ants pass
across the back of my reddened
         right hand.
Everything is speaking or singing.
         We're still here.

Copyright © 1994 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1994; Magpiety; Volume 274, No. 3; page 110.

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