The Atlantic Monthly

Poetry -- November 1994
By Philip Levine



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 


"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.

Philip Levine is the author of many books, including a collection of essays, The Bread of Time (1994). His poem in this issue of The Atlantic is taken from his new book, The Simple Truth, to be published this month by Knopf.






Copyright © 1994 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1994; Magpiety; Volume 274, No. 5; pages 110-111.