Philip Levine

January 10, 1928 / Detroit, Michigan


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.
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