Mine Own Phil Levine
after W.S. Merwin
What he told me, I will tell you
There was a war on
It seemed we had lived through
Too many to name, to number
There was no arrogance about him
No vanity, only the strong backs
Of his words pressed against
The tonnage of a page
His suggestion to me was that hard work
Was the order of each day
When I asked again, he said it again,
pointing it out twice
His Muse, if he had one, was a window
Filled with a brick wall, the left hand corner
Of his mind, a hand lined with grease
And sweat: literal things
Before I knew him, I was unknown
I drank deeply from his knowledge
A cup he gave me again and again
Filled with water, clear river water
He was never old, and never grew older
Though the days passed and the poems
Marched forth and they were his words
Only, no other words were needed
He advised me to wait, to hold true
To my vision, to speak in my own voice
To say the thing straight out
There was the whole day about him
The greatest thing, he said, was presence
To be yourself in your own time, to stand up
That poetry was precision, raw precision
Truth and compassion: genius
I had hardly begun. I asked, How did you begin
He said, I began in a tree, in Lucerne
In a machine shop, in an open field
He said If you don’t write, it won’t
Get written. No tricks. No magic
About it. He gave me his gold pen
He said What’s mine is yours.
* * *
TO KISS FRANK,
make out with him a bit, this
is what my friend would like to do
oh these too many dead summers later,
and as much as I want to stroll with her
into the poet’s hazy fancy
all I can see is O’Hara’s long gone lips
fallen free of the bone, those two damp slugs
slumbering beneath the grainy soil.
I can hear Frank’s dry voice
combing the air for song, but what I see
is his skeleton entombed in dust, wrapped
in his dapper suit, his razzle-dazzle sunglasses.
She sees him alive, ambling
down a sidewalk, all of New York
clambering into the sky behind him,
cuff links winking, his dear friends waving,
calling him by name like they do in the city:
800,000 people and you step outside for a smoke
and see someone you know.
That’s how it is with death.
Those you love come at you like lightening,
crackle for an instant—so kissable—
and then lips and all, they’re gone.
* * *
THE SECRET OF BACKS
Heels of the shoes worn down, each
in its own way, sending signals to the spine.
The back of the knee as it folds and unfolds.
In winter the creases of American-made jeans:
blue denim ridged, worried-to-white thread.
And in summer, in spring, beneath the hems
of skirts, Bermudas, old bathing suit elastic,
the pleating and un-pleating of parchment skin.
And the dear, dear rears. Such variety! Such
choice in how to cover or reveal: belts looped high
or slung so low you can’t help but think of plumbers.
And the small of the back: dimpled or taut, spiny or not,
tattooed, butterflied, rosed, winged, whorled. Maybe
still pink from the needle and ink. And shoulders,
broad or rolled, poking through braids, dreads, frothy
waterfalls of uncut hair, exposed to rain, snow, white
stars of dandruff, unbrushed flecks on a blue-black coat.
And the spiral near the top of the back of the head—
peek of scalp, exquisite galaxy– as if the first breach
had swirled each filament away from that startled center.
Ah, but the best are the bald or neatly shorn, revealing
the flanged, sun-flared, flamboyant backs of ears: secret
as the undersides of leaves, the flipside of flower petals.
And oh, the oh my nape of the neck. The up-swept oh my
nape of the neck. I could walk behind anyone and fall in love.
Don’t stop. Don’t turn around.
* * *
What are the chances a raindrop
from last night’s storm caught
in the upturned cup of an autumn leaf
will fall from this tree I pass under
and land on the tip of my lit cigarette,
snuffing it out? What are the chances
my niece will hit bottom before Christmas,
a drop we all long for, and quit heroin?
What are the chances of being hit
by a bus, a truck, a hell-bound train
or inheriting the gene for cancer,
addiction? What good are statistics
on a morning like this? What good
is my niece to anyone but herself?
What are the chances any of you
are reading this poem?
whom I have not met,
when you meet her on the street
wearing the wounds that won’t heal
and she offers you the only thing
she has left, what are the chances
you’ll take pity on her fallen body?