I am so excited to have just received my copy of Philip Levine’s posthumous collection, The Last Shift.
I am savoring reading his words, which have always affected me so deeply.
His very first poem in the collection, “Inheritance,” moves me to tears, especially the last few lines. The poem is about a watch and other items Levine, as a child, coveted of his grandpa’s. He used to sneak into his grandpa’s room and look at the objects.
Here’s how the poem ends:
…I could call them
“Infinite riches in a little room”
or go cosmic and regard them
as fragments of a great mystery
instead of what they are,
amulets against nothing.
I met and spoke with Philip Levine only once, but the memory of his humbleness and humanity will stay with my whole life.
I wrote an elegy for him the year he died (2015), but never presented it anywhere. My verse adopts Levine’s practice of the 9-syllable line (mostly), a syllable off from what the ear is used to with the more common English 10-syllable line, giving the overall composition an uneasy bearing or forward momentum.
A Simple Truth
in memoriam for a great poet
I imagine Philip Levine time-
shifting in Trafalmadorian
fashion to 1936 where
he is an angel-on-the-shoulder
weeping as Lorca is tortured, then
murdered; to Fresno State his first year
teaching where on a lunch break he sits
with a student reciting Roethke;
to one April in Detroit, the mud
Biblical, men milling, cued up
for news of work that never arrives;
back to the mills, haunted as the men’s
eyes who labored there, understanding
one human being is everyone.
And how many more lives than the six
million hearts stopped by Hitler does he
daily visit with his words? Grass, boats,
dust, wind, the darkening skies, two sons,
a brother, the loves declared, unnamed
desires that were answered not by
their aims, but by the simple truths, small
red potatoes, melting butter, salt.
The book is open to the first page
yesterday. Tomorrow is always
the fourteenth of February. And
today it is 1941
five minutes to 8AM, sweet Phil,
Billy Pilgrim, this day never ends.
Yes, oh yes, it is enough to say
what you can, the gift of transcribing
ordinary suffering into
extraordinary joy, your name
hangs in the brilliant morning air, a
feather, eyelid of a magpie, closed.