Philip Levine died yesterday. He was 87, a former US Poet Laureate and one of my favorite poets.
I’m not going to use this post to give you biographical and bibliographical information about Levine. You can google that easy enough. He’s worth the search. He is a true American voice. One of our Greats. A giant-killer who never looked away from the hard labor and factory work that have made us who we are.
I am not Jewish, nor did I grow up in Detroit, yet his poems always speak to me, speak for me. His poems are legion. Below is my favorite. Now I’ll get out of the way and let his words tell the rest.
The Old Testament
My twin brother swears that at age thirteen
I’d take on anyone who called me kike
no matter how old or how big he was.
I only wish I’d been that tiny kid
who fought back through his tears, swearing
he would not go quietly. I go quietly
packing bark chips and loam into the rose beds,
while in his memory I remain the constant child
daring him to wrest Detroit from lean gentiles
in LaSalle convertibles and golf clothes
who step slowly into the world we have tainted,
and have their revenge. I remember none of this.
He insists, he names the drug store where I poured
a milkshake over the head of an Episcopalian
with quick fists as tight as croquet balls.
He remembers his license plate, his thin lips,
the exact angle at which this seventeen year old dropped
his shoulder to throw the last punch. He’s making
it up. Wasn’t I always terrified?
“Of course,” he tells me, “that’s the miracle,
you were even more scared than me, so scared
you went insane, you became a whirlwind,
an avenging angel.”
I remember planting
my first Victory Garden behind the house, hauling
dark loam in borrowed wagon, and putting in
carrots, corn that never grew, radishes that did.
I remember saving for weeks to buy a tea rose,
a little stick packed in dirt and burlap,
my mother’s favorite. I remember the white bud
of my first peony that one morning burst
beside the mock orange that cost me 69 cents.
(Fifty years later the orange is still there,
the only thing left beside a cage for watch dogs,
empty now, in what had become my tiny yard.)
I remember putting myself to sleep dreaming
of the tomatoes coming into fullness, the pansies
laughing in the spring winds, the magical wisteria
climbing along the garage, and dreaming of Hitler,
of firing a single shot from a foot away, one
that would tear his face into a caricature of mine,
tear stained, bloodies, begging for a moment’s peace.
–Phillip Levine, from The Simple Truth
For further reading today:
I’ve just returned from a tangent.
It started like this: mired into a world of my own creation on the page, moving characters around to suit my purpose, giving them something to say, or striking them mute as I see fit, it occurred to me that I could throw a catastrophe at them on the next page. Ha! My beloved characters have no idea what’s coming! They are going to buckle under the devastation. Oh, the ecstasy of destroying someone on the page!
And that’s when the strange sail appears at the horizon. Something I once knew coming back to me across the ocean of memory, a familiar phrase rising from behind the curvature of my own mind. Someone somewhere once referred to my kind as “strange monsters.”
Strange monsters. The moniker floats there at the edge of my planet, a brilliant distraction. Strange monsters, not an insult surely, but an honest affirmation. Where had the phrase come from? Who said it? Go chase it!
So I drop everything for the next hour to ransack my bookshelves and flip through every old anthology I suspect may hold the lexicon of strange monsters.
For all the strange monsters who no longer have the need or habit of explaining themselves to anybody.
Turns out strange monsters are from My Sister, O My Sister, a poem by May Sarton. I remember reading this almost 20 years ago and it knocked me out then. So I thought I would share it now, along with a recording of Sarton herself reading it aloud.
So here it is, for all the other strange monsters out there who’ve spent the past few days swimming around in the deep sea of self expression where households turn to filth and societal expectations have no hold. For all the other strange monsters who, when they look up from the flowing current of their handwritten scrawl see an on-shore world looking back at them with that uncomprehending stare.
For all the strange monsters who no longer have the need or habit of explaining themselves to anybody.
My Sisters, O My Sisters
Nous qui voulions poser, image ineffaçable
Comme un delta divin nortre main sur le sable*
-Anna de Noailles
Dorothy Wordsworth, dying, did not want to read,
“I am too busy with my own feelings,” she said.
And all women who have wanted to break out
Of the prison of consciousness to sing or shout
Are strange monsters who renounce the treasure
Of their silence for a curious devouring pleasure.
Dickinson, Rossetti, Sappho—they all know it,
Something is lost, strained, unforgiven in the poet.
She abdicates from life or like George Sand
Suffers from the mortality in an immortal hand,
Loves too much, spends a whole life to discover
She was born a good grandmother, not a good lover.
Too powerful for men: Madame de Stael. Too sensitive:
Madame de Sevigne who burdened where she meant to give.
Delicate as that burden was and so supremely lovely,
It was too heavy for her daughter, much too heavy.
Only when she built inward in a fearful isolation
Did any one succeed or learn to fuse emotion
With thought. Only when she renounced did Emily
Begin in the fierce lonely light to learn to be.
Only in the extremity of spirit and the flesh
And in renouncing passion did Sappho come to bless.
Only in the farewells or in old age does sanity
Shine through the crimson stains of their mortality.
And now we who are writing women and strange monsters
Still search our hearts to find the difficult answers,
Still hope that we may learn to lay our hands
More gently and more subtly on the burning sands.
To be through what we make more simply human,
To come to the deep place where poet becomes a woman,
Where nothing has to be renounced or given over
In the pure light that shines out from the lover,
In the pure light that brings forth fruit and flower
And that great sanity, that sun, the feminine power.
*We who wanted to leave an ineffaceable image/Like a divine delta, our hand on the sand.—Anna-Elisabeth, comtesse de Noailles (1876-1933) French poet and novelist.
Tonight I can finally see the moon is a yellow boat
capsizing in deep blue
fear is worse when you do not see
the face of those you fear
What is the worst thing?
What is beyond the worst thing?
Yesterday my country bombed Syria.
Let the sky turn orange
the air tastes of metal
and this is how we live now?
apart from each other
separated by a few feet or a hemisphere
or the wrong name of God.
I would like to say to someone
this should not happen. I would like to hold
anyone in my arms right now.
I would like to knock on my neighbor’s door
ask her to come outside with me
I can’t bear it by myself
watching the moon
with all of its passengers
-Arlitia Jones 9/25
Toothbrush. Pajamas. Chargers
for phone and computer. Check.
Check. Check and check. Ah! Hairbrush!
How helpful of the airlines to declare
our essentials weighed 50lbs or less–
so now I can decide that it’s these cowboy boots,
and these cowboy boots but not those cowboy boots,
my knitting project, only three books on the history of photography–
this suitcase has roller wheels and expanding pockets–nail polish
tucked inside my socks, three pairs
of jeans, 4 black t-shirts because they go
with everything. My curling iron,
my straightening iron, my travel iron,
a pair of running shoes, which means
running clothes and running socks which means
my water bottle which means
I have to drink it all before security–what am I forgetting?
my contacts and solution, face cream–my god
how did the bathroom become this sargasso of flammable liquids and gels?
Can I even get this zipped? –Alarm clock crammed inside your sneaker
and you are done.
All that’s left is the drive to the airport, those last moments when
you ride through your city of origin in a kind of relief,
if you’ve forgotten something,
it’s too late to do anything about it–here it is, the moment you let go
of everything behind you and put your heart forward,
confident in the knowledge
no matter what you’re facing
you have eight pairs of underwear
you can wash and beat on a rock ‘til the end of days.
Dec. 2, 2013
For years, I got it wrong when I said
it was a badger I’d seen on Hatcher Pass road,
squat brown animal that darted for the brush
when it saw our truck–I should’ve known,
badgers don’t dart and anyway
we don’t have badgers in Alaska
(a child formed in the third grade curriculum
told me this) but it was smaller than a bear,
bigger than a spaniel and I swore up and down
the alternative was too rare, too incredible
the sharp claws, the pointed teeth,
nature honed to hunt kill run, dark hump
of it’s back ringed with a lighter nimbus
of guard hairs. A glimpse and it was gone
and in its place the word impossible
I picked up like a wet stone
that dried and dulled in my hand
and good for throwing.
Dec. 1, 2013
This is the month trees crack
midnight bangs on your roof
with an icy hoof
Winter is just arrived
and already you’re running out the lies
that con you into believing this is your life.
Only November and all you have left
is air so cold and thick, stacking in deep valleys
you will carve stairs
and climb out over the mountains
when you know you must leave.
You know you must leave.
Abandon your neighbor. He has his own faith
that calls you stranger before his hearth.
Come dusk, he feeds his horses,
smashes ice out of their water trough,
sings a worksong to his fenced pasture–sound ricochets
like a gunshot and the blue distance shatters.
The horses flicker their ears. They heard
what you heard, make no mistake.
They bend their apostatical faces down,
knock on the ground, muzzle and trample
the splintering bale to nothing. They are already
white steam from their cloud red bodies
Nov. 30, 2013
If only the moon–
give me something anything
a hint of yourself as a grail
or a swan’s egg,
even the petrified face
of someone I miss or mourn–
it would be so easy to write a poem
Moon, you’re just being a moon
which makes me nothing more than a woman staring
through dirty glass
at unnamed brightness
this morning after Thanksgiving.
Yesterday, I was so grateful.
Today, I’m cold and convinced the world
is ruled by a policy of ice and commerce
Why should writing a poem be any easier
than standing in line through the long night
for the discounted holy cup of the xbox?
Go be the moon. Keep your metaphors.
Your silver horn blaring through the trees
doesn’t work anymore. You’re out of the band
and according to this black dog under my desk
knocking her white-tipped tail against my leg,
I’m the big drum that booms the call to march.
Nov. 29, 2013
I love research. I love tangents and arcane facts that lead me far afield of my predetermined story. I love to get lost in the tall dark woods where I can spin around til I don’t know if I’m coming or going. Which way is home? I have no idea but I’ll find my way eventually… when I’m ready. My dog taught me that.
I love old letters, those paper artifacts of our connections to one another, the paper record of our life and times. Tonight, I’m reading the letters of Mother Mary Harris Jones and getting a glimpse into a life of purpose and will.
We glorify the Man of Action as a cultural trope, but we overlook The Little Old Lady of Labor’s Call to Action.
Mother Jones was a firebrand, all right. She was a prickly burr under the saddle of the tyrant. A righteous hornet with a well-aimed stinger spreading agitation.
I thought I’d share a letter she wrote in 1920 to John H. Walker, President of the Illinois State Federation of Labor. Keep in mind, she was around 83 years old when she wrote this:
… Things are pretty lively over here, we are doing business. I had a meeting at Princeton, West Va., yesterday the first labor meeting ever held there.
It was only five miles from Bluefield, the head-quarters of the Baldwin Thugs. I must have had six or seven thousand people, there were seven wagon-loads of Baldwin Thugs at the meeting, but John, I licked Hell out of the whole crowd.
I put a new life and a new spirit into the wretches, certainly it was taking my life in my hands, because I had to come back thirty-two miles, over rough lonely roads along the mountains, with only one man and he was a lawyer, and the chauffer with me, everyone was afraid they would follow me and murder me, but we bluffed them and took the wrong road.
It was near eleven o’clock when I got into Hinton, but after I crossed the river, I felt safe. I got into Charleston at four o’clock in the morning, had no sleep for twenty-eight hours. I had to go thirty-four miles over that rough road and back the same and then speak for one hour and a half to that tremendous audience, but John, I sowed the seed anyhow, the voice of labor should not be raised there before, it was just as bad as homestead, but anybody else would have got killed.
Give my love to them all at home…
Confession: I’ve never done a PowerPoint presentation.
I found myself in a room full of amazing artists this weekend wherein we each took turns explaining ourselves as artists. Everyone else had cool aluminum earrings that doubled as thumb drives with their awe-inspiring powerpoint presentations on them. I had a piece of paper. They had diverse and exciting images showing their work and themselves in the midst of their process. I had a piece of paper. Their images were dynamic and insightful. My paper was 8 1/2″ X 11.”
So once again, I’m chasing down the 1990s and jumping on the bandwagon late. So, for those of you who are curious about what a writer’s process and work mode looks like, I’ve put together my own presentation of images showing me at work in all the varied and exciting ways I create as a writer.
10 Portraits of the Artist as a PowerPoint Presentation
I got a package in the mail today from one of my favorite poets, Anne Caston. Wild woman of words, you can never predict what treasure Anne has carefully wrapped and taped and marked with your name and address. In the past she’s given me:
a beautiful handmade quilt top
hand dyed fabrics
her book of poems
copies of new poems
hand made soap
Before she left Alaska, she gave me a little charm of orange haired theatre woman. I hung it above my bed. A little bright spot on the wall, I think of it as an eccentric stenographer taking down my dreams in short hand.
So today, this was in my package:
The motherfucker mug looks good next to the mermaid, don’t you think?
Anne, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU!!!! I LOVE IT!!!!
And I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing at all times.
And for the rest of you reading this, if you don’t know Anne’s work, click on the link above for some of her poems. Explore the terrain of your own heart with her words. But be warned, Anne writes an unflinching truth and rarely provides safeguards in her poetry. That’s what makes her so brilliant.
Sunday Brunch at the Old Country Buffet
BY ANNE CASTON
Madison, Wisconsin, 1996