Sunday, February 22, 2015

Poetry Sunday: Detroit, Tomorrow

Philip Levine, a much-honored American poet, died last week at age 87. Mr. Levine had won just about every award it is possible for a poet to win in his long career and he had capped all that with a stint as our Poet Laureate in 2011-12.

Much has been written since his death about how he made poetry of the everyday event's of ordinary people's lives. He wrote about the work that they did, often hard and dirty labor. In their obituary for him, The New York Times wrote that his poetry "was vibrantly, angrily and often painfully alive with the sound, smell and sinew of heavy manual labor."


Levine knew first-hand about that work. He had held many of those jobs himself in his early years. He was born in Detroit and the lives of the laboring masses who made Detroit a great city were often the theme of his writing. Here is one of those poems.

Detroit, Tomorrow

BY PHILIP LEVINE
Newspaper says the boy killed by someone,   
don’t say who. I know the mother, waking,   
gets up as usual, washes her face
in cold water, and starts the coffee pot.

She stands by the window up there on floor   
sixteen wondering why the street’s so calm   
with no cars going or coming, and then
she looks at the wall clock and sees the time.

Now she’s too awake to go back to bed,   
she’s too awake not to remember him,
her one son, or to forget exactly
how long yesterday was, each moment dragged

into the next by the force of her will   
until she thought this simply cannot be.   
She sits at the scarred, white kitchen table,   
the two black windows staring back at her,

wondering how she’ll go back to work today.   
The windows don’t see anything: they’re black,   
eyeless, they give back only what’s given;   
sometimes, like now, even less than what’s given,

yet she stares into their two black faces   
moving her head from side to side, like this,   
just like I’m doing now. Try it awhile,   
go ahead, it’s not going to kill you.

Now say something, it doesn’t matter what   
you say because all the words are useless:   
“I’m sorry for your loss.” “This too will pass.”
“He was who he was.” She won’t hear you out

because she can only hear the torn words   
she uses to pray to die. This afternoon   
you and I will see her just before four   
alight nimbly from the bus, her lunch box

of one sandwich, a thermos of coffee,
a navel orange secured under her arm,
and we’ll look away. Under your breath make   
her one promise and keep it forever:

in the little store-front church down the block,   
the one with the front windows newspapered,   
you won’t come on Saturday or Sunday   
to kneel down and pray for life eternal.

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