Philip Levine: Sweet Will

Copyright © 1985 by Philip Levine
All rights reserved

Note from the CAPA webmaster: Certain poems have been omitted due to their inclusion in Philip Levine's New Selected Poems.

for Harry Ford

                                             ...silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will...



Salts and Oils
Those Were the Days
The White Iris
The Present
Sweet Will


A Poem With No Ending


An Ending
Late Light
The House
Last Words
An Ordinary Morning
Jewish Graveyards, Italy



Pond snipe, bleached pine, rue weed, wart --
I walk by sedge and brown river rot
to where the old lake boats went daily out.
All the ships are gone, the gray wharf fallen
in upon itself. Even the channel's
grown over. Once we set sail here
for Bob-Lo, the Brewery Isles, Cleveland.
We would have gone as far as Niagara
or headed out to open sea if the Captain
said so, but the Captain drank. Blood-eyed
in the morning, coffee shaking in his hand,
he'd plead to be put ashore or drowned,
but no one heard. Enormous in his long coat,
Sinbad would take the helm and shout out
orders swiped from pirate movies. Once
we docked north of Vermillion to meet
a single spur of the old Ohio Western
and sat for days waiting for a train,
waiting for someone to claim the cargo
or give us anything to take back,
like the silver Cadillac roadster
it was rumored we had once freighted
by itself. The others went foraging
and left me with the Captain, locked up
in the head and sober. Two days passed,
I counted eighty tankers pulling
through the flat lake waters on their way,
I counted blackbirds gathering at dusk
in the low trees, clustered like bees.
I counted the hours from noon to noon
and got nowhere. At last the Captain slept.
I banked the fire, raised anchor, cast off,
and jumping ship left her drifting out
on the black bay. I walked seven miles
to the Interstate and caught a meat truck
heading west, and came to over beer,
hashbrowns, and fried eggs in a cafe
northwest of Omaha. I could write
how the radio spoke of war, how
the century was half its age, how
dark clouds gathered in the passes
up ahead, the dispossessed had clogged
the roads, but none the less I alone
made my way to the western waters,
a foreign ship, another life, and disappeared
from all Id known. In fact I
come home every year, I walk the same streets
where I grew up, but now with my boys.
I settled down, just as you did, took
a degree in library sciences,
and got my present position with
the county. I'm supposed to believe
something ended. I'm supposed to be
dried up. I'm supposed to represent
a yearning, but I like it the way it is.
Not once has the ocean wind changed
and brought the taste of salt
over the coastal hills and through
the orchards to my back yard. Not once
have I wakened cold and scared
out of a dreamless sleep
into a dreamless life and cried
and cried out for what I left behind.

Those Were the Days

The sun came up before breakfast,
perfectly round and yellow, and we
dressed in the soft light and shook out
our long blond curls and waited
for Maid to brush them flat and place
the part just where it belonged.
We came down the carpeted stairs
one step at a time, in single file,
gleaming in our sailor suits, two
four year olds with unscratched knees
and scrubbed teeth. Breakfast came
on silver dishes with silver covers
and was set in table center, and Mother
handed out the portions of eggs
and bacon, toast and juice. We could
hear the ocean, not far off, and boats
firing up their engines, and the shouts
of couples in white on the tennis courts.
I thought, Yes, this is the beginning
of another summer, and it will go on
until the sun tires of us or the moon
rises in its place on a silvered dawn
and no one wakens. My brother flung
his fork on the polished wooden floor
and cried out, "My eggs are cold, cold!"
and turned his plate over. I laughed
out loud, and Mother slapped my face,
and when I cleared my eyes the table
was bare of even a simple white cloth,
and the steaming plates had vanished.
My brother said, "It's time," and we
struggled into our galoshes and snapped
them up, slumped into our pea coats,
one year older now and on our way
to the top through the freezing rains
of the end of November, lunch boxes
under our arms, tight fists pocketed,
out the door and down the front stoop,
heads bent low, tacking into the wind.


The first purple wisteria
I recall from boyhood hung
on a wire outside the windows
of the breakfast room next door
at the home of Steve Pisaris.
I loved his tall, skinny daughter,
or so I thought, and I would wait
beside the back door, prostrate,
begging to be taken in. Perhaps
it was only the flowers of spring
with their sickening perfumes
that had infected me. When Steve
and Sophie and the three children
packed up and made the move west,
I went on spring after spring,
leaden with desire, half-asleep,
praying to die. Now I know
those prayers were answered.
That boy died, the brick houses
deepened and darkened with rain,
age, use, and finally closed
their eyes and dreamed the sleep
of California. I learned this
only today. Wakened early
in an empty house not lately
battered by storms, I looked
for nothing. On the surface
of the rain barrel, the paled,
shredded blossoms floated.

The Present

The day comes slowly in the railyard
behind the ice factory. It broods on
one cinder after another until each
glows like lead or the eye of a dog
possessed of no inner fire, the brown
and greasy pointer who raises his muzzle
a moment and sighing lets it thud
down on the loading dock. In no time
the day has crossed two sets of tracks,
a semi-trailer with no tractor, and crawled
down three stories of the bottling plant
at the end of the alley. It is now
less than five hours until mid-day
when nothing will be left in doubt,
each scrap of news, each banished carton,
each forgotten letter, its ink bled of lies,
will stare back at the one eye that sees
it all and never blinks. But for now
there is water settling in a clean glass
on the shelf beside the razor, the slap
of bare feet on the floor above. Soon
the scent of rivers borne across roof
after roof by winds without names,
the aroma of opened beds better left
closed, of mouths without teeth, of light
rustling among the mice droppings
at the back of a bin of potatoes.


The old man who sleeps among the cases
of empty bottles in a little nest of rags
and newspapers at the back of the plant
is not an old man. He is twenty years
younger than I am now putting this down
in permanent ink on a yellow legal pad
during a crisp morning in October.
When he fell from a high pallet, his sleeve
caught on a nail and spread his arms
like a figure out of myth. His head
tore open on a spear of wood, and he
swore in French. No, he didn't want
a doctor. He wanted toilet paper
and a drink, which were fetched. He used
the tiny bottle of whisky to straighten
out his eyes and the toilet paper to clean
his pants, fouled in the fall, and he did
both with seven teenage boys looking on
in wonder and fear. At last the blood
slowed and caked above his ear, and he
never once touched the wound. Instead,
in a voice no one could hear, he spoke
to himself, probably in French, and smoked
sitting back against a pallet, his legs
thrust out on the damp cement floor.


In his white coveralls, crisp and pressed,
Teddy the Polack told us a fat tit
would stop a toothache, two a headache.
He told it to anyone who asked, and grinned --
the small eyes watering at the corners --
as Alcibiades might have grinned
when at last he learned that love leads
even the body beloved to a moment
in the present when desire calms, the skin
glows, the soul takes the light of day,
even a working day in 1944.
For Baharozian at seventeen the present
was a gift. Seeing my ashen face,
the cold sweats starting, he seated me
in a corner of the boxcar and did
both our jobs, stacking the full cases
neatly row upon row and whistling
the songs of Kate Smith. In the bathroom
that night I posed naked before the mirror,
the new cross of hair staining my chest,
plunging to my groin. That was Wednesday,
for every Wednesday ended in darkness.


One of those teenage boys was my brother.
That night as we lay in bed, the lights
out, we spoke of Froggy, of how at first
we thought he would die and how little
he seemed to care as the blood rose
to fill and overflow his ear. Slowly
the long day came over us and our breath
quieted and eased at last, and we slept.
When I close my eyes now his bare legs
glow before me again, pure and lovely
in their perfect whiteness, the buttocks
dimpled and firm. I see again the rope
of his sex, unwrinkled, flushed and swaying,
the hard flat belly as he raises his shirt
to clean himself. He gazes at no one
or nothing, but seems instead to look off
into a darkness I hadn't seen, a pool
of shadow that forms before his eyes,
in my memory now as solid as onyx.


I began this poem in the present
because nothing is past. The ice factory,
the bottling plant, the cindered yard
all gave way to a low brick building
a block wide and windowless where they
designed gun mounts for personnel carriers
that never made it to Korea. My brother
rises early, and on clear days he walks
to the corner to have toast and coffee.
Seventeen winters have melted into an earth
of stone, bottle caps, and old iron to carry
off the hard remains of Froggy Frenchman
without a blessing or a stone to bear it.
A little spar of him the size of a finger,
pointed and speckled as though blood-flaked,
washed ashore from Lake Erie near Buffalo
before the rest slipped down the falls out
into the St. Lawrence. He could be at sea,
he could be part of an ocean, by now
he could even be home. This morning I
rose later than usual in a great house
full of sunlight, but I believe it came
down step by step on each wet sheet
of wooden siding before it crawled
from the ceiling and touched my pillow
to waken me. When I heave myself
out of this chair with a great groan of age
and stand shakily, the three mice still
in the wall. From across the lots
the wind brings voices I can't make out,
scraps of song or sea sounds, daylight
breaking into dust, the perfume of waiting
rain, of onions and potatoes frying.


An Ending

                       Early March.
The cold beach deserted. My kids
home in a bare house, bundled up
and listening to rock music
pirated from England. My wife
waiting for me in a bar, alone
for an hour over her sherry, and none
of us knows why I have to pace
back and forth on this flat
and birdless stretch of gleaming sand
while the violent air shouts
out its rags of speech. I recall
the calm warm sea of Florida
30 years ago, and my brother
and I staring out in the hope
that someone known and loved
would return out of air and water
and no more, a miracle a kid
could half-believe, could see
as something everyday and possible.
Later I slept alone and dreamed
of the home I never had and wakened
in the dark. A silver light sprayed
across the bed, and the little
rented room ticked toward dawn.
I did not rise. I did not go
to the window and address
the moon. I did not cry
or cry out against the hour
or the loneliness that still
was mine, for I had grown
into the man I am, and I
knew better. A sudden voice
calls out my name or a name
I think is mine. I turn.
The waves have darkened; the sky's
descending all around me. I read
once that the sea would come
to be the color of heaven.
They would be two seas tied
together, and between the two
a third, the sea of my own heart.
I read and believed nothing.
This little beach at the end
of the world is anywhere, and I
stand in a stillness that will last
forever or until the first light
breaks beyond these waters. Don't
be scared, the book said, don't flee
as wave after wave the breakers rise
in darkness toward their ghostly crests,
for he has set a limit to the sea
and he is at your side. The sea
and I breathe in and out as one.
Maybe this is done at last
or for now, this search for what
is never here. Maybe all that
ancient namesake sang is true.
The voice I hear now is
my own night voice, going out
and coming back in an old chant
that calms me, that calms
-- for all I know -- the waves
still lost out there.

Late Light

Rain filled the streets
once a year, rising almost
to door and window sills,
battering walls and roofs
until it cleaned away the mess
we'd made. My father told
me this, he told me it ran
downtown and spilled into
the river, which in turn
emptied finally into the sea.
He said this only once
while I sat on the arm
of his chair and stared out
at the banks of gray snow
melting as the March rain
streaked past. All the rest
of that day passed on
into childhood, into nothing,
or perhaps some portion hung
on in a tiny corner of thought.
Perhaps a clot of cinders
that peppered the front yard
clung to a spar of old weed
or the concrete lip of the curb
and worked its way back under
the new growth spring brought
and is a part of that yard
still. Perhaps light falling
on distant houses becomes
those houses, hunching them
down at dusk like sheep
browsing on a far hillside,
or at daybreak gilds
the roofs until they groan
under the new weight, or
after rain lifts haloes
of steam from the rinsed,
white aluminum siding,
and those houses and all
they contain live that day
in the sight of heaven.


In the blue, winking light
of the International Institute
of Social Revolution
I fell asleep one afternoon
over a book of memoirs
of a Spanish priest who'd
served his own private faith
in a long forgotten war.
An Anarchist and a Catholic,
his remembrances moved
inexplicably from Castilian
to Catalan, a language I
couldn't follow. That dust,
fine and gray, peculiar
to libraries, slipped
between the glossy pages
and my sight, a slow darkness
calmed me, and I forgot
the agony of those men
I'd come to love, forgot
the battles lost and won,
forgot the final trek
over hopeless mountain roads,
defeat, surrender, the vows
to live on. I slept until
the lights came on and off.
A girl was prodding my arm,
for the place was closing.
A slender Indonesian girl
in sweater and American jeans,
her black hair falling
almost to my eyes, she told
me in perfect English
that I could come back,
and she swept up into a folder
the yellowing newspaper stories
and photos spilled out before
me on the desk, the little
chronicles of death themselves
curling and blurring
into death, and took away
the book still unfinished
of a man more confused
even than I, and switched off
the light, and left me alone.


In June of 1975 I wakened
one late afternoon in Amsterdam
in a dim corner of a library.
I had fallen asleep over a book
and was roused by a young girl
whose hand lay on my hand.
I turned my head up and stared
into her brown eyes, deep
and gleaming. She was crying.
For a second I was confused
and started to speak, to offer
some comfort or aid, but I
kept still, for she was crying
for me, for the knowledge
that I had wakened to a life
in which loss was final.
I closed my eyes a moment.
When I opened them she'd gone,
the place was dark. I went
out into the golden sunlight;
the cobbled streets gleamed
as after rain, the street cafes
crowded and alive. Not
far off the great bell
of the Westerkirk tolled
in the early evening. I thought
of my oldest son, who years
before had sailed from here
into an unknown life in Sweden,
a life which failed, of how
he'd gone alone to Copenhagen,
Bremen, where he'd loaded trains,
Hamburg, Munich, and finally
-- sick and weary -- he'd returned
to us. He slept in a corner
of the living room for days,
and woke gaunt and quiet,
still only seventeen, his face
in its own shadows. I thought
of my father on the run
from an older war, and wondered
had he passed through Amsterdam,
had he stood, as I did now,
gazing up at the pale sky,
distant and opaque, for the sign
that never comes. Had he drifted
in the same winds of doubt
and change to another continent,
another life, a family, some
years of peace, an early death.
I walked on by myself for miles
and still the light hung on
as though the day would
never end. The gray canals
darkened slowly, the sky
above the high, narrow houses
deepened into blue, and one
by one the stars began
their singular voyages.

The House

This poem has a door, a locked door,
and curtains drawn against the day,
but at night the lights come on, one
in each room, and the neighbors swear
they hear music and the sound of dancing.
These days the neighbors will swear
to anything, but that is not why
the house is locked up and no one goes
in or out all day long; that is because
this is a poem first and a house only
at night when everyone should be asleep.
The milkman tries to stop at dawn,
for he has three frosty white bottles
to place by the back door, but his horse
shakes his head back and forth, and so
he passes on his way. The papers pile
up on the front porch until the rain
turns them into gray earth, and they run
down the stairs and say nothing
to anyone. Whoever made this house
had no idea of beauty -- it's all gray --
and no idea of what a happy family
needs on a day in spring when tulips
shout from their brown beds in the yard.
Back there the rows are thick with weeds,
stickers, choke grass, the place has gone
to soggy mulch, and the tools are hanging
unused from their hooks in the tool room.
Think of a marriage taking place at one
in the afternoon on a Sunday in June
in the stuffy front room. The dining table
is set for twenty, and the tall glasses
filled with red wine, the silver sparkling.
But no one is going in or out, not even
a priest in his long white skirt, or a boy
in pressed shorts, or a plumber with a fat bag.

Last Words

If the shoe fell from the other foot
who would hear? If the door
opened onto a pure darkness
and it was no dream? If your life
ended the way a book ends
with half a blank page and the survivors
gone off to Africa or madness?
If my life ended in late spring
of 1964 while I walked alone
back down the mountain road?
I sing an old song to myself. I study
the way the snow remains, gray
and damp, in the deep shadows of the firs.
I wonder if the bike is safe hidden
just off the highway. Up ahead
the road, black and winding, falls
away, and there is the valley where
I lived half of my life, spectral
and calm. I sigh with gratitude,
and then I feel an odd pain rising
through the back of my head,
and my eyes go dark. I bend forward
and place my palms on something rough,
the black asphalt or a field of stubble,
and the movement is that of the penitent
just before he stands to his full height
with the knowledge of his enormity.
For that moment which will survive
the burning of all the small pockets
of fat and oil that are the soul,
I am the soul stretching into
the furthest reaches of my fingers
and beyond, glowing like ten candles
in the vault of night for anyone
who could see, even though it is
12:40 in the afternoon and I
have passed from darkness into sunlight
so fierce the sweat streams down
into my eyes. I did not rise.
A wind or a stray animal or a group
of kids dragged me to the side
of the road and turned me over
so that my open eyes could flood heaven.
My clothes went skittering down
the road without me, ballooning
out into any shape, giddy
with release. My coins, my rings,
the keys to my house shattered
like ice and fell into the mountain
thorns and grasses, little bright points
that make you think there is magic
in everything you see. No, it can't
be, you say, for someone is speaking
calmly to you in a voice you know.
Someone alive and confident has put
each of these words down exactly
as he wants them on the page.
You have lived through years
of denial, of public lies, of death
falling like snow on any head
it chooses. You're not a child.
You know the real thing. I am
here, as I always was, faithful
to a need to speak even when all
you hear is a light current of air
tickling your ear. Perhaps.
But what if that dried bundle
of leaves and dirt were not dirt
and leaves but the spent wafer
of a desire to be human? Stop the car,
turn off the engine, and stand
in the silence above your life. See
how the grass mirrors fire, how
a wind rides up the hillside
steadily toward you until it surges
into your ears like breath coming
and going, released from its bondage
to blood or speech and denying nothing.


A solitary apartment house, the last one
before the boulevard ends and a dusty road
winds its slow way out of town. On the third floor
through the dusty windows Karen beholds
the elegant couples walking arm in arm
in the public park. It is Saturday afternoon,
and she is waiting for a particular young man
whose name I cannot now recall, if name
he ever had. She runs the thumb of her left hand
across her finger tips and feels the little tags
of flesh the needle made that morning at work
and wonders if he will feel them. She loves her work,
the unspooling of the wide burgundy ribbons
that tumble across her lap, the delicate laces,
the heavy felts for winter, buried now that spring
is rising in the trees. She recalls a black hat
hidden in a deep drawer in the back of the shop.
She made it in February when the snows piled
as high as her waist, and the river stopped at noon,
and she thought she would die. She had tried it on,
a small, close-fitting cap, almost nothing,
pinned down at front and back. Her hair tumbled
out at the sides in dark rags. When she turned
it around, the black felt cupped her forehead
perfectly, the teal feathers trailing out behind,
twin cool jets of flame. Suddenly he is here.
As she goes to the door, the dark hat falls back
into the closed drawer of memory to wait
until the trees are bare and the days shut down
abruptly at five. They touch, cheek to cheek,
and only there, both bodies stiffly arched apart.
As she draws her white gloves on, she can smell
the heat rising from his heavy laundered shirt,
she can almost feel the weight of the iron
hissing across the collar. It's cool out, he says,
cooler than she thinks. There are tiny dots
of perspiration below his hairline. What a day
for strolling in the park! Refusing the chair
by the window, he seems to have no time,
as though this day were passing forever,
although it is barely after two of a late May
afternoon a whole year before the modern era.
Of course she'll take a jacket, she tells him,
of course she was planning to, and she opens her hands,
the fingers spread wide to indicate the enormity
of his folly, for she has on only a blouse,
protection against nothing. In the bedroom
she considers a hat, something dull and proper
as a rebuke, but shaking out her glowing hair
she decides against it. The jacket is there,
the arms spread out on the bed, the arms
of a dressed doll or a soldier at attention
or a boy modelling his first suit, my own arms
when at six I stood beside my sister waiting
to be photographed. She removes her gloves
to feel her balled left hand pass through the silk
of the lining, and then her right, fingers open.
As she buttons herself in, she watches
a slow wind moving through the planted fields
behind the building. She stops and stares.
What was that dark shape she saw a moment
trembling between the sheaves? The sky lowers,
the small fat cypresses by the fields' edge
part, and something is going. Is that the way
she too must take? The world blurs before her eyes
or her sight is failing. I cannot take her hand,
then or now, and lead her to a resting place
where our love matters. She stands frozen
before the twenty-third summer of her life,
someone I know, someone I will always know.

About the author:

Philip Levine was born in 1928 in Detroit and was formerly educated there, at the public schools and at Wayne University. After a succession of stupid jobs he left the city for good, living in various parts of the country before he settled in Fresno, California, where he now teaches. The Names of the Lost won the Lenore Marshall Award for the best book of poetry published by an American in 1976. Three of his books have been norninated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and two of them, Ashes and 7 Years from Somewhere, have received it. Ashes also received the American Book Award in 1980. His Selected Poems appeared in 1984.

Text from jacket:

A new book of poems by Philip Levine is always an event. Sweet Will is a book of sixteen new poems including a long meditation (over 500 lines) called "A Poem with No Ending." The poems are set in Detroit, California, New York, Europe, and the country of memory. Their aim is to transform by means of the imagination the events of ordinary daily life into the magic of the events of ordinary daily life.

The old angers of They Feed They Lion are here; the family of 1933; the characters of The Names of the Lost; and the hopes of One for the Rose. It is an attempt to bring together the themes and methods of all those books.

Philip Levine's last book was his Selected Poems, which drew on work from his first ten books. Of it Edward Hirsch wrote in a full page review in The New York Times Book Review, "Philip Levine's Selected Poems is a generous addition to contemporary American poetry that we will be reading and studying for years to come. What I particularly admire about Mr. Levine's work is its great emotional riskiness, its large, deeply felt commitments. He is not always the most elegant or felicitous writer, but his work is ultimately carried forward and transmuted by passion, by a stubborn will to remember and testify. In a reactionary and forgetful time, these radiantly human and memorializing poems can help us understand our lives." Phoebe Pettingell, writing in The New Leader, said, "Philip Levine's wonderful, fresh identities ring true. And his speaking over the years for those with scant chance to speak for themselves has made his own voice one of the most powerful and generous in poetry today."


My thanks to the editors of the following magazines in which these poems first appeared:

COLUMBIA (The final section of "Late Light" under the title "Dutch Light")
THE IOWA REVIEW ("Salts and Oils")
THE NEW YORKER ("An Ordinary Morning" under the title "One by One," "Last Words," "Late Light," the final section of "A Poem with No Ending" under the title "Shore," "Voyages," "Wisteria," "Those Were the Days")
PARIS REVIEW ("A Poem with No Ending" and "An Ending")
POETRY ("Jewish Graveyards, Italy," "Look," "The Present," "Sweet Will")
VANITY FAIR ("The White Iris")

Published simultaneously in Canada by McClelland and Stewart Ltd
LCCN 84-45781 ISBN 0-689-11585-7 (clothbound); ISBN 0-689-11586-5 (paperback)
Composed and printed by Heritage Printers, Inc., Charlotte, North Carolina
Bound by The Delmar Company, Charlotte, North Carolina
Designed by Harry Ford

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