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Philip Levine

Philip Levine

Philip Levine was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1928. He is the author of seventeen books of poetry, most recently News of the World (Knopf, 2009). His other poetry collections include The Simple Truth (1994), which won the Pulitzer Prize; What Work Is (1991), which won the National Book Award; New Selected Poems (1991); Ashes: Poems New and Old (1979), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the National Book Award for Poetry. He has also published two collections of essays, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography (1994) & So Ask (1997). Recently retired from teaching, he spends half his time in Fresno and half in Brooklyn.

Distant February

Today the alder outside my window
motionless, the forsythia
holding its breath, the last smear

of fog burnt away so the morning
can enter the long memory
of winter, clear and uncorrupted.

Twelve years old, I tramped the back alleys
searching for something I couldn't
name or describe and found cinders

jeweled with tiny points of light
that could cut; I found handwritten,
scented letters, gifts from the future,

their words frozen in the weather—
"Paola, there's never a right time,"
written in a straight, manly hand that collapsed

from exhaustion. There were trees there too,
a row of tattered Chinese elms
to shade the past year's garbage,

a fenced-in copper beech thicker
than a sedan, its leafless
branches stiffening in wind.

There was always that wind, unnamed,
defiant, whistling in the face
of winter and not this odd calm

risen from nowhere outside
my window and closing in. Back then
when the year's worst blizzards

whited out the old neighborhood,
there was always new life aching
to break through and held back
by nothing I could do to stop it.

The Privilege of Power, 1965

With his black-booted toe the cop awakened me. Why was I sleeping on the lawn? It was better, I told him, than the iron benches. Mid-afternoon in the little park near the entrance to the stadium, the sun just falling below the plane trees. By the time I got to my feet I was half awake. "Why aren't you home?" he said. "In Spain we sleep in private." I explained I was waiting for my car to be repaired, & I still had almost an hour to go. He seemed doubtful. Would I walk him to the garage & show him the car? On the way there I asked if I'd broken the law. "The law," he said, "Why do you think this has anything to do with laws?" The little cafes along the Diagonal were emptying after the lunch rush. The tiny Andalusian waiter at Gato Negro, dropped his eyes & shook his head. When we entered the garage, Jordi—the boss—approached carefully. He too avoided my eyes. "May I be of service," he said. The cop told him the Dutchman claimed he had a car here. Yes, Jordi said, the white VW is his, the one on the lift. Was he sure the car belonged to the Dutchman. Yes, he brings it here many times, explained Jordi, but he is not a Dutchman, the extranjero is from America. "Los Estados Unidos?" shouted the cop, visibly shaken. He turned to me, removed his gray, military cap, half-bowed & expressed his regrets.


The various holy parts
of the body are presented
on a blue conveyor belt
that starts nowhere and runs
on and on without ever tiring,
as we would. All this before
assembly. The lungs,
the liver, the kidneys
(surprisingly shaped like
beans), the roof of the mouth,
the nape, followed
by the neck, the elbows
without arms, the sac. . . One
could go on naming and
naming into the hidden dark
of the heart, but you get
the point or if you don't
you never will. Remember
at 18, brother, at Cadillac
Transmission how no one
knew what we were drilling
holes into or why except
of course for 2.85
an hour. That was after
the war when money answered
everything, and the life was
so innocent, or so we said
years later. . . The eyeballs,
the twin shins, the splints
for the shins, the nails
for the toes, the toes
for their nails, the stamen
for the rose, the thorns
arching upward with a beauty
all their own, the buds
hiding in the hard leaves
and curled up so tightly they  
can see absolutely nothing.


Our Questions for Phil
An Interview

Book Review

David Rigsbee reviews
Philip Levine's new book
News of the World


Poets in Person:
Philip Levine