Readings — From the August 2010 issue

A Dozen Dawn Songs, Plus One

First the windows gray, then
go black again, but gray is
on the way. Williams lights up
and says, It’s on the way, but
I can’t hear him over the overhead
cranes. I don’t look up
because up is not sunlight
breaking above the eastern
hills or even rain clouds
meant to cool our fevers or
telephone wires clogged with
bad news. Up is the flat steel
ceiling from midnight till now.
                        *
8 a.m. and we punch out
and leave the place to our betters,
the day-shift jokers who think
they’re in for fun. It’s still Monday
2,000 miles and fifty years
later and at my back I always
hear Chevy Gear & Axle
grinding the night-shift workers
into antiquity.
                        *
                              A warm breeze from
nowhere and even the rats scent
the first perfumes of what’s
to come, waken, and slide
invisibly into the upper air
to contest the world. Surrender
nothing and never, their motto,
if they have one. They must be
unionized.
                        *
                       The river works.
No one flips a switch, no one
shouts “Ready! Set! Go!” no one
writes a memo, it just runs
at its own sweet will its whole
blue-brown length toward five burned
lakes and seven seas.
                        *
                                           We wait,
the night-shift owls, puffing out
our spent breath into the pure air
of 1951. A weak sun not
worth fighting for rises
behind the great brick stacks
of the brewery. War is
everywhere but we don’t go because
the streetcar won’t come.
                        *
                                                   If I had
a Milky Way I’d share it
with the sparrows picking
about the piss-speckled
snow, if I were reliable and hardy
and had wings I’d pick
about the piss-speckled snow
with the sparrows.
                        *
                                       Ragged
flights swarm the upper branches
of the elms only to abandon
their roosts and wheel
across the sky they’ve wiped
clean, back and forth, back
and forth they wipe until
no clouds or divine signs are left.
Must be some tremor only they
can feel or hawk stink or hint
of human treachery.
                        *
                                          Three mock
oranges do not an orchard make
but will do for now. Light blows
in from Ontario every
which way, hot and cold,
until the owner of the vacant lot
(who also owns the orchard)
kicks off the covers and calls for
sleep and dreams of her, the one
he’ll never know.
                        *
                                   Half of us are
women. Think of that! Women,
women alone rising from
single beds meant for sleeping,
women in pairs, women with men
yearning to be free of us,
the men they met last night
or last century. “Give me
liberty or give me liberty,”
their anthem, and they mean it.
                        *
                                                             One two
three four seconds and Harvey
yells again for Mona to get
her fat ass up. Don’t she
know it’s Monday workday.
The weekend—the last one, the
one—’s long gone and Harvey’s
got to have his coffee and his
oatmeal and his lunch box packed
just right, right now.
                        *
                                         One two three
four the scuffed black boots down
the stairs. “Does the bitch ever get
anything right?” Slam goes
the outside door, whilst upstairs
the teakettle sirens its answer . . .
Then quiet, the actual quiet
of public lives in private places.
6:30 a.m., the city of dreams.
                        *
There was music. Not
the trite tunes of the blind stars
circling unseen or the gnashed jazz
the trolleys carved
into the avenues or the bad-assed
anthems of the airwaves—
of John Lee, Baby Boy,
and Big Maceo—not even
the music of the immortals,
Bird, Diz, Pres, music of bone
and breast, and breath, music
never heard before. Or again.
                        *
                                                        West
through Toledo, on past Flat Rock
going north. The sign is gone. Leo’s
pre-war ’39 Chevy four-door
doing its dance routine: a little slide,
a little hold, a little slide on
black ice the devil delivered along
with two bald tires and two good
retreads. The sign’s gone, the one
that said “Heaven Ahead” (or was it
Wyandotte?). Sun-up behind us,
last night dissolving in the brine
of light. Coming home one
last time, yes we are!
                        *
                                         Oh
to be young and strong and dumb
again in Michigan!
Download Pdf
Single Page
Share

More from Philip Levine:

Poetry From the December 1978 issue

Songs

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $34.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

May 2014

50,000 Life Coaches Can’t Be Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quinoa Quarrel

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

You Had to Be There

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Study in Sherlock

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content