What Is Remembered Lives: R.I.P Philip Levine

Philip Levine was the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2011-2012. He wrote beautiful poems based on his blue collar life in Detroit, combining working class life with a depth of spirit that was often startling to read. He died yesterday.  You should read Last Words and Our Valley and especially:

Picture Postcard From The Other World

Since I don’t know who will be reading
this or even if it will be read, I must
invent someone on the other end
of eternity, a distant cousin laboring
under the same faint stars I labored
all those unnumbered years ago. I make you
like me in everything I can — a man
or woman in middle years who having
lost whatever faiths he held goes on
with only the faith that even more
will be lost. Like me a wanderer,
someone with a taste for coastal towns
sparkling in the cold winter sun, boardwalks
without walkers, perfect beaches shrouded
in the dense fogs of December, morning cafes
before the second customer arrives,
the cats have been fed, and the proprietor
stops muttering into the cold dishwater.
I give you the gift of language, my gift
and no more, so that wherever you go
words fall around you meaning no more
than the full force of their making, and you
translate the clicking of teeth against
teeth and tongue as morning light spilling
into the enclosed squares of a white town,
breath drawn in and held as the ocean
when no one sees it, the waves still,
the fishing boats drift in a calm beyond sleep.
The gift of sleep, too, and the waking
from it day after day without knowing
why the small sunlit room with its single bed,
white counterpane going yellow, and bare floor
holds itself with such assurance
while the flaming nebulae of dust
swirl around you. And the sense not to ask.
Like me you rise immediately and sit
on the bed’s edge and let whatever dream
of a childhood home or a rightful place
you had withdraw into the long shadows
of the tilted wardrobe and the one chair.
Before you’ve even washed your face you
see it on the bedoilied chiffonier — there,
balanced precariously on the orange you bought
at yesterday’s market and saved for now.
Someone entered soundlessly while you slept
and left you sleeping and left this postcard
from me and thought to close the door
with no more fuss than the moon makes.
There’s your name in black ink in a hand
as familiar as your own and not
your own, and the address even you
didn’t know you’d have an hour before
you got it. When you turn it over,
there it is, not the photo of a star,
or the bright sailboats your sister would
have chosen or the green urban meadows
my brother painted. What is it? It could be
another planet just after its birth
except that at the center the colors
are earth colors. It could be the cloud
that formed above the rivers of our blood,
the one that brought rain to a dry time
or took wine from a hungry one. It could
be my way of telling you that I too
burned and froze by turns and the face I
came to was more dirt than flame, it
could be the face I put on everything,
or it could be my way of saying
nothing and saying it perfectly.

“It could be my way of telling you that I too burned and froze by turns and the face I came to was more dirt than flame.”  I first read this poem four years ago as I was going through a crisis that I can look back now and say was a crisis of deciding, once and for all: do I want to be alive?  And this poem was part of a torrent of support that came from all corners and dimensions, saying “Look.  We have all gone through this too.  You are not alone.”  Thank you for that, Philip Levine, and blessings and love on your journey.  What is remembered, lives.

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One thought on “What Is Remembered Lives: R.I.P Philip Levine”

  1. A really moving tribute, Kirsten. I love you and am so glad that his voice was there for you to hear.

    Beautiful poetry. I’m sorry I didn’t read his work while he was alive but I’m glad I will get to discover it now.

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