The title of my posting today, "The numbers say it all" comes from the final line of "After Leviticus," by Detroit poet Philip Levine. Levine (1928-2015) died this past Saturday. Often termed "a working class poet," this fine writer won many awards for his work.
After Leviticus by Philip Levine
The seventeen metal huts across the way
from the great factory house seventeen
separate families. Because the slag heaps
burn all day and all night it’s never dark,
so as you pick your way home at 2 A.M.
on a Saturday morning near the end
of a long winter you don’t need to step
in the black mud even though you’re not sober.
You’re not drunk either. You’re actually filled
with the same joy that comes to a great artist
who’s just completed a seminal work,
though the work you’ve completed is “serf work”
(to use your words), a solid week’s worth of it
in the chassis assembly plant number seven.
Even before you washed up and changed your shirt
Maryk invited you for a drink. You sat in the back,
Maryk and his black pal Williams in the front,
as the bottle of Seven Crown passed slowly
from hand to hand, eleven slow circuits
until it was empty and Maryk opened
the driver’s side door and placed the dead soldier
carefully bottom-side down on the tarmac
of the parking lot and then drove you home
or as close to home as he could get
without getting his sedan stuck in the ruts.
Neither Maryk nor Williams had made a pass,
neither told a dirty joke or talked dirty.
The two, being serious drinkers, said
almost nothing though both smoked and both sighed
frequently, perhaps from weariness,
from a sense of defeat neither understands,
or more likely because their lungs are going
from bad air and cigarettes. You’re nearly home
to number seven, where a single light burns
to welcome you back with your pay envelope
tucked in your shirt pocket, the blue, unironed
denim shirt your oldest, Walter, outgrew
eleven years ago. Bernadette Strempek,
let me enter your story now as you stand
motionless in the shadowy black burning
inhaling the first warm breeze that tells you
this endless winter is ending. Don’t go in
just yet; instead gaze upwards toward the stars.
Those tiny diamonds, though almost undone,
have been watching over your house and your kids
while you’ve been away. Take another breath,
a deeper one and hold the air until you can’t.
Do you taste it? You shake your head. It’s God’s
breath, a magical gift carried
all the dark way from Him to you on the wind
no one can see. Seventeen separate huts
hunkered down and soberly waiting, this night
three of you in a ’47 Plymouth four-door
drinking Seven Crown for eleven circuits
until the work was done, one woman alone
beneath the blind sky, standing patiently
before number seven Mud Lane taking
into her blood one gasp after another
of the holy air: the numbers say it all.
"After Leviticus" is on my shelf in The Mercy, (Knopf, 2000). Another poem by Levine, "M. Degas Teaches Art & Science At Durfee Intermediate School" Detroit, 1942 , appears in my blog posting for October 11, 2011.