Monday, February 16, 2015

The numbers say it all . . .

The title of my posting today, "The numbers say it all" comes from the final line of "After Leviticus," by Detroit poet Philip LevineLevine (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.              

1 comment:

  1. After Leviticus, in the Bible, comes Numbers. Leviticus contains several verses on the status and obligations of women to which the life described does not conform. Thanks, it's a very eloquent poem.

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