weekend-readsMy Father in the Wind

Philip Levine

Even in the dark the wind blows. I hear it
in the high branches of the great cedar
humming its one tune. In the small room
that is mine the dust grains refuse to speak
although they know it all, for they contain
the ashes of my father, being far older
than time, and the singular pain of his father
who took his own life and left his son
no final word, only silence and an open door
through which the boy—my father—discovered
the unfamiliar humped shadow swinging
in no wind. Orphaned, the boy did not
sit down by the waters of the Dnieper to weep
as a man might do in a sacred text, he did not
curse God or howl or simply stand stunned
by the bright sun’s arrival on such a day
or even beg a neighbor to cut down
the body. He climbed a ladder, braced his legs
against the top rung, and with a rusted saw
and one hand guiding the blade,
the other pulling through the golden bands
of sisal, slowly severed whatever
connected his father’s body to its final act.

You might well ask how I know all this
since the dust that was there is silent still.
You think my father never spoke? You think
because he was tall, dark-suited, responsible,
and I was a kid he wouldn’t turn suddenly
when the traffic stalled and address me
as he might address the wind? He would be dust.
He’d learned that twenty years before on that day
in Dobrovica in autumn, the day the wind called
to him from the plane trees flanking the river
to say, “Here’s your secret!” The light attacked
through the mismatched boards of the barn roof.
Rain was on the way but that was days off.
The golden afterthoughts of hay, fodder,
and dried horse dung rose in the air to form
a message only a fatherless child could read.
Another wind blew last night, the same wind
through the same cedars that welcomed me
back from madness thirty years ago and brought
the blessing I required. The wind can do that,
it can carry all the voices of the living
and the dead, but the dust holds its knowledge.

The dust said nothing on that morning
in 1933 when my father leaned his forehead down
on the steering wheel and spoke in Arabic
to tell me alone all he’d been and all
he would become. He loved those strange words.
He shouted the sudden plosives and the vowels
deep as moonlight and gave me each word
a second time as he took my hand in his
for the long moment until the traffic light
on Grand River turned from red to green
so we could enter the past. Since then I’ve misplaced
that tiny ideogram of his life etched in dust.
In its stead I have the atlas cedar and the aspen
carrying the wind’s words, the scraps
fluttering from the garbage—newspapers
stamped with no truths—, a single mockingbird
rehearsing his psalms, and over the back fence
the scattered omens that rehearse the future,
a scum of graying clouds off the plating plant
garbling the constant message of the dead.

 

Morning in Liguria

Rain seven days without letup.
Another dawn, if you can call
the gray light of a low sky dawn.
The two ancient setters, their ears
flattened, moan at the back door.
The door stays shut; more rain
answers their pleas. The kids leave
for school, heads bowed, furious,
splashing carefully in each puddle
as a rebuke to all mothers.
Now come the princesses
in high boots and gay umbrellas
in perfect Venetian blues,
deep and mysterious siennas,
the royal reds of cardinals,
all imported from Jakarta.
The crone who flogs carnations
at the station huddles in wet wool
smelling herself with delight.
A light comes on, a green cross
above the town pharmacy,
the metal shutters rise revealing
balms for scaled skin, bright syrups
to heighten the breast, stockings
to bolster empurpled calves.
A new day is here. Let trade
commence, let the flags of hope—
the long drawers and black bras
on the line—take the March wind.
Let the sodden, teenage lovers
under the railroad bridge kiss
and make up, let the builders
hammer and saw at their arks,
for this is the waking world.

 

The Death of Mayakovsky

Philadelphia, the historic downtown,
April 14, 1930.
My father sits down at the little desk
in his hotel room overlooking an airshaft
to begin a letter home: “Dear Essie,”
he pens, but the phone rings before he can
unburden his heart. The driver from Precision Inc.
has arrived. Alone in the back seat, hatless,
coatless on this perfect spring day,
my father goes off to inspect aircraft bearings
that vanished from an army proving ground
in Maryland, bearings he will bargain for
and purchase in ignorance, or so he will tell Essie,
my mother, this after he takes a plea
in the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit.
I knew all this before it happened. Earlier that
morning storm clouds scuttled in across Ontario
to release their darkness into our gray river.
Hundreds of miles east my father rolls down
the car window; the air scented with leaves
just budding out along Route 76
caresses his face and tangles his dark hair.
He lets the world come to him, even this world
of small machine shops, car barns, warehouses
beside the Schuylkill. The child I would become
saw it all, yet years passed before the scene slipped,
frozen, into the book of origins to become
who I am. I’d been distracted
in the breathless dawn by a single shot—
the Russian poet’s suicidal gesture—
that would crown our narratives, yours and mine. 

 

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