A Photograph of Philip Levine, on the Brooklyn Promenade, May 2000, Lower Manhattan in the Background

Robert Wrigley

Arthur Lieberman, the cousin in Levine’s poem,
turned to watch the day’s last light subsiding
over the East River and suffered . . . what?
An attack? a premonition? His son, falling
to the Manhattan streets on Black Thursday, 1929.
It was coming and no one knew. Garcia Lorca and Hart Crane,
said to be in the room, did not know their ends either.

And when I saw this picture of Levine
in a magazine I might not have wanted
otherwise, I did not think of Lorca
or Crane, or the horrified, good cousin,
Arthur Lieberman. I just wanted the picture.
Even the interview, I must admit,
did not really matter, the poet’s words

as spoken prose not so fine a thing as the poems
or the picture: and the picture, a monochromatic
mid-spring day in May, the sky to the west
that pale gray of pigeons’ underbellies,
skyline receding to the softer blur
that is distance through a telephoto lens.
And what Levine sees, leaned against

the elegant iron fence, we can only guess:
the air above far Coney Island or Canarsie Beach?
a woman conducting the wind? a pair of pigeons
blown from the sidewalks like a blessing?
He looks to the southeast: south for Crane,
flailing in the water behind the boat
from Veracruz; and east for Lorca,

gunned down by Falangists in Spain.
Such are the cardinal points—madness and politics—
compass routes from everywhere else
to here, the north, south, east, and west
of where we’re going and where we are.
And it isn’t just knowing that the East River
is out of sight behind him, or that the fence

he leans against comes close to running
true north, or that the blurred towers to the west,
because the camera’s eye cannot see two places
at once, only seem, on this gray day, May, 2000,
to be turning into ghosts already, already half gone.
I was drawn instead by the sadness in the man’s eyes,
believing it the ghosts of Whitman, Lorca, and Crane,

angels of the poet’s long devotion.
And when I called Brooklyn, that Wednesday,
September 12, 2001, Levine was asleep, so I spoke instead
to his wife, to Frannie, who could only say
that they had watched. I was far away, but looking
at the picture as we talked, and I could see in it
the way they must have headed home after a while,

arm in arm, and I understood how you could
fall in love forever with someone or something
that would never be the same—a poem, a photograph:
Levine’s eyes mourning Lorca and Crane then,
and the others now, the ones whose loss
he watched from the Brooklyn Promenade,
with Frannie, until they could bear to see no more.

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