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The Negatives Analysis

Author: poem of Philip Levine Type: poem Views: 15

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On March 1, 1958, four deserters from the French Army of North Africa,
August Rein, Henri Bruette, Jack Dauville, & Thomas Delain, robbed a
government pay station at Orleansville. Because of the subsequent
confession of Dauville the other three were captured or shot. Dauville
was given his freedom and returned to the land of his birth, the U.S.A.

from a last camp near St. Remy

        I dig in the soft earth all
        afternoon, spacing the holes
        a foot or so from the wall.
        Tonight we eat potatoes,
        tomorrow rice and carrots.
        The earth here is like the earth
        nowhere, ancient with wood rot.
        How can anything come forth,

        I wonder; and the days are
        all alike, if there is more
        than one day. If there is more
        of this I will not endure.
        I have grown so used to being
        watched I can no longer sleep
        without my watcher. The thing
        I fought against, the dark cape,

        crimsoned with terror that
        I so hated comforts me now.
        Thomas is dead; insanity,
        prison, cowardice, or slow
        inner capitulation
        has found us all, and all men
        turn from us, knowing our pain
        is not theirs or caused by them.

from a hospital in Algiers

        Dear Suzanne: this letter will
        not reach you because I can't
        write it; I have no pencil,
        no paper, only the blunt
        end of my anger. My dear,
        if I had words how could I
        report the imperfect failure
        for which I began to die?

        I might begin by saying
        that it was for clarity,
        though I did not find it in
        terror: dubiously
        entered each act, unsure
        of who I was and what I
        did, touching my face for fear
        I was another inside

        my head I played back pictures
        of my childhood, of my wife
        even, for it was in her
        I found myself beaten, safe,
        and furthest from the present.
        It is her face I see now
        though all I say is meant
        for you, her face in the slow

        agony of sexual
        release. I cannot see you.
        The dark wall ribbed with spittle
        on which I play my childhood
        brings me to this bed, mastered
        by what I was, betrayed by
        those I trusted. The one word
        my mouth must open to is why.

from a hotel in Tampa, Florida

        From Orleansville we drove
        south until we reached the hills,
                 then east until
        the road stopped. I was nervous
        and couldn't eat. Thomas took
        over, told us when to think
                 and when to shit.
        We turned north and reached Blida
        by first dawn and the City

        by morning, having dumped our
        weapons beside an empty
                 road. We were free.
        We parted, and to this hour
        I haven't seen them, except
        in photographs: the black hair
                 and torn features
        of Thomas Delain captured
        a moment before his death

        on the pages of the world,
        smeared in the act. I tortured
                 myself with their
        betrayal: alone I hurled
        them into freedom, inner
        freedom which I can't find
                 nor ever will
        until they are dead. In my mind
        Delain stands against the wall

        precise in detail, steadied
        for the betrayal. "La France
                 C'Est Moi," he cried,
        but the irony was lost. Since
        I returned to the U.S.
        nothing goes well. I stay up
                 too late, don't sleep,
        and am losing weight. Thomas,
        I say, is dead, but what use

        telling myself what I won't
        believe. The hotel quiets
                 early at night,
        the aged brace themselves for
        another sleep, and offshore
        the sea quickens its pace. I
                 am suddenly
        old, caught in a strange country
        for which no man would die.

from a journal found on his person

        At night wakened by the freight
        trains boring through the suburbs
        of Lyon, I watched first light
        corrode the darkness, disturb
        what little wildlife was left
        in the alleys: birds moved from
        branch to branch, and the dogs leapt
        at the garbage. Winter numbed
        even the hearts of the young
        who had only their hearts. We
        heard the war coming; the long
        wait was over, and we moved
        along the crowded roads south
        not looking for what lost loves
        fell by the roadsides. To flee
        at all cost, that was my youth.

        Here in the African night
        wakened by what I do not
        know and shivering in the heat,
        listen as the men fight
        with sleep. Loosed from their weapons
        they cry out, frightened and young,
        who have never been children.
        Once merely to be strong,
        to live, was moral. Within
        these uniforms we accept
        the evil we were chosen
        to deliver, and no act
        human or benign can free
        us from ourselves. Wait, sleep, blind
        soldiers of a blind will, and
        listen for that old command
        dreaming of authority.


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