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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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