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Magpiety Analysis

Author: poem of Philip Levine Type: poem Views: 9

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You pull over to the shoulder

         of the two-lane

road and sit for a moment wondering

         where you were going

in such a hurry. The valley is burned

         out, the oaks

dream day and night of rain

         that never comes.

At noon or just before noon

         the short shadows

are gray and hold what little

         life survives.

In the still heat the engine

         clicks, although

the real heat is hours ahead.

         You get out and step

cautiously over a low wire

         fence and begin

the climb up the yellowed hill.

         A hundred feet

ahead the trunks of two

         fallen oaks

rust; something passes over

         them, a lizard

perhaps or a trick of sight.

         The next tree

you pass is unfamiliar,

         the trunk dark,

as black as an olive's; the low

         branches stab

out, gnarled and dull: a carob

         or a Joshua tree.

A sudden flaring-up ahead,

         a black-winged

bird rises from nowhere,

         white patches

underneath its wings, and is gone.

         You hear your own

breath catching in your ears,

         a roaring, a sea

sound that goes on and on

         until you lean

forward to place both hands

        -- fingers spread --

into the bleached grasses

         and let your knees

slowly down. Your breath slows

         and you know

you're back in central


on your way to San Francisco

         or the coastal towns

with their damp sea breezes

         you haven't

even a hint of. But first

         you must cross

the Pacheco Pass. People

         expect you, and yet

you remain, still leaning forward

         into the grasses

that if you could hear them

         would tell you

all you need to know about

         the life ahead.



.    .    .

Out of a sense of modesty

         or to avoid the truth

I've been writing in the second

         person, but in truth

it was I, not you, who pulled

         the green Ford

over to the side of the road

         and decided to get

up that last hill to look

         back at the valley

he'd come to call home.

         I can't believe

that man, only thirty-two,

         less than half

my age, could be the person

         fashioning these lines.

That was late July of '60.

         I had heard

all about magpies, how they

         snooped and meddled

in the affairs of others, not

         birds so much

as people. If you dared

         to remove a wedding

ring as you washed away

         the stickiness of love

or the cherished odors of another

         man or woman,

as you turned away

         from the mirror

having admired your new-found

         potency -- humming

"My Funny Valentine" or

         "Body and Soul" --

to reach for a rough towel

         or some garment

on which to dry yourself,

         he would enter

the open window behind you

         that gave gratefully

onto the fields and the roads

         bathed in dawn --

he, the magpie -- and snatch

         up the ring

in his hard beak and shoulder

         his way back

into the currents of the world

         on his way

to the only person who could

         change your life:

a king or a bride or an old woman

         asleep on her porch.


.    .    .

Can you believe the bird

         stood beside you

just long enough, though far

         smaller than you

but fearless in a way

         a man or woman

could never be? An apparition

         with two dark

and urgent eyes and motions

         so quick and precise

they were barely motions at all?

         When he was gone

you turned, alarmed by the rustling

         of oily feathers

and the curious pungency,

         and were sure

you'd heard him say the words

         that could explain

the meaning of blond grasses

         burning on a hillside

beneath the hands of a man

         in the middle of

his life caught in the posture

         of prayer. I'd

heard that a magpie could talk,

         so I waited

for the words, knowing without

         the least doubt

what he'd do, for up ahead

         an old woman

waited on her wide front porch.

         My children

behind her house played

         in a silted pond

poking sticks at the slow

         carp that flashed

in the fallen sunlight. You

         are thirty-two

only once in your life, and though

         July comes

too quickly, you pray for

         the overbearing

heat to pass. It does, and

         the year turns

before it holds still for

         even a moment.

Beyond the last carob

         or Joshua tree

the magpie flashes his sudden

         wings; a second

flames and vanishes into the pale

         blue air.

July 23, 1960.

         I lean down

closer to hear the burned grasses

         whisper all I

need to know. The words rise

         around me, separate

and finite. A yellow dust

         rises and stops

caught in the noon's driving light.

         Three ants pass

across the back of my reddened

         right hand.

Everything is speaking or singing.

         We're still here.


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