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The Present Analysis



Author: poem of Philip Levine Type: poem Views: 14

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The day comes slowly in the railyard

behind the ice factory. It broods on

one cinder after another until each

glows like lead or the eye of a dog

possessed of no inner fire, the brown

and greasy pointer who raises his muzzle

a moment and sighing lets it thud

down on the loading dock. In no time

the day has crossed two sets of tracks,

a semi-trailer with no tractor, and crawled

down three stories of the bottling plant

at the end of the alley. It is now

less than five hours until mid-day

when nothing will be left in doubt,

each scrap of news, each banished carton,

each forgotten letter, its ink bled of lies,

will stare back at the one eye that sees

it all and never blinks. But for now

there is water settling in a clean glass

on the shelf beside the razor, the slap

of bare feet on the floor above. Soon

the scent of rivers borne across roof

after roof by winds without names,

the aroma of opened beds better left

closed, of mouths without teeth, of light

rustling among the mice droppings

at the back of a bin of potatoes.



*



The old man who sleeps among the cases

of empty bottles in a little nest of rags

and newspapers at the back of the plant

is not an old man. He is twenty years

younger than I am now putting this down

in permanent ink on a yellow legal pad

during a crisp morning in October.

When he fell from a high pallet, his sleeve

caught on a nail and spread his arms

like a figure out of myth. His head

tore open on a spear of wood, and he

swore in French. No, he didn't want

a doctor. He wanted toilet paper

and a drink, which were fetched. He used

the tiny bottle of whisky to straighten

out his eyes and the toilet paper to clean

his pants, fouled in the fall, and he did

both with seven teenage boys looking on

in wonder and fear. At last the blood

slowed and caked above his ear, and he

never once touched the wound. Instead,

in a voice no one could hear, he spoke

to himself, probably in French, and smoked

sitting back against a pallet, his legs

thrust out on the damp cement floor.



*



In his white coveralls, crisp and pressed,

Teddy the Polack told us a fat tit

would stop a toothache, two a headache.

He told it to anyone who asked, and grinned --

the small eyes watering at the corners --

as Alcibiades might have grinned

when at last he learned that love leads

even the body beloved to a moment

in the present when desire calms, the skin

glows, the soul takes the light of day,

even a working day in 1944.

For Baharozian at seventeen the present

was a gift. Seeing my ashen face,

the cold sweats starting, he seated me

in a corner of the boxcar and did

both our jobs, stacking the full cases

neatly row upon row and whistling

the songs of Kate Smith. In the bathroom

that night I posed naked before the mirror,

the new cross of hair staining my chest,

plunging to my groin. That was Wednesday,

for every Wednesday ended in darkness.



*



One of those teenage boys was my brother.

That night as we lay in bed, the lights

out, we spoke of Froggy, of how at first

we thought he would die and how little

he seemed to care as the blood rose

to fill and overflow his ear. Slowly

the long day came over us and our breath

quieted and eased at last, and we slept.

When I close my eyes now his bare legs

glow before me again, pure and lovely

in their perfect whiteness, the buttocks

dimpled and firm. I see again the rope

of his sex, unwrinkled, flushed and swaying,

the hard flat belly as he raises his shirt

to clean himself. He gazes at no one

or nothing, but seems instead to look off

into a darkness I hadn't seen, a pool

of shadow that forms before his eyes,

in my memory now as solid as onyx.



*



I began this poem in the present

because nothing is past. The ice factory,

the bottling plant, the cindered yard

all gave way to a low brick building

a block wide and windowless where they

designed gun mounts for personnel carriers

that never made it to Korea. My brother

rises early, and on clear days he walks

to the corner to have toast and coffee.

Seventeen winters have melted into an earth

of stone, bottle caps, and old iron to carry

off the hard remains of Froggy Frenchman

without a blessing or a stone to bear it.

A little spar of him the size of a finger,

pointed and speckled as though blood-flaked,

washed ashore from Lake Erie near Buffalo

before the rest slipped down the falls out

into the St. Lawrence. He could be at sea,

he could be part of an ocean, by now

he could even be home. This morning I

rose later than usual in a great house

full of sunlight, but I believe it came

down step by step on each wet sheet

of wooden siding before it crawled

from the ceiling and touched my pillow

to waken me. When I heave myself

out of this chair with a great groan of age

and stand shakily, the three mice still

in the wall. From across the lots

the wind brings voices I can't make out,

scraps of song or sea sounds, daylight

breaking into dust, the perfume of waiting

rain, of onions and potatoes frying.






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