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Ode For Mrs. William Settle Analysis

Author: poem of Philip Levine Type: poem Views: 8

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In Lake Forest, a suburb of Chicago,

a woman sits at her desk to write

me a letter. She holds a photograph

of me up to the light, one taken

17 years ago in a high school class

in Providence. She sighs, and the sigh

smells of mouthwash and tobacco.

If she were writing by candlelight

she would now be in the dark, for

a living flame would refuse to be fed

by such pure exhaustion. Actually

she is in the dark, for the man

she's about to address in her odd prose

had a life span of one 125th of a second

in the eye of a Nikon, and then he

politely asked the photographer to

get lost, whispering the request so as

not to offend the teacher presiding.

Those students are now in their thirties,

the Episcopal girls in their plaid skirts

and bright crested blazers have gone

unprepared, though French-speaking, into

a world of liars, pimps, and brokers.

2.7% have died by their own hands,

and all the others have considered

the act at least once. Not one now

remembers my name, not one recalls

the reading I gave of César Vallejo's

great "memoriam" to his brother Miguel,

not even the girl who sobbed and

had to be escorted to the school nurse,

calmed, and sent home in a cab. Evenings

in Lake Forest in mid-December drop

suddenly; one moment the distant sky

is a great purple canvas, and then it's

gone, and no stars emerge; however,

not the least hint of the stockyards

or slaughterhouses is allowed to drift

out to the suburbs, so it's a deathless

darkness with no more perfume than

cellophane. "Our souls are mingling

now somewhere in the open spaces

between Illinois and you," she writes.

When I read the letter, two weeks

from now, forwarded by my publisher,

I will suddenly discover a truth

of our lives on earth, and I'll bless

Mrs. William Settle of Lake Forest

for giving me more than I gave

her, for addressing me as Mr. Levine,

the name my father bore, a name

a man could take with courage

and pride into the empire of death.

I'll read even unto the second page,

unstartled by the phrase "By now

you must have guessed, I am

a dancer." Soon snow will fall

on the Tudor houses of the suburbs,

turning the elegant parked sedans

into anonymous mounds; the winds

will sweep in over the Rockies

and across the great freezing plains

where America first died, winds

so fierce boys and men turn their backs

to them and simply weep, and yet

in all that air the soul of Mrs. William

Settle will not release me, not even

for one second. Male and female,

aged and middle-aged, we ride it out

blown eastward toward our origins,

one impure being become wind. Above

the Middle West, truth and beauty

are one though never meant to be.


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