Philip Levine

One Day

Everyone knows that the trees will go one day
and nothing will take their place.
Everyone has wakened, alone, in
a room of fresh light and risen
to meet the morning as we did.
How long have we waited
quietly by the side of the road
for someone to slow and ask why.
The light is going, first from between
the long rows of dark firs
and then from our eyes, and when
it is gone we will be gone.
No one will be left to say,
‘He took the stick and marked off
the place where the door would be,’
or ‘she held the child in both hands
and sang the same few tunes
over and over.’         
                        Before dinner we stood
in line to wash the grease from our faces
and scrub our hands with a hard brush,
and the pan of water thickened and grayed,
a white scum frothed on top,
and the last one flung it in the yard.
Boiled potatoes, buttered and salted, onions,
thick slices of bread, cold milk
almost blue under the fading light,
the smell of coffee from the kitchen.
I felt my eyes slowly closing.
You smoked in silence.
                                      What life
were we expecting? Ships sailed
from distant harbors without us,
the telephone rang and no one answered,
someone came home alone and stood
for hours in the dark hallway.
A woman bowed to a candle
and spoke as though it could hear,
as though it could answer.
My aunt went to the back window
and called her small son, gone now
27 years into the closed wards
of the state, called his name again
and again. What could I do?
Answer for him who’d forgotten
his name? Take my father’s shoes
and go into the streets?
                                     Yes, the sun
has risen again. I can see the windows
change and hear a dog barking. The wind
buckles the slender top of the alder,
the conversation of night birds
hushes, and I can hear my heart
regular and strong. I will live to see
the day end as I lived to see
the earth turn molten and white,
then to metal, then to whatever shape
we stamped into it as we laughed
the long night hours away or sang
how the eagle flies on Friday.
When Friday came, the early hours perfect
and cold, we cursed our only lives
and passed the bottle back and forth.
                                                           Some died.
I turned and he was gone, my friend
with the great laugh who walked
cautiously and ate with his head
down, like a bear, his coarse hair
almost touching the plate. The tall one
with arms no thicker than a girl’s,
who cursed his swollen face
as though he could have another.
The one whose voice lilted softly
when he raised a finger and spoke. I sat
beside him, trying to describe the sea
as I had seen it, but it was lost,
distant and unseen, perhaps no longer
there under a low sky. I tried to tell him
how the waves darkened and left only
the sound of their breaking,
and after a silence we learned to bear,
it all came back. He turned away
to the wall and slept, and I went out 
into the city. It was I who’d held his wife
and felt the small bones of her back
rising and falling as she did not cry.
Later I would see my son from a distance
and not call out. I would waken that night
beside a sleeping woman and count
each breath.
                   Soon it was summer, afternoon,
the city hid indoors in the great heat,
the hot wind shriveled our faces. I said,
‘They’re gone.’ The light turned from red
to green, and we went on. ‘If they’re not here.’
you said, ‘where are they?’ We both
looked into the sky as though
it were our only home. We drove on.
Nothing moved, nothing stirred
in the oven of this valley. What
was there left to say? The sky
was on fire, the air streamed
into the open windows. We broke free
beyond the car lots, the painted windows,
the all-night bars, the places
where the children gathered, and we just
went on and on, as far as we could
into a day that never ended.