Philip Levine


In all sorts of weather Tristan
would go out in the rowboat. As a child
I’d beg to go with him, but mother
would threaten me. Either I shut up
or she would take her stick to me,
and seeing how red her brow became,
how the veins in her neck thickened, 
I would quiet. With the rain blowing
in from the sea, the front windows awash
with it, and the elms behind the house
wailing, I sometimes thought I
was at sea. I’d waken in the night
gone suddenly still and wonder if Tristan
was home in his little shed asleep
or pacing back and forth, bobbing up
and down on his short right leg.
From all these voyages he brought
back nothing of value, though once
he gave me a sea shell he said was
magic and had the secret knowledge
to predict the weather if listened to.
He took my hand in his cracked hand,
lifting it slowly to my ear and said,
“Hear.” The wind caught in the elms
shouted a word, a name, I thought as
likely mine as any name, but all
I answered was. “Yes.” Near the end
he brought back a thick green round
of glass the sea had polished and shaped
to a smooth stone. He pushed aside
his cup of coffee and his breakfast
slice of bread—it was early June,
the days long and warm, the sea at rest—
to place the glass, duller side up,
flat on my palm. “If ever you’re lost
stare into this and you’ll see the way.”
Mother hollered at me, I grabbed up
my books and was off to school, laughing
to myself, for I could feel the glass,
cool and dark, hidden in my shirt pocket
where Tristan had slipped it. Before
the long windless days of August passed
his boat, nameless but with one
brown staring eye painted on the bow
was sighted turning slowly in circles,
oarless, a mile from shore and towed
to its dock where it sat, idle,
until father had it hauled home on
the back of a flat bed truck and dropped
down in the garden, a creature of ocean
abruptly come to rest. Seasons passed,
autumn turned to winter and winter slowly
to spring. The bright blue paint flaked
off on the dirt, and then the one eye faded
to a woody gray and finally no eye at all.
One day I came back from school to find
the little boat filled to the brim
with fresh black dirt. Small green shoots
sprouted here and there where mother
had tamped them down by hand: thyme,
mint, sorrel, and some small flowers,
violets and impatiens that bloomed
before the summer ended. Nameless,
the boat sinks deeper into the earth
each year, though to myself I call
it Tristan and hear in the ragged
howling of the elms at night the name
come back to me again and again.
I carry the name with me, secretly,
saying it over and over as a charm,
for like the green glass round,
scarred now, and hidden in my wallet
at all times, it urges me out to sea.