Philip Levine

Winter Words, Manhattan

When the young farm laborer
steals the roses for his wife
we know for certain he’ll find
her beyond their aroma
or softness. We can almost
feel with how soft a step
he approaches the cottage
there on the edge of the forest
darkening even before supper,
not wanting to give away
the surprise, which shall be his
only, for now she sleeps beyond
surprise in the long full,
dreamless sleep he will soon
pray for. And so they become
a bouquet for a grave, a touch
of rose in a gray and white
landscape. All this years ago
in the imagination of a poet
who would die before the book
was published. Did the thorns
puncture the young man’s fingers
as he pressed the short stems
through the knife blade? Did he
bleed on the snow like a man
in a film, on the tight buds,
on her face as he bent down
to take her breath? Did that 
breath still smell of breakfast,
of raw milk and bread? What does
breath that doesn’t come smell of,
if it smells at all? If I went
to the window now and gazed
down at the city stretching
in clear winter sunlight past
the ruined park the children
never visit, out over the rooftops
of Harlem past the great bridge
to Jersey and the country lost
to me before I found it,
would I cry and for whom?