Philip Levine


In Castelldefels we say, “There are four thousand souls
living in this village,” not daring to omit even
the squat, gray haired captain of the Guardia Civil
or the trailer camp of Gypsies who thrive on a grassy plot
down by the tracks, the men who shine my wife’s boots
while leering shamelessly up her skirt, the women
who beg at the tables of the open-air cantinas
in the public square, rolling their eyes and pinching
the borrowed babies until they bawl. As a child
I was embarrassed to implore the lord to take my “soul,”
whatever that was, before I woke. I was five then,
living splendidly in a two-story house on the West Side
with fenced yard, heated garage, and a governess to tend
my brother and me, a Mrs. Morton, who professed
a faith in the afterlife and thought it charming
at bedtime to force the twin heathens to their knees
to recite her rhyming prayer, which we did only the once
as a circus act for company. Thankfully the Great Depression
saved us, and Mrs. Morton, caught pawning my mother’s rings,
went packing—with no references—into the larger Christian world.
We moved, carless, to a dim, cramped walk-up behind
a used-car lot on Livernois. There my spiritual life
got a second start when I collapsed on the way to school
for no known reason and awakened staring up into the face
of a policeman with the improbable name of Officer German.
The school nurse, while fussing with my pulse and staring
at her watch, solemnly announced I must be dead,
and my mother was summoned from work to take me home
in a Checker cab. That night I lay face up on the couch
groping for words that might stay the inevitable.
I was allowed by the spirits that rule in such affairs
to return to life disguised as a seven-year old
not yet fully aware of the beauty of women’s legs
or the firm skin that stretched across their gleaming sternums,
though Marta—our boarder from Nazi occupied Vienna—
asked me into her room one night to sample her talcums,
her colognes and creams, and to try on her silk garments,
which I stubbornly rejected, only to bring on a storm
of Middle Eastern abuse—a lost opportunity
I lived to regret. In the sixth grade, seated beside
a budding girl in pleated skirt and starched white blouse
I felt for the first time my present incarnation
taking hold, and though I fought it for days, though I begged
the unknown powers within me for relief, preferring
to remain rounded off and complete, the yin and yang
of the eleven-year old, it went on. Now the long torpors
could descend on me each spring. I became the object
and no longer the subject of my own sentence. When I asked
the inconstant stars that occasionally winked through
the dim air over Detroit for their guidance, they answered
in an indecipherable riot of words, Basque and Chinese,
which I alone could interpret. Thus the sudden flight
to Havana in 1947 in the hope of mastering
Latin ballroom dancing, my enlistment in the naval reserve
in order to acquire discipline and bearing, the marriage
to a fifteen-year old suburban delinquent. All of this failed,
just as the year on the night shift at Wonder Bread
and the diurnal sweats of the seven ovens failed
to rinse me of indignation. The surprise came when
on my twenty-sixth birthday while sober a grown woman
chose me, who was not sober, to father her children,
and together we embarked on a life we could call ours
in the village of Castelldefels in the year of our Lord
1965, where returning home alone on foot after a long day
of idling in the great cemetery of Barcelona, I shouted out
to the night sky, “There is that lot of me and all so luscious.”
And believed it. I believe it now, even though
the squat captain of the Guardia Civil goes on censoring
my mail, the dwarf barber sneers as he calls me Don Felipe,
the butcher hints I lack the cojones to take her sister,
and each night the sea tears at the littered coast, the wind
rages through the pines, and—except for us—all four thousand
souls, some alone, some in pairs, huddle in their beds and pray.