Philip Levine


You pull over to the shoulder
     of the two-lane
road and sit for a moment wondering
     where you were going
in such a hurry. The valley is burned
     out, the oaks
dream day and night of rain
     which never comes.
At noon or just before noon
     the short shadows
are gray and hold what little
     life survives.
In the still heat the engine
     clicks, although
the real heat is hours ahead.
     You get out and step
cautiously over a low wire
     fence and begin
the climb up the yellowed hill.
     A hundred feet
ahead the trunks of two
     fallen oaks
rust; something passes over
     them, a lizard
perhaps or a trick of sight.
     The next tree
you pass is unfamiliar,
     the trunk dark,
as black as an olive's; the low
     branches stab
out, gnarled and dull: a carob
     or a Joshua tree.
A sudden flaring-up ahead, 
     a black-winged
bird rises from nowhere,
     white patches
underneath its wings, and is gone.
     You hear your own
breath catching in your ears,
     a roaring, a sea
sound that goes on and on
     until you lean
forward to place both hands
     --fingers spread--
into the bleached grasses
     and let your knees
slowly down. Your breath slows
     and you know
you're back in central
on your way to San Francisco
     or the coastal towns
with their damp sea breezes
     you haven't
even a hint of. But first
     you must cross
the Pacheco Pass. People 
     expect you, and yet 
you remain, still leaning forward
     into the grasses
that if you could hear them
     would tell you
all you need to know about
     the life ahead.

Out of a sense of modesty
     or to avoid the truth
I've been writing in the second
     person, but in truth
it was I, not you, who pulled
     the green Ford
over to the side of the road
     and decided to get
up that last hill to look
     back at the valley
he'd come to call home. 
     I can't believe
that man, only thirty-two,
     less than half
my age, could be the person
     fashioning these lines. 
That was late July of '60. 
     I had heard
all about magpies, how they
     snooped and meddled
in the affairs of others, not
     birds so much
as people. If you dared
     to remove a wedding
ring as you washed away
     the stickiness of love
or the cherished odors of another
     man or woman,
as you turned away 
     from the mirror 
having admired your new-found 
"My Funny Valentine" or 
     "Body and Soul"-- 
to reach for a rough towel 
     or some garment 
on which to dry yourself, 
     he would enter
the open window behind you 
     that gave gratefully 
onto the fields and the roads 
     bathed in dawn-- 
he, the magpie--and snatch 
     up the ring 
in his hard beak and shoulder 
     his way back 
into the currents of the world 
     on his way 
to the only person who could 
     change your life: 
a king or a bride or an old woman 
     asleep on her porch.

Can you believe the bird 
     stood beside you 
just long enough, though far 
     smaller than you 
but fearless in a way 
     a man or woman 
never could be? An apparition 
     with two dark 
and urgent eyes and motions 
     so quick and precise 
they were barely motions at all? 
     When he was gone 
you turned, alarmed by the rustling 
     of oily feathers 
and the curious pungency, 
     and were sure 
you'd heard him say the words 
     that could explain 
the meaning of blond grasses 
     burning on a hillside 
beneath the hands of a man 
     in the middle of 
his life caught in the posture
     of prayer. I'd
heard that a magpie could talk, 
     so I waited
for the words, knowing without 
     the least doubt
what he'd do, for up ahead 
     an old woman
waited on her wide front porch.
     My children
behind her house played 
     in a silted pond
poking sticks at the slow 
     carp that flashed
in the fallen sunlight. You 
     are thirty-two
only once in your life, and though
     July comes
too quickly, you pray for 
     the overbearing
heat to pass. It does, and 
     the year turns
before it holds still for 
     even a moment.
Beyond the last carob 
     or Joshua tree
the magpie flashes his sudden 
     wings; a second
flames and vanishes into the pale 
     blue air.
July 23, 1960.
     I lean down
closer to hear the burned grasses 
     whisper all I
need to know. The words rise 
     around me, separate
and finite. A yellow dust 
     rises and stops
caught in the noon's driving light.
     Three ants pass
across the back of my reddened 
     right hand.
Everything is speaking or singing. 
     We're still here.