Philip Levine

The Escape

To come to life in Detroit is to be manufactured
without the power of speech. You clasp hands,
as I did, with a brother and step by step
begin the slow descent into hell or Hamtramck
and arrive, designed, numbered, tagged.
It was the year Hoover took office. Since then
I’ve been recycled seven times and escaped 
myself twice. The second time I rand my hand
down the body next to me, and felt my callused hand
touching me. She and I hushed in a room
I rented for $12 a month down the street
from the shabby little zoo. How late I came
to love, 26 years old, and for the first time
I became a woman, a singular woman who loved me
more than I loved myself. What had I been?
What do you think? Isn’t it obvious? I was a child.
And then I discovered Luckys, and then I suppose
I created out of lies, bad teeth, and so much meat,
bone, and hair a character in the shape of a man.
Then I registered for the draft and it was official.
Case closed, 1A, classified to die before I came of age
unless Hiroshima and Nagasaki burned. They did,
and I celebrated by drinking myself into a stupor
that lasted eight years.
                                    The first time I escaped
I’d gone out after dinner and the dishes were done
to be alone. In the dark I found the tree,
a copper beech, and climbed into the crotch
and leaned back against a heavy branch and let
the stars pass slowly above. At first cars
groaned one at a time on the Outer Drive,
then they did not, and besides the wind stirring
the hard black leaves there was only the roar
of my mind touching itself carefully with rain,
the first few drops filling my eyes, that day’s
rain falling hours later from the leaves above,
wind shaken, and then the odor of earth rising
like the breath of a strange God I could love.
Can you imagine inhaling God at age fourteen
with lungs still untainted by cigarettes?
Little wonder I fell out of the tree and sprawled
face down, unhurt, my fingers spread wide
as though to take handfuls of last year’s
brittle leaves into my mouth. Hours later
I rose in the shape of a boy named Phil,
but now myself.
                           I’m an American,
even before I was fourteen I knew I would have
to create myself. My beautiful literature teacher,
Miss Hardman, who wore gloves on summer days,
who had a secret love for me she could
barely contain, had whispered this one day
as we passed in the hall and fought to still
the urge to take my hand in her ungloved hands
and press my soul into her breasts. If she
had not nursed that unacted desire
I might have discovered love before
I was ready and lost it, never to awaken
in a room thirteen years later
transformed into an angel gifted with both
sexes and no wings. Because we were Midwestern
someone always had to pay: Johnny Moradian
had to be blown apart on Okinawa. Silas Nance
had to despise himself before my eyes, weeping 
and weeping because a woman belittled him,
Jewel Sprague had to run off to Peru and disappear
in the Andes, my tiny French cousin had to walk
by night from Nîmes to the hills freezing
above Florence to survive the Nazis and succumb
to his own heart, my lost uncle had to stab
a man to death behind a bar on First Avenue
and beg God to punish him. Oh Lord of Life,
how much you made them pay so I could love.