Poetry

The Memory of Clay

for Terry Dietrich

 

© 2006 by Donald Levin

 

Feel its slippery cold, its gray heft

as you cup your hands around the earth’s flesh

and press, and push, and urge

the malleable matter into a sphere

 

sufficient for smashing down

on the dampened bat’s turning heart

and then, if you’re new to the game,

wrestling with the spinning lump

 

to make it sit, still, solid, obedient

in the whirling center, and only then,

in the miracle of transformation, grow,

rise from its dull turtleshell of a seed,

 

supported by some helpful body English,

climb into a bud, a new mushroom’s few

umbrellaed inches, only to begin again

when, like a child with a mind of its own

 

it starts to lean outside your shaping hands

toward a compass point you didn’t plan for —

until, smashed, recentered, the steps recapitulated,

it begins to grow again, then, your hands moving

 

around and on and inside its changing shape

(keeping that bottom clean, those sides slick,

that lip crisp) becomes something tall

and subtly formed, straight sides curved in,

 

gaping mouth constricted to a cultured O.

Later, fresh from the oven, its gray skin

gone white, its sleek give hard, grainy

and tickling to the touch, the lean

 

you tried so hard to wipe away is back,

fine and sly but undeniably there,

the clay remembering, in the fire of its finish,

the shape it always wanted to assume.

 

 

Et in Arcadia Ego

 

About suffering they were never wrong, 

The Old Masters; how well they understood

Its human position.

–W.H. Auden

 

Standing waist deep in the water,

my brother slaps a hand on the surface

of the startled round blue sunny mouth

of the above-ground backyard pool

to mark the seconds advancing

in the breath-holding contest.

Beside him, buoyant, his friend

does a perfect dead-man’s float

passing ninety-nine one-thousand

as the waves slosh over the sides

of the corrugated metal ring

burnishing a dark halo

in the sand beneath the pool.

 

“Aguirre on the mound,” announces

Ernie Harwell from the transistor

on the webbed chair beside the pool.

“Swing and a miss,” Harwell calls it

and an approving murmur issues

from the ballpark’s sparse August crowd

in the summer of my thirteenth year.

 

Suddenly the door to the porch

off my brother’s second floor bedroom

bursts open and our mother, stricken,

thrusts her head out. “Marilyn Monroe

died!” she cries, voice husky from smoking,

needing to notify someone

and we are all she can find right now–

we for whom death is yet a stranger.

 

Ears submerged but thinking from her tone

she is agitated about him,

the teenager still drifting face down

like a felled log lifts a calming hand

and sends her up an okay sign

while my brother keeps his steady count

of the cruel seconds racing past

in Detroit in 1962.

 

copyright Donald Levin 2012

 

 

 

This Day is Fulfilled: A Meditation on Luke

Outside the open window

The morning air is all awash with angels.

–Richard Wilbur, “Love Calls us to the Things of This World”

1

On the pavement by the side of the road

a man walks–no, not walks: staggers, stumbles,

does a slack jitter step down the sidewalk

hops about to preserve his feet beneath him

(assuming there are feet somewhere inside

those laceless tatters that once were spanky brogans)

as rush-hour traffic thickens, occludes

near the corner of 8 Mile and Woodward

on an overcast weekday in May, warm,

windy, threatening rain, the sun a distant hint

behind a scrim of clouds, a promise, really, or

reminder. And as you idle at the stoplight

on your way to somewhere, late, your mind absent,

you see him halt, stand, and fix you in his gaze.

2

He halts, stands, and fixes you in his gaze

if gaze there is in eyes that squint, almost closed,

through the soupy blue haze of exhaust, seasoned

with the sweet scent of gasoline; he could be

blind for all you know, looking not at you

but in your direction, puffy-eyed, bruised,

his head a mass of greasy hair and tangled beard,

lanky frame monkish in a hooded coat

stiff with dirt and britches of a startling

cranberry hue, his shape narrow as a nail;

and don’t think I mistake this man in such an

altered mental state for Jesus, though you may

but I wouldn’t advise it because now

he’s fastened upon you, and here it comes–

3

He’s fastened upon you and here it comes–

“Yo! Chief! You got something for me today?”

At least that’s what you think he says, words gleaned

from the sustained confusion of traffic,

the hiss of tires, the shriek of faulty brakes

behind you, as if you’ve often seen him

before, and maybe you have, and you think

about how much there is in this world,

and how little; how close we are, and how

impossibly far apart. And you think

you hear music, floating in the air, remote,

the roar of city buses, the thunder of trucks

unable to veil the strains of a tune

you can’t quite catch but you’re sure it’s there.

4

You can’t quite catch it but you’re sure it’s there–

and “Yo, chief!” he says again, and this time

you hear him plainly, this cumbersome twitchy

bird-man. And you start to believe that you do

have something for him: because all at once

you recognize that face, that snarled beard, that

insouciant query; and you intuit

the heartbreak that brought him to this corner;

the despair that keeps him reeling down the sidewalk;

whatever illness it was that stripped the flesh

so fully from his spare lurching frame. Luke,

evangelist, patron saint of healers,

artists, students, tell us how we know him,

teach us what we owe him, this austere outcast.

5

Teach us what we owe him, this austere outcast.

Teach us how we know, what we owe each other.

Move the spirit upon us, finally, that

makes us love the least and most among us.

For we must love, we know this in our hearts.

Such is, surely, the central lesson mastered

from your rigorous years of study, which

we assemble here to celebrate today,

paused not at the end of your education,

but its beginning; for now are you primed

to learn to love the world in earnest, and spread

a gospel of your own of mercy and wisdom,

hope and liberation, your truths suffused with

that music whose soft melodies you hear.

6

That music whose soft melodies you hear–

gentle, distant, undulating on the wind–

now swells, crescendos. Listen: It is the air filled

with the rustling wings of angels wheeling

overhead in the dusk; it is the murmur

of departed spirits who swim through the sky

as they watch over us. It is the inspiration

which some call god, or Christ, or whatever

immense mystery we feel that impels us

past the insufficient sight lines of our world.

It is the bright summons of the sparrow

calling us to fulfill our days’ enduring duty

to bless the sacred weighty world beyond

the pavement by the side of the road.

copyright Donald Levin 2012

Night Manager at the Palms Theatre, Detroit

A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.

           –Herman Melville                                                                                                                

This landlocked vessel on Woodward

topped off my own education

in summer ’71 in the Motor City

following a pallid stretch in higher ed

in the country far from Detroit streets–

there I earned a bachelor’s in bitter ushers

who had been let go from institutions

and stood in the lobby muttering to themselves

about not getting their rights back, to do what

with I never learned; a double degree in

supervising untrained armed guards two weeks

out of the south, faster to take offense

than the patrons they were supposed to keep

calm, who provoked more trouble each night

than they prevented, who thought it was they,

not me, who really ran the operation

on nights when the temperature topped 95

outside the bulletproof red box office

and customers wandered in off hot streets

desperate for a white face to get up into;

a major in shotguns in the closet

in the manager’s office; a master’s

in calling the cops when people who were

asked to leave for bringing in Kentucky

Fried returned with angry guns; a minor in

choking down hotdogs that had been rotating

on the cooker on the candy counter

since early morning two days ago;

a certificate in seeking tens of thousands

of missing popcorn cups each Monday;

a specialization in being teased

by the pregnant cashier who worried

what would happen when her husband finally

realized, in another month, the baby

she was carrying was too pale to be his;

a post-degree in the tough head usher

who scorned my suit and tie, and ignored orders

from someone who knew so little of his life;

and a doctorate in pretending

to be in charge of an occupation army

of theatre staff while chaos ruled unchecked

in the lobby, the auditorium,

the ushers’ and candy girls’ changing rooms,

the balcony, loge, and all the other realms

I never dared go while the city steamed.

© Donald Levin 2007


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