Thursday, August 11, 2011

a poem by Philip Levine


"Our Miasma" the locals call it, city
of hills, old barrios, a great harbor.
The year is 1904, a war beginning
in the east. Deserters, anarchists, Jews
come for refuge. We could be among them -
though we aren't - men without women,
on fire with longing. I'll show you one,
my grandfather, Yusel Pryzkulnik, who performs
in the Cafe Tulipe. Look how he stands,
one hand thrust into his jacket pocket,
a cotton scarf around his throat, a gray fedora
tipped slightly back, and stares into the haze
of tobacco smoke and does not even blink.
You are not this man chanting Sephardic hymns,
you did not lose an older brother, dragged
off one dawn by the police in long gray coats
never to return, nor did you watch your father
hung for butchering a chicken on a Saint's Day.
He enters your life slowly, not in the song
that lingers above the drinkers, not in smoke
blown over water or salt spray or words
put down by me or even the whisper
of his own voice, raw, torn, and barely heard
above the roar of all the waiting wars.
Lisbon was his: the young - both rich and poor -
climbed the cobbled lanes of the Alfama
to wait for hours to hear the faint echo
of his private sorrows. Widows in black,
half-drunken sailors, men without mothers
went to hear music that was not music.
One day he was gone into no one knows what,
gone forever and the songs vanished with him.
Now, go to the mirror. Look: it's not you
as you thought you were, it's not me either,
it's not anyone we worked to become.
It's the spring of '99. The wild roses riot
along the fence, the lilacs are late
to cast their shades on the purple mounds
we bowed to, and again the dead have found
a way into the hearts we swore were stone.

(published in the UK in FIRE,(#21), edited by Jeremy Hilton, Oxfordshire, 2003)