It’s been a week of saying good-bye, to those I’ve admired for work done and lives lived, most of whom never knew me, one slightly and another dearly.

This morning, after a week of sitting with and walking silently around, a family member, meditating on breath and body and earth and beyond, news comes of the death of Philip Levine, the American poet whose work has most moved me of that generation coming from the second world war. I knew him and his wife briefly when I worked in Fresno, CA in the mid 1970s. It was their home. He was an honored and famed professor at Fresno State. She helped me do land research to track large agricultural holdings in order find migrant farm workers and organize union elections.

Books Phil LevineHis poetic interests, coming from a hard scrabble life in Detroit, were of working men and women, grinding labor, bitter cold. I had been in migrant shanty camps and border slums and could not stand the poems, when I found time to read, about autumn leaves, love in meadows, fleecy clouds. He paid attention to what held my deepest attention — the lives of others, in extremis. He also wrote of the Spanish Civil war. Though too young to participate in it, as some of his older friends and neighbors did, he felt it deeply, as had I. Though committed to a Gandhian nonviolence, I was pulled to the courage of those who fought, and lost, against the Mussolini and Hitler supplied forces of fascism. I read histories, memoirs, stories of the war. I was inspired by the self-organizing anarchists, took warning from George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. My contempt for standing by while others suffered was sealed in me forever. After knowing Levine and finishing my work in the Central Valley I went to Spain where one Spanish friend joked that I knew more about that war than her own generation.

It’s too bad when it takes a person’s death to recall to us admiration or love we’ve had for them. I’ll be re-opening my volumes of Philip Levine and thanking him for attention passed to others. Here are two I like, and here a collection of many others.

 

For more, by Margalit Fox at the NY Times, read here.

Ω

On The Murder Of Lieutenant Jose Del Castillo By The Falangist Bravo Martinez, July 12, 1936
by Philip Levine
When the Lieutenant of the Guardia de Asalto
heard the automatic go off, he turned
and took the second shot just above
the sternum, the third tore away
the right shoulder of his uniform,
the fourth perforated his cheek. As he
slid out of his comrade’s hold
toward the gray cement of the Ramblas
he lost count and knew only
that he would not die and that the blue sky
smudged with clouds was not heaven
for heaven was nowhere and in his eyes
slowly filling with their own light.
The pigeons that spotted the cold floor
of Barcelona rose as he sank below
the waves of silence crashing
on the far shores of his legs, growing
faint and watery. His hands opened
a last time to receive the benedictions
of automobile exhaust and rain
and the rain of soot. His mouth,
that would never again say “I am afraid,”
closed on nothing. The old grandfather
hawking daisies at his stand pressed
a handkerchief against his lips
and turned his eyes away before they held
the eyes of a gunman. The shepherd dogs
on sale howled in their cages
and turned in circles. There is more
to be said, but by someone who has suffered
and died for his sister the earth
and his brothers the beasts and the trees.
The Lieutenant can hear it, the prayer
that comes on the voices of water, today
or yesterday, form Chicago or Valladolid,
and hands like smoke above this street
he won’t walk as a man ever again.
Ω
Gin
by Philip Levine
The first time I drank gin
I thought it must be hair tonic.
My brother swiped the bottle
from a guy whose father owned
a drug store that sold booze
in those ancient, honorable days
when we acknowledged the stuff
was a drug. Three of us passed
the bottle around, each tasting
with disbelief. People paid
for this? People had to have
it, the way we had to have
the women we never got near.
(Actually they were girls, but
never mind, the important fact
was their impenetrability. )
Leo, the third foolish partner,
suggested my brother should have
swiped Canadian whiskey or brandy,
but Eddie defended his choice
on the grounds of the expressions
“gin house” and “gin lane,” both
of which indicated the preeminence
of gin in the world of drinking,
a world we were entering without
understanding how difficult
exit might be. Maybe the bliss
that came with drinking came
only after a certain period
of apprenticeship. Eddie likened
it to the holy man’s self-flagellation
to experience the fullness of faith.
(He was very well read for a kid
of fourteen in the public schools. )
So we dug in and passed the bottle
around a second time and then a third,
in the silence each of us expecting
some transformation. “You get used
to it,” Leo said. “You don’t
like it but you get used to it.”
I know now that brain cells
were dying for no earthly purpose,
that three boys were becoming
increasingly despiritualized
even as they took into themselves
these spirits, but I thought then
I was at last sharing the world
with the movie stars, that before
long I would be shaving because
I needed to, that hair would
sprout across the flat prairie
of my chest and plunge even
to my groin, that first girls
and then women would be drawn
to my qualities. Amazingly, later
some of this took place, but
first the bottle had to be
emptied, and then the three boys
had to empty themselves of all
they had so painfully taken in
and by means even more painful
as they bowed by turns over
the eye of the toilet bowl
to discharge their shame. Ahead
lay cigarettes, the futility
of guaranteed programs of
exercise, the elaborate lies
of conquest no one believed,
forms of sexual torture and
rejection undreamed of. Ahead
lay our fifteenth birthdays,
acne, deodorants, crabs, salves,
butch haircuts, draft registration,
the military and political victories
of Dwight Eisenhower, who brought us
Richard Nixon with wife and dog.
Any wonder we tried gin.
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