Philip Levine, a former auto worker from Detroit and Poet Laureate of the United States from 2011–2012, passed away on February 14, 2015 at the age of eighty-seven. In celebration of his life and work, we present this poem, which we originally published in 1996. —Editors
In a shit-house stall in Central
I saw the one word “Mum”
and thought once more of young men
torn by want or war or hunger
from their families, the West Virginian
I wrote of thirty years ago and knew
fifteen years before that who broke down
and cried and made us cry to hear him.
So I have come full circle in every way.
I sit here helpless, remembering
Pedro Illic’s tale of his grandfather
alone crossing an ocean and two
continents to give what was left
of his life to the nitrate mines
of Chile or my own father fleeing
the wars of Tsarist Russia and sent
to the high adventures of England.
What came back from the Somme
or El Alemain? A torn photograph,
a missing place at dinner which dimmed
and finally vanished over the years.
Europe too went on to fade at last,
still with her grinning queens
and princes good at horsemanship,
her armies of the republic that might
turn out for parades, and all
those overwrought statues to the past
and fountains wasting water. Nothing
that can touch and hurt like this
one simple word a boy far from home
and getting farther carved with a key
he’d never use again because he knew
something must be said and said now,
and he couldn’t think of whom
to speak to, of who would listen,
or a single other word that would do.
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