Phil & The Brothers Grimm

May 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

Too many good dinners and good company in the last several days; I’m way behind on work. It’s easy to feel that life is not so bad after a fine meal in Manhattan in the springtime, especially when there are people in the world like Philip Levine, our Poet Laureate whom I heard last night before having the best meal of 2012 so far, at a restaurant called Aldea on 17th Street.

Levine’s poems are wonderful read aloud. They’re conversational, but with the introspective richness that doesn’t require drama or any special voice, merely the slow, careful attention to the words all poems demand. Various people, including Jeffrey Eugenides, read his work. Phil (when someone asked what the proper title for Poet Laureate is, he called out from the audience, “Phil!”) read a poem by Alun Lewis, a young Welsh poet killed in WWII. In the poem he foretells his death; he speaks the poem in the voice of his wife at home. The last stanza goes like this:

But oh! the drag and dullness of my Self;
The turning seasons wither in my head;
All this slowness, all this hardness,
The nearness that is waiting in my bed,
The gradual self-effacement of the dead.

You can read the whole poem here

I’m supposed to go out again tonight to a poetry event, The PSA awards, which is good since my thoughts are running to staying home and setting the cat on fire. I’ve spent the day working on mundane editorial matters and indulging in my usual fantasies of escape, the most healthy of which is to disappear into the country for several years—some place memory can’t find—with nobody knowing where I am and not missing me too much. Of course in this fantasy I’m younger and stronger, barely aware of what Katherine Anne Porter called “Old Mortality”—because it is old, it’s been around forever, and you know it best when you’re old too, or getting there; because it is sly like certain old people who play feeble, frail, deaf, but are crafty and will steal your wallet or your favorite child.

OK, the theft of the child is more like something from a fairytale—those who steal children in this world tend to be young or youngish. The old fairies will take children though, because they live forever and the delight of a mortal creature only a few years out of nonbeing is like what we feel when we eat the first baby lettuce leaves of summer, wondering how it is that an action as ordinary as eating can be a sacrament, can make you want to reach across the table and touch the hand of the old love, the dear friend.

This is what we hold up as the deeply human. But what about the fairies who have needs too, who long to scoop the children like peas out of the pods of their strollers, take them to the sea-green and shadowed land; keep them, eternal hostages, for their beauty that doesn’t change but loses its freshness anyway? I’ve not been given the option of what species to belong to, but my soul feels like a shriveled fairy, full of weird powers but without a soul, if you can decode that image. Or even if you can’t.

I’ve wandered into fairy tales because that’s something coming up at work next week. I have to write a grant for a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. And have you ever had work as sweet as that—other than writing, painting, music—I mean work? Fairies are good at acquiring things for free, which is one way of describing a grant. I’ll have to ask their help. And ask, while I’m at it: how do you put a woman to sleep for 100 years? Make a man ride a horse that never stops? Bring back the dead as if they were only behind a curtain? Tell me, please. The world I live in is too real by far.

This was one of the poems of Levine’s that was read last night, one of his famous ones.

What Work Is

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

Philip Levine


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