Sunday, December 13, 2009

Poem of the Week: "You Can Have It," by Philip Levine

Those of you who know me well know that my favorite literary topic (really, my favorite musical, film, and television topics, also) revolves around brothers. I don't know why, although I assume I'm fascinated by the relationships between men because as a woman, I don't fully understand them. Anyway, because I've been listening to the song "Blue Ridge Mountains," by the Fleet Foxes (who have a surprisingly large number of songs involving brothers), I've had brothers on my mind. So naturally, I turned to Philip Levine's poem, "You Can Have It," which is about a memory the speaker/poet has of his twin brother coming home exhausted from work as he prepares to leave for his own job. Levine explores the blue-collar existence of the urban Midwest (specifically, Detroit) better than any other poet in America, and this poem is just one fine example of his work. So here you go, a brother poem, which is a tad ironic when you consider that my own brother comes home for the holidays this week.

You Can Have It, by Philip Levine

My brother comes home from work
and climbs the stairs to our room.
I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop
one by one. You can have it, he says.

The moonlight streams in the window
and his unshaven face is whitened
like the face of the moon. He will sleep
long after noon and waken to find me gone.

Thirty years will pass before I remember
that moment when suddenly I knew each man
has one brother who dies when he sleeps
and sleeps when he rises to face this life,

and that together they are only one man
sharing a heart that always labors, hands
yellowed and cracked, a mouth that gasps
for breath and asks, Am I gonna make it?

All night at the ice plant he had fed
the chute its silvery blocks, and then I
stacked cases of orange soda for the children
of Kentucky, one gray box-car at a time

with always two more waiting. We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.

In 1948 in the city of Detroit, founded
by de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purpose
of Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,

for there was no such year, and now
that year has fallen off all the old newspapers,
calendars, doctor's appointments, bonds,
wedding certificates, drivers licenses.

The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,

and that grass died. I give you back 1948.
I give you all the years from then
to the coming one. Give me back the moon
with its frail light falling across a face.

Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it.

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