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Philip Levine - Last Words

If the shoe fell from the other foot 
who would hear? If the door 
opened onto a pure darkness 
and it was no dream? If your life 
ended the way a book ends 
with half a blank page and the survivors 
gone off to Africa or madness? 
If my life ended in late spring 
of 1964 while I walked alone 
back down the mountain road? 
I sing an old song to myself. I study 
the way the snow remains, gray 
and damp, in the deep shadows of the firs. 
I wonder if the bike is safe hidden 
just off the highway. Up ahead 
the road, black and winding, falls 
away, and there is the valley where 
I lived half of my life, spectral 
and calm. I sigh with gratitude, 
and then I feel an odd pain rising 
through the back of my head, 
and my eyes go dark. I bend forward 
and place my palms on something rough, 
the black asphalt or a field of stubble, 
and the movement is that of the penitent 
just before he stands to his full height 
with the knowledge of his enormity. 
For that moment which will survive 
the burning of all the small pockets 
of fat and oil that are the soul, 
I am the soul stretching into 
the furthest reaches of my fingers 
and beyond, glowing like ten candles 
in the vault of night for anyone 
who could see, even though it is 
12:40 in the afternoon and I 
have passed from darkness into sunlight 
so fierce the sweat streams down 
into my eyes. I did not rise. 
A wind or a stray animal or a group 
of kids dragged me to the side 
of the road and turned me over 
so that my open eyes could flood heaven. 
My clothes went skittering down 
the road without me, ballooning 
out into any shape, giddy 
with release. My coins, my rings, 
the keys to my house shattered 
like ice and fell into the mountain 
thorns and grasses, little bright points 
that make you think there is magic 
in everything you see. No, it can't 
be, you say, for someone is speaking 
calmly to you in a voice you know. 
Someone alive and confident has put 
each of these words down exactly 
as he wants them on the page. 
You have lived through years 
of denial, of public lies, of death 
falling like snow on any head 
it chooses. You're not a child. 
You know the real thing. I am 
here, as I always was, faithful 
to a need to speak even when all 
you hear is a light current of air 
tickling your ear. Perhaps. 
But what if that dried bundle 
of leaves and dirt were not dirt 
and leaves but the spent wafer 
of a desire to be human? Stop the car, 
turn off the engine, and stand 
in the silence above your life. See 
how the grass mirrors fire, how 
a wind rides up the hillside 
steadily toward you until it surges 
into your ears like breath coming 
and going, released from its bondage 
to blood or speech and denying nothing.

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Poet: Philip Levine
Poem: Last Words
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