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Philip Levine - The Negatives

On March 1, 1958, four deserters from the French Army of North Africa, 
August Rein, Henri Bruette, Jack Dauville, & Thomas Delain, robbed a 
government pay station at Orleansville. Because of the subsequent 
confession of Dauville the other three were captured or shot. Dauville 
was given his freedom and returned to the land of his birth, the U.S.A.

AUGUST REIN: 
from a last camp near St. Remy

        I dig in the soft earth all 
        afternoon, spacing the holes 
        a foot or so from the wall. 
        Tonight we eat potatoes, 
        tomorrow rice and carrots. 
        The earth here is like the earth 
        nowhere, ancient with wood rot. 
        How can anything come forth, 

        I wonder; and the days are 
        all alike, if there is more 
        than one day. If there is more 
        of this I will not endure. 
        I have grown so used to being 
        watched I can no longer sleep 
        without my watcher. The thing 
        I fought against, the dark cape, 

        crimsoned with terror that 
        I so hated comforts me now. 
        Thomas is dead; insanity, 
        prison, cowardice, or slow 
        inner capitulation 
        has found us all, and all men 
        turn from us, knowing our pain 
        is not theirs or caused by them.

HENRI BRUETTE: 
from a hospital in Algiers

        Dear Suzanne: this letter will 
        not reach you because I can't 
        write it; I have no pencil, 
        no paper, only the blunt 
        end of my anger. My dear, 
        if I had words how could I 
        report the imperfect failure 
        for which I began to die? 

        I might begin by saying 
        that it was for clarity, 
        though I did not find it in 
        terror: dubiously 
        entered each act, unsure 
        of who I was and what I 
        did, touching my face for fear 
        I was another inside 

        my head I played back pictures 
        of my childhood, of my wife 
        even, for it was in her 
        I found myself beaten, safe, 
        and furthest from the present. 
        It is her face I see now 
        though all I say is meant 
        for you, her face in the slow 

        agony of sexual 
        release. I cannot see you. 
        The dark wall ribbed with spittle 
        on which I play my childhood 
        brings me to this bed, mastered 
        by what I was, betrayed by 
        those I trusted. The one word 
        my mouth must open to is why.

JACK DAUVILLE: 
from a hotel in Tampa, Florida

        From Orleansville we drove 
        south until we reached the hills, 
                 then east until 
        the road stopped. I was nervous 
        and couldn't eat. Thomas took 
        over, told us when to think 
                 and when to shit. 
        We turned north and reached Blida 
        by first dawn and the City 

        by morning, having dumped our 
        weapons beside an empty 
                 road. We were free. 
        We parted, and to this hour 
        I haven't seen them, except 
        in photographs: the black hair 
                 and torn features 
        of Thomas Delain captured 
        a moment before his death 

        on the pages of the world, 
        smeared in the act. I tortured 
                 myself with their 
        betrayal: alone I hurled 
        them into freedom, inner 
        freedom which I can't find 
                 nor ever will 
        until they are dead. In my mind 
        Delain stands against the wall 

        precise in detail, steadied 
        for the betrayal. "La France 
                 C'Est Moi," he cried, 
        but the irony was lost. Since 
        I returned to the U.S. 
        nothing goes well. I stay up 
                 too late, don't sleep, 
        and am losing weight. Thomas, 
        I say, is dead, but what use 

        telling myself what I won't 
        believe. The hotel quiets 
                 early at night, 
        the aged brace themselves for 
        another sleep, and offshore 
        the sea quickens its pace. I 
                 am suddenly 
        old, caught in a strange country 
        for which no man would die.

THOMAS DELAIN: 
from a journal found on his person

        At night wakened by the freight 
        trains boring through the suburbs 
        of Lyon, I watched first light 
        corrode the darkness, disturb 
        what little wildlife was left 
        in the alleys: birds moved from 
        branch to branch, and the dogs leapt 
        at the garbage. Winter numbed 
        even the hearts of the young 
        who had only their hearts. We 
        heard the war coming; the long 
        wait was over, and we moved 
        along the crowded roads south 
        not looking for what lost loves 
        fell by the roadsides. To flee 
        at all cost, that was my youth. 

        Here in the African night 
        wakened by what I do not 
        know and shivering in the heat, 
        listen as the men fight 
        with sleep. Loosed from their weapons 
        they cry out, frightened and young, 
        who have never been children. 
        Once merely to be strong, 
        to live, was moral. Within 
        these uniforms we accept 
        the evil we were chosen 
        to deliver, and no act 
        human or benign can free 
        us from ourselves. Wait, sleep, blind 
        soldiers of a blind will, and 
        listen for that old command 
        dreaming of authority.

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The Negatives - Comments and Information

Poet: Philip Levine
Poem: The Negatives
Volume: On The Edge
Year: Published/Written in 1963
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