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Philip Levine - The Present

The day comes slowly in the railyard 
behind the ice factory. It broods on 
one cinder after another until each 
glows like lead or the eye of a dog 
possessed of no inner fire, the brown 
and greasy pointer who raises his muzzle 
a moment and sighing lets it thud 
down on the loading dock. In no time 
the day has crossed two sets of tracks, 
a semi-trailer with no tractor, and crawled 
down three stories of the bottling plant 
at the end of the alley. It is now 
less than five hours until mid-day 
when nothing will be left in doubt, 
each scrap of news, each banished carton, 
each forgotten letter, its ink bled of lies, 
will stare back at the one eye that sees 
it all and never blinks. But for now 
there is water settling in a clean glass 
on the shelf beside the razor, the slap 
of bare feet on the floor above. Soon 
the scent of rivers borne across roof 
after roof by winds without names, 
the aroma of opened beds better left 
closed, of mouths without teeth, of light 
rustling among the mice droppings 
at the back of a bin of potatoes. 

* 

The old man who sleeps among the cases 
of empty bottles in a little nest of rags 
and newspapers at the back of the plant 
is not an old man. He is twenty years 
younger than I am now putting this down 
in permanent ink on a yellow legal pad 
during a crisp morning in October. 
When he fell from a high pallet, his sleeve 
caught on a nail and spread his arms 
like a figure out of myth. His head 
tore open on a spear of wood, and he 
swore in French. No, he didn't want 
a doctor. He wanted toilet paper 
and a drink, which were fetched. He used 
the tiny bottle of whisky to straighten 
out his eyes and the toilet paper to clean 
his pants, fouled in the fall, and he did 
both with seven teenage boys looking on 
in wonder and fear. At last the blood 
slowed and caked above his ear, and he 
never once touched the wound. Instead, 
in a voice no one could hear, he spoke 
to himself, probably in French, and smoked 
sitting back against a pallet, his legs 
thrust out on the damp cement floor. 

* 

In his white coveralls, crisp and pressed, 
Teddy the Polack told us a fat tit 
would stop a toothache, two a headache. 
He told it to anyone who asked, and grinned -- 
the small eyes watering at the corners -- 
as Alcibiades might have grinned 
when at last he learned that love leads 
even the body beloved to a moment 
in the present when desire calms, the skin 
glows, the soul takes the light of day, 
even a working day in 1944. 
For Baharozian at seventeen the present 
was a gift. Seeing my ashen face, 
the cold sweats starting, he seated me 
in a corner of the boxcar and did 
both our jobs, stacking the full cases 
neatly row upon row and whistling 
the songs of Kate Smith. In the bathroom 
that night I posed naked before the mirror, 
the new cross of hair staining my chest, 
plunging to my groin. That was Wednesday, 
for every Wednesday ended in darkness. 

* 

One of those teenage boys was my brother. 
That night as we lay in bed, the lights 
out, we spoke of Froggy, of how at first 
we thought he would die and how little 
he seemed to care as the blood rose 
to fill and overflow his ear. Slowly 
the long day came over us and our breath 
quieted and eased at last, and we slept. 
When I close my eyes now his bare legs 
glow before me again, pure and lovely 
in their perfect whiteness, the buttocks 
dimpled and firm. I see again the rope 
of his sex, unwrinkled, flushed and swaying, 
the hard flat belly as he raises his shirt 
to clean himself. He gazes at no one 
or nothing, but seems instead to look off 
into a darkness I hadn't seen, a pool 
of shadow that forms before his eyes, 
in my memory now as solid as onyx. 

* 

I began this poem in the present 
because nothing is past. The ice factory, 
the bottling plant, the cindered yard 
all gave way to a low brick building 
a block wide and windowless where they 
designed gun mounts for personnel carriers 
that never made it to Korea. My brother 
rises early, and on clear days he walks 
to the corner to have toast and coffee. 
Seventeen winters have melted into an earth 
of stone, bottle caps, and old iron to carry 
off the hard remains of Froggy Frenchman 
without a blessing or a stone to bear it. 
A little spar of him the size of a finger, 
pointed and speckled as though blood-flaked, 
washed ashore from Lake Erie near Buffalo 
before the rest slipped down the falls out 
into the St. Lawrence. He could be at sea, 
he could be part of an ocean, by now 
he could even be home. This morning I 
rose later than usual in a great house 
full of sunlight, but I believe it came 
down step by step on each wet sheet 
of wooden siding before it crawled 
from the ceiling and touched my pillow 
to waken me. When I heave myself 
out of this chair with a great groan of age 
and stand shakily, the three mice still 
in the wall. From across the lots 
the wind brings voices I can't make out, 
scraps of song or sea sounds, daylight 
breaking into dust, the perfume of waiting 
rain, of onions and potatoes frying.

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Poet: Philip Levine
Poem: The Present
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