Jan. 10, 2002

On My Own

by Philip Levine

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Poem: "On My Own," by Philip Levine from New and Selected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf).

On My Own

Yes, I only got here on my own.
Nothing miraculous. An old woman
opened her door expecting the milk,
and there I was, seven years old, with
a bulging suitcase of wet cardboard
and my hair plastered down and stiff
in the cold. She didn't say, "Come in,"
she didn't say anything. Her luck
has always been bad, so she stood
to one side and let me pass, trailing
the unmistakable aroma of badger
which she mistook for my underwear,
and so she looked upward, not
to heaven but to the cracked ceiling
her husband had promised to mend,
and she sighed for the first time
in my life that sigh which would tell
me what was for dinner. I found my room
and spread my things on the sagging bed:
and bright ties and candy striped shirts,
the knife to cut bread, the stuffed weasel
to guard the window, the silver spoon
to turn my tea, the pack of cigarettes
for the life ahead, and at last
the little collection of worn-out books
from which I would choose my only name—
Morgan the Pirate, Jack Dempsey, the Prince
of Wales. I chose Abraham Plain
and went off to school wearing a cap
that said "Ford" in the right script.
The teachers were soft-spoken women
smelling like washed babies and the students
fierce as lost dogs, but they all hushed
in wonder when I named the 400 angels
of death, the planets sighted and unsighted,
the moment at which creation would turn
to burned feathers and blow every which way
in the winds of shock. I sat down
and the room grew quiet and warm. My eyes
asked me to close them. I did, and so
I discovered the beauty of sleep and that
to get ahead I need only say I was there,
and everything would open as the darkness
in my silent head opened onto seascapes
at the other end of the world, waves
breaking into mountains of froth, the sand
running back to become salt savor
of the infinite. Mrs. Tarbox woke me
for lunch—a tiny container of milk
and chocolate cookies in the shape of Michigan.
Of course I went home at 3:30, with
the bells ringing behind me and four stars
in my notebook and drinking companions
on each arm. If you had been there
in your yellow harness and bright hat
directing traffic you would never
have noticed me—my clothes shabby
and my eyes bright—; to you I'd have been
just an ordinary kid. Sure, now you
know, now it's obvious, what with the light
of the Lord streaming through the nine
windows of my soul and the music of rain
following in my wake and the ordinary air
on fire every blessed day I waken the world.

It's the birthday of poet Philip Levine, born in Detroit, Michigan (1928).

It's the birthday of American historian Dumas Malone, born in Coldwater, Mississippi (1892), remembered for his six-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson and His Time, which came out between 1948 and 1981. The biography was recently selected as one of the hundred greatest nonfiction books of the 20th century by the Modern Library.

It's the birthday of the American poet Robinson Jeffers, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1887), the son of a theologian. He entered medical school at the age of 19, but dropped out; he went to the School of Forestry at the University of Washington, in Seattle, but scrapped that, too, after less than a year. Then he went to California, where he got married and published his first volume of poetry, Flagons and Apples (1912). He built himself a tower in Carmel, where he lived the rest of his life.

On this day in 1863, the world's first underground passenger train opened in London: the Metropolitan Line. Before the line opened, The Times of London wrote: "It is an insult to common sense to suppose that people would ever prefer to be driven amid palpable darkness through the foul subsoil of London." Nevertheless, the new London Underground was an immediate success.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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