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Keats in California

by Philip Levine


The wisteria has come and gone, the plum trees
have burned like candles in the cup of earth,
the almond has shed its pure blossoms
in a soft ring around the trunk. Iris,
rose, tulip, hillsides of poppy and lupin,
gorse, wild mustard, California is blazing
in the foolish winds of April. I have been
reading Keats—the poems, the letters, the life—
for the first time in my 59th year, and I
have been watching television after dinner
as though it could bring me some obscure,
distant sign of hope. This morning I rose
late to the soft light off the eucalyptus
and the overbearing odor of orange blossoms.
The trees will give another year. They are giving.
The few, petty clouds will blow away
before noon, and we will have sunshine
without fault, china blue skies, and the bees
gathering to splatter their little honey dots
on my windshield. If I drive to the foothills
I can see fields of wildflowers on fire until
I have to look away from so much life.
I could ask myself, Have I made a Soul
today, have I sucked at the teat of the Heart
flooded with the experience of a world like ours?
Have I become a man one more time? At twenty
it made sense. I put down The Collected Poems,
left the reserve room of the Wayne library
to wander the streets of Detroit under a gray
soiled sky. It was spring there too, and the bells
rang at noon. The out-patients from Harper
waited timidly under the great stone cross
of the Presbyterian church for the trolly
on Woodward Avenue, their pinched faces flushed
with terror. The black tower tilted in the wind
as though it too were coming down. It made sense.
Before dark I’ll feel the lassitude enter
first my arms and legs and spread like water
toward the deep organs. I’ll lie on my bed
hearing the quail bark as they scurry from
cover to cover in their restless searching
after sustenance. This place can break your heart.

 

Philip Levine’s next book, The Mercy, will be pubished by Alfred A. Knopf in April, 1999. (1999)

 


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