During the War

By Philip Levine b. 1928 Philip Levine
When my brother came home from war
he carried his left arm in a black sling
but assured us most of it was still there.
Spring was late, the trees forgot to leaf out.

I stood in a long line waiting for bread.
The woman behind me said it was shameless,
someone as strong as I still home, still intact
while her Michael was burning to death.

Yes, she could feel the fire, could smell
his pain all the way from Tarawa–
or was it Midway?–and he so young,
younger than I, who was only fourteen,

taller, more handsome in his white uniform
turning slowly gray the way unprimed wood
grays slowly in the grate when the flames
sputter and die. “I think I’m going mad,”

she said when I turned to face her. She placed
both hands on my shoulders, kissed each eyelid,
hugged me to her breasts and whispered wetly
in my bad ear words I’d never heard before.

When I got home my brother ate the bread
carefully one slice at a time until
nothing was left but a blank plate. “Did you see her,”
he asked, “the woman in hell, Michael’s wife?”

That afternoon I walked the crowded streets
looking for something I couldn’t name,
something familiar, a face or a voice or less,
but not these shards of ash that fell from heaven.

“During the War” by Philip Levine, copyright by Philip Levine 2007. Used by permission of Philip Levine.

Source: The New Yorker (Self-published, 2006)

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Poet Philip Levine b. 1928

Subjects War & Conflict, Living, Sorrow & Grieving, Social Commentaries

 Philip  Levine


“A large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland” according to Edward Hirsch in the New York Times Book Review, Philip Levine is one of the elder statesmen of contemporary American poetry. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Levine was born and raised in industrial Detroit. As a young boy in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s, he was fascinated by the events of the Spanish Civil War. His heroes were not only . . .

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SUBJECT War & Conflict, Living, Sorrow & Grieving, Social Commentaries

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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