How to Get There

By Philip Levine b. 1928 Philip Levine
Turn left off Henry onto Middagh Street
     to see our famous firehouse, home
          of Engine 205 and

Hook & Ladder 118 and home also to
     the mythic painting “Fire under
          the Bridge” decorating

the corrugated sliding door. The painting
     depicts a giant American flag
          wrinkled by wind   

and dwarfing the famous Brooklyn Bridge
     as it stretches as best it can
          to get a purchase

on Manhattan. In the distance a few dismal
     towers and beyond the towers
          still another river.
          
A little deal table holds a tiny American
     flag—like the one Foreman held
          as he bowed to

receive gold at the ’68 Olympics in Mexico
     City—; this actual flag is rooted in
          a can of hothouse

roses going brown at the edges and beginning
     to shed. There’s a metal collection
          box bearing the

names of those lost during the recent burnings.
     Should you stop to shake the box—
          which is none

of your business—you’ll hear only a whisper.
     Perhaps the donations are all
          hush money,

ones, fives, tens, twenties, or more likely
     there are IOUs and the heart
          of Brooklyn

has gone cold from so much asking.
     Down the block and across
          the street, a man

sleeps on the sidewalk, an ordinary
     man, somehow utterly spent,
          he sleeps through

all the usual sounds of a Brooklyn noon.
     Beside him a dog, a terrier,
          its muzzle resting

on crossed paws, its brown eyes wide
     and intelligent. Between man
          and dog sits

a take-out coffee cup meant to receive,
     next to it a picture of Jesus—
          actually
    
a digital, color photograph of the Lord
     in his prime, robed and
          though bearded
    
impossibly young and athletic, and—
     as always—alone. “Give
          what you can,”  

says a hand-lettered cardboard sign
     to all who pass. If you stand
          there long enough

without giving or receiving the shabby,
     little terrier will close his eyes.
          If you stand

there long enough the air will thicken
     with dusk and dust and exhaust
          and finally with

a starless dark. The day will become something
     it’s never been before, something for
          which I have no name.

Source: Poetry (February 2012).

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This poem originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Poetry magazine

February 2012
 Philip  Levine

Biography

“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 . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Social Commentaries, Cities & Urban Life, Class

Poetic Terms Free Verse

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