Detroit, Tomorrow

By Philip Levine b. 1928 Philip Levine
Newspaper says the boy killed by someone,   
don’t say who. I know the mother, waking,   
gets up as usual, washes her face
in cold water, and starts the coffee pot.

She stands by the window up there on floor   
sixteen wondering why the street’s so calm   
with no cars going or coming, and then
she looks at the wall clock and sees the time.

Now she’s too awake to go back to bed,   
she’s too awake not to remember him,
her one son, or to forget exactly
how long yesterday was, each moment dragged

into the next by the force of her will   
until she thought this simply cannot be.   
She sits at the scarred, white kitchen table,   
the two black windows staring back at her,

wondering how she’ll go back to work today.   
The windows don’t see anything: they’re black,   
eyeless, they give back only what’s given;   
sometimes, like now, even less than what’s given,

yet she stares into their two black faces   
moving her head from side to side, like this,   
just like I’m doing now. Try it awhile,   
go ahead, it’s not going to kill you.

Now say something, it doesn’t matter what   
you say because all the words are useless:   
“I’m sorry for your loss.” “This too will pass.”
“He was who he was.” She won’t hear you out

because she can only hear the torn words   
she uses to pray to die. This afternoon   
you and I will see her just before four   
alight nimbly from the bus, her lunch box

of one sandwich, a thermos of coffee,
a navel orange secured under her arm,
and we’ll look away. Under your breath make   
her one promise and keep it forever:

in the little store-front church down the block,   
the one with the front windows newspapered,   
you won’t come on Saturday or Sunday   
to kneel down and pray for life eternal.

Phillip Levine, “Detroit, Tomorrow” from Poetry (April 1999). Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Poetry (April 1999).

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This poem originally appeared in the April 1999 issue of Poetry magazine

April 1999
 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 Crime & Punishment, Living, Cities & Urban Life, Social Commentaries, Time & Brevity, Death, Parenthood

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