Call It Music

By Philip Levine 1928–2015 Philip Levine
Some days I catch a rhythm, almost a song   
in my own breath. I'm alone here   
in Brooklyn Heights, late morning, the sky   
above the St. George Hotel clear, clear   
for New York, that is. The radio playing   
"Bird Flight," Parker in his California   
tragic voice fifty years ago, his faltering   
"Lover Man" just before he crashed into chaos.   
I would guess that outside the recording studio   
in Burbank the sun was high above the jacarandas,   
it was late March, the worst of yesterday's rain   
had come and gone, the sky washed blue. Bird   
could have seen for miles if he'd looked, but what   
he saw was so foreign he clenched his eyes,   
shook his head, and barked like a dog—just once—   
and then Howard McGhee took his arm and assured him   
he'd be OK. I know this because Howard told me   
years later that he thought Bird could   
lie down in the hotel room they shared, sleep   
for an hour or more, and waken as himself.   
The perfect sunlight angles into my little room   
above Willow Street. I listen to my breath   
come and go and try to catch its curious taste,   
part milk, part iron, part blood, as it passes   
from me into the world. This is not me,   
this is automatic, this entering and exiting,   
my body's essential occupation without which   
I am a thing. The whole process has a name,   
a word I don't know, an elegant word not   
in English or Yiddish or Spanish, a word   
that means nothing to me. Howard truly believed   
what he said that day when he steered   
Parker into a cab and drove the silent miles   
beside him while the bright world   
unfurled around them: filling stations, stands   
of fruits and vegetables, a kiosk selling trinkets   
from Mexico and the Philippines. It was all   
so actual and Western, it was a new creation   
coming into being, like the music of Charlie Parker   
someone later called "glad," though that day   
I would have said silent, "the silent music   
of Charlie Parker." Howard said nothing.   
He paid the driver and helped Bird up two flights   
to their room, got his boots off, and went out   
to let him sleep as the afternoon entered   
the history of darkness. I'm not judging   
Howard, he did better than I could have   
now or then. Then I was 19, working   
on the loading docks at Railway Express,   
coming day by day into the damaged body   
of a man while I sang into the filthy air   
the Yiddish drinking songs my Zadie taught me   
before his breath failed. Now Howard is gone,   
eleven long years gone, the sweet voice silenced.   
"The subtle bridge between Eldridge and Navarro,"   
they later wrote, all that rising passion   
a footnote to others. I remember in '85   
walking the halls of Cass Tech, the high school   
where he taught after his performing days,   
when suddenly he took my left hand in his   
two hands to tell me it all worked out   
for the best. Maybe he'd gotten religion,   
maybe he knew how little time was left,   
maybe that day he was just worn down   
by my questions about Parker. To him Bird   
was truly Charlie Parker, a man, a silent note   
going out forever on the breath of genius   
which now I hear soaring above my own breath   
as this bright morning fades into afternoon.   
Music, I'll call it music. It's what we need   
as the sun staggers behind the low gray clouds   
blowing relentlessly in from that nameless ocean,   
the calm and endless one I've still to cross.

Source: Poetry (September 2000).


This poem originally appeared in the September 2000 issue of Poetry magazine

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September 2000
 Philip  Levine


Philip Levine was one of the leading poetic voices of his generation, “a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland,” according to Edward Hirsch. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Levine was born and raised in industrial Detroit, where he began working in the auto factories at the age of 14. 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 . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Growing Old, Friends & Enemies, Music, Arts & Sciences, Relationships, Living

POET’S REGION U.S., Midwestern

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