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More poems by Philip LevinePhilip Levine | Print this page.Print | View and Write CommentsComments | Books by Philip LevineBooks by Philip Levine

Magpiety

Philip Levine

You pull over to the shoulder
         of the two-lane
road and sit for a moment wondering
         where you were going
in such a hurry. The valley is burned
         out, the oaks
dream day and night of rain
         that never comes.
At noon or just before noon
         the short shadows
are gray and hold what little
         life survives.
In the still heat the engine
         clicks, although
the real heat is hours ahead.
         You get out and step
cautiously over a low wire
         fence and begin
the climb up the yellowed hill.
         A hundred feet
ahead the trunks of two
         fallen oaks
rust; something passes over
         them, a lizard
perhaps or a trick of sight.
         The next tree
you pass is unfamiliar,
         the trunk dark,
as black as an olive's; the low
         branches stab
out, gnarled and dull: a carob
         or a Joshua tree.
A sudden flaring-up ahead,
         a black-winged
bird rises from nowhere,
         white patches
underneath its wings, and is gone.
         You hear your own
breath catching in your ears,
         a roaring, a sea
sound that goes on and on
         until you lean
forward to place both hands
        -- fingers spread --
into the bleached grasses
         and let your knees
slowly down. Your breath slows
         and you know
you're back in central
         California
on your way to San Francisco
         or the coastal towns
with their damp sea breezes
         you haven't
even a hint of. But first
         you must cross
the Pacheco Pass. People
         expect you, and yet
you remain, still leaning forward
         into the grasses
that if you could hear them
         would tell you
all you need to know about
         the life ahead. 
        
        

. . .

Out of a sense of modesty or to avoid the truth I've been writing in the second person, but in truth it was I, not you, who pulled the green Ford over to the side of the road and decided to get up that last hill to look back at the valley he'd come to call home. I can't believe that man, only thirty-two, less than half my age, could be the person fashioning these lines. That was late July of '60. I had heard all about magpies, how they snooped and meddled in the affairs of others, not birds so much as people. If you dared to remove a wedding ring as you washed away the stickiness of love or the cherished odors of another man or woman, as you turned away from the mirror having admired your new-found potency -- humming "My Funny Valentine" or "Body and Soul" -- to reach for a rough towel or some garment on which to dry yourself, he would enter the open window behind you that gave gratefully onto the fields and the roads bathed in dawn -- he, the magpie -- and snatch up the ring in his hard beak and shoulder his way back into the currents of the world on his way to the only person who could change your life: a king or a bride or an old woman asleep on her porch.

. . .

Can you believe the bird stood beside you just long enough, though far smaller than you but fearless in a way a man or woman could never be? An apparition with two dark and urgent eyes and motions so quick and precise they were barely motions at all? When he was gone you turned, alarmed by the rustling of oily feathers and the curious pungency, and were sure you'd heard him say the words that could explain the meaning of blond grasses burning on a hillside beneath the hands of a man in the middle of his life caught in the posture of prayer. I'd heard that a magpie could talk, so I waited for the words, knowing without the least doubt what he'd do, for up ahead an old woman waited on her wide front porch. My children behind her house played in a silted pond poking sticks at the slow carp that flashed in the fallen sunlight. You are thirty-two only once in your life, and though July comes too quickly, you pray for the overbearing heat to pass. It does, and the year turns before it holds still for even a moment. Beyond the last carob or Joshua tree the magpie flashes his sudden wings; a second flames and vanishes into the pale blue air. July 23, 1960. I lean down closer to hear the burned grasses whisper all I need to know. The words rise around me, separate and finite. A yellow dust rises and stops caught in the noon's driving light. Three ants pass across the back of my reddened right hand. Everything is speaking or singing. We're still here.

Added: 25 Feb 2002 | Last Read: 20 Jan 2018 6:05 PM | Viewed: 4140 times

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URL: http://plagiarist.com/poetry/2913/ | Viewed on 20 January 2018.
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