The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Philip Levine, one of our great poets, died at age 87 yesterday. I discovered his work many years ago, when I was just beginning to explore modern American poetry, and, for my money at least, he was one of the real giants of the art. His poems have a kind of simple power that frequently reaches real transcendence, and they are deeply and nakedly autobiographical – having read most of his published work, I feel like I know a great deal about his life and he's like an old friend – without the nasty combination of self-love and self-pity that accompanies so much autobiographical poetry. If you're unfamiliar with him, or with his work, his collection The Simple Truth is a wonderful place to start – I've reproduced the title poem below; I also have a special place in my heart (as should all good Jeffersonians) for his wonderful A Walk with Tom Jefferson. He'll be missed.
The Simple Truth
I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks I overheard the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. "Eat, eat," she said,
"Even if you don't I'll say you did."
Some things you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I'm saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.