On 52nd Street

Philip Levine - 1928-2015
Down sat Bud, raised his hands, 
the Deuces silenced, the lights
lowered, and breath gathered
for the coming storm. Then nothing,
not a single note. Outside starlight
from heaven fell unseen, a quarter-
moon, promised, was no show,
ditto the rain. Late August of '50,
NYC, the long summer of abundance
and our new war. In the mirror behind
the bar, the spirits—imitating you—
stared at themselves. At the bar
the tenor player up from Philly, shut
his eyes and whispered to no one,
"Same thing last night." Everyone
been coming all week long
to hear this. The big brown bass
sighed and slumped against
the piano, the cymbals held
their dry cheeks and stopped
chicking and chucking. You went
back to drinking and ignored
the unignorable. When the door
swung open it was Pettiford
in work clothes, midnight suit,
starched shirt, narrow black tie,
spit shined shoes, as ready
as he'd ever be. Eyebrows
raised, the Irish bartender
shook his head, so Pettiford eased 
himself down at an empty table,
closed up his Herald Tribune,
and shook his head. Did the TV
come on, did the jukebox bring us
Dinah Washington, did the stars
keep their appointments, did the moon
show, quartered or full, sprinkling
its soft light down? The night's
still there, just where it was, just
where it'll always be without
its music. You're still there too
holding your breath. Bud walked out. 

More by Philip Levine

Coming Close

Take this quiet woman, she has been
standing before a polishing wheel
for over three hours, and she lacks
twenty minutes before she can take
a lunch break. Is she a woman?
Consider the arms as they press
the long brass tube against the buffer,
they are striated along the triceps,
the three heads of which clearly show.
Consider the fine dusting of dark down
above the upper lip, and the beads
of sweat that run from under the red
kerchief across the brow and are wiped
away with a blackening wrist band
in one odd motion a child might make
to say No! No! You must come closer
to find out, you must hang your tie
and jacket in one of the lockers
in favor of a black smock, you must
be prepared to spend shift after shift
hauling off the metal trays of stock,
bowing first, knees bent for a purchase, 
then lifting with a gasp, the first word 
of tenderness between the two of you,
then you must bring new trays of dull
unpolished tubes. You must feed her,
as they say in the language of the place.
Make no mistake, the place has a language,
and if by some luck the power were cut,
the wheel slowed to a stop so that you
suddenly saw it was not a solid object
but so many separate bristles forming
in motion a perfect circle, she would turn
to you and say, "Why?" Not the old why
of why must I spend five nights a week?
Just, "Why?" Even if by some magic 
you knew, you wouldn't dare speak
for fear of her laughter, which now
you have anyway as she places the five
tapering fingers of her filthy hand
on the arm of your white shirt to mark
you for your own, now and forever.

Gospel

The new grass rising in the hills,
the cows loitering in the morning chill,
a dozen or more old browns hidden
in the shadows of the cottonwoods
beside the streambed. I go higher
to where the road gives up and there's
only a faint path strewn with lupine
between the mountain oaks. I don't
ask myself what I'm looking for.
I didn't come for answers
to a place like this, I came to walk
on the earth, still cold, still silent.
Still ungiving, I've said to myself,
although it greets me with last year's
dead thistles and this year's 
hard spines, early blooming
wild onions, the curling remains
of spider's cloth. What did I bring 
to the dance? In my back pocket
a crushed letter from a woman
I've never met bearing bad news
I can do nothing about. So I wander
these woods half sightless while
a west wind picks up in the trees
clustered above. The pines make
a music like no other, rising and 
falling like a distant surf at night
that calms the darkness before 
first light. "Soughing" we call it, from
Old English, no less. How weightless
words are when nothing will do.