Remembering Phil Levine
There were times when it seemed to me even you
could almost believe something out there was waiting.
Something you called massive, irrational, yet so
powerful even the mountains had no word for it.
No, you weren’t crazy, as you liked to say. Sly, yes,
as always, but far from crazy. How often you had me
laughing so hard I had to beg you (to no avail, of course)
to please stop so I could catch my breath again.
But then, Phil, that was you. How lucky to know you,
from when we taught together up at Bread Loaf those
late summers, you talking about your brilliant teacher, John
Berryman. Or you up at the lectern, your words like lightning
as you recalled those years hauling furniture up flights
of rickety stairs for some old couple, or working those
punch presses in Detroit. Or those years teaching at Fresno,
where you transformed the lives of so many students.
Or the two of us strolling through that SoHo gallery with those
black and white photos of Spain’s anarchists your friends
fought alongside back then, some never coming back home.
Your words for Ascaso, a man of stone resting now among those stones.
Or those long talks when you taught down in New York, living in that
high rise Village apartment with Franny, you reciting “Do Not Go
Gently into That Good Night,” the whole poem by heart,
in a way that could turn even an agnostic into a believer.
Or your time on Brooklyn’s Willow Street, as we strolled south
along the darkening East River, and I kept recalling that
tenement and first home on East 51st. Still, this was Hart
Crane’s world, the one he transformed from gray grit
into a paradise I could almost believe in, as we gazed on
Lady Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge and dusk descended
that autumn night and you stopped a couple of young
Brits and asked them to take a picture of the two of us.
Or that last meal we had together with dear Franny
at some Polish restaurant you both loved a few blocks over.
Then, as we finished, me saying it was time we got the bill
and you saying, no, it was time for me to get the bill.
Then the three of us walking to the subway under
the streetlights as I headed back into Manhattan that night,
you jabbing me with those one-liners, and you grabbed
my arm, as if this might well be our last time together.
And then that final call to Fresno as Franny held the phone
to your ear, you trying to joke, and my one good ear failing
me again, so that I couldn’t make out your words, and whispered
goodbye, as now I wait to laugh with you across that great divide.
From All That Will Be New: Poems (Slant Books, 2022) by Paul Mariani. Copyright © 2022 by Paul Mariani. Used with the permission of the author.