On 52nd Street, by Philip Levine

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.

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A Story, by Philip Levine

Everyone loves a story. Let’s begin with a house.

We can fill it with careful rooms and fill the rooms

with things—tables, chairs, cupboards, drawers

closed to hide tiny beds where children once slept

or big drawers that yawn open to reveal

precisely folded garments washed half to death,

unsoiled, stale, and waiting to be worn out.

There must be a kitchen, and the kitchen

must have a stove, perhaps a big iron one

with a fat black pipe that vanishes into the ceiling

to reach the sky and exhale its smells and collusions.

This was the center of whatever family life

was here, this and the sink gone yellow

around the drain where the water, dirty or pure,

ran off with no explanation, somehow like the point

of this, the story we promised and may yet deliver.

Make no mistake, a family was here. You see

the path worn into the linoleum where the wood,

gray and certainly pine, shows through.

Father stood there in the middle of his life

to call to the heavens he imagined above the roof

must surely be listening. When no one answered

you can see where his heel came down again

and again, even though he’d been taught

never to demand. Not that life was especially cruel;

they had well water they pumped at first,

a stove that gave heat, a mother who stood

at the sink at all hours and gazed longingly

to where the woods once held the voices

of small bears—themselves a family—and the songs

of birds long fled once the deep woods surrendered

one tree at a time after the workmen arrived

with jugs of hot coffee. The worn spot on the sill

is where Mother rested her head when no one saw,

those two stained ridges were handholds

she relied on; they never let her down.

Where is she now? You think you have a right

to know everything? The children tiny enough

to inhabit cupboards, large enough to have rooms

of their own and to abandon them, the father

with his right hand raised against the sky?

If those questions are too personal, then tell us,

where are the woods? They had to have been

because the continent was clothed in trees.

We all read that in school and knew it to be true.

Yet all we see are houses, rows and rows

of houses as far as sight, and where sight vanishes

into nothing, into the new world no one has seen,

there has to be more than dust, wind-borne particles

of burning earth, the earth we lost, and nothing else.