Campbell Corner Language Exchange

The Poetry of Phillis Levin

Two Poems



from Mercury (Penguin, 2001)



A vial of it: dusty, warm
From being held so long
in my hand; the little cork that fit

So well, the cap I would undo
In secret, sprawling on the floor
Of the basement, after Chekhov

Or Kafka, or glancing in horror
At the old vermilion volume
On Chinese Torture, or savoring

The sage-green suede
Of the Rubaiyat, before I ever
Got to Freud. The same dust

Covered the Harvard Classics,
Uniform in their jackets,
Their leather dry and glossy,

While the glass vial beckoned
With its mysterious fluid
That could bifurcate and scatter,

Rolling, puddling, pooling,
Some dots escaping
Into cracks in the linoleum,

But most of them retrieved,
Succumbing to each other
As I gather them together

With the slightest pressure,
The liquid growing dimmer
Each time it was restored,

Its ratio of loss too minor,
Too gradual, for father
To suspect what I had done.

Why was it there, hiding
On his desk behind a pipe
With the face of Mephistopheles?

What experiment forgotten,
Abandoned, untried, what badge
Of glory or failure did it signify,

That small, heavy vial
Whose promise was a murky
Wave of buoyancy, an innocence

Of having, of breaking,
Creating without consequence
Droplets forsaking

The sea whence they came
Without a seam, or cry of protest,
Or any sound of severance

At the source, the minuscule
Remainder a reminder of the refusal
To be destroyed, the singularity

Or every silver bead that briefly
Lived apart from the whole
Before merging and returning

To the vessel I would hold
And shake and spill, and finally
Refill, in a ritual

Of parting, pouring being into
Being, pondering its nature
In the open field of my hand,

My limited supply of a substance
Infinite in its divisibility
And equally indivisible,

An unborn mass of matter
Immortal and mute as the sleeping
Figure eight (not a number,

Really, but the god of numbers)
That father drew on paper,
Never closed so never ending,

Though once he said to me
In the morning, just as the light
Began to swim through my shade,

Do you think I will always be here?--
As if he were unlocking a door
between us; and what could I say,

Either way it was unspeakable,
And how could he know
His question altered everything,

That the earth began to change
As the thought os his being no more
Took root, dividing him

From me, from the sky I appealed to,
Unanswered: O god of alchemy
And currency, patron of traders,

Travellers, and thieves, inventor
Of the lyre, master of dreams,
Leader of the Graces, bearer

Of the message that tears
Odysseus from Circe, Aeneas
From Dido, guardian of the departed,

Do not quicken my heart with hope
Anymore, but if you do remember
That I, like the metal you give

Your name to, rejoin if pulled asunder.


                for Elfie Raymond

                                                  If it were not so bright,
                                                  Not so dark;
                                     If there had been another hour,

         Another storm,
                     Something to keep track of
                                 Or something to hold at bay;

         If there had been no bird
   On the barest tree,
                       With one bitter crumb in its mouth,

                         One little speck;
              If the honey surrounding that crumb
                         Had not been sweet,

If the evening had been less silent,
                          Humming one note
      Without leaving any name,

                                    Calling me to a field whose sickle moon
                     Made it clear
                                        That nothing would speak;

                             If the way to the field
                                                       Had been less glorious,
                                   A drop of dew beside a milkweed seed,

A ladybug scampering toward light,
                     And flowers on fire
Swaying among tall grasses -

                         A river of paper lanterns at dawn;
                                             If the current did not carry
                                                             The scent of cyclamen,

                                                  Wild as grief  
                         Spilling its horn of plenty,
Outlasting the final kiss of day.