Friday, January 18, 2008

"My Father with Cigarette Twelve Years Before the Nazis Could Break His Heart" (poem) by Philip Levine

I remember the room in which he held 
a kitchen match and with his thumbnail 
commanded it to flame: a brown sofa, 
two easy chairs, one covered with flowers, 
a black piano no one ever played half 
covered by a long-fringed ornamental scarf 
Ray Estrada brought back from Mexico 
in 1931. How new the world is, you say. 
In that room someone is speaking about money, 
asking why it matters, and my father exhales 
the blue smoke, and says a million dollars 
even in large bills would be impossible. 
He's telling me because, I see now, I'm 
the one who asked, for I dream of money, 
always coins and bills that run through my hands, 
money I find in the corners of unknown rooms 
or in metal boxes I dig up in the backyard 
flower beds of houses I've never seen. 
My father rises now and goes to the closet. 
It's as though someone were directing a play 
and my father's part called for him to stand 
so that the audience, which must be you, 
could see him in white shirt, dark trousers, 
held up by suspenders, a sign of the times, 
and conclude he is taller than his son 
will ever be, and as he dips into his jacket, 
you'll know his role calls for him to exit 
by the front door, leaving something 
unfinished, the closet light still on, 
the cigarette still burning dangerously, 
a Yiddish paper folded to the right place 
so that a photograph of Hindenburg 
in full military regalia swims up 
to you out of all the details we lived. 
I remember the way the match flared 
blue and yellow in the deepening light 
of a cool afternoon in early September, 
and the sound, part iron, part animal, 
part music, as the air rushed toward it 
out of my mouth, and his intake of breath 
through the Lucky Strike, and the smoke 
hanging on after the door closed and the play 
ran out of acts and actors, and the audience -- 
which must be you -- grew tired of these lives 
that finally came to nothing or no more 
than the furniture and the cotton drapes 
left open so the darkening sky can seem 
to have the last word, with half a moon 
and a showering of fake stars to say what 
the stars always say about the ordinary. 
Oh, you're still here, 60 years later, 
you wonder what became of us, why 
someone put it in a book, and left 
the book open to a page no one reads. 
Everything tells you he never came back, 
though he did before he didn't, everything 
suggests it was the year Hitler came 
to power, the year my grandmother learned 
to read English novels and fell in love 
with David Copperfield and Oliver Twist
which she read to me seated on a stool 
beside my bed until I fell asleep. 
Everything tells you this is a preface 
to something important, the Second World War, 
the news that leaked back from Poland 
that the villages were gone. The truth is -- 
if there is a truth -- I remember the room, 
I remember the flame, the blue smoke, 
how bright and slippery were the secret coins, 
how David Copperfield doubted his own name, 
how sweet the stars seemed, peeping and blinking, 
how close the moon, how utterly silent the piano. 


  1. Anonymous5:17 PM

    stupid poem; wish someone could explain the true meaning of this because I don't see the connection to WWII!

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      Philip Levine is one of the most brilliant poets writing in the US today; just because you can't see the connection doesn't mean the poem is "stupid." Rather, you haven't taken the time to understand the connection. This poem is deeply complex and reflects on the poet's family in the context of the times he lived in.

    2. Just be careful, because with Philip Levine, the poems are rarely about his ACTUAL family and more about a family, a father, a set of relationships. Here's how he put it in a 1994 interview after A Simple Truth (the book) came out:

      Yes, exactly. Not only my family, but also the relatives I didn’t have that I should have had. I know that sounds nuts. But, I’m not a confessional poet. And I’m very uneasy with the idea of exposing my family too openly. Especially when they don’t look good or when I have very private knowledge which was given to me in trust. I’ll want to get it into a poem but I don’t want to reveal it. So, there is a lot of invention. For example, this book has two poems written to sisters. I read one I’d just written, “Listen Carefully, “ at the University of Minnesota. The speaker in the poem and his sister sleep in the same bed although they are not lovers. But, you don’t know that exactly. Even when the poem is done, you’re still not sure. A woman in the audience of about 100 creative writing students, asked, “Would you publish that poem?” I said, “Sure, why?” She said, “What if your sister picks it up and reads it?” I said, “That can’t happen.” She asked, “Why not?” I said, “I don’t have a sister.” And she said, “You don’t have a sister? You just wrote a poem about your sister.” I said, “No, I didn’t. I wrote a poem about a man and his sister.”

  2. well, even without words from M, I am here bc I searched for this poem in digital form; and I have copied it, bc I think it is one of Levine's best. Thank you for bringing it to this page, M, perhaps for the same reason.
    I found the poem in The Simple Truth; now I don't have to copy it by typing. In return, may I offer a comment by Neil Aitkin, who cited this as one of his own favorite poems about a Father:

      "I think the figure of the father is an important one to many of us.  Many of my favorite poems revolve around the father.  The father as foil.  As counterpart.  As template.  As warning.  As authority.  As loss.  Fathers are often fixed points, what we measure ourselves against, the poles to which we find ourselves tethered to and which we strain to break free.  Sometimes the father is an anchor.  Sometimes the father is a mirage.  A ghost.  A myth we tell ourselves.  The father is many things at once.  For me, often my father was home."  
    ~ Neil Aitkin, Boxcar Poetry Review