(My Poetry Thursday poem is here.)
My sister rises from our bed hours before dawn.
I smell her first cigarette and fall back asleep
until she sits on the foot of the bed to pull
on her boots. I shouldn't look, but I do,
knowing she's still naked from the waist up.
She sees me looking and smiles, musses my hair,
whispers something secret into my ear, something
I can't tell anyone because it makes no sense.
Hours later I waken in an empty room
smelling of no yesterdays. The sunlight streams
across the foot of the bed, and for a moment
I actually think it's Saturday, and I'm free.
Let me be frank about this: my older sister
is not smart. I answer all her mail for her,
and on Sundays I even make dinner because
the one cookbook confuses her, although
it claims to be the way to a man's heart.
She wants to learn the way, she wants
a husband, she tells me, but at twenty-six she's
beginning to wonder. She makes good money
doing piece work, assembling the cups that cap
the four ends of a cross of a universal joint.
I've seen her at work, her face cut with slashes
of grease while with tweezers she positions
the tiny rods faster than you or I could ever,
her eyes fixed behind goggles, her mind God
knows where, roaming over all the errors
she thinks make her life. She doesn't know why
her men aren't good to her. I've rubbed
hand cream into the bruises on her shoulders,
I've seen what they've done, I've even cried
along with her. By now I believe I know
exactly what you're thinking. Although I don't
get home until after one, we sleep
in the same bed every night, unless she's
not home. If you're thinking there's no way
we wouldn't be driven to each other, no way
we could resist, no way someone as wronged
as my beautiful sister could have a choice
about something so basic, then you're
the one who's wrong. You haven't heard a word.
Why does “Listen Carefully” resonate with me? First, I should say that Phil was my thesis adviser at NYU. So I have an affinity for all things Phil Levine. I carry some of the lines from his poems in my head anyway, so carrying any actual poem around seems like natural progression.
I love Phil’s straightforwardness in lines such as “Let me be frank about this….” If poetry has a “fourth wall,” as in stage acting where the dialogue is spoken directly to the audience, then Phil attempts to hook the reader in and truly bring him or her into to experience.
I also appreciate that Phil’s a great storyteller. He’s remarkable in the way he brings factory work into the realm of the poetic. Who knew universal joints would lend themselves so well to poetry?
But what I love most about “Listen Carefully” is that Phil Levine doesn’t have a sister. He has a brother. But you’d never know that by reading his portrayal of a brother deeply in love with his sister—in love with her the same way you love a wounded animal or small child.
Is it fair to the reader to create situations or people, even to get to a higher truth? In other words, does the poet have the right to take liberties with the facts? I don’t have the answers, and if you think I do, then you haven’t heard a word.
For more poetic truths, go to Poetry Thursday. For my poem, click here.