Poetry Thursday: Listen Carefully

(My Poetry Thursday poem is here.)

Listen Carefully

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.

~Philip Levine

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.


paris parfait said…
That's where the terms poetic license and poetic justice come in - for the writer to alter the facts to make the story more appealing or poetic, if you will. At least that's my opinion. It's like a fiction story that Levine is telling - and all fiction is a mixture of truth and imagination.
January said…
I agree with you, yet I meet lots of poets who feel that poems should be truthful all the way through. Some go so far to say that if you're not being truthful, you're lying. Rather, if you're going to make things up, you should reveal it at the outset.
Paul Decelles said…
Of course it's fair-the deeper (higher sounds so judgemental) truth is what you are trying to get at. Besides, our very memories take liberties with the facts.
January said…
Hi Paul: I agree with you. But at the risk of playing devil's advocate, don't you think making up a sister is a big liberty?

(Again, I agree with you.)
Kamsin said…
Not only has he created a sister but also a brother for that sister. It's a fiction, a story. So I guess another question is are poets only allowed to write about themselves or are they given the same license to create characters afforded to story writers? I like it better knowing he doesn't have a sister somehow. Although generally, I'd tend to agree with the opinion that poetry ought to be about the poet's first-hand experience.
Catherine said…
That's an interesting question. Actually , poets do it all the time (as do prose writers, of course - it's called fiction). The difference is that in some poems it is quite clear that it is a fiction, and in other poems it isn't. It's the ones where it isn't clear that tend to puset people. I'm not sure what I think about those. When I'm writing fiction in my poems, I tend to use "she" rather than "I"
There is a well-known New Zealand poet who created a story about his father. A friend of mine said to him, "I'm so sorry about your father" and he said, "oh, I made it up". He is quite happy to claim that poetry can be fiction too, just as a novel written in the first person can be. If you are familiar with a poets work, you get to know which ones use a base of true stories and which ones don't. But eventually the deeper truth is what's important.
wendy said…
I love when poems are so complete and real that you are there. I totally agree with your theatre 4th wall comparison. I loved the "let me be frank" line as well. There is a real voice hear...speaking..It makes no difference if the story told is factual. Was there romeo or juliet?? Was there a true path not taken? Did e.e know a girl with small hands? Who cares. The artist makes the art...out of life or moments cobbled together... I loved this idea, January, and I also loved the poem.
January said…
xGreat comments everyone.

While I agree that poets can get away with little white lies, I'm not completely comfortable with calling those lies "fiction." Fiction in a poetic form is something entirely different. I don't consider a narrative poem, like Phil's, a piece of fiction.
GreenishLady said…
I don't see why there's any problem with a poet writing out of a persona that is not the poet themself. - A poem can be truthful, but not necessarily "real", surely?
bb said…
I say as a poet if you're not *feeling* it you're lying, and it will come across obviously as tinny and dull.

This of course doesn't mean that poems should only align themselves with the 'true' narrative of a poet's a life.

After all, for me, poems don't just employ metaphors and images, they are metaphors and images in themselves.
bb said…
p.s. great post - i love it when you play devil's advocate - you do it so well ;-)
January said…
Me? Devil's advocate? Some say it's a gift!

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