Philip Levine gave a reading at the University of Texas at El Paso on March 12th, 2013. He took the stage wearing his ball cap and a sense of humor. The auditorium was packed. Many people sat with notebooks open and writing utensils in hand. Philip Levine read his poems and recounted stories. He talked about the importance of poets writing about war. He was generous with his time and his responses during the Q&A session. So many people wanted to ask him questions. He spoke until the very last minute.
I vividly remember Philip Levine wearing a ball cap. I remember loving him for it. I remember thinking as he read many of his poems that I wanted to share some of them with my grandfather. I remember a poem he read for his mother that brought me to tears. I remember writing about Philip Levine and my experience at his reading in a blog post. And yesterday, when I read the news of Philip Levine’s death, I searched for this blog post, but WordPress shows no record of it. I browsed through the pages of my journal, but there are no notes to be found. I thumbed through the photos on my phone only to find a photo of him at the reading, but where was the ball cap I’d imagined him wearing?
Almost two years later, Philip Levine is gone. My grandfather is gone now, too. I never shared Philip Levine’s poems with him. I never thought my memories of things would distort or disappear.
This morning, my phone started playing music on its own. Half an hour later, a card with a poem written inside fell from my bookcase. My fan was not on, no air was blowing from the vent, and I’d been sitting at my desk for a good ten minutes already. I wasn’t sure what the world was trying to tell me. I decided to sit with some of Philip Levine’s poems, and to my surprise, scribbled on the last page of this book, were notes I’d written about his reading:
“Is this career you’re embarking upon absolutely necessary?”
echoing Rilke: “Would I die if I didn’t write?”
“Patience–the virtue of all.”
“Everyone’s a citizen.”
“You may not get sauce on your pasta, but you’ll get pasta.”
The notes are spare, but at least I have these notes. And I don’t really know what I’m trying to say in this blog post. I don’t know that I’m trying to say anything at all. Since my grandfather’s death, it’s been difficult to sit down for any good period of time to write poems or even write about the poems I’ve been reading. I’ve been ignoring my journal because there’s a lot I feel I don’t know how to say. I do know one thing today, though: I can’t help but to read the following words and lines from Philip Levine’s poem “The Simple Truth” over and again:
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.