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Philip Levine Poems
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Voyages by Philip Levine
Pond snipe, bleached pine, rue weed, wart --
I walk by sedge and brown river rot
to where the old lake boats went daily out.
All the ships are gone, the gray wharf fallen
in upon itself. Even the channel's
grown over. Once we set sail here
for Bob-Lo, the Brewery Isles, Cleveland.
We would have gone as far as Niagara
or headed out to open sea if the Captain
said so, but the Captain drank. Blood-eyed
in the morning, coffee shaking in his hand,
he'd plead to be put ashore or drowned,
but no one heard. Enormous in his long coat,
Sinbad would take the helm and shout out
orders swiped from pirate movies. Once
we docked north of Vermillion to meet
a single spur of the old Ohio Western
and sat for days waiting for a train,
waiting for someone to claim the cargo
or give us anything to take back,
like the silver Cadillac roadster
it was rumored we had once freighted
by itself. The others went foraging
and left me with the Captain, locked up
in the head and sober. Two days passed,
I counted eighty tankers pulling
through the flat lake waters on their way,
I counted blackbirds gathering at dusk
in the low trees, clustered like bees.
I counted the hours from noon to noon
and got nowhere. At last the Captain slept.
I banked the fire, raised anchor, cast off,
and jumping ship left her drifting out
on the black bay. I walked seven miles
to the Interstate and caught a meat truck
heading west, and came to over beer,
hashbrowns, and fried eggs in a cafe
northwest of Omaha. I could write
how the radio spoke of war, how
the century was half its age, how
dark clouds gathered in the passes
up ahead, the dispossessed had clogged
the roads, but none the less I alone
made my way to the western waters,
a foreign ship, another life, and disappeared
from all Id known. In fact I
come home every year, I walk the same streets
where I grew up, but now with my boys.
I settled down, just as you did, took
a degree in library sciences,
and got my present position with
the county. I'm supposed to believe
something ended. I'm supposed to be
dried up. I'm supposed to represent
a yearning, but I like it the way it is.
Not once has the ocean wind changed
and brought the taste of salt
over the coastal hills and through
the orchards to my back yard. Not once
have I wakened cold and scared
out of a dreamless sleep
into a dreamless life and cried
and cried out for what I left behind.
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