This week is Writers Week at UCR, and I've been able to go to a couple of the readings. Tonight's talk will be given by Phil Levine, a poet who spent many years in Cal State Fresno, but now divides his time between New York and Fresno.
I've taught several of his poems in my classes, and I like them because they draw a picture with words and sensory details that are accessible to my students, but still require a little bit of digging, of re-reading. Here's one for today.
On The River
by Phil Levine
My brother has an old row boat
moored to a dock at the foot
of Jefferson Avenue, Detroit.
Once a week in decent weather
he rows out to get a better
look at the opposite shore
as though Canada truly were
a foreign country. It isn't easy
what with the ore boats' lazy
crawl toward salt water, the launches
of tourists and cops, the lunchers
spread out on barges, docks, rafts,
waiting for the oiled clouds to lift
a moment and unveil the sun,
waiting for the fumes of exhaustion
to blow off in the poor gusts
of our making—collective breaths,
passing trucks, running dogs loath
to return to their chains.
On schedule he comes at noon
or not at all—his only free time—
so he can see with a painter's eye
the hulking shapes of warehouses define
themselves, the sad rusts and grays
take hold and shimmer a moment
in the blur of air until the stones
darken like wounds and become nothing.
He does this for our father
who parked each week exactly here
to stare at that distant shore
as though it were home, and then
passed quietly to a farther one.
He does this for me, who long ago
stopped seeing beneath the shadows
of concrete and burned brick towers
the flickering hints of life, the colors
we made of fresh earth and flowers
coming through the wet smells of house
fallen in upon themselves. I suppose
he does this also so that somewhere
on the face of the black waters
he can turn, feathering one oar
slowly, to behold his own life
come into view brick by dark brick,
bending his back for all it's worth,
as the whole thing goes up in smoke.