Monday, August 15, 2011

A Dollar and a Half’s Worth

Philip Levine is what many describe as a poet of American urban working-class life. In much of his poetry is a voice that speaks simply, of simple things for those whose emotions and perhaps imaginations are restrained by a life of hard work. Librarian of Congress James Billington characterized the poet’s work as being ‘…about the hard work we do to make sense of our lives.’ After studying at Wayne State University and the University of Iowa he worked at a string of factory jobs before starting to teach at colleges and universities. The 1991 collection, What Work Is won the National Book Award and the 1994 collection, The Simple Truth received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Mr Levine has published numerous collections of his work since 1963. Earlier this week he was named America’s Poet Laureate.


I bought a dollar and a half’s worth of small red potatoes,

took them home, boiled them in their jackets

and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.

Then I walked through the dried fields

on the edge of town. In middle June the light

hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,

and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds

were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers

squawking back and forth, the finches still darting

into the dusty light. The woman who sold me

the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone

out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses

praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables

at the road-side stand and urging me to taste

even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,

she swore, from New Jersey. “Eat, eat” she said,

“Even if you don’t I’ll say you did.”

Some things

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.

My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965

before I went away, before he began to kill himself,

and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste

what I’m saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch

of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,

it stays in the back of your throat like a truth

you never uttered because the time was always wrong,

it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,

made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,

in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.


  1. I enjoyed today's post. The poem was written in such a way as I felt I was walking along the side of him as he walked the dried fields.

  2. Language no doubt worked on and worked on that seems so simple conveying the simple truth of things. The secrets to good writing are always so obvious behind a jail-like door but not everyone can find the key within that unlocks that door and allows approach.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America