Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Philip Levine, "The Simple Truth"

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," 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.


From: The Simple Truth (1994)

I'm afraid I had a hard time picking today's poem. I'd decided to extrapolate this week's theme from Monday's poem, without giving what would come afterwards any forethought; and, to make matters worse, I only have the small, Belfast portion of my library currently lodging with me (so you must also forgive a potential Irish bias in the weeks to come). I'd thought of what I wanted for Thursday and Friday, but it took a while to come to this poem. Also, because I haven't thought about it in a few years, I just found a copy on-line, and it's late, I don't have much in the way of considered commentary to provide, but here goes.
"The Simple Truth" offers a slightly darker, grittier approach to the vitality of the everyday. Beginning by savoring the simple things in life, there is an ominous undercurrent ("boiled them in their jackets", "dried fields", "dark furrows", etc.) of the difficulties that also attend our lives. Though it exalts the immediacy of sensory experience and of certain essential human concerns - food, love, truth, death - there is also a sense in the poem of such things being overwhelming, too much to be eaten raw, too raw to be assuaged through expression. To experience the world in all its naked immediacy is to face both these sides of life, that both choke and sustain us. Every day of our lives is a struggle to meet this experience, to be true to it, accepting and savoring its mix of sweetness and bitterness.

(More about Philip Levine [b. 1928], including audio:
(More poems by Philip Levine:

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