Philip Levine Our New Poet Laureate: One of the Reasons . . .


. . . I moved to California.

I came to out west with one goal — to study poetry at San Francisco State. One of the great legends at the time was Phil Levine who directed the fabulous Creative Writing program at Fresno State. Anyway, I was lucky enough to have taken a workshop with him once when he came to SF. What a wonderful human being!

At the time there was sort of a battle between narrative poets (me) and language poets (everybody else I knew who was writing. Okay, not all, but it seem that way. I was so young.) He made me feel a lot better. Eventually, I realized I wanted to write longer and longer narratives, really long . . . like novels, and I moved in that direction.

When I look out the back window of my office, I can see about fifty miles into the Central Valley where our new Poet Laureate lives. My home is in those silent mountain he writes about, and now that I live here, I understand this poem completely!

It’s August, and I’m waiting for that first cool wind.

Our Valley
Philip Levine

We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.

You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.

You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait in the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.

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