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QUINTESSENCE

Only Look


WINTER WORDS, MANHATTAN
by Philip Levine

When the young farm laborer
steals the roses for his wife
we know for certain he'll find
her beyond their aroma
or softness. We can almost
feel with how soft a step
he approaches the cottage
there on the edge of the forest
darkening even before supper,
not wanting to give away
the surprise, which shall be his
only, for now she sleeps beyond
surprise in the long full,
dreamless sleep he will soon
pray for. And so they become
a bouquet for a grave, a touch
of rose in a gray and white
landscape. All this years ago
in the imagination of a poet
who would die before the book
was published. Did the thorns
picture the young man's fingers
as he pressed the short stems
through the knife blade? Did he
bleed on the snow like a man
in a film, on the tight buds,
on her face as he bent down
to take her breath? Did that
breath still smell of breakfast,
of raw milk and bread? What does
breath that doesn't come smell of,
if it smells at all? If I went
to the window now and gazed
down at the city stretching
in clear winter sunlight past
the ruined park the children
never visit, out over the rooftops
of Harlem past the great bridge
to Jersey and the country lost
to me before I found it,
would I cry and for whom?


This poem by Philip Levine, from his outstanding 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning collection "The Simple Truth," is not familiar to most readers. It is perhaps a "writer's poem," a work born inside the thoughts of a poet ruminating on the nature of both imagination and reality. Writers will do this: step back and assess both craft and artist. Examine for meaning all that is, as Robert Frost put it, "lost in translation."

There is subtle dissonance between artist and intention, vision and reality. Art is often that struggle, that compromise trapped between concept and execution. Writers, and I suspect artists of all ilk, are inclined to be keen observers. Of life, object, action, self, emotion, consequence...the other, the moral. And with our tools we devise the rose: the imagined metaphor, allegory, or analogy that speaks the truth we see, however narrowed or grand the perspective. Why? Why do this? Why do we ask questions of life voiced through art?

Natalie Goldberg, in her iconic 1986 writing guide, "Writing Down the Bones," once asked her writing group this question: "Where do you want to go with writing? You have this strong creative voice; you've been able to separate out the creator and editor. What do you want to do with it?" The answer, if one can define it, establishes the foundation for all creative work. Because you see, once technique is mastered, intention is everything. And in speaking of life in its larger context, I might argue that when humans become aware of their deepest questions, they then feel compelled to express what answers they find. Questions stand answered all around us: from skyscrapers and bridges to scalpels and computer software, plays to parks.

We have only to look.


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