“The Prisoners Have Gone Back to Their Cells” by Philip Levine

Philip Levine


This morning I sit in the open-air cafe
reading yesterday’s newspapers full of ads
for wrist watches, jeweled and silent,
with cases carved from solid blocks of gold.
Time means nothing. I can read and reread
the travel notes and guides to vintages
while the dust drifts upward toward
a hazy sun dragged across the usual sky.
I sip my cold coffee and milk, I look
about me at the others so intent
on their breakfast pastries or the day’s
first order of business. Out of nowhere
a young woman asks if I am done. “Done
with what?” I ask. “The table,” she says.
Handing her the classifieds I note
there’s work to be done by all of us,
cooks’ helpers, solicitors by telephone,
bakers of Wonderbread. Turning her back
she lets the pages flutter to the ground
which is only a blank slate of cement
on which nothing ever has been written
and nothing will be. Mondays like this
frequent this time of the year. I taste
them slowly and let the taste linger
long after. Yesterday morning I drove
due west of here past the truck farms
the Asian immigrants have taken over,
then the junk yards of heavy equipment,
earth movers, school buses, jeeps rusting
back to earth. Before the coastal hills
with their hints of salt winds, the land
flattens into miles of grapes and cotton.
Out there where no one ever goes
the state raised a new prison to house
the children once they’ve grown, and tracts
for the workers half circle a duck pond
that looks the other way. “America,
America,” I sang, and turned for home.
My brother writes from New York City
inviting me to share his wealth, to gaze
as he does on these long June evenings
into the East River’s filthy depths
or across to Brooklyn when the lights
transform the ruined shoreline into fire.
I don’t go. I don’t even write back,
for someone has to stay if only to mark
these hours that never matter, to say aloud
as the others at their tables turn away
something about the century we lost.

from Rattle #25, Summer 2005
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