Have you ever read a poem, wagged your head in wishing you had written it, and then became immediately relieved that you could not have done so? This is one such poem for me.
When my brother came home from war
he carried his left arm in a black sling
but assured us most of it was still there.
Spring was late, the trees forgot to leaf out.
I stood in a long line waiting for bread.
The woman behind me said it was shameless,
someone as strong as I still home, still intact
while her Michael was burning to death.
Yes, she could feel the fire, could smell
his pain all the way from Tarawa–
or was it Midway?–and he so young,
younger than I, who was only fourteen,
taller, more handsome in his white uniform
turning slowly gray the way unprimed wood
grays slowly in the grate when the flames
sputter and die. “I think I’m going mad,”
she said when I turned to face her. She placed
both hands on my shoulders, kissed each eyelid,
hugged me to her breasts and whispered wetly
in my bad ear words I’d never heard before.
When I got home my brother ate the bread
carefully one slice at a time until
nothing was left but a blank plate. “Did you see her,”
he asked, “the woman in hell, Michael’s wife?”
That afternoon I walked the crowded streets
looking for something I couldn’t name,
something familiar, a face or a voice or less,
but not these shards of ash that fell from heaven.
Click on the title to go to poetryfoundation.org's posting of During the War and listen to Mr. Levine read this poem. Click on his name to learn more about Philip Levine.