A Walk with Jefferson
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The inspiration for the title poem of Philip Levine’s A Walk with Tom Jefferson is not the founding father and third president of the United States that most readers would imagine upon hearing the name. Levine’s Tom Jefferson is quite different from his namesake: he is an African American living in a destitute area of industrial Detroit. But to Levine, he is “wise, compassionate, deliberate, honest…a great unknown American.” In A Walk with Tom Jefferson, Philip Levine reminds us why he is best known for his poems about working-class life in Detroit--and why so many people count a Levine poem among their favorites.
call out a secret name, the name of the angel who guards my sleep, and light grows in the east, a new light like no other, as soft as the petals of the blown rose of late summer. Yes, it is late summer in the West. Even the grasses climbing the Sierras reach for the next outcropping of rock with tough, burned fingers. The thistle sheds its royal robes and quivers awake in the hot winds off the sun. A cloudless sky fills my room, the room I was born in and where my father sleeps his
the way across the Bay Bridge I sang to the cool winds buffeting my Ford, for I was on my way to a life of buying untouched drive shafts, universal joints, perfect bearings so steeped in Cosmoline they could endure a century and still retain their purity of functional design, they could outlast everything until like us their usefulness became legend and they were transformed into sculpture. At Benicia or the Oakland Naval Yard or Alameda I left the brilliant Western sun behind to
longer than I care to think about. MAKING IT WORK 3-foot blue cannisters of nitro along a conveyor belt, slow fish speaking the language of silence. On the roof, I in my respirator patching the asbestos gas lines as big around as the thick waist of an oak tree. “These here are the veins of the place, stuff inside’s the blood.” We work in rain, heat, snow, sleet. First warm spring winds up from Ohio, I pause at the top of the ladder to take in the wide world reaching downriver and
behind me as I wrote, and when the line got too long she’d reach one sudden black foreleg down and paw at the moving hand, the offensive one. The first time she drew blood I learned it was poetic to end a line anywhere to keep her quiet. After all, many mornings she’d gotten to the chair long before I was even up. Those nights I couldn’t sleep she’d come and sit in my lap to calm me. So I figured I owed her the short cat line. She’s dead now almost nine years, and before that
back into the 16th century or into the present age’s final discovery. (Better perhaps not to speak of final anything, for this place was finally retired, the books thrown away when after the town exploded in ’67 these houses were plundered for whatever they had. Some burned to the ground, some hung open, doorless, wide-eyed until hauled off by the otherwise unemployable citizens of the county to make room for the triumphant return of Mad Anthony Wayne, Père Marquette, Cadillac,