Another Room

There is another room                                                        
You could spend time in.                           
What a shame not to enter
More often: walls a color

Hard to imagine, windows
Overlooking a shy garden.
From there it is easy to see
A neighbor pinning laundry,
Composing a line of forlorn           
Collars and sleeves
Punctuated by buttons                   
Catching the afternoon sun,                                   

Whose face was a stranger                         
Until their mother-of-pearl                                                            
Was torn from a bed in a reef.                     
Whenever a chance to return                       

Returns, you wonder why              
You didn’t sit in that sofa,
Alone or near someone
In a chair, watching                                   

A robin abandon
The swaying branches,
Listening to rain on the roof,
Undersong of comfort,

Undersong of grief.
A lifetime could be wasted
Dreaming there, a lifetime
Wasted not dreaming there. 

Originally published in The Paris Review
From Mr. Memory & Other Poems (Penguin Books, 2016)

On Either Side of the Word Lie

The letters that must be taken away
To find the word nestled inside

Or not yet born. Removing those letters,
Deciding how many, which ones,

Is a science that resembles forgetting,
Dismemberment in the service of song.

Finally a new word rises from its shell,
And if it cannot rise it calls out, saying

It’s time to be said, I’ve been here                  
All along, but you were reading with-

Out speaking, seeking without seeing
A syllable alone is a seed of light.                              

Originally published in Plume
From Mr. Memory & Other Poems (Penguin Books, 2016)

A Needle in the Sky

There is a needle in the sky
       Being threaded now, but the thread is blue:
That is why you cannot see it
       Threading its way. When all is said and done
It will keep sewing—as long
       As a tiny knot remains, as long as something
Whets the tip whenever the knot
       Happens to untie, as long as the sun
Arouses the wind that catches
       The thread again, twisting an end so that
It may begin. There is a needle
       Pulling a thread through your veins,
A needle pulling the sap
       From the root to the bole, a thread
Pulling a bird to a tree—                                            
       Tugging your heart as soon as you believe
There is nothing left.
       There is a glistening filament, a cold
Instrument making its way
       From once upon a time to now,
To tomorrow. Maybe the sun
       Is a giant spool, maybe the needle
Cannot rest until it runs
       Out of light, maybe a star is a random
Stitch unraveling . . .
       Until a needle runs out of thread,
It is impossible to look
       Into its eye.

Originally published in Kenyon Review
From May Day by Phillis Levin (Penguin Books, 2008)

May Day

I’ve decided to waste my life again,
Like I used to: get drunk on
The light in the leaves, find a wall
Against which something can happen,

Whatever may have happened
Long ago—let a bullet hole echoing
The will of an executioner, a crevice  
In which a love note was hidden,       

Be a cell where a struggling tendril
Utters a few spare syllables at dawn.
I’ve decided to waste my life
In a new way, to forget whoever

Touched a hair on my head, because
It doesn’t matter what came to pass,
Only that it passed, because we repeat
Ourselves, we repeat ourselves.

I’ve decided to walk a long way
Out of the way, to allow something
Dreaded to waken for no good reason,
Let it go without saying,

Let it go as it will to the place
It will go without saying: a wall
Against which a body was pressed                                          
For no good reason, other than this.

Originally published in The New Yorker
From May Day by Phillis Levin (Penguin Books, 2008)


They, too, labor,
And if we envy them we should remember
How brief their stay in the ether is.
Unfolding without reason, like forgiveness,
Or summoning
Themselves at the wind’s bidding, they flee.
We do not know where they go, we go
As carelessly, as helplessly, finally
Too full of time.
But we are true
To ourselves so rarely, while they are always
Open to darkness, squandering light.
A floating prison, a dream-balloon,
The setting sun’s chameleon, or the sliding
Screen of the moon—

When nothing else
Contains us we turn to them, and all
We ever gather appears less tangible.

Originally published in The New Criterion
From Mercury by Phillis Levin (Penguin Books, 2001)


Of something, separate, not
Whole; a role, something to play
While one is separate or parting;

Also a piece, a section, as in
Part of me is here, part of me
Is missing; an essential portion,

Something falling to someone
In division; a particular voice
Or instrument (also the score

For it), or line of music;
The line where the hair
Is parted. A verb: to break

Or suffer the breaking of,
Become detached,
Broken; to go from, leave,

Take from, sever, as in
Lord, part me from him,
I cannot bear to ever

Originally published in The New Yorker
From Mercury by Phillis Levin (Penguin Books, 2001)

The Third Day

When they came to the tomb
What did they see?
Only what they could not say.

Too empty, too cold
To say what they saw,
Too full to say empty

And cold, but full.
They said what they said,
Saw what they saw,

And knew they could not
Say what they saw.
They did not know

That whatever words they found
To say would fill the world
With those very words,

The best they could find
In that place, that time,
When all words fail or fall.

After the stone is rolled away,
After the sky refuses to reply,
Comes the heaviness of being here.

Originally published in The Atlantic
From The Afterimage by Phillis Levin (Copper Beech Press, 1995)


A day comes when nothing matters
And nothing will suffice.
The heart says: I cannot.
The soul says: I am not.

The window whose frame
Once held dawn
Gleams all night in desolation,
And the one tree

Untouched by blight
Offers a fruit you do not refuse,
An anguish impossible to conceive

Until this lucky day.
Weigh it in your hands, so heavy,
So light: is there more to wish for?

Originally published in The New Yorker
From The Afterimage by Phillis Levin (Copper Beech Press, 1995)

What the Intern Saw


He saw a face swollen beyond ugliness
Of one who just a year ago
Was Adonis
Practicing routines of rapture:

A boy who could appear
To dodge the touch of time,
Immortal or immune—
A patient in a gown,
Almost gone.


In the beautiful school of medicine
He read about human suffering,
An unendurable drama
Until the screen of anaesthesia
And penicillin’s manna.

But now, in myriad sheets
Of storefront glass refracting evening’s
Razor blue, in a land of the freely
Estranged from the dead, he meets
That face and fear seizes his body.


His feet have carried him to bed.
He thinks he must be getting old
To so revise
His nature and his plan.

He shuts his eyes
And in his sleep he sees a gleaming bar,
The shore of pain.
It isn’t far.
People live there.

Originally published in New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly
From Temples and Fields by Phillis Levin (University of Georgia Press, 1988)

Out of Chaos

No wonder some prefer a narrow hall,
A single room where doubts die
Until possibility, that odd flower,
Returns its face.

The doors close and open every day.

The doors close and open every day
And every day we hurtle toward the city.

Today I saw the usual human disaster:
Head in her chest, legs pocked with pink wounds,
Fingers wrapped tight around a white handbag.

Then the subway doors opened and children
Piled in: the whole car filled with their high
Broken music.

At the next stop they all poured out;
The car was vacant, solemn, the air
Settled and clear—but she was still there.

Outside a lilac bush blows to the wind,

And everywhere one looks
A pre-Socratic flux
Streams down avenues
Of taxicabs and radios,
Mortality’s parade crowned with neon and chrome—

As if we were beasts evolving toward a sentence
That breaks and disperses before we arrive
At the city we promised to build.

Originally published in Partisan Review
From Temples and Fields by Phillis Levin (University of Georgia Press, 1988)