Smoke by Philip Levine

Philip Levine is another honored working class American poet, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, recent Poet Laureate of the United States. He was born in Detroit.

I like the way the image of smoke is the setting for the magic and the dream of this poem. Generations shift and slide in the smoke. Is the speaker the grandfather, the son, the father? The grandfather is the father, the father is the son, the son will become a father.  They live in one another, in stories and in the smoke of the poem as in the smoke of a campfire where stories are told, in the smoke of memories that lose definition and precision over the years, in the smoke of the factory, the place of employment and income.

The bird is the image of freedom and escape from all the smoke and the day-to-day labor, but it is too young to fly or is injured. Around the out-of-place bird, the factory men gather. The word “tenderness” is heard from somewhere in the smoke. No one of that crowd would have said that word, of course. But, of course, that is just what the moment is, and just what the poem is about.


Can you imagine the air filled with smoke?
It was. The city was vanishing before noon
or was it earlier than that? I can’t say because
the light came from nowhere and went nowhere.

This was years ago, before you were born, before
your parents met in a bus station downtown.
She’d come on Friday after work all the way
from Toledo, and he’d dressed in his only suit.

Back then we called this a date, some times
a blind date, though they’d written back and forth
for weeks. What actually took place is now lost.
It’s become part of the mythology of a family,

the stories told by children around the dinner table.
No, they aren’t dead, they’re just treated that way,
as objects turned one way and then another
to catch the light, the light overflowing with smoke.

Go back to the beginning, you insist. Why
is the air filled with smoke? Simple. We had work.
Work was something that thrived on fire, that without
fire couldn’t catch its breath or hang on for life.

We came out into the morning air, Bernie, Stash,
Williams, and I, it was late March, a new war
was starting up in Asia or closer to home,
one that meant to kill us, but for a moment

the air held still in the gray poplars and elms
undoing their branches. I understood the moon
for the very first time, why it came and went, why
it wasn’t there that day to greet the four of us.

Before the bus came a small black bird settled
on the curb, fearless or hurt, and turned its beak up
as though questioning the day. “A baby crow,”
someone said. Your father knelt down on the wet cement,

his lunchbox balanced on one knee and stared quietly
for a long time. “A grackle far from home,” he said.
One of the four of us mentioned tenderness,
a word I wasn’t used to, so it wasn’t me.

The bus must have arrived. I’m not there today.
The windows were soiled. We swayed this way and that
over the railroad tracks, across Woodward Avenue,
heading west, just like the sun, hidden in smoke.

Philip Levine b. 1928


One thought on “Smoke by Philip Levine

  1. Your appreciation of Philip Levine’s poem, “Smoke,” nails it. Thanks. Very nicely done.


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