Reinventing America, by Phillip Levine

The city was huge. A boy of twelve could walk
for hours while the closed houses stared down at him
from early morning to dusk, and he’d get nowhere.
Oh no, I was not that boy. Even at twelve I knew
enough to stay in my own neighborhood,
I knew anyone who left might not return.
Boys were animals with animal hungers
I learned early. Better to stay close to home.
I’d try to bum cigarettes from the night workers
as they left the bars in the heavy light of noon
or I’d hang around the grocery hoping
one of the beautiful young wives would ask me
to help her carry her shopping bags home.
You ‘re wondering what I was up to. Not much.
The sun rose late in November and set early.
At times I thought life was rushing by too fast.
Before I knew it I’d be my half-blind uncle
married to a woman who cried all day long
while in the basement he passed his time working
on short-wave radio calls to anywhere.
I’d sneak down and talk to him, Uncle Nathan,
wiry in his boxer’s shorts and high-topped boots,
chewing on a cigar, the one dead eye catching
the overhead light while he mused on his life
on the road or at sea. How he loved the whores
in the little Western towns or the Latin ports!
He’d hold his hands out to approximate
their perfect breasts. The months in jail had taught him
a man had only his honor and his ass
to protect. “Your turn your fist this way,” he said,
taking my small hand in both of his, “and fire
from the shoulder, so,” and he’d extend it out
to the face of an imaginary foe.
Why he’d returned to this I never figured out,
though life was ample here, a frid of crowded blocks
of Germans, Wops, Polacks, Jews, wild Irish,
plus some square heads from the Upper Peninsula.
Six bakeries, four barber shops, a five and dime,
twenty beer gardens, a Catholic church with a shul
next door where we studied the Talmud-Torah.
Wonderful how all the old hatreds bubbled
so quiety on the back burner you could
forget until one day they tore throughthe pool halls,
the bowling alley, the high school athletic fields
leaving an eye gone, a ling fresh,livid scar
running to touch a mouth, young hands raw or broken,
boys and girls ashamed of what they were, ashamed
of what they were not. It was merely village life,
exactly what our parents lift in Europe
brought to America with pure fidelity.

“The Mercy”, Philip Levine, Alfred A. Knopf, Page 17

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