More Than You Gave by Philip Levine

We have the town we call home wakening for dawn 
which isn’t yet here but is promised, we have

our tired neighbors rising in ones and twos, we have 
the sky slowly separating itself from the houses

to become the sky while the stars blink a last time 
and vanish to make way for us to enter the great stage

of an ordinary Tuesday in ordinary time. We have 
our curses, our gripes, our lies all on the stale breath

of 6:37 a.m. in the city no one dreams, the Tuesday city 
in which we shall live for this day or not at all.

“Where are the angels?” I ask. This is a visionary moment 
in the history of time, incomplete without angels,

without at least Argente of the tarnished wings, 
or the mangled half-assed Incondante who speaks

only in riddles, or one-winged Sylvania who glows 
in the dark. All off in eternity doing their sacred numbers.

Instead at 6:43 a.m. we have Vartan Baghosian with a face 
seamed like a softball and Minky Schantz who pitched

three games for the Toledo Mud Hens in ’39 and lost 
them all, we have the Volpe sisters who married

the attic on Brush Street and won’t come down, 
we have me, fresh as last week, bitching about my back,

my bad ankle, we have psoriasis, heartburn, the four-day 
hangover, prostatitis, Jewish mothers, Catholic guilt,

we have the teen-age Woodward Ave. whores going 
to bed alone at last, hugging no one for that long moment

before the young Madonnas rise from separate beds 
to open their shutters on whatever the day presents,

to pledge their virtue and their twitching, incomparable bodies 
to Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Tupperware. All this

in rooms where even in the gray dishwater dawn 
the chrome grill on an Admiral black-and-white TV

gleams like the chalice of Abraham. And from his corner 
the genius of this time and place, Uncle Nate, chomping

his first White Owl of the day, calls out for a doughnut 
and sweetened milky coffee to dunk it in and laces up

his high-tops and swears by the vision of his blind right eye 
he will have strange young pussy before the sun sets

on his miserable balding dome. Today we shall paint, 
for Nate is a true artist trained in the eight-hour day

to master the necessary and not the strung-out martyrs 
of El Greco or the brooding landscapes of an awful century.

No, today we paint the walls, the lintels, the ceilings, 
the dadoes, and the doodads of Mrs. Victoria Settle

formerly of Lake Park, Illinois, now come to grace 
our city with the myth of her late husband, her terriers,

her fake accent, her Victorian brooches, her perfect posture, 
and especially her money. Ask the gray windows

that look out on the remnants of winter a grand question: 
“Have I come all the way through the fires of hell,

the torture of the dark night of the etc., so that I might inhale 
the leaden fumes of Giddens Golden Gate as the dogsbody

of Nathaniel Hawthorne Glenner, the autodidact of Twelfth Street?” 
It could be worse. It could be life without mortadella sandwiches,

twenty-five-cent pineapple pies, and quarts of Pilsner 
at noon out on a manicured lawn in Grosse Pointe

under a sun that never before caressed an Armenian or a Jew. 
We could be flogging Fuller brushes down the deadbeat streets

of Paradise Valley or delivering trunks to the dormitories 
of the Episcopal ladies where no one tips or offers

a pastry and a schnapps for the longed-for trip 
back to Sicily or Salonika; it could be the forge room

at Ford Rouge where the young get old fast or die trying. 
So savor the hours as Nate recounts the day he hitchhiked

to Toledo only to arrive too late to see the young Dempsey 
flatten Willard and claim the lily-white championship

of the world. “Story of my life,” says Nate, “the last to arrive, 
the first to leave.” Not even Aesop could outdo our Nate,

our fabulist, whose name even is pure invention, 
a confabulation of his prison reading and his twelve-year

formal education in the hobo camps of his long boyhood. 
Wanderlust, he tells us, hit him at age fifteen and not

a moment too soon for Mr. Wilson was taking boys 
off to die in Europe and that was just about the time

women discovered Nate or Nate discovered women, 
and they were something he wouldn’t care to go without.

Call it a long day if you want and a hard one, too, 
but remember we got more than we gave: we got myth,

we got music, we got underpaid work, a cheap lunch 
with more to follow. On the long walk to the bus stop

and the ride home we hear the birds gathering 
in the elms and maples thickening with summer finery,

and no one cares if we sing to the orange sun 
that also seeks its rest, no one cares that our voices

are harsh from cigarettes and our ears worthless, 
our timing off, and we’ve got the wrong words

in the wrong places. Let’s just give it what we have 
and when that’s done give it a second time, one

for us and one for Nate, and even a third wouldn’t hurt.

Philip Levine won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1995 for his collection “The Simple Truth.”  He was the US Poet Laureate for 2011-2012.  He died in 2015 at the age of 87.

Philip Levine won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1995 for his collection “The Simple Truth.” He was the US Poet Laureate for 2011-2012. He died in 2015 at the age of 87.