Practicing his horn on the Williamsburg Bridge
hour after hour, "woodshedding" the musicians
called it, but his woodshed was the world.
The enormous tone he borrowed from Hawkins
that could fill a club to overflowing
blown into tatters by the sea winds
teaching him humility, which he carries
with him at all times, not as an amulet
against the powers of animals and men
that mean harm or the lure of the marketplace.
No, a quality of the gaze downward
on the streets of Brooklyn or Manhattan.
Hold his hand and you'll see it, hold his eyes
in yours and you'll hear the wind singing
through the cables of the bridge that was home,
singing through his breath--no rarer than yours,
though his became the music of the world
thirty years ago. Today I ask myself
how he knew the time had come to inhabit
the voice of the air and how later
he decided the time had come for silence,
for the world to speak any way it could?
He wouldn't answer because he'd find
the question pompous. He plays for money.
The years pass, and like the rest of us
he ages, his hair and beard whiten, the great
shoulders narrow. He is merely a man--
after all--a man who stared for years
into the breathy, unknowable voice
of silence and captured the music. The Return
All afternoon my father drove the country roads
between Detroit and Lansing. What he was looking for
I never learned, no doubt because he never knew himself,
though he would grab any unfamiliar side road
and follow where it led past fields of tall sweet corn
in August or in winter those of frozen sheaves.
Often he'd leave the Terraplane beside the highway
to enter the stunned silence of mid-September,
his eyes cast down for a sign, the only music
his own breath or the wind tracking slowly through
the stalks or riding above the barren ground. Later
he'd come home, his dress shoes coated with dust or mud,
his long black overcoat stained or tattered
at the hem, sit wordless in his favorite chair,
his necktie loosened, and stare at nothing. At first
my brothers and I tried conversation, questions
only he could answer: Why had he gone to war?
Where did he learn Arabic? Where was his father?
I remember none of this. I read it all later,
years later as an old man, a grandfather myself,
in a journal he left my mother with little drawings
of ruined barns and telephone poles, receding
toward a future he never lived, aphorisms
from Montaigne, Juvenal, Voltaire, and perhaps a few
of his own: "He who looks for answers finds questions."
Three times he wrote, "I was meant to be someone else,"
and went on to describe the perfumes of the damp fields.
"It all starts with seeds," and a pencil drawing
of young apple trees he saw somewhere or else dreamed.
I inherited the book when I was almost seventy
and with it the need to return to who we were.
In the Detroit airport I rented a Taurus;
the woman at the counter was bored or crazy:
Did I want company? she asked; she knew every road
from here to Chicago. She had a slight accent,
Dutch or German, long black hair, and one frozen eye.
I considered but decided to go alone,
determined to find what he had never found.
Slowly the autumn morning warmed, flocks of starlings
rose above the vacant fields and blotted out the sun.
I drove on until I found the grove of apple trees
heavy with fruit, and left the car, the motor running,
beside a sagging fence, and entered his life
on my own for maybe the first time. A crow welcomed
me home, the sun rode above, austere and silent,
the early afternoon was cloudless, perfect.
When the crow dragged itself off to another world,
the shade deepened slowly in pools that darkened around
the trees; for a moment everything in sight stopped.
The wind hummed in my good ear, not words exactly,
not nonsense either, nor what I spoke to myself,
just the language creation once wakened to.
I took off my hat, a mistake in the presence
of my father's God, wiped my brow with what I had,
the back of my hand, and marveled at what was here:
nothing at all except the stubbornness of things.
Excerpted from The Mercy by Philip Levine. Copyright © 1999 by Philip Levine. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.