Knopf Poem-a-Day: April 19, Philip Levine’s “The Trade”


Philip Levine’s book The Simple Truth is dedicated “For my brothers, with me from the start.” In “The Trade,” below, he makes a surprising deal with one of his brother’s gifts to him, finding something more precious, perhaps, in the reversal of expectation, the revaluing of what we call precious, as his poetry so often does.

The Trade

Crouching down in the loud morning air
of the docks of Genoa, with the gulls wheeling
overhead, the fishermen calling, I considered
for a moment, then traded a copy of T.S. Eliot
for a pocket knife and two perfect lemons.
The old man who engineered the deal held
the battered black Selected Poems, pushed
the book out at arm’s length perusing the notes
to “The Wasteland” as though he understood them.
Perhaps he did. He sifted through the box
of lemons, sniffing the tough skins of several,
before finally settling on just that pair.
He worked the large blade back and forth
nodding all the while, and stopped abruptly
as though to say, Perfect! I had not
come all that way, from America by way
of the Indies to rid myself of the burden
of a book that haunted me or even to say,
I’ve had it with middle age, poetry, my life.
I came only from Barcelona on the good ship
Kangaroo, sitting up on deck all night
with a company of conscript Spaniards
who passed around the black wine of Alicante
while they sang gypsy ballads and Sinatra.
We’d been six hours late getting started.
In the long May light the first beacons
along the Costa Brava came on, then France
slipped by, jewelled in the darkness, as I
dozed and drank by turns in the warm sea air
which calmed everything. A book my brother gave
twenty years before, out of love, stolen
from Doubleday’s and brought to the hospital
as an offering, brother to brother, and carried
all those years until the words, memorized,
meant nothing. A grape knife, wooden handled,
fattened at one end like a dark fist, the blade
lethal and slightly rusted. Two lemons, one
for my pocket, one for my rucksack, perfuming
my clothes, my fingers, my money, my hair,
so that all the way to Rapallo on the train
I would stand among my second-class peers, tall,
angelic, an ordinary man become a gift.

Learn more about Philip Levine’s The Simple Truth and browse other titles by Philip Levine.

Excerpt from THE SIMPLE TRUTH © 1994 by Philip Levine. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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