This week in the PEN Poetry Series, guest editor Robert Fernandez features three poems by Mark Levine. About Levine’s work, Fernandez writes: “These poems by Mark Levine describe a condition of exile between what’s said and unsaid, what’s possible and impossible—between adulthood and childhood, facility and debilitation, the past and present. We find ourselves perched on the lip of ruin—the ruins of history, the ruin of self—and this can precipitate dread and anguish, arrest and collapse, or it can, as in Levine’s case, provide a charge, a surge of blood and adrenaline, pitching the poem toward understanding and truth. Here the poet at once trusts and denies that he is carried ‘In a fiery spume of [his] own singeing.’ In this self-questioning there lies an ethics. The poems, too, are as nuanced and sophisticated explorations of melancholy, hope, and hopelessness as one will find in this day and age.”



 There is a brand of play called muteness
Beneath the play yard’s interlacing branches.

It appeals to children born
 Entre deux guerres, whose specialty it is.

  It is mutiny; that is, a tongue
 Of foreign origin ending in grunts.

 One such child uses his tongue
On a frozen fence for the embrace of it

For the mutating appendage makes of speech
 A combat; an internment.

There is a brand of child assisted to the play yard
 By his keeper fussing with his zipper.

 Yes it is cold in the high hemisphere
And nothing will be the death of him

As he sets hard sweets on his tongue
 He neither chews nor swallows.

 Such children can never swing too freely
   From the elm’s loping barkless arm.

  It is mutual. There is smoke on the air, tarry,
   Commuting the industry on high

 As the children simmer with speech within
 Their word-cloud.

 And someone or something is calling them home
A familiar voice, if they have one.



Old man is done. Here I am dancing
 Dancing in my own step, as others skirt by
Wheel by, are jerked by
     By their loose lashes
Here I am ringed round by glistering prongs
    Solo dancer
 Stalking a window like a reasoning housefly
In a hexagonal mirror
 An ambulette. I do not dance
   As I danced in prior light
Under a name (Aron)
 A pair of mynahs vying for my
   Flame on each shoulder,
White wolf, wonder-working rod,
   Cloud spiller
That dance is but done, lord.

Young man is done. It was not me, was never
   Astride Niagara Falls (Canada)
 In a fiery spume of my own singeing
   Making words, when I had some
When my dance was
   Romancing me
Upon the blunt windshield
     For all to weep.
It may be I’ve bent to sacrifice
 A step or two lately
As I am empty as a flue
 As my adhesive strip
Has left me palely tottering
No hoist to crank me forth
No partner boosting old boy’s jizz, no
 Heedful vengeful god within.




That wasn’t the half of it.
    The third man sat for a quarter hour
    Downing a fifth of Bacardi
      In a shower of ice
     Before emerging from a noodle bar
    At Sixth and Bleecker
     (For it could not be any)
  En route to Film Forum
  For a private showing
    Of The Seventh Seal and
    I am distant kin to Burt Bacharach
      Eighth of nine siblings
     Or the second of two depending
     On one’s genealogical screws
      Regardless am the only
   Eye still blinking after a proper
Nazi trampling. I’ll not see twenty-twenty;
Not twenty-ten; have scrubbed my cataracts
   In a dizzy ravine
   In my forty-sixth summer
  Of premature evacuation, having misplaced my walker
       In an essence of soda water
        And earth to make a bed
         For jackpot winners. But I was about to say
   When Chance came and cut me down with his Wehrmacht
 That I was present on the assembly floor
And accountable for this little industrial
Severance of a couple digits
   Leaving me ninety-nine and forty-four hundredths
     I’ll never again wish myself back to that state
Sponsored shower as long as I.
   The sixteenth squadron spared my hide
   Emptying its gunwales in me for thirty seconds
     As I stood frozen on the ladder’s twenty-seventh rung and
I like to think some boy’s been swinging there
     On the forty-ninth parallel called Heaven
     In the northerly taiga where the shales
   Are asleep in a pharmacological hush
  And when my sinuses clear
What am I.


Once a week, the PEN Poetry Series publishes work by emerging and established writers from coast to coast. Subscribe to the PEN Poetry Series mailing list and have poems delivered to your e-mail as soon as they are published (no spam, no news, just poems).