“The Island”

Listen to Philip Levine reading this poem. I waken long before dawn in a strange bed to hear wind tearing at the pine trees and nothing awake. The island holds still, or so it feels, though it could be moving little by little into the North Sea, making its way into the waiting cold.

Yesterday I visited the Georgian graveyard
a short walk from town. An old man sat smoking
on the low stone wall while a woman worked
on her knees with a pail of steaming water,
a scrub brush, and rags to scour the stones
with their inscriptions in a strange alphabet.

Could she read them? “No, I am Dutch, the letters
mean nothing.” But she recalls the day the Georgians
refused to kill the Dutch hostages. The old man slips
from the wall to reenact the shock of mortar shells
on the thatched barns and recalls the fires
blown across the roofs of the town, and then
silence, the moan of an odd wind like tonight,

and like tonight the darkness thickened and he
and his parents huddled on the floor praying
for stillness at last. Then the old man mimics
the motions of his father digging the graves,
working all that next day in the August heat,
men and women alike digging into the darkness.

A year later, the Germans left. We built this wall,
he explains, to keep them, the Georgians, in
or to keep us out, he laughs. He lugged stones,
one at a time to the island’s three masons.
“Now it’s a place of peace,” he says, “boys and girls
come here in the spring, you know for what.”

He sits back on the wall and swings his short legs
out and back like a child, and smiles and begins
to sing an American song. The woman goes back
to her work. Now, standing in the pre-dawn darkness,
I feel the little island moving farther and farther
into the great black sea away from its history.