We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.
You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.
You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.
I recently read an article on NPR about the poet Philip Levine, who I’d never heard of. I read the article and moved on. It occurred to me later that perhaps I should read some of the work so eloquently described. I promptly bought his book News of the world. I couldn’t have made a better decision. Described as the man who, “found poetry on the production line and in the after-hours meeting of two lovers working the graveyard shift,” Levine’s poetry is subtle and awe-inspiring.
This specific poem is the first in the book, and one of my favorites. The final two lines cause such a sense of satisfaction – “so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust, / wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.”