Vox Populi

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Philip Levine: Belle Isle, 1949

We stripped in the first warm spring night

and ran down into the Detroit River

to baptize ourselves in the brine

of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles,

melted snow. I remember going under

hand in hand with a Polish highschool girl

I’d never seen before, and the cries

our breath made caught at the same time

on the cold, and rising through the layers

of darkness into the final moonless atmosphere

that was this world, the girl breaking

the surface after me and swimming out

on the starless waters towards the lights

of Jefferson Ave. and the stacks

of the old stove factory unwinking.

Turning at last to see no island at all

but a perfect calm dark as far

as there was sight, and then a light

and another riding low out ahead

to bring us home, ore boats maybe, or smokers

walking alone. Back panting

to the gray coarse beach we didn’t dare

fall on, the damp piles of clothes,

and dressing side by side in silence

to go back where we came from.

Copyright 1999 Philip Levine. From They Feed They Lion and The Names of the Lost (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).

Included in Vox Populi for educational purposes only.

Philip Levine (1928 – 2015) was an American poet best known for his poems about working-class Detroit. He taught for more than thirty years in the English department of California State University, Fresno and held teaching positions at other universities as well. He served on the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets from 2000 to 2006, and was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States for 2011–2012.


10 comments on “Philip Levine: Belle Isle, 1949

  1. Lisa Zimmerman
    March 19, 2023

    What Work Is was one of my favorite books when I was a young poet and it remains astonishing ❤️


  2. Loranneke
    March 17, 2023

    Phil Levine is one of my top 10 poets. I never, *never*, tire of reading his work.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Vox Populi
      March 18, 2023

      Oh, Laure-Anne, how nice to see you on these pages again! Yes, Phil Levine is one of our best poets. No one else captures the life of industrial workers and their families as well as he did



      • Loranneke
        March 18, 2023

        I was away for a while, dear Mike. All’s well — happy to be back!


  3. Lex Runciman
    March 17, 2023

    The real baptism… and it can be enacted more than once.


  4. Rose Mary Boehm
    March 17, 2023

    Well, what to say, except, of course, Philip Levine!


  5. Tony Gloeggler
    March 17, 2023

    Probably my all time favorite poet and this was i believe the first poem of his I read. Still totally love it


  6. Sean Sexton
    March 17, 2023

    So great!


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This entry was posted on March 17, 2023 by in Opinion Leaders, Poetry, Social Justice and tagged , , , .

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