NEA Literature Fellowships

Phillis Levin

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(2007 - Poetry)

"May Day"

I've decided to waste my life again,
Like I used to: get drunk
On the light in the leaves, find a wall
Against which something can happen, 

Whatever may have happened
Long ago - let a bullet hole echoing
The will of an executioner, a crevice 
In which a love note was hidden,     

Be a cell where a struggling tendril
Utters a few spare syllables at dawn.
I've decided to waste my life
In a new way, to forget whoever

Touched a hair on my head, because
It doesn't matter what came to pass,
Only that it passed, because we repeat
Ourselves, we repeat ourselves.

I've decided to walk a long way
Out of the way, to allow something
Dreaded to waken for no good reason,
Let it go without saying, 

Let it go as it will to the place
It will go without saying: a wall
Against which a body was pressed                                              
For no good reason, other than this.

Published in The New Yorker (May 3, 2004)

Phillis Levin is the author of three books of poetry, Temples and Fields (Georgia, 1988), The Afterimage (Copper Beech, 1995), and Mercury (Penguin 2001), and is the editor of The Penguin Book of the Sonnet (2001). Her fourth collection, May Day, will be published by Penguin in May 2008. She is an elector of the American Poets' Corner of the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine and co-director of the Sarah Lawrence Language Exchange. Her honors include the Norma Farber First Book Award, a Fulbright Fellowship to Slovenia, the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in New York City and teaches at Hofstra University.


Author's Statement

Thanks to this fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, I will be able to turn a one semester sabbatical into a yearlong leave from teaching next year. The timing could not have been more felicitous.

This grant will make it possible for me to devote my full attention to writing my fifth volume of poems, a book-length sequence entitled "Zeno in the Dark," and will give me the freedom to immerse myself in the reading, thinking, and travel necessary for the development and realization of this cycle. Zeno of Elea, the pre-Socratic philosopher known for his paradoxes and considered the inventor of the dialectic, plays the central character: the problems he poses to himself and others touch upon the tragic and comic dimensions of action and inaction. Many of the poems in this cycle spring wholly from the imagination, while others will require research in ancient history and philosophy, and in the history of science.

In September 2006 I completed my fourth collection, May Day (forthcoming from Penguin in May 2008), and I have already written a small group of the Zeno poems. I am always seeking out new patterns of expression, and am drawn to working in modes combining drama and song.The imaginative range and formal challenge of this sequence embody my desire to compose lucid architectonic structures without losing the compression of lyric. With the gift of time this fellowship affords, I will also embark on a separate project that I conceived of long ago, and now am free to pursue: I will be writing a libretto in collaboration with the Italian-American composer Chester Biscardi, with whom I have shared my vision for this opera.

On a more personal note, I would like to say that from an early age the act of shaping and sounding a poem originated in a visceral response to parallel impulses: to make something sacred and to do something public; and so the word "National" carries special weight for me, reaffirming my hope that what I am doing as a poet has meaning and value that radiates, that composing a poem is one of the myriad ways of being a citizen, of making a bridge from innermost to outermost  reaches.