Phillis Levin

Blueprint and Ancient Story
October 23, 2023 Levin Phillis



The poem I want to build needs a vestibule
Inviting all who wish to be bidden
Welcome: an ample parallelogram
With a skylight open to a patch of stars.


Horses, of course there will be horses
Gathering in darkness
Under those stars in a field of grass
Extending far enough for an eye to grasp


Bounty uncontainable. A passageway
Will lead to a loft for the hay
And a wing to accommodate the rain.
Where will I store a roomful of ash?


In a crypt in the cellar,
Adjoining vaulted chambers of seed
Saved from flowers buried
In pockets in a dream. The attic


Is for scores of unheard music,
Notes from expired currencies, toys,
Diplomas, film reels, a shoebox of shells,
Centuries of things to be sorted later


(Albums, letters, keys, locks of hair),
Sealed to keep the past from taking over.
Essential to the structure is an atrium
Where a thought on its own may rise,


And every storey shall include
Corners tempting a child to hide.
What the garden grows, a resident,
However transient, may decide,


Provided some hydrangeas recollect
Slow-dissolving cumuli
And along a gate unlatched for passersby
Lobelias spill indigo.


Above all, the plan will correspond
With the terrain beyond the boundary,
Features of topography the print alone
Won’t show (a void


Is a wilderness sustained
By the margin). To that end,
The design makes sure a visitor
Exiting any door must meander,


Following light as it falls across
Nameless shades in a palette of moss
On a path sown with conifer needles until
Stumbling into a clearing


Before a precipice, whose lip
Offers access to
Water on water pouring through
A stone vestibule—
Here, I’m at a loss,


Without a line to plumb the measure of bliss.
But I know this: when I step outside
There’s a space within reach
No quadrant can divine or divide.



Ancient Story


In the war between the vast and the small, the minuscule win, the scales tip, infinitesimals prevail. Though hope does not yet exist, nor despair, their victory seems empty, for they are too minute to be seen, let alone remembered. Some gather out of necessity (if necessity can be said to rule in such a realm) and assemble into sums that in time multiply into alliances big enough to leave a mark. To a human eye, these odd-angled entities resemble ruins in a landscape translated by decay: up close, colossal characters; from afar, a scattering of runes, an alphabetmwithout a key. Is a message there to be decoded, or left unread? That is a question for the future.


For reasons unknown, many of the tiniest organisms fail to join a colony, partake of any union. They abide in isolation, invisible motorized forms not alive not dead, unable (one cannot say unwilling) to forsake themselves to create a larger creature. On little or nothing they survive, flourishing undetected: in time they enter, by chance or of necessity, the bodies of other beings. Some make peace, some havoc, the former restoring order or serving as go-betweens, the latter engaging in acts of piracy or mass destruction (their infamy endures in dates engraved on monuments and fading tombstones, and in tomes tracing recurrent reigns of terror). In their own way they are immortal, at least for now.


A great number of the abovementioned loners behave like gracious guests, giving freely more than they take, improving the general atmosphere wherever they happen to dwell; indeed, to expel the uninvited, even those arousing unrest, may cause substantial harm to a host. Due to certain flaws in classification, the venomous, the beneficent, and the benign are commonly confused. Thus in most cases it is impossible to foresee how things will turn out in their presence. But whatever the case, good and evil, guilt and innocence, shall remain for them a far cry away.


Note on “Ancient Story”:

“Ancient Story” arose from an abiding interest in microbes. Written in May 2019, it may
now seem to concern the coronavirus causing the Covid-19 pandemic.

Phillis Levin is the author of five poetry collections, most recently Mr. Memory & Other Poems (Penguin Books, 2016), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; her other collections are May Day (Penguin, 2008), Mercury (Penguin, 2001), The Afterimage (Copper Beech Press, 1995), and Temples and Fields (University of Georgia Press, 1988). She is the editor of The Penguin Book of the Sonnet (2001). Her honors include the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, a Fulbright Scholar Award to Slovenia, the Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Best American Poetry, Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Paris Review, Poetry, Poetry London, The Yale Review, and elsewhere. She lives in New York.