Something has fallen wordlessly
and holds still on the black driveway.

You find it, like a jewel,
among the empty bottles and cans

where the dogs toppled the garbage.
You pick it up, not sure

if it is stone or wood
or some new plastic made

to replace them both.
When you raise your sunglasses

to see exactly what you have
you see it is only a shadow

that has darkened your fingers,
a black ink or oil,

and your hand suddenly smells
of classrooms when the rain

pounded the windows and you
shuddered thinking of the cold

and the walk back to an empty house.
You smell all of your childhood,

the damp bed you struggled from
to dress in half-light and go out

into a world that never tired.
Later, your hand thickened and flat

slid out of a rubber glove,
as you stood, your mask raised,

to light a cigarette and rest
while the acid tanks that were

yours to clean went on bathing
the arteries of broken sinks.

Remember, you were afraid
of the great hissing jugs.

There were stories of burnings,
of flesh shredded to lace.

On other nights men spoke
of rats as big as dogs.

Women spoke of men
who trapped them in corners.

Always there was grease that hid
the faces of worn faucets, grease

that had to be eaten one
finger-print at a time,

there was oil, paint, blood,
your own blood sliding across

your nose and running over
your lips with that bright, certain

taste that was neither earth
or air, and there was air,

the darkest element of all,
falling all night

into the bruised river
you slept beside, falling

into the glass of water
you filled two times for breakfast

and the eyes you turned upward
to see what time it was.

Air that stained everything
with its millions of small deaths,

that turned all five fingers
to grease or black ink or ashes.

-philip levine