Missing Arthur

by Philip Levine

Philip Levine

“Eighteen years ago my cousin Arthur
   died alone in a hotel
         in Perugia,

and thus was my contact with the old world gone
   as his ashes scattered
         on the west wind.

I must visit him one more time so we can
   resurrect the past,
         the look of my mother

in a white dress, how she caught my father’s dark eyes
   when he came, a stranger, to break
         bread at her house.

We are two old men in the Hotel Violetta
   late at night, each inventing
         a life he can live with.

Always Arthur’s litany of regrets: how Federico
   implored him, “Come to Santiago,”
         how Arthur turned

it over in his mind and finally declined.
   “Philip,” he says, “I could have
         entered poetry

as a crushed cat, a lost boy, a needle
   singing in the vague forehead
         of a dying bull.”

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Santiago de Cuba, Federico García Lorca,
   the names themselves music.
         Instead he came home

to grim, depressed Detroit to sell pianos
   to the Grosse Pointe ladies,
         to marry, to father

two stillborn children, only to lose his wife
   before he was even fifty,
         to die in ancient Perugia,

cold and aloof at 4 A.M., silent
   on its promontory overlooking
         the black Umbrian plain.

Someone is missing here: Arthur himself,
   with his crooked teeth, the wide
         welcoming grin,

the deep regard for everything alive.
   What use going back unless
         I can find Arthur

who is slipping away from me as
   I write these words? His eyes,
         were they hazel or gray?

Or did I merely catch the light flashing
   from the thick lenses when
         he turned to address me

in his odd, high voice cracked from use?
   “Philip,” he would say, “let’s
         pretend I am you and

you are me, together we are one man
   in a hotel in Perugia.”
         It is his voice I hear

until a tomcat cries out from the street,
   a human cry, a child’s
         seized by sudden pain,

and answered by a second human voice
   unrolling in the dark.
         The first light shades

the windows gray, the room takes shape:
   two beds, a long blank mirror,
         an absence of clutter.

The real dawn is grayer still. Then Arthur’s
   laughter, his “yick-yick” of joy
         in the new day.”

Last updated December 19, 2022