The Negatives

by Philip Levine

Philip Levine

On March 1, 1958, four deserters from the French Army of North Africa,
August Rein, Henri Bruette, Jack Dauville, & Thomas Delain, robbed a
government pay station at Orleansville. Because of the subsequent
confession of Dauville the other three were captured or shot. Dauville
was given his freedom and returned to the land of his birth, the U.S.A.
from a last camp near St. Remy
I dig in the soft earth all
afternoon, spacing the holes
a foot or so from the wall.
Tonight we eat potatoes,
tomorrow rice and carrots.
The earth here is like the earth
nowhere, ancient with wood rot.
How can anything come forth,
I wonder; and the days are
all alike, if there is more
than one day. If there is more
of this I will not endure.
I have grown so used to being
watched I can no longer sleep
without my watcher. The thing
I fought against, the dark cape,
crimsoned with terror that
I so hated comforts me now.
Thomas is dead; insanity,
prison, cowardice, or slow
inner capitulation
has found us all, and all men
turn from us, knowing our pain
is not theirs or caused by them.
from a hospital in Algiers
Dear Suzanne: this letter will
not reach you because I can't
write it; I have no pencil,
no paper, only the blunt
end of my anger. My dear,
if I had words how could I
report the imperfect failure
for which I began to die?
I might begin by saying
that it was for clarity,
though I did not find it in
terror: dubiously
entered each act, unsure
of who I was and what I
did, touching my face for fear
I was another inside
my head I played back pictures
of my childhood, of my wife
even, for it was in her
I found myself beaten, safe,
and furthest from the present.
It is her face I see now
though all I say is meant
for you, her face in the slow
agony of sexual
release. I cannot see you.
The dark wall ribbed with spittle
on which I play my childhood
brings me to this bed, mastered
by what I was, betrayed by
those I trusted. The one word
my mouth must open to is why.
from a hotel in Tampa, Florida
From Orleansville we drove
south until we reached the hills,
then east until
the road stopped. I was nervous
and couldn't eat. Thomas took
over, told us when to think
and when to shit.
We turned north and reached Blida
by first dawn and the City
by morning, having dumped our
weapons beside an empty
road. We were free.
We parted, and to this hour
I haven't seen them, except
in photographs: the black hair
and torn features
of Thomas Delain captured
a moment before his death
on the pages of the world,
smeared in the act. I tortured
myself with their
betrayal: alone I hurled
them into freedom, inner
freedom which I can't find
nor ever will
until they are dead. In my mind
Delain stands against the wall
precise in detail, steadied
for the betrayal. "La France
C'Est Moi," he cried,
but the irony was lost. Since
I returned to the U.S.
nothing goes well. I stay up
too late, don't sleep,
and am losing weight. Thomas,
I say, is dead, but what use
telling myself what I won't
believe. The hotel quiets
early at night,
the aged brace themselves for
another sleep, and offshore
the sea quickens its pace. I
am suddenly
old, caught in a strange country
for which no man would die.
from a journal found on his person
At night wakened by the freight
trains boring through the suburbs
of Lyon, I watched first light
corrode the darkness, disturb
what little wildlife was left
in the alleys: birds moved from
branch to branch, and the dogs leapt
at the garbage. Winter numbed
even the hearts of the young
who had only their hearts. We
heard the war coming; the long
wait was over, and we moved
along the crowded roads south
not looking for what lost loves
fell by the roadsides. To flee
at all cost, that was my youth.
Here in the African night
wakened by what I do not
know and shivering in the heat,
listen as the men fight
with sleep. Loosed from their weapons
they cry out, frightened and young,
who have never been children.
Once merely to be strong,
to live, was moral. Within
these uniforms we accept
the evil we were chosen
to deliver, and no act
human or benign can free
us from ourselves. Wait, sleep, blind
soldiers of a blind will, and
listen for that old command
dreaming of authority.

Last updated May 02, 2015