These Mountains, They Have No Word For Ocean

philip-levine These mountains, they have no word for ocean.I share this poem as my offering of gratitude for the life and poetry of Philip Levine (1928-2015).

These mountains, they have no word for ocean

The New York Times has provided an eloquent obituary.

These mountains, they have no word for ocean. National Public Radio shared Levine’s recitation of his poem “What Work Is,” a poem for which he is well-known.

These mountains, they have no word for ocean. Philip Levine first appeared in my world in 2010, when I enjoyed his poem “My Fathers, The Baltic.”

These mountains, they have no word for ocean. While Philip Levine is usually associated with Detroit, he lived in the San Joaquin Valley for many years, and wrote this poem about this place. It appears in the book “News of the World.”

PachecoLakePachecoPass These mountains, they have no word for ocean

Our Valley

We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.

You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.

You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a whiff of salt, call it our life.

I have added some music by Brian Eno to this poem. So long, Philip Levine. We behold you with love and gratitude. Without you, we might not know that these mountains, they have no world for ocean.

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