‘In search of anything usable left behind…’

Before his death in 2015, Philip Levine left a number of poems awaiting collection. Edward Hirsch edited and assembled The Last Shift, which contains some of the former poet laureate’s most poignant work, and without the flatness that occasionally marred his work. I’m taken with “Office Hours.”

Happy July.

Midnight on Grand River, and the car barns
are quiet, the last truck left hours ago.
The watchman dreams through his rounds.

If you entered the office now you’d find
all the old upright Smith Coronas sheathed
in their gowns, the pencils tucked in drawers,

the fountain pens dreaming of the epics
they’ll never write, the paper clips
holding together reports on nothing at all.

You’re at the heart of a nation that divides,
adds, subtracts, and never multiplies.
Before it rings, pick up the phone,

say in a voice you’ve never used before,
your Uncle Sam voice, “Yes, this is he,
tell me what you’d like to hear…”

and wait until the line goes dead.
Years ago you inherited all these desks
and the women who man them

along with all the meaningless facts
that detail the profit and loss of each day.
What’s it worth? You’ll get your answer

from the mice as they make their way
in search of anything usable left behind.
If not from the mice, then from something else
with greater purpose and a smaller mind.

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