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Our Valley

April 3, 2012

Lu at Regular Rumination introduced me to a new favorite poem via April’s National Poetry Month poster designed by Chin-Yee Lai, with lines of poetry from “Our Valley” by Philip Levine:

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 scent of salt, call it our life.

I think my favorite line of this poem is the one describing the ocean, but when I take it out, it’s not quite as wonderful as it seems in context:  “something massive, irrational, and so powerful…”

What is your favorite line?

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2012 8:43 am

    I grew up in the mountains, so the ocean is still to me a source of great awe and wonder.

    • April 4, 2012 9:16 am

      Me too. We took our friend Miriam to see the ocean for the first time when she’d moved out to Maryland with us–we drove to Ocean City and waded out into it. It was November, and she turned to look at the shore. “Don’t turn your back…(splash) …on the ocean!” I shouted, as a wave hit her from behind. It was also fun to sit eating hot clam chowder and warming up afterwards.

  2. April 3, 2012 9:12 am

    “They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine”

    I am near neither ocean nor mountains and love them both . . .

    • April 4, 2012 9:18 am

      That is a nice line. I like the implicit way it compares mountains and oceans to cathedrals.

  3. April 3, 2012 7:29 pm

    I like “and the men
    who carved a living from it only to find themselves
    carved down to nothing.”

    I like poems that capture the weird majesty of the ocean (and mountains too, only I don’t have an experience of mountains to compare against in my head).

    • April 4, 2012 9:26 am

      That carving line is wonderful. I grew up near the Ozarks, and they’ve been carved down to where you don’t see the carving so much, just roundedness.

  4. April 3, 2012 9:45 pm

    I’m not sure I can pick one line, but I do love this section: “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.”

    • April 4, 2012 9:27 am

      Yes! I like the way those lines work with the title, too.

  5. PAJ permalink
    April 3, 2012 9:52 pm

    “They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine.”
    Loud people are secretly envious of that kind of silence.

    • April 4, 2012 9:28 am

      Ain’t that the truth! I am looking forward to profaning the silence of the ocean with you this July.

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