In September 2006 my treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma came to an end. I was not told I was officially in remission from the disease for another month.

It was a very difficult time. On one level I missed the routine of being treated for cancer. Even the radiology centre, with its slab and windowless rooms, had provided each day with some sort of purpose. Now, with my children’s return to school, and my wife’s to work after the holiday break, there was just me…

Reading books, unthinkable during chemotherapy treatment, began to seem appealing again. Ditto the newspaper. Even the odd glass of wine.

Except that they weren’t. Experience quickly taught me – my eyes glazing over, hangover-like headaches after the first sip – that re-entry into ‘normal’ life was going to be anything but easy. Plus I was still overweight. I would wheeze, even on a trip to buy milk.

My visitors dried up.

I found the slightest thing would make me cry: an overheard song on the radio; my children’s laughter; meeting my colleagues again.

It was in this listless atmosphere that I discovered Philip Levine’s ‘Magpiety’. Levine’s poetry had been recommended  to me some years before, and I had responded by buying three of his books, devouring them greedily  in quick succession. Stranger to Nothing was different, though, a British selection of his work, a first. Even though I did not have the money, I persuaded myself I needed it.

The house once again empty, I shuffled into town one Saturday afternoon and spent a happy half-hour in Waterstone’s sampling its pages.

‘Magpiety’ is the poem the book opened to on the bus home. Though it corresponds to no event or landscape in my life that I can remember, I distinctly remember coming up against the sensation of having encountered it before. Laced into its tough and dreamy narrative was an elemental vocabulary I knew Levine returned to over and again in his poems: ‘truth’, ‘rain’, ‘night’, ‘survives’, ‘heat’, ‘breath’, ‘love’, ‘knees’, ‘words’, ‘dust’, ‘woman’ and ‘man’.

It was like that scene in Stand by Me, when the boys bend to put their ears to the railway tracks they are walking along to discern the advent of a coming train with a shrug and a bravado ‘Nah!’ The bus and its passengers seemed to have started listing in the afternoon sunshine. Fluids streamed from my eyes, nose and mouth. Knowing I was in trouble but pretending I was not, I read the extraordinary affirmation of life in the poem’s final lines, word by word, repeatedly, until my breathing calmed.

Stepping off the bus in the same town, and yet an entirely different one, I allowed myself to take it as a sign, not that I was out of the woods, nor even that I had a path through them, but that I no longer faced it alone.



You pull over to the shoulder

of the two-lane

road and sit for a moment wondering

where you were going

in such a hurry. The valley is burned

out, the oaks

dream day and night of rain

that never comes.

At noon or just before noon

the short shadows

are gray and hold what little

life survives.

In the still heat the engine

clicks, although

the real heat is hours ahead.

You get out and step

cautiously over a low wire

fence and begin

the climb up the yellowed hill.

A hundred feet

ahead the trunks of two

fallen oaks

rust; something passes over

them, a lizard

perhaps or a trick of sight.

The next tree

you pass is unfamiliar,

the trunk dark,

as black as an olive’s; the low

branches stab

out, gnarled and dull: a carob

or a Joshua tree.

A sudden flaring-up ahead,

a black-winged

bird rises from nowhere,

white patches

underneath its wings, and is gone.

You hear your own

breath catching in your ears,

a roaring, a sea

sound that goes on and on

until you lean

forward to place both hands

–fingers spread–

into the bleached grasses

and let your knees

slowly down. Your breath slows

and you know

you’re back in central


on your way to San Francisco

or the coastal towns

with their damp sea breezes

you haven’t

even a hint of. But first

you must cross

the Pacheco Pass. People

expect you, and yet

you remain, still leaning forward

into the grasses

that if you could hear them

would tell you

all you need to know about

the life ahead.

*   *   *

Out of a sense of modesty

or to avoid the truth

I’ve been writing in the second

person, but in truth

it was I, not you, who pulled

the green Ford

over to the side of the road

and decided to get

up that last hill to look

back at the valley

he’d come to call home.

I can’t believe

that man, only thirty-two,

less than half

my age, could be the person

fashioning these lines.

That was late July of ’60.

I had heard

all about magpies, how they

snooped and meddled

in the affairs of others, not

birds so much

as people. If you dared

to remove a wedding

ring as you washed away

the stickiness of love

or the cherished odors of another

man or woman,

as you turned away

from the mirror

having admired your new-found


“My Funny Valentine” or

“Body and Soul”–

to reach for a rough towel

or some garment

on which to dry yourself,

he would enter

the open window behind you

that gave gratefully

onto the fields and the roads

bathed in dawn–

he, the magpie–and snatch

up the ring

in his hard beak and shoulder

his way back

into the currents of the world

on his way

to the only person who could

change your life:

a king or a bride or an old woman

asleep on her porch.

*   *   *

Can you believe the bird

stood beside you

just long enough, though far

smaller than you

but fearless in a way

a man or woman

could never be? An apparition

with two dark

and urgent eyes and motions

so quick and precise

they were barely motions at all?

When he was gone

you turned, alarmed by the rustling

of oily feathers

and the curious pungency,

and were sure

you’d heard him say the words

that could explain

the meaning of blond grasses

burning on a hillside

beneath the hands of a man

in the middle of

his life caught in the posture

of prayer. I’d

heard that a magpie could talk,

so I waited

for the words, knowing without

the least doubt

what he’d do, for up ahead

an old woman

waited on her wide front porch.

My children

behind her house played

in a silted pond

poking sticks at the slow

carp that flashed

in the fallen sunlight. You

are thirty-two

only once in your life, and though

July comes

too quickly, you pray for

the overbearing

heat to pass. It does, and

the year turns

before it holds still for

even a moment.

Beyond the last carob

or Joshua tree

the magpie flashes his sudden

wings; a second

flames and vanishes into the pale

blue air.

July 23, 1960.

I lean down

closer to hear the burned grasses

whisper all I

need to know. The words rise

around me, separate

and finite. A yellow dust

rises and stops

caught in the noon’s driving light.

Three ants pass

across the back of my reddened

right hand.

Everything is speaking or singing.

We’re still here.


Philip Levine, from Stranger to Nothing: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2006)

Lifesaving Poems