The Simple Truth
I bought a dollar and a half's worth of small red potatoes,
took them home, boiled them in their jackets
and ate them for dinner with a little butter and salt.
Then I walked through the dried fields
on the edge of town. In middle June the light
hung on in the dark furrows at my feet,
and in the mountain oaks overhead the birds
were gathering for the night, the jays and mockers
squawking back and forth, the finches still darting
into the dusty light. The woman who sold me
the potatoes was from Poland; she was someone
out of my childhood in a pink spangled sweater and sunglasses
praising the perfection of all her fruits and vegetables
at the road-side stand and urging me to taste
even the pale, raw sweet corn trucked all the way,
she swore, from New Jersey. "Eat, eat," she said,
"Even if you don't I'll say you did."
you know all your life. They are so simple and true
they must be said without elegance, meter, and rhyme,
they must be laid on the table beside the salt shaker,
the glass of water, the absence of light gathering
in the shadows of picture frames, they must be
naked and alone, they must stand for themselves.
My friend Henri and I arrived at this together in 1965
before I went away, before he began to kill himself,
and the two of us to betray our love. Can you taste
what I'm saying? It is onions or potatoes, a pinch
of simple salt, the wealth of melting butter, it is obvious,
it stays in the back of your throat like a truth
you never uttered because the time was always wrong,
it stays there for the rest of your life, unspoken,
made of that dirt we call earth, the metal we call salt,
in a form we have no words for, and you live on it.
Philip Levine 1994
Is this poem about innocence? Love? Simplicity? Modesty? Levine doesn't give us any single, concrete "truth," though that is the poem's title. That's the lovely thing about this poem, though; it is simple, clear, and straightforward, but it doesn't provide an easy explanation or answer. Rather, "the simple truth" is a feeling, an experience, something tangible and sensual and fresh. It is buttery potatoes, the affection of a stranger, the light wandering on a furrow. The poem invites us to experience the feeling with its narrator. Just share, and enjoy.
He starts with his own story, told without pretension. The diction, like the elements of the poem, are straightforward and clear. The price - a dollar and a half, written in longhand - establishes the modesty of the meal, while the "small red potatoes" are evenly and lovingly described. They are comfortable, wrapped in their "jackets." The meal is unassuming and simple, for the potatoes are garnished with nothing more than "a little butter and salt." The addition of the details "small," "jackets," and "little" make this otherwise unremarkable sentence strikingly beautiful. There is just enough attention to detail to really make us notice this dinner.
There is a kind of rich delicacy to the narrator's stroll, as well. The "dried fields" kindle a crackling freshness, while their position "on the edge of town" sets them at a finely balanced point. The narrator takes care to notice the light's persistence in the furrows, the strings of birds moving overhead. The words "squawking," "gathering," and "darting" are logopoeic: words that both mean and are.* As Pope wrote, "the sound [seems] an echo of the sense." "Squawking" scraps on the ears like the calls of jays, "gathering" rustles like feathers, and "darting" mimics the quick energy of finches flying in the night. Levine's language draws the walk, its phrases simple and rich as pencil-lines.
You can see the affection with which the narrator views the Polish woman as well; we, too, know this woman. The one whose bad taste (pink-spangled sweater!) and affection mix in some completely loveable way. She is our mother, our aunt, our grandmother, our third grade teacher. Someone whose cajoling makes us blush from embarrassment and self-esteem. The narrator lovingly re-creates the rise of her voice with the phrases "praising the perfection" and "all the way / she swore, from New Jersey." And we can almost her her Polish accent leaking out from her command, "eat, eat."
The energy and humor of the first stanza make the introspective revelation, "Some things / you know all your life" more striking. The narrator quits his half-grin towards the vegetable-seller, adopting a voice of almost urgent passion and love. He turns towards the reader with the "you," looking us in the eye and explaining what he means. There are no words for these simple truths, though, only experiences that must be seen and tasted and touched. By bringing in his friend Henri, the narrator ups the intensity of his story. Henri's appearance perhaps expresses the narrator's regret for not living in the present when he had the chance, not loving the world through clear and meticulous observation.
This is why he turns to us so urgently, asking, "Can you taste / what I'm saying?" But again, he cannot articulate his thought. It is stuck in the back of his throat: a kind of loving intensity, a clench of affection and a desire to appreciate the world for what it is. We live on these simple truths: the yearning tenderness for the world, the raw, deep, uncomplicated realm of sense and experience. The line "that dirt we call earth, that metal we call salt," too, expresses the sometime-arbitrariness of labels. We can't label and constrain them any more than we can label and constrain experience (whether we try to or think that we can is a different question). Perhaps Levine is hinting that labels are useless, and take us out of the realm of the present. Our truest experiences are those without names, descriptions, or analyses. They are necessarily personal and individual, experienced and interpreted by all.
So when I ask again what this poem is about, the best answer is, I believe, simple, true things. Potatoes, trees, moss, paper, a good pencil, cool water, walking in the sun, toast in the morning, meadowlarks in Colorado, forsythia bushes out of the window, cats purring, bread baking, for me. Levine invites us to think about the simple truths for ourselves, notice and appreciate the wealth of modest, true things surrounding us. So go ahead! List your own and think about yours. There is something to be said for the infinite unspeakable-ness of simplicity.
*Logopoeia: Ezra Pound discusses language as a means of communication and finds three ways in which language can be charged with meaning: (a) by throwing the object, be it fixed or moving, on to the visual imagination; this is phanopoeia; (b) by inducing emotional correlations by the sound and rhythm of speech; this is melopoeia; (c) by inducing both of these effects, thus stimulating the intellectual or emotional associations which have remained in the reciever's consciousness in relation to the actual words or groups of words employed; this is logopoeia. (from the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Theory)