The Poem of Chalk

Levine, Philip

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice
  • Date of entry: Mar-28-2001
  • Last revised: Sep-05-2006


In the heart of New York City the narrator comes across a tall, Senegalese man "speaking to a piece of chalk." The man is "neatly dressed / in the remnants of two blue suits . . . " and regal in his bearing. The man’s language is French, and he speaks "so slowly and precisely" that the narrator, no longer young, is reminded of his high school French class. He is also reminded of writing his name on the blackboard after returning to school, following his father’s death. The man knows "the whole history of chalk"; he knows "what creatures had given / their spines to become the dust time / pressed into these perfect cones . . . " The narrator knows that they are both elderly men "sharing the final poem of chalk . . . " [58 lines]


Philip Levine/the narrator employs chalk as a metaphor for aging and death, and its blackboard tracings as the tracings of memory. He endows the Senegalese man--probably deranged--with dignity. Rather than avoiding him, as most people would, he stops to listen to him and to reflect on their shared humanity. A beautiful and unusual poem that could be discussed along with Lucille Clifton’s Miss Rosie (in this database annotated by Felice Aull and also by Lois Nixon).


The collection in which this poem appears won the Pulitzer Prize.

Primary Source

The Simple Truth



Place Published

New York