Listen Carefully

Levine, Philip

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice
  • Date of entry: May-22-2001
  • Last revised: Jan-09-2007


The speaker, a young male, relates how he and his 26 year-old sister live together. They both work; she rises before dawn, he, later, returning home after one a.m. They sleep in the same bed. The sister is an assembly-line worker, skilled at her job, but "let me be frank about this: . . not smart." He helps her with the chores of daily life--answering the mail, cooking (cookbooks are too confusing for her). She has been unlucky with men, some of whom have physically abused her: " I've rubbed / hand cream into the bruises on her shoulders . . . I've even cried / along with her."

There is a fond intimacy between them. But is it sexual? "By now I believe I know / exactly what you're thinking" says the brother, three-quarters of the way through the poem. How could they resist sexual intimacy? His sister is beautiful, he admits to being curious about her body, she is vulnerable and needy. Well, if that is what you think, says the speaker "you're / the one who's wrong. You haven't heard a word." [41 lines]


Philip Levine conjures up for the reader a slice of life--working class life under constrained circumstances. There is the additional complication of what appears to be mental retardation. The narration is matter-of-fact. The reader (health professional), perhaps coming from a different world, must put everything into proper context, must pay heed in order to discern the true nature of this caring relationship. Appearances can be deceiving. Pay attention, "listen carefully," don't jump to conclusions.


The collection (The Simple Truth) in which this poem appears won the Pulitzer Prize.

Primary Source

The Simple Truth



Place Published

New York