Margaret Levine, “A Man I Knew”

“…in many liberal arts fields, the only possible consumer of the research in question is a handful of scholars in the same field.  That sort of research is valuable in the same way that children’s craft projects are priceless–to their mothers.  Basically, these people are supporting an expensive hobby with a sideline business certifying the ability of certain twenty-year olds to write in complete sentences.” – Megan McArdle

A Man I Knew (from poetry 180)
Margaret Levine

has a condo

a maid who comes
every other week

kids who won’t

are on the dresser
they float forever

like a boat


Who is speaking this poem? “I knew” means that the speaker once was close to the man in question, but now isn’t. That would put the ex-wife at the top of any list of potential speakers, and there is nothing in the poem to exclude her. But I think we can put “ex-girlfriend after the divorce” onto any such list, too: “I Knew” suggests “I tried to love you but couldn’t.”

It isn’t hard to see the conflict between independence and love throughout the poem – it is literally central, with “kids who won’t” staring out at us from the middle. A “condo” isn’t a home; a “maid” is a regular visitor, but not a guest, a friend, or a companion of any sort. Independence, which is all we are aiming at throughout years of schooling and employment, is everything even as it is nothing. One is tempted to say it is prerequisite to happiness: one needs to be able to take care of oneself first – one needs to prove utility to others, usually – and then and only then does one merit the right to be happy.

The last half of the poem casts doubt on that prerequisite. The inside of the house (“dresser”) gives way to complete unreality; the kids don’t “float,” and “like a boat” is hard to make sense of. If independence is really key to being loved, then independence is key to something totally alien from it. It’s easy to link the concepts when we’re talking about the happiness of someone in particular. But the concepts don’t seem to link directly taken alone.

In fact, the only way they link is through the vision of one who thinks his independence should secure love. A family, a home were floating in his head well before the marriage, more than likely. And moving along calmly with where life takes one is a sailing of sorts. The only link, then, is thinking one’s dreams really are just a step down a conventional path. One just has to keep sailing. Every kid and every adult seems to believe this.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of the time our dreams are achieved because we reformulate them. We take steps to move toward something ideal, sure, but we also adjust that ideal. Sailing does contrast with the concept of home. It doesn’t contrast as explicitly, though, with the concept of a condo. There may be a clue why this man’s kids won’t see him. Some people want to live in their dreams, no matter how painful they are. We note that the speaker, despite his/her distance, does not dare to judge.


  1. I had to read that several times. Your explanation made that make sense…the kids on the pictures on the dresser. I would interpret the float away..farther and farther away from the father. I agree with Beth..all to true today.

  2. “Most of the time our dreams are achieved because we reformulate them.” … Beautifully stated!!!!

    The poem is very reflective of the society I see around me. I like that it just states it’s thought/perception without judgment. That allows me, the reader, my own unique judgment/perspective.

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