Monday, September 15, 2008

What Work Is

Philip Levine writes poems about working class people. People much like many of my friends. People who possess a strong desire to work. People who don't earn much. People who are accustomed to waiting for any and every opportunity.

Levine comes out of his soul and his own experience from a generation ago growing up in Detroit.

But things haven't changed all that much, except that manual labor doesn't pay what it once did, relatively speaking.
Levine writes songs, he tells stories about ordinary working folks looking for even a glimmer of hope.

What Work Is

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is--if you're
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it's someone else's brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, "No,
we're not hiring today," for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who's not beside you or behind or
ahead because he's home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You've never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you're too young or too dumb,
not because you're jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don't know what work is.

[Philip Levine, "What Work Is," from What Work Is: Poems, pages 18-19]

1 comment:

Jeremy Gregg said...

I've been thinking about this poem for three and a half years now, and I still shudder.

Thanks for posting. Would love to get your thoughts on this at another time.