Thursday, November 17, 2011


What Work Is

By Philip Levine

(Listen to Levine read  his poem here.)

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Auto plant. Summer of 1983. Stepped up to an indexing CNC machine. 7:00 AM. I was 20. Never used the machine before. Set the 1-shift record for the most parts ever run on the machine after a 30 second demonstration. Indexing machines have a top speed. In other words, it only goes so fast. All I did was remove the finished parts and insert the blanks into the fixtures efficiently, then hit two buttons simultaneously. Instead of a 55-second pause between opearations, I moved the blanks to a table very close to the loading point on the machine - and I still had about 45 seconds to stand around and wait while the machine processed parts.

I was a non union, summer temp and the union complained to management that I worked too fast. Never broke a sweat.

Apparently, I know what work is in an auto assembly plant, which is why I was never assigned to work on that machine again.