Apr. 18, 2005: WHAT WORK IS (Philip Levine)

Dear readers,

A friend randomly read this to me over the weekend and it was one of those
poems I sort of remembered while not exactly remembering any lines of. So
the last one took me by surprise, which was delightful. I have to say, it
sounded nice out loud. So you should try it. Grab your coffee, go to the
break room, print a copy and stand by the water cooler for 20 minutes,
announce an "emergency meeting of the cool" over the intercom, and
proclaim. Here’s some brief info on the author:

"Levine as poet: Philip Levine is known as the poet of the working class,
not only because so many of his poems tell stories of his immigrant
grandparents, the blue collar workers & his own workingman’s life in
Detroit, but also because so many of them address the common man in
apparently simple, colloquial language. He was in, but not really of, the
Beat generation — he knew Ginsberg & Snyder, but his voice is his own,
unique & beloved."

**************************

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.

-1991

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