Margin Notes: Philip Levine, What Work Is

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 of 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.

—Philip Levine, an excerpt from “What Work Is”

The poetry of Philip Levine was the perfect fit for his time as Poet Laureate. After all, what better way to connect to the bleak economic landscape than through a man who wrote poetry about Detroit and manual labor? To be sure, Levine doesn’t write what we commonly perceive as poetry. He isn’t about the powdered scattering of stars at sunset or the way the light strikes the lips of a young bohemian coffee shop wanderer. He is all about the dull, soul-crushing labor that makes up the backbone of the United States. The rough and tumble workers who eke out a living bending steel in the dead of night so that the rest of the country can drive to work in their own private automobiles. The man stuck in the unemployment line day after day, losing hours of a life that only goes in one direction and can never be reclaimed.

My grandparents all grew up during The Great Depression. One of them was lucky enough to have parents who owned a grocery store. The others fought a long battle with slow starvation, sometimes going for weeks on slices of bread smeared with a thin layer of chicken fat. Them, and all of their siblings. Their options were limited: the men, when they turned of age, joined the military.

Levine’s poem is a dark one. There are plenty of places in our country right now that are occupied by bottomless pits of people stuck in a temp agency line. If that’s you or someone you know, I’m pulling for you. No one deserves to have his life sucked away like that.

—Written by Grant Goodman

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