Philip Levine: Poems on Work and Life

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Philip Levine, Poet

Philip Levine

Philip Levine, who recently served as the nation’s poet laureate, spoke with Bill about how his years working in Detroit informed his poetry. Levine, who is the author of 20 collections of poems, as well as books of translations and essays, has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards. Here, he shares four of his poems on working-class life in Detroit.

Coming Close

Take this quiet woman, she has been
standing before a polishing wheel
for over three hours, and she lacks
twenty minutes before she can take
a lunch break. Is she a woman?
Consider the arms as they press
the long brass tube against the buffer,
they are striated along the triceps,
the three heads of which clearly show.
Consider the fine dusting of dark down
above the upper lip, and the beads
of sweat that run from under the red
kerchief across the brow and are wiped
away with a blackening wrist band
in one odd motion a child might make
to say No! No! You must come closer
to find out, you must hang your tie
and jacket in one of the lockers
in favor of a black smock, you must
be prepared to spend shift after shift
hauling off the metal trays of stock,
bowing first, knees bent for a purchase,
then lifting with a gasp, the first word
of tenderness between the two of you,
then you must bring new trays of dull
unpolished tubes. You must feed her,
as they say in the language of the place.
Make no mistake, the place has a language,
and if by some luck the power were cut,
the wheel slowed to a stop so that you
suddenly saw it was not a solid object
but so many separate bristles forming
in motion a perfect circle, she would turn
to you and say, “Why?” Not the old why of why
must I spend five nights a week?
Just, “Why?” Even if by some magic
you knew, you wouldn’t dare speak
for fear of her laughter, which now
you have anyway as she places the five
tapering fingers of her filthy hand
on the arm of your white shirt to mark
you for your own, now and forever.

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 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. 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.

You Can Have It

My brother comes home from work
and climbs the stairs to our room.
I can hear the bed groan and his shoes drop
one by one. You can have it, he says.
The moonlight streams in the window
and his unshaven face is whitened
like the face of the moon. He will sleep
long after noon and waken to find me gone.
Thirty years will pass before I remember
that moment when suddenly I knew each man
has one brother who dies when he sleeps
and sleeps when he rises to face this life,
and that together they are only one man
sharing a heart that always labors, hands
yellowed and cracked, a mouth that gasps
for breath and asks, Am I gonna make it?
All night at the ice plant he had fed
the chute its silvery blocks, and then I
stacked cases of orange soda for the children
of Kentucky, one gray boxcar at a time
with always two more waiting. We were twenty
for such a short time and always in
the wrong clothes, crusted with dirt
and sweat. I think now we were never twenty.
In 1948 in the city of Detroit, founded
by de la Mothe Cadillac for the distant purposes
of Henry Ford, no one wakened or died,
no one walked the streets or stoked a furnace,
for there was no such year, and now
that year has fallen off all the old newspapers,
calendars, doctors’ appointments, bonds,
wedding certificates, drivers licenses.
The city slept. The snow turned to ice.
The ice to standing pools or rivers
racing in the gutters. Then bright grass rose
between the thousands of cracked squares,
and that grass died. I give you back 1948.
I give you all the years from then
to the coming one. Give me back the moon
with its frail light falling across a face.
Give me back my young brother, hard
and furious, with wide shoulders and a curse
for God and burning eyes that look upon
all creation and say, You can have it.

Making It Work

3-foot blue cannisters of nitro
along a conveyor belt, slow fish
speaking the language of silence.
On the roof, I in my respirator
patching the asbestos gas lines
as big around as the thick waist
of an oak tree. “These here are
the veins of the place, stuff
inside’s the blood.” We work in rain,
heat, snow, sleet. First warm
spring winds up from Ohio, I
pause at the top of the ladder
to take in the wide world reaching
downriver and beyond. Sunlight
dumped on standing and moving
lines of freight cars, new fields
of bright weeds blowing, scoured
valleys, false mountains of coke
and slag. At the ends of sight
a rolling mass of clouds as dark
as money brings the weather in.

Credit: “What Work Is” and “Coming Close” from What Work Is,  ©1992 by Philip Levine. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. “You Can Have It” and “Making It Work” from New Selected Poems, ©1991 by Philip Levine. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

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