Thursday Poem: What Work Is, by Philip Levine

On Sunday, I was lucky enough to snag a last minute ticket to the New Yorker Festival event, ‘Poets Read Their Work’, featuring Michael Dickman, Jorie Graham, Terrance Hayes, Philip Levine and Tracy K. Smith. I was there for Smith, whose work in Life on Mars I have previously raved about. It’s transcendent. And yet, possibly because of the heights of my expectation, I ended up being blown away more by the other poets.

I had heard of Terrance Hayes, and read one or two of his poems, but the others were a mystery. More’s the shame. I can’t wait to buy their books. Well, I can’t wait until I have the money to buy their books, especially Levine’s, because he was a revelation. A small old man with a wiry moustache, and silver hair flecked with black, he read third. I remember wondering what he’d sound like; his hands were trembling, and he didn’t get up and stand at the podium like the others had. Said he was afraid he’d pitch over into the second row.

Given this, I thought his voice might be soft, that I might have to strain to hear him, but I was wrong; his voice was strong, with a rasp and gravel to it that is wonderful to listen to and which also adds a layer of authenticity to the often workaday subject matter of his poems. At least, of the ones I’ve read since then, and of those I heard him deliver. I don’t mean to say his poetry is ordinary; it isn’t. You can read one which is simplicity itself, elevated to great heights with his succinct lines, his understated musicality, and you can read one rough as rocks, rough as hell, rough as Detroit which hits you square in the gut – in the feels, as my generation would likely say.

I had planned to share Terrance Hayes poem ‘Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy’, which is utterly gorgeous and absolutely worthwhile reading, until I came across the poem ‘What Work Is’ when I was binge-reading all I could about Mr. Levine, and found myself nearly in tears by the end. Holding them back, just barely. Don’t take that as a slight. Nearly in tears. Honestly, I’m always holding them back. I’m so practiced at it, that I sometimes struggle to simply cry, which is a tragedy I’d love to undo – a scar I’d love to unstitch. So, to have anything bring tears to my eyes is a beautiful thing, even if I only hold them briefly, then blink them back.

This poem made me think about my brother, and miss him so fiercely it was an actual shock to my system. Mostly because my brother is an idiot. I love him dearly. He’ll never say no to me if what I ask is within his ability to give, but somehow, the scars – there’s that word again, I am riddled with them – of childhood and adolescence still linger over our relationship. And so when I think of him, my first thought is not of love, not usually, but closer to irritation. An irritation laced with affection. Ah, he’s such a fuckhead, such a baffoon, what am I saying, but I love him anyway, and I always will. When I read this poem, I was buffeted by everything I have ever thought and felt about him, by the insane bond only brothers can have.

Such was its power, it has redrawn the lens through which I view him, and everything. I fucking love this poem for that, and Levine too. If I ever get to meet the man, I’m going to give him a hug. A big old man hug. If you’re interested in reading more about him, too, check out this fantastic interview he did with the Paris Review. But enough rambling, here, see for yourself what I’m talking about, and since it’s a short poem I’ll post it here, too.

What Work Is by Philip Levine

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.
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44 thoughts on “Thursday Poem: What Work Is, by Philip Levine

  1. Cool poem…. Insightful and direct.. I didn’t have the same visceral response but I did feel the emotion… Made me think of all the hard working people I know… And for why they toil.. And also how much hard work goes unnoticed and unappreciated.. All the hard work for the sake of hard work and little financial reward… It often goes under appreciated… But I see it and respect it all the more… Long live hard work!

  2. This is sadly accurate. It is difficult sometimes to put in the work of relationships simply because we don’t realize that the work we put in will make the relationship better or stronger in the end

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