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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  1. 's Avatar
    nubianqueen92 Reblogged this on Indigo Child.
    February 18, 2015 at 5:13 am · Reply
  2. 's Avatar
    nichole 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
    February 18, 2015 at 7:52 am · Reply
  3. 's Avatar
    jacktrismegistus 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!
    February 18, 2015 at 4:23 pm · Reply
  4. 's Avatar
    marcojmossi Reblogged this on marcojmossi and commented: This is something that moves me. Amazing.
    February 18, 2015 at 6:32 pm · Reply
  5. 's Avatar
    anthonywaight Reblogged this on waightedproduction.
    February 19, 2015 at 1:22 am · Reply
  6. 's Avatar
    jmpod Mr Levine just passed away ... this is a lovely post
    February 19, 2015 at 2:22 am · Reply
  7. angelinavaltina Amazing

    February 19, 2015 at 3:20 am · Reply
  8. 's Avatar
    overdinnerfor2 Very true...come check out my blog
    February 19, 2015 at 3:27 am · Reply
  9. 's Avatar
    flameater Reblogged this on Firedancing and commented: 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,
    February 19, 2015 at 4:18 am · Reply
  10. 's Avatar
    The Never-Ending Escapade Thanks for sharing!
    February 19, 2015 at 6:15 am · Reply
  11. 's Avatar
    GENERATION UNRULY PRODUCTIONS.LTD. Reblogged this on G UP LTD. and commented: Enlighting
    February 19, 2015 at 11:05 am · Reply
  12. 's Avatar
    Tengritagh Akademiyesi Reblogged this on Tengritagh Akademiyesi.
    February 19, 2015 at 11:12 am · Reply
  13. 's Avatar
    knowthesphere Enjoyed this. Very insightful and direct yet expressed to be artful. Great read!
    February 19, 2015 at 11:27 am · Reply
  14. 's Avatar
    theoriginalimperfectwriter Reblogged this on Imperfect Writer: My Journey to Finding Myself.
    February 19, 2015 at 3:06 pm · Reply
  15. 's Avatar
    lfarhy1 <3
    February 19, 2015 at 3:55 pm · Reply
  16. 's Avatar
    Jin Okubo Reblogged this on Jin Okubo and commented: Sick, so reading not writing, sorry to all those kind following for understanding. Here is something I enjoyed.
    February 19, 2015 at 11:25 pm · Reply
  17. 's Avatar
    thespacereporter Reblogged this on The Space Reporter.
    February 20, 2015 at 4:05 am · Reply
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    pimol51 Reblogged this on pimol51.
    February 20, 2015 at 8:17 am · Reply
  19. 's Avatar
    amarshall67 Nice poem my man....
    February 20, 2015 at 10:30 am · Reply
  20. 's Avatar
    maxilprof Reblogged this on 101storiesapienti.
    February 20, 2015 at 1:21 pm · Reply
  21. 's Avatar
    Adhithi Reblogged this on Chatterboxerr and commented: Teared up.
    February 20, 2015 at 6:03 pm · Reply
  22. 's Avatar
    Adhithi What a poem.. Reblogged @chatterboxerr Thanks for this
    February 20, 2015 at 6:03 pm · Reply
  23. 's Avatar
    itsmayurremember Thank you for sharing
    February 21, 2015 at 3:39 am · Reply
  24. 's Avatar
    deanjbaker Great to see this...
    February 21, 2015 at 4:33 am · Reply
  25. 's Avatar
    sarinarachelle How you talked about your experience hearing this poem was beautiful. You picked all the right words. It was a joy to read. :)
    February 21, 2015 at 2:29 pm · Reply
  26. 's Avatar
    littleprinceroyce it's so cooooolll i love it :)
    February 22, 2015 at 12:50 am · Reply
  27. 's Avatar
    mgdurham Nice post. I love these surprising experiences like yours where the thing that grabs me most had never been on my radar.
    February 22, 2015 at 3:06 am · Reply
  28. 's Avatar
    Nikosha Puran Reblogged this on nikoshap.
    February 22, 2015 at 9:42 am · Reply
  29. 's Avatar
    bdub1989 Reblogged this on bdub1989's Blog.
    February 22, 2015 at 4:58 pm · Reply
  30. 's Avatar
    joseyphina Couldn't have said it any better.
    February 23, 2015 at 12:25 am · Reply
  31. trickpoetic Great poem

    February 23, 2015 at 6:21 am · Reply
  32. 8centpublishing Awesome guy that wrote awesome poems. Every once in a while, somebody's writing will hit me like a truck, and this was definitely one of those times.

    February 23, 2015 at 10:02 am · Reply
  33. 's Avatar
    PoshPedlar Poignant.
    February 23, 2015 at 8:39 pm · Reply
  34. dygdyhfd Reblogged this on dygdyhfd.

    February 23, 2015 at 11:31 pm · Reply
  35. arejaysee Reblogged this on arejaysee.

    February 25, 2015 at 6:29 pm · Reply
  36. 's Avatar
    Karishma Magvani Really nicely written :)
    February 26, 2015 at 7:51 pm · Reply
  37. 's Avatar
    K. Liu (Prose Under 500) Loved the diction here. I strive to write like people like you...
    March 1, 2015 at 3:27 pm · Reply
  38. 's Avatar
    totalnorse Reblogged this on recumbent Norse.
    March 2, 2015 at 12:44 am · Reply
  39. 's Avatar
    Judge Beauty Powerful - both you and Levine.
    March 2, 2015 at 2:14 pm · Reply
  40. 's Avatar
    lifelessons So sad that he has left us. Wonderful poet.
    March 10, 2015 at 3:51 pm · Reply
  41. 's Avatar
    randomramblingsofawriter Reblogged this on ChristianAuthorChick.
    March 15, 2015 at 11:52 pm · Reply
  42. 's Avatar
    notyouraveragejoe Reblogged this on From Grunt To Civilian and commented: This was beautiful and spoke to me on so many levels
    March 14, 2017 at 8:57 am · Reply

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