I only first read about the work of Philip Levine last year, when I saw his obituary on the front page of The New York Times’ website:
Philip Levine, a former United States poet laureate whose work was vibrantly, angrily and often painfully alive with the sound, smell and sinew of heavy manual labor, died on Saturday morning at his home in Fresno, Calif. He was 87.
Often considered a blue-collar, workingman’s poet, much of Levine’s most evocative work drew from his experience on the car assembly lines during the decline of The Paris of the West, Detroit. Like Levine, I also grew up in the industrial Midwest — about 170 miles west along Lake Erie, in Cleveland, the spiritual sister to Levine’s native Detroit. While the era of an after-school job in a soap factory had passed me by, my childhood home was a short two miles from Cleveland’s river valley, the heart of steel country, and the big rusted blast forges that spewed fire into the night sky. Recently, when a friend offered to buy me a book, I eagerly asked for Levine’s What Work Is, his seminal, National-Book-Award-winning collection that cut to the quick of what it means to be a man of industrial means and memories, in search of “work.”
As it turns out, to read Philip Levine in this moment is to crack open a road map into the zeitgeist of populist, nativist, and nationalistic sentiments fueling unrest in globalized, post-industrial nations across the world, from the rise of far-right political parties in Europe, to the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, to the rise of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential elections. Even as political support for both factions, originally deemed “protest candidates,” spread to both rural and affluent demographics, the appeal of these movements comes from a Philip Levine-like anxiety of loss and decline. Campaign slogans like Sanders’s “We need a political revolution” or Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” are bred from a despair of losing something that was once a golden promise of individual success. There’s a palpable feeling of outrage and indignation at being left behind or sold out for the greater ideals of free trade and commerce, something that, way back in 1991, Philip Levine felt keenly, such as in his poem about the daily grind, “Every Blessed Day:”
Even before he looks he knows
the faces on the bus, some
going to work and some coming back,
but sealed in its hunger
for a different life, a lost life.
In the poem, the narrator, much like Levine once did, works at the “Chevy Gear & Axle #3.” Before going to punch in, he tries to find the “elusive calm/his father spoke of and searched for all his life,/there’s no way of telling. . .” To read Levine’s poetry is to fall into the ragged void of inexplicable loss, and it is to read poems about people who know there should be something more but cannot wrap their mouths around those words or look too closely into its core for the sheer pain and misery of this long demise. In “Coming Close,” Levine paints a portrait of a woman working at a polishing wheel — bone-weary after three straight hours without a single break — finding that the line between woman and machine wears away until:
. . .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
The woman’s “‘Why?’” seems to be a question with an eternal flame, and it would be easy to put all sorts of identifiers after it: Why are my student loans so untenable? Why am I unable to find good, honorable work in my small town? Why does this job make me feel like an animal or a machine? Why cannot I not seem to get ahead? Why do we do this at all? But the simple provocation is enough, and the lingering stain of it causes the disruption and the true notion that there is unfairness in this despair. The question is an answer to a lie that has been brought about after doing everything right: graduating college or applying endlessly for work or working two jobs yet feeling unable to live a life worthy of a human being, let alone an “American.” In prognostic fashion, Levine’s “why,” as filthy and prohibitive as it might seem, is contagious and irreversible, and once it stains you it is forever a branding iron.
For Levine, however, the nature of this loss was not one of anger or even redemption, but of melancholy and introspection, as something that could always be delved into and learned from. Nowhere is this more potent than in the poem, “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School.” The narrator is a student in the class when the teacher draws a chalk line diagonally across the board and asks, “‘What have I done?’” The children take cracks at the obtuse riddle — one guesses a hypotenuse, one the roof of a barn — but the narrator’s thoughts are elsewhere, out on the window and on recess:
…It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the news winds…’
Yet despite the allure of the playground, the students are still stuck, trying to answer this incomprehensible question, and in many ways it feels the same as the “Why?” from earlier: if only the answer could reveal itself then they might be delivered to the sweet release of the playground or a quick sprint to the candy store to buy a Milky Way. Still, they are stuck in-between, not quite learning and not quite free: “I looked back for help, but now/ the trees bucked and quaked, and I knew this could go on forever.” The desire for help and resolution is so powerful and desperate, perhaps because it feels so caustic now with the appeal of national leaders who can say this stasis, this eternity is not the fault of the disenfranchised working class or professional peoples, instead it is the fault of a series of convenient boogeymen: immigrants, ineffectual leaders, power-hungry economic trading blocks, a sepia tone-soaked desire for the “good old days” rife with lopsided and clear-cut ideals, punctuated by much more “winning.” What’s interesting about Levine’s poetry in What Work Is is that he does not deign to imagine such woeful nostalgia and loss as solvable. For Levine, it is a clear and teachable thing to guide one’s life. The point of M. Degas’s question is not to solve the riddle, but to temper oneself in the face of its complex insolvability.
Central to all of this, quite clearly, is the elusive definition of “work,” as alluded to by the titular poem. Levine’s poetry shows it to be one of the most deeply held and vaguely defined words in English: work is eight hours in front of excel spreadsheets, but it’s also eight hours laying asphalt or cleaning gutters or taking care of children. It’s all the work people do in relationships, on themselves, for the greater good, for selfish ends, and more. You can see this in the poem, “Growth,” detailing Levine’s experience working as a teenager in a soap factory:
the squat Ukrainian dollied them in
to become, somehow, through the magic
of chemistry, pure soap. My job
was always the racks and the ovens—
two low ceilinged metal rooms
…the color of sick skin.
At once the work is ritualistic and meditative, wheeling these large drums back and forth, but despite its crass, grueling, and reductive nature, it is also singularly beautiful that their collective, rough, factory motions could — through the magic of chemistry and labor — turn fat into soap. The process is like alchemy, that amidst an act so disgusting and exhausting is the foundation of a civilized society, a thing as simple and essential as soap. Work, it would seem, is transcendent not just for the fat-turned-soap, but also for the young Levine himself at the end of the poem: “…my new life of working and earning,/ outside in the fresh air of Detroit/ in 1942, a year of growth.” There is a bitter taste of nostalgia in that last line, and it is clear that Levine values the factory horrors as much as his time spent in school or doing much else, and that the work there was very much the work of becoming himself.
The dichotomy and variety of “work” and what it ultimately means to Levine is perfectly captured in “What Work Is,” a poem that highlights Levine’s simplistic yet evocative style while striking near the heart of the brutality of this loss and questioning. In the poem, Men are waiting in the rain for “work:”
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.
The men are waiting for work, but there is also work being done to suffer through the rain, to have the patience and resilience to endure and earn that miserable answer. The narrator then shifts to remember his brother, who he thought he recognized in the crowd. He remembers their filial love and the work his brother did: working the night shift at Cadillac only to wake later to study German in order to sing Richard Wagner in an opera, as disparate a form of work as one waiting in the unemployment line at Ford Highland Park can imagine, but perhaps he can also begrudgingly admit that it is work, too. Finally, he wonders how long it has been since he’s done the work to tell his brother he loves him, if he ever has even said so:
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.
This one word, “work” is key to Levine’s success as a poet, and his ability to adapt it to so many different situations and forms gives his poetry a bottomless depth and nuance that is at once immediate, harrowing, and personally estranged. It seems, as a culture, we have calcified in our definitions of work: work is global trade or work is done with your hands and rewarded with a pension, work is against others or work is for me, and on and on. The winnowing of the variety of work has lead to derision and confusion and an anger that is fueled by a terrible sorrow — if there is only one sort of labor, and that is taken from you, then what do you have left? To read Philip Levine is to remember that work is done at the Chevy Gear & Axle plant, it is done bent over the polishing wheel, it is done over the music stand, it is done while waiting in the rain, it is done while scribbling poems, and it is even done in the words you form from your very own mouth.