April 2 :: Philip Levine’s “What Work Is”

Last year, Malik Abdul Jabbar, Nabina Das, and I ran a tear up the Jersey turnpike to Madison, NJ, to catch Philip Levine read at Drew University.  Edward Hirsch “opened” for Levine, one of Malik’s favorite poets (maybe the favorite).  We were meant to meet on campus, but we missed each other and I biked home.  Malik called: “Where are you?”

“In my kitchen.”

“I’ve got Nabina.”

“We’ll never make it.”

“I am coming to get you.”

Traffic.  Doubt.  Hope.  We walked in — this is no joke — just as Phil Levine was beginning his reading.  The three of us split up and didn’t see each other in the forty-five minutes that followed.  We slipped into the place you slip into when the poet is reading and a tiny version of yourself sits on the edge of the podium gazing longingly into the words their lips make.

After the reading, I was introduced to poets Patrick Rosal and Aracelis Girmay as we drank wine and ate cheese cubes in the basement of the hall where the reading took place.  (An aside: what would happen to the cheese industry if poetry readings were suddenly outlawed?)

Speaking of the cheese industry, my father is a cheese man.  He grew up on a dairy farm and, after the Air Force and after marrying my mom, he took a job in Rochester, MN at a cheese plant.  I was born in the Olmsted County hospital in February of 1975.  My mom says that if I had come a week earlier, I’d have been born at home.  So much snow, the town shut down.  My dad went from the floor of that cheese plant to the offices.  He went from there to corporate headquarters.  He quit that gig and now works for a cheese company in Wisconsin: the cheese-maker’s paradise.  He’s worked his whole life.

My mother’s worked, too.  Her father was an iron ore miner, like his father before him, in the brutal earth that is Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  She’s worked as a retail clerk, a day care instructor, a bank teller, and currently works in some capacity for the government, helping people file claims for illnesses they incurred on the job.  When she wasn’t doing that, she worked, as a child, raising her siblings and, as a mother, raising me and my brothers.  She’s worked her whole life.

My brothers are both younger than me.  The older of the two is finishing his degree in special education (only three more weeks!), whereupon he will get a full-time job in a field he is clearly made for.   There is nobody I know on this planet with the compassion and mettle this kid has.  He and his wife are raising to two kids in Ypsilanti, a small college town in the hard-hit palm of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.  We know the Michigan story: closed auto plants and rampant unemployment.  We’ve seen the Chrysler commercials with Eminem and Clint Eastwood.  That’s where he has lived for twelve years and never thought to leave it.  I have lived in in five cities in the same amount of time.  Before going into education, he worked landscaping.  Long days in the dirt.  Sore muscles and sunburns.  Aching feet and canned beer.  His wife works at the university medical center.  Then she chases the two year old.  Then she puts the daughter to bed.  They’ve worked their whole lives.

My youngest brother is a cook.  He knows when a steak is done by laying a fingertip to its surface.  He can braise just about anything.  He has comfortable shoes and wears chef pants.  He has worked in almost every conceivable type of kitchen: burger joint, family-style dining, fine dining, barbecue.  He works sometimes at two places at once.  He lives in the town we grew up in near Cincinnati, where he and his wife are raising three children.  She works in property management.  When they are not on somebody’s clock, they are on the kids’ clocks.  Dance practice, baseball, diapers.  Cheerleading, homework, bedtime stories.  They’ve worked their whole lives.

This is not meant to be a post about the grind, though it is.  I mean, in all that, they all find time to play golf, to vacation, to go to ballgames, to read.  But I guess my point is: mine is not a family who has ever rested on a pile of money or trust-funded our way to our dreams.  I told my parents at age nineteen that I wanted to be a poet and they were appalled.  I skipped the office job (with the exception of a stint as a classified ad writer for the Dayton Daily News) and worked in a lot of low-wage, thankless service industry jobs.  As long as I could write, I was feeling like I was serving the purpose I set out for myself in this life.  Currently, I teach writing at a university.  When I find myself complaining, I remember having to stick my hand in the drain of the Trolley Stop and scoop out uneaten potato soup and hamburger buns after washing six hours worth of dishes.

The part of Phil Levine’s poem that twists in my soul every time I hear it is when “you think you see your own brother / ahead of you”.  How it’s not my brother, but somebody else’s brother.   I love my brothers, too, and am flooded with that love, too, when I hear this poem.   The work Levine talks about in the poem: it is the work of waiting for work, it is work of learning German and practicing Wagner and coping with Wagner (indeed: “the worst music in the world,” and I have heard  Chinese Democracy), it is the work of loving your brother, and it is the work of realizing that you are not loving your brother.  And it’s the work.  It’s Detroit or the factory, that’s easy.  But what is the work that we do?  Is this work?  Sitting in my bed on a Sunday morning while the dishwasher flushes and belches downstairs?  The quiet of the house save for that dishwasher and the clacking of my keyboard, the feeling-lessness of sitting alone while Cindy jogs, and me, here, wanting to call my brothers — both of them — and say, come over, let’s go outside and play catch?  How can the quiet of the house arrange itself so sinisterly?  What are my brothers doing right now?

I love this poem for its sadness, but also for it’s hope.  I hope you can see some of it:

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.

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