In honor of Detroit’s totally depressing and, according to Keith B. Richburg, entirely predictable bankruptcy (take heed, California), here is an offering by former U.S. Poet Laureate (and perpetual Detroit and Fresno Poet Laureate) Philip Levine. This selection comes from his later work, and if you haven’t read his more famous verses from the 1960s, especially “They Feed They Lion,” you should. Like Jim Daniels, Levine’s subjects are often working class, and his observations aren’t always politically correct. But his work is true and public, like the best rap music. We need more poetry like this right now.
What Work IsWe stand in the rain in a long linewaiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.You know what work is—if you’reold enough to read this you know whatwork 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 mistinto your hair, blurring your visionuntil you think you see your own brotherahead 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 thanyours but with the same sad slouch, the grinthat does not hide the stubbornness,the sad refusal to give in torain, to the hours of wasted waiting,to the knowledge that somewhere aheada man is waiting who will say, “No,we’re not hiring today,” for anyreason he wants. You love your brother,now suddenly you can hardly standthe love flooding you for your brother,who’s not beside you or behind orahead because he’s home trying tosleep off a miserable night shiftat Cadillac so he can get upbefore noon to study his German.Works eight hours a night so he can singWagner, the opera you hate most,the worst music ever invented.How long has it been since you told himyou loved him, held his wide shoulders,opened your eyes wide and said those words,and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve neverdone something so simple, so obvious,not because you’re too young or too dumb,not because you’re jealous or even meanor incapable of crying inthe presence of another man, no,just because you don’t know what work is.