What Work Is

imagesI recently came across a remarkable poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine  thanks to a blog I sometimes read.

As remarkable as the poem (below) is, I am even more grateful that it led me to an utterly delicious interview of Levine conducted by Mona Simpson in The Paris Review.  Few interviews of poets can be described as page-turners, but this one certainly is.

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.

– Ana Maria Caballero, Zeteo Contributing Writer

One comment

  1. Daniel D'Arezzo

    As Philip Levine says in the Paris Review interview, he told stories in his poems. He told an interesting story at a gala farewell in New York, at Cooper Union. I think he was retiring from teaching at NYU. Several poets told stories and read poems by Levine, and finally Levine himself got up to speak and read. He read “They Feed They Lion,” and the story he told about the poem was that the title was a typo. He asked his wife to read the poem, and as she read it aloud, he stopped her and said, “No, that should be ‘They feed the lion.'” And his loving wife said, “No, honey, I like it the way it is.” So he kept it that way. The poem has become an anthology piece, but it’s a deviation from Levine’s style, which is pretty straightforward and doesn’t depend for its interest on deformations of the language. The interest comes from real people, real life, written well.


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