[Marxism] Voice of the Workingman to Be Poet Laureate

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Aug 10 11:05:18 MDT 2011


Four poems by Philip Levine

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 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.

— From “What Work Is,” by Philip Levine (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).

Fear and Fame

Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes — all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric
steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash
of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,
metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts,
until I knew the burning stew was done.
Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer
returned to the ordinary blinking lights
of the swingshift at Feinberg and Breslin’s
First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message
from the kingdom of fire. Oddly enough
no one welcomed me back, and I'd stand
fully armored as the downpour of cold water
rained down on me and the smoking traces puddled
at my feet like so much milk and melting snow.
Then to disrobe down to my work pants and shirt,
my black street shoes and white cotton socks,
to reassume my nickname, strap on my Bulova,
screw back my wedding ring, and with tap water
gargle away the bitterness as best I could.
For fifteen minutes or more I’d sit quietly
off to the side of the world as the women
polished the tubes and fixtures to a burnished purity
hung like Christmas ornaments on the racks
pulled steadily toward the tanks I’d cooked.
Ahead lay the second cigarette, held in a shaking hand,
as I took into myself the sickening heat to quell heat,
a lunch of two Genoa salami sandwiches and Swiss cheese
on heavy peasant bread baked by my Aunt Tsipie,
and a third cigarette to kill the taste of the others.
Then to arise and dress again in the costume
of my trade for the second time that night, stiffened
by the knowledge that to descend and rise up
from the other world merely once in eight hours is half
what it takes to be known among women and men.

— From “What Work Is,” by Philip Levine (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991).

Belle Isle, 1949

We stripped in the first warm spring night
and ran down into the Detroit River
to baptize ourselves in the brine
of car parts, dead fish, stolen bicycles,
melted snow. I remember going under
hand in hand with a Polish highschool girl
I'd never seen before, and the cries
our breath made caught at the same time
on the cold, and rising through the layers
of darkness into the final moonless atmosphere
that was this world, the girl breaking
the surface after me and swimming out
on the starless waters towards the lights
of Jefferson Ave. and the stacks
of the old stove factory unwinking.
Turning at last to see no island at all
but a perfect calm dark as far
as there was sight, and then a light
and another riding low out ahead
to bring us home, ore boats maybe, or smokers
walking alone. Back panting
to the gray coarse beach we didn’t dare
fall on, the damp piles of clothes,
and dressing side by side in silence
to go back where we came from.

— From “They Feed They Lion and the Names of the Lost,” by Philip 
Levine (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).

Salt and Oil

Three young men in dirty work clothes
on their way home or to a bar
in the late morning. This is not
a photograph, it is a moment
in the daily life of the world,
a moment that will pass into
the unwritten biography
of your city or my city
unless it is frozen in the fine print
of our eyes. I turn away
to read the morning paper and lose
the words. I go into the streets
for an hour or more, walking slowly
for even a man of my age. I buy
an apple but do not eat it.
The old woman who sells it remarks
on its texture and tartness, she
laughs and the veins of her cheeks brown.
I stare into the river while time
refuses to move. Meanwhile the three
begin to fade, giving up
their names and voices, their auras
of smoke and grease, their acrid bouquets.
We shall name one to preserve him,
we shall name him Salt, the tall blond
whose wrists hurt, who is holding back
something, curses or tears, and shaking
out the exhaustion, his blue eyes
swollen with sleeplessness, his words
blasted on the horn of his breath.
We could go into the cathedral
of his boyhood and recapture
the voices that were his, we could
reclaim him from the brink of fire,
but then we would lose the other,
the one we call Oil, for Oil
broods in the tiny crevices
between then and now, Oil survives
in the locked archives of the clock.
His one letter proclaims, “My Dear
President, I would rather not . . .”
One arm draped across the back
of Salt, his mouth wide with laughter,
the black hair blurring the forehead,
he extends his right hand, open
and filthy to take rusted chains,
frozen bearings, the scarred hands
of strangers, there is nothing
he will not take. These two are not
brothers, the one tall and solemn,
the long Slavic nose, the pale eyes,
the puffed mouth offended by the press
of traffic, while the twin is glad
to be with us on this late morning
in paradise. If you asked him,
“Do you calm the roiling waters?”
he would smile and shake his great head,
unsure of your meaning. If you asked
the sources of his glee he would shrug
his thick shoulders and roll his eyes
upward to where the turning leaves
take the wind, and the gray city birds
dart toward their prey, and flat clouds
pencil their obscure testaments
on the air. For a moment
the energy that makes them who
they are shatters the noon’s light
into our eyes, and when we see
again they are gone and the street
is quiet, the day passing into
evening, and this is autumn
in the present year. “The third man,”
you ask, “who was the third man
in the photograph?” There is no
photograph, no mystery,
only Salt and Oil
in the daily round of the world,
three young men in dirty work clothes
on their way under a halo
of torn clouds and famished city birds.
There is smoke and grease, there is
the wrist’s exhaustion, there is laughter,
there is the letter seized in the clock
and the apple’s tang, the river
sliding along its banks, darker
now than the sky descending
a last time to scatter its diamonds
into these black waters that contain
the day that passed, the night to come.

— From “The Mercy,” by Philip Levine (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999).



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