“Evil has become a product of manufacture, it is built into our whole industrial and political system, it is being manufactured every day, it is rolling off the assembly line, it is being sold in the stores, it pollutes the air…
Perhaps the way to cope with the adversary is to confront him in ourselves. We have to fight for our little bit of health. We have to make our living and dying important again. And the living and dying of others. Isn’t this what poetry is about?”- Stanley Kunitz, from an interview with the Paris Review, circa 1985
With Labor Day now in our rearview mirror, its attendant parades and picnics marking the end of summer, the discussion amongst families, and the politicians who claim to represent their interests, inevitably comes back to the question of how to make a living in a 21st -century U.S. As informed citizens, we hear government wonks and pols discuss job creation, with little to show in real progress. At the same time, some governors, legislators, as well as big business have tried try to strip away the hard-fought rights of labor unions to negotiate a fair wage. Talk amongst my family members inevitably leads to figuring out how to make our lives work in an economy that seems to value the worker so little. With this in mind, it often feels that our jobs and the work we do has become the essence of identity. It is, for better or worse, who we are.
As a nearly life-long resident of Pittsburgh, my perspective on labor and jobs has been colored through personal experience. I am old enough to remember the withering of the city’s steel industry in the early ‘80’s and the pall of unemployment that came with its collapse. As a youngster, I can remember my always-feisty grandmother, a member of a supermarket union since the ‘50’s, doing her best to instill the regard for hard work as a kind of religious faith. Her mantra: bust your tail and good things will happen.
Eventually, I made this leap of faith and now, as my 39th birthday has passed, I find myself hustling to find teaching gigs at local universities while still toiling in the service industry. My mom still works full-time at a lousy food service job. My older sister is contemplating becoming a truck driver. It seems impossible that any of us will be able to retire one day. These stories are special only because they seem to fly in the face of what we were led to believe. Hard work was supposed to pave the way to the American Dream. I imagine you might have similar tales of working woe as well.
With thoughts of what it means to work rattling in my brain, it is a great satisfaction and joy I have felt since Philip Levine was announced as the 18th U.S. Poet Laureate on August 10th. Levine is a fantastic poet for many reasons, but is chiefly known for his poems that focus on factory work. In a quote from the Library of Congress press release, Levine says,
“I believed even then that if I could transform my experience into poetry, I would give it the value and dignity it did not begin to possess on its own. I thought, too, that if I could write about it I could come to understand it; I believed that if I could understand my life- or at least the part my work played in it- I could embrace it with some degree of joy.”
Levine came to writing after leaving a series of industrial jobs at Detroit car plants. Born in Detroit on Jan.10 1928, Levine would go on to graduate from Wayne State and the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop where he worked with the poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman, among others. He has authored 20 collections of poems, with Breath coming in as a close second to my favorite, What Work Is, for which he won the 1991 National Book Award.
The thing that has drawn me to Levine’s poems since being turned on to his work in grad school is not so much a technical mastery of form, something that seems of little interest to him, but his canny way of telling a story within the poem. These aren’t prose poems, yet they usually rely on a long stanza that uses line breaks and metaphor well. It fits his narrative style nicely and seems keep the subject matter less-sentimental than it could be, never swaying into the easy cynicism on the matters at hand. I suppose the less-than academic way to put it is that he keeps it real.
The above quote from Stanley Kunitz (a two-time U.S. Poet Laureate himself) exemplifies so much that is right with Philip Levine’s work. In a word, his poems have a tone that could be described as commemorative, but not in a ceremonial, plaque-on-a-wall kind of way. In What Work Is, Levine celebrates those that came both before and with him into what would one day become the Rust-belt factories. He peoples much of his work here with common men and women, many long gone from this world, who Levine feels are deserving of something as dignified as a mention in a poem. Levine’s poems don’t so much celebrate; but they do illuminate the pecking order of capitalism. They make us aware that the cogs of the machine can tell us much more about ourselves than any biography of some corporate titan who merely reaps the benefits of so much hard work.
Perhaps, it is the workmanlike effort that Levine puts into the imagery of the factory floor, a place full of dangerous chemicals and heavy machinery with whirring ends, which lend a necessary authenticity to the voice in these poems. Levine’s speaker is no outsider taking notes, but an intimate with a world that at once seems so immovable and so impermanent at the same time. Again and again, it is the people in these poems, workmates and family members alike, with immigrant names and tough lives that keeps this reader coming back for more. They have earned their scars and bruises.
The woman in one of my favorite poems of the collection, “Coming Close,” may be no pin-up girl in the way she is described, but her beauty is in her competence and her willingness to get dirty. She has become as much a well-oiled machine as the one she works on, yet it is the pride to get the job done well that provides the reader a glimpse of humanity, a moment of tenderness in a landscape anything but soft.
Coming CloseTake this quiet woman, she has been
standing before a polishing wheel
for over three hours, and she lacks
twenty minutes before she can take
a lunch break. Is she a woman?
Consider the arms as they press
the long brass tube against the buffer,
they are striated along the triceps,
the three heads of which clearly show.
Consider the fine dusting of dark down
above the upper lip, and the beads
of sweat that run from under the red
kerchief across the brow and are wiped
away with a blackening wrist band
in one odd motion a child might make
to say No! No! You must come closer
to find out, you must hang your tie
and jacket in one of the lockers
in favor of a black smock, you must
be prepared to spend shift after shift
hauling off the metal trays of stock,
bowing first, knees bent for a purchase,
then lifting with a gasp, the first word
of tenderness between the two of you,
then you must bring new trays of dull
unpolished tubes. You must feed her,
as they say in the language of the place.
Make no mistake, the place has a language,
and if by some luck the power were cut,
the wheel slowed to a stop so that you
suddenly saw it was not a solid object
but so many separate bristles forming
in motion a perfect circle, 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.
Fred Shaw edits poetry for Shaking Lit, writes emminent poetry and is a frequent contributor to all things Shaking—