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(January 10, 1928 / Detroit, Michigan)

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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.

Submitted: Monday, January 13, 2003


Read poems about / on: brother, work, rain, sad, hate, today, music, hair, sleep, home, night, light, kiss

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Comments about this poem (Berenda Slough by Philip Levine )

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  • Ronald Shields (8/20/2011 10:04:00 PM)

    i heard Philip Levine read this on Fresh Air, it is simply amazing...his poems are written in a clear voice speaking of simple and straight forward truths. He is the perfect Poet Laureate for our times.

    4 person liked.
    0 person did not like.
  • Doren Robbins (12/13/2008 5:43:00 PM)

    Philip Levine's poetry evokes the vibrant durability and continuity of things. It is no accident that the seemingly unbreakable thistle, which survives California's harsh summers, is his 'flower.' At least he has celebrated it in such a way throughout his books. Possibly he has done so because its work is to survive, and it does. the way we must, impassively committed surviving, standing up though the harsh heat, the inevitable storms. Levine's poem, 'What Work Is, ' should be read in this context. To work is to survive, and the details of how difficult or debased work can be are evoked in the title poem and the poem 'Growth' (each the book What Work Is) . Levine was the man, he suffered, he was there. But the symbolic importance of work operates as an emblem of the soul as well, since not knowing how to love, Levine writes, is to not 'know what work is.' We may seem to be closer here to the meaning of work as it occurs in the tragedies, desolations, and betrayals of the remarkable book of poems Hard Labor by the Italian poet Cesare Pavese than to the Whitman of 'A Song of Occupations...'

    From Doren Robbins essay On What Work Is (Daily Iowan 1992) .

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