read here: In The Local News
What Work Is
By Philip Levine
77 pages. Alfred A Knopf Books, $15.00.
Reviewed by Stephen Page
Philip Levine is the voice of the working class, the undereducated, the unambitious. He speaks for those who do not know how to speak for themselves or were never taught how to stand up for themselves. He gives voice to those who never thought to ask, “Is this what work is really all about?” He creates portraitures of laborers and brings them to life, allowing them to communicate to the reader, even if it is only through their actions. Levine, a master artist, after giving the subjects sound and movement, mutes them again, paints them back into their frames.
We are drawn into the first poem, a rendering of man wearing rubber protective gear and a respirator descending the steps into a pickling tank to work with a cocktail of hydrochloric acid and other caustic chemicals. The man knows of the dangers of his job, but continues to go down into the tank twice a day. At lunch he sits apart from the other workers in silence. He is proud that the other workers know him only by his nickname, and proud that his dangerous job gives him reputation and meaning in life.
The second poem, “Coming Close,” mootably the best of the collection, begins with the narrator pausing for a moment to scrutinize a fellow worker to whom he delivers parts:
Take this quiet woman, she has been
standing before a polishing wheel
for over three hours, and she lacks
over twenty minutes before she can take
a lunch break. Is this 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….
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…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.
The narrator is aghast at the appearance of the worker, thinks it a mutation, an unnatural being. It is only at the end of the poem that he admits she is a woman, with the image of the feminine fingers. There is no direct conversation between them, only their mutual knowledge of work slang, a gasp, her laughter, and a final physical touch. She doesn’t question her existence, would only question why the wheel stopped, if it did, as if her work were her only means of identity. The narrator does not tell but allows you to figure out that it is possibly the work that has changed her physical appearance.
In “Growth,” we have another statement on the dumb self-image:
In the soap factory where I worked
when I was fourteen, I spoke to
no one and only on man spoke
where I hammered and sawed, singing
my new life of working and earning,
outside in the fresh air of Detroit
in 1942, a year of growth.
The boy, bursting into adolescence and the age of individuality, celebrates his place in the world by being proud he is earning money, not a bad thing considering it is a time of high unemployment, but he is not even considering the dangers of working in a soap factory. There is only a snide remark on the polluted air of Detroit. He feels no need to talk to anyone. He identifies himself through his newly found job as if it were a badge pinned on him saying, hey, this is who I am.
“Among Children” is a portrayal of a schoolteacher in a fourth grade classroom. His students are the children of the factory workers that live in and around Flint. They are at naptime, a metaphor for how they are inevitably going to sleep their way through life, “so as to be ready for what is ahead,” slaving silently at dangerous jobs until they meet death. The children at ten years old are already being trained as physical laborers, evident by:
…how there backs have thickened,
how their small hands, soiled by pig iron,
leap and stutter even in dreams.
The teacher has no words of encouragement for them, no hope that they will be anything else in life other than what they are, what they were born into. He even reflects back to their births, stating, “not one said, I am sick, I am tired, I want to go home,” revealing personalities that will be perfect for silent acceptance into the working life.
In another teacher-student poem, “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School,” the teacher makes a diagonal line across the blackboard and asks, “What have I done?” Several children offer logical answers, “You’ve broken a piece of chalk,” “you have created the hypotenuse of an isosceles triangle,” “you have begun to represent the roof of a barn,” “You’ve begun to separate the dark from the dark,” but M. Degas is waiting for only one answer—hers. This is a statement on conformity, the taking away of free thought that is prevalent in working-class public schools, and perhaps for a reason. How else will these students grow up and tolerate their grinding lives if they are not taught to accept authority. An orange is blue, if that is what the boss tells you. And, you, the worker, will agree, may even come to believe it.
The collection ends with “The Seventh Summer,” a poem about the narrator’s problems with his Jewishness. He receives all kinds of flak for his religious identity, and for several hours one fine summer Sunday, he doubts his teachings and his God. He spends the afternoon enjoying the beauty of the world and life, thinking that it could possibly be the suffering of the Son of God who made salvation possible. In the end, he rescinds into himself and his belief, though he never tells anyone, never stands up for himself. He slips out of the poem in silence, holding his head down with his Christian friends during grace, abstaining from saying the words, most definitely not thankful for what is being fed to him, and not accepting the norm.
Levine is from Detroit, where most of these poems take place. Unlike most of the people portrayed in What Work Is, Levine went to college and received a degree. He, unlike his portraitures, chose to do physical labor because he wanted a non-thinking job in order to free his mind to write. Levine offers no hope for the majority of the working class, offers no solution for the masses. He offers no demonstrations, no sit-down strikes, no cry against working conditions, no ripple in the fabric of society. There is only hope for the individual, not for the group. Does that diminish from the collection? On the contrary, it is non-didactic. By exposing these conditions Levine allows the readers to draw their own conclusions, to learn from the mistakes of others. Yes, Levine deserves the recognition he received for this book. He is a master poet—a maestro of maestros.
This review first published in the Buenos Aires Herald.
by Stephen Page
My beeper is going off, so I look down to see the number on the display screen. It’s the grocery store. I run toward the store, hoping it isn’t anything serious. This job is generally boring, in fact, deathly boring, but when something exciting happens, it is usually the kind of excitement that sane people try to avoid. Crossing the large parking lot, I dodge moving cars, scattered shopping carts, and slow-moving people. I check to see that my handcuffs are in place on my security belt as I enter the store. My three-cell, heavy-duty flashlight is in my right hand. The manager of the store tells me there is an “undesirable” walking around, one that has been picked up before on shoplifting charges. The manager points him out to me and I begin to follow him around. He hasn’t yet noticed me when he cuts into one of the aisles with some food items in his hand. When I turn the corner of the aisle, there he is, gulping down a quart of milk. There is half-eaten lunch meat and cheese in his hand. He has long, matted hair and he is wearing an Army trench coat, old jeans, T-shirt, and worn-out tennis shoes–all of which look like they have been worn for several weeks without a washing. He gapes at me. A few of his front teeth are missing. I ask him if he is going to pay for the items, and he says, “Yes.” I say, “Let’s go then,” and he says, “Fuck you.” He begins to walk out the door. I tell him if he walks out the door, I will have to apprehend him. He says, “You wouldn’t dare.” I tell the manager to call the police as I follow him out the store. When we are outside, he turns and bumps me with his chest. I am surprised because his body is hard and wiry, his muscles hard as steel. A fork has appeared in his right hand, and he is holding it in a menacing manner. I notice that the sun has gone down and the parking lot has emptied. There is a slight chill in the air. The manger comes outside and tells me that the police will not arrive for at least half-an-hour. Then he disappears, ducking quickly back into the store. I look down at the very sharp fork waving around in the air. Just then, a police car pulls into the parking lot. I think they are there to assist me, but it turns out they are headed for the Mexican restaurant located at the other end of the parking lot. I yell, “Hey!” They turn their car around and head toward me and the hungry man with the fork in his hand. They end up arresting him.
I am walking around the parking lot. I am bored. My mind is numb from lack of use. It feels like someone has had it freeze-dried, or at the very least, cut off its blood supply. The only part of my brain that is alive is the motor-function area, and a minute section of the language area that keeps reverberating, “I’m bored, I’m bored, I’m bored.” It takes absolutely no intelligence to do this kind of work. I am trying to figure how a person like me ends up with a job like this.
It is near closing time. Three more minutes and I can lock the doors and go home. I am lazily staring through the glass doors and out over the parking lot. Suddenly, a man appears in front of me, on the other side of the glass, his eyes are bloodshot and glassy. I have to let him in because it isn’t yet closing time. I open the doors and he just stands there. It isn’t very cold out, but he is shivering. “I just seen my friend get killed,” he says. “Over drugs.” I feel terrible. Then I remember I’m on duty. “Was it here, in this parking lot?” “No,” he says. “A few blocks away.” His eyes stare unfocused on an imaginary spot over my shoulder. His pupils are dilated. “He was shot, man. Three times. In the gut. He just lay there and bled all over the ground.” I look down and notice he has one of his hands in his jacket pocket. There is a bulge in that pocket, and he is lifting the bulge up, pushing it forward, pointing it toward me. “Sorry,” I say. “But it’s near closing time. I have to lock up.” I quickly begin to close the doors. He doesn’t move. He’s still staring at the imaginary place behind me, still pointing the bulge at me. He looks like he is ready to cry. I finally get the doors closed in front of him, lock them, and move off like I have something to do.
I am walking around the parking lot. My legs are tired and my feet are killing me. My new shoes are pinching across the tops of my toes and rubbing sore spots on the backs of my heels. When the eight-hour shift finally ends, I hobble to my car and drive home. When I arrive, I take off my shoes and socks and notice the skin is missing on numerous spots around my feet. I soak my feet in Epsom salts and wince at the pain. The next day, when I wear tennis shoes, the Sergeant of the Guard chastises me for not having black shoes on.
A commotion breaks out at the far end of the parking lot. Because of all the cars, I can’t see what it is, but I can hear a lot of shouting. I follow the noise until I arrive at the scene. I find a man and a woman arguing. A few people have gathered to watch. Nobody is interfering or saying anything, even though the man is moving toward the woman, gesticulating in a manner that is causing her to walk backward. The man is about six-foot-four, and weighs about two hundred and forty pounds; maybe that is why nobody is doing anything. I check to make sure my battery-powered zapper is on my belt. My ever-present flashlight is swinging in my right hand. “Please take your argument elsewhere,” I tell them. They ignore me. I say it louder. They still ignore me. “I want my baby,” the man says. “If you’re going to leave me, I want my baby.” “No,” she says. “I’m taking her to my mother’s.” By this time the man has the woman backed up to the trunk of a car. She looks like she wants to crawl backward over the top of the car. She is not afraid to argue back though, and keeps the emphatic rhetoric going, all the time eyeing his hands. I walk up next to them and yell, “Take your problems off this parking lot!” “Stay out of this,” the man says as he turns his face toward me. That is all the time the woman needs. In the split-second it takes the man to turn his attention, the woman ducks under one of his arms and begins running toward an idling car. Behind the steering wheel is another woman, holding a baby. The man turns and takes a step in their direction. I quickly maneuver around him and stop a few steps in front of him. He looks intent on tearing me limb-from-limb. His eyes are flashing fire. He steps up to me and towers over me. I stand my ground. He looks surprised. “You’re only doing this because I’m black,” he says. “No,” I say. “It’s my job. I have to do this.” The car behind me squeals off, carrying with it the two women and the baby. The man looks over my head and begins to relax. “She’s a terrible mother,” he says. He turns and saunters off toward a large four-by-four vehicle, gets in, and slowly drives off. I relax the tight grip I had on my flashlight.
Tonight I am working at the local hospital. It is near the end of my shift, but my replacement hasn’t arrived yet. I wait, fifteen minutes, half-an-hour, an hour-and-a-half. It is near midnight. I call the officer of the day and tell him what happened. He asks me to work a double shift. They never pay overtime, but I agree. I drink another cup of coffee, buy a newspaper and check the want-ads.
I am working out in the Palomar area, guarding an office building on the midnight shift. I took this post because I can sit in my car most of the time and study. I only have to walk around every hour, check the area, and make sure all the office doors are locked. It is cold here at night. Whoever said it doesn’t get cold in sunny Southern California never lived away from the coast, and never worked outside at nighttime in the winter. I have a Volkswagen, so the heater doesn’t work unless I am driving 40 miles an hour. Since it’s hard to drive around the parking lot at night at 40 miles and hour and study at the same time, I sit in my car and study by flashlight. The bad light bothers my eyes. Even when I wear long johns, my legs go numb after ten or fifteen minutes.
I am sleeping soundly when the phone rings. It is the officer of the day, asking me to come into work. I look at the clock and notice it has only been six hours since I left my last post. A headache creeps into my frontal lobes. My neck tenses up. I tell him, “Yes,” hang up, and stumble toward the shower. As the water washes over me, I remember what I studied last year in American history: at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, business owners exploited their workers to every extent possible. As I make myself coffee, I wonder what happened to the strong labor unions of the 1970’s. As I drive to work, I look down at the gas needle. It hovers near the empty mark. I think about the one hundred-fifty dollar paycheck I received for last week’s pay.
Sometime around three in the morning, on one of my rounds at the Palomar office building, around the back, next to one of the dumpsters, where the smell of rotting lunch scraps and ink-smeared photocopy paper mingles with the night air, I find a man sleeping on the ground. He is wrapped up in a dirty Army-surplus sleeping bag. He is snoring. With my foot, I tap the end of the sleeping bag where his feet are. It takes me three or four nudges to wake him. “You’re going to have to leave,” I say. “No one is allowed on these premises at night.” “Man, do you know who God is?” he asks. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to leave.” “Do you go to church, man?” “Look, you have to leave the area.” “I didn’t think you went to church. Otherwise you wouldn’t be kicking me out of here.” I wait as he slowly stands and rolls up his sleeping bag, grumbling all the time about God and church. I watch as he picks up pieces of food from the ground, wraps them in a greasy piece of typing paper, and deposits the package in his pocket. I follow him until he walks off the parking lot. “Go to church, man,” he says as he walks away.
I got this job, finally. After six months of checking the want-ads, making phone calls, driving around, pounding the pavement, filling out apps, and getting drunk every evening, I got this job.
Story, “Jake Sclavus,” by S.M. Page as published in @columbiaquarto. Flip to page 71. http://issuu.com/quarto/docs/1995