Happy Labor Day! Today I am Rereading “What Work Is” by Philip Levine

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, What Work Isthe 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
to me…..
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.

Buenos Aires Hearld

 

Bridges, Woodlands, and Open Road

Stephen Page’s Lit Rep Has Entered Cincinnati, drove around the suburbs, eaten-on-the-road food, stayed in a roadside hotel, seen a horrible car accident, and left, enjoying the freedom of the road and the beauteous countryside. She has placed “The Salty River Bleeds” and “A Ranch Bordering the Salty River” in the following locations:

Sharonville Public Library

Deer Park Public Library

Madeira Branch Public Library

Old Milford Library

Goshen Branch Public Library

Owensville Branch Public Library

Clermont County Public Library

Doris E. Wood Branch Library

Joseph-Beth Booksellers

Detroit Rocks!

Stephen Page’s Literary Representative recently passed through the City of Rock, Motown, birthplace of the U.S. car industry. She managed to find a home for “The Salty River Bleeds” in the following places:

Pages

Your Violet Hair Ribbon

“Your Violet Hair Ribbon” by Stephen Page

Last night you slept with your head on my chest,

My nose in your hair.

While I dozed the violet ribbon upon my wrist

Broke and fell off. This morning I searched for it

But could not find it, anywhere. I tied a new one

To my ankle. Hid another in my journal cover.

Did you have the same dream I did last night,

You with your head on your husband’s chest,

My wife with hers on mine?

madswirl editor’s note: A ribbon of deception; identities mistaken, lovers mismatched. So hard to awaken… – mh clay

To read MORE mad poetry, visit http://www.MadSwirl.com!

http://madswirl.com/poetry/2019/08/your-violet-hair-ribbon/

As published on MadSwirl

And included in the book, “The Salty River Bleeds,” by Stephen Page https://www.finishinglinepress.com/product/the-salty-river-bleeds-by-stephen-page/ and published by Finishing Line Press.

Essays on Writing

If you teach poetry or creative writing at the introductory level (high school or universty), and are interested in using an anthology for you or your students to use during the semester this coming fall or spring, consider this fine collection of essays: https://www.blacklawrence.com/far-villages-welcome-essays-for-new-and-beginner-poets/

#FarVillages #essaysOnWriting #BlackLawrencePress #AbayomiAnimashaun #DianeGoettel

Stephen Page has won the First Place Award in Poetry for the 2019 Bravura Literary Journal.

Dear Stephen,

Congratulations! We are delighted to inform you that your piece “In the Room of the Dead” has won the first place award in Poetry for the 2019 Bravura Literary Journal.

As a recipient of this award, please understand that this is an incredible accomplishment. From the competitive pool of over 500 submissions, not only was your piece selected for publication, but it also earned the esteemed honor of taking first place in its category.

Congratulations on Your Momentous Achievement,

2019 Editors of Bravura

the literary journal of Palomar College

Noctua Review XII (with a poem by Stephen Page)

Noctua Review issue XIII

Below is the link for the digital issue of Noctua Review. Check it out!!

https://issuu.com/noctuareview/docs/noctua_review_vol._xii_issuu

With a poem on page 37 by Stephen Page, entitled “Parrot Plague,” which by the way, will be included in a book by Stephen Page to be released later this year.

corn cropParrot Eating Corn

(Photo of parrot courtesy of 123RF)

Noctua Header

(Cover and bird super mobile courtesy of Noctua Review)

October, by Louise Glück

October
By Louise Glück
Quarterback Chapbook Series
Sarabande Books. $8.95. 20 pages.
Reviewed by Stephen Page

Autumn After the Fall

October CoverWhile I as reading Louise Glück’s chapbook “October”, I noted a theme that threaded throughout the poem–aftermath. October has always been a special month for me. A time of change. A time of clarity. It begins with the autumnal colors in full show and ends with the trees bare and sometimes a first snowfall. I remember October well when I was growing up. It was a month of crystal cognizance. The air smelled of damp earth and drying leaves. Each breath I took cleared my mind and brought in focus my sense of being with the world. I felt good. But, there was also this lurking feeling of finality. Another year had passed. Summer was over.  I often asked myself, had I done what I wanted to do this past year, or was I in the same place is was last year? Had I accomplished what I needed to accomplish? Most often, I had mixed feelings, yeses and no’s, a sort of sweet melancholy–sad that the year was over but happy that another year was about to begin. I had another year to do what I wanted to do. Yes, as a child, the New Year was always in October, not in January. It was an end, and a beginning. Winter was on the way and, yes, it would be cold. There would be snow. But, snow to me meant snowball fights, snowmen, snow angels, snow-caves cut out in the banks on the side of the road that the snowplows piled up, and of course, snow days—those special breaks from school. Winter represents death to many people, but it meant fun and rest for me. Trees, plants, grass–they weren’t dead, they were just resting, sleeping late, waiting to wake up in spring and flourish in summer. After winter, there was spring and summer vacations, baseball, girls.

Life on earth is measured in seasons and renews itself yearly. For Glück, as I think it is for most North–Hemispherians, October is a sad month, but one that also has hope.

Part I of “October” goes like this:

It is winter again, is it cold again,
didn’t frank just slip on the ice,
didn’t he heal, weren’t the spring seeds planted

didn’t the nether end,
didn’t the melting ice
flood the narrow gutters

wasn’t my body
rescued wasn’t it safe

didn’t the scar form, invisible
above the injury

terror and cold,
didn’t they just end, wasn’t the back garden
harrowed and planted—

I remember how the earth felt, red and dense,
in stiff rows, weren’t the seeds planted,
didn’t the vines climb down the south wall

I can’t hear your voice
for the wind’s cries, whistling over the bare ground

I can no longer care
what sounds it makes

when I was silenced, when did it first seem
pointless to describe that sound

what it sounds like can’ change what it is—

didn’t the night end, wasn’t the earth
safe when it was planted

didn’t we plant the seeds,
weren’t we necessary to the earth,

the vines, were they harvested?

Something obviously traumatic has passed here. A scar has formed, terror has happened, something was planted but is no longer there (and I think it is more than just plants in the garden) for the “wind whistled over the bare ground.” The narrator was devastated by an occurrence, so much so she was “silenced.” Most notable is the poem’s form—short lines, long sentences—making the poem appear tall.

The entire poem continues like that–short lines, tall poem. And the there is a horrible sensation of after-violation sliding down the poem:

Violence has changed me . . . (repeated twice in part II)
everything that was taken away . . .
you can’t touch my body now.
It has changed once, it has hardened . . .
My body has grown cold . . .
balm after violence . . .
Tell me I am living,
I won’t believe you.
Death cannot harm me
more than you have harmed me . . .
the light has changed . . .
you will not be spared . . .
the unspeakable//has entered them . . .
I strained, I suffered . . .
So much has changed . . .

Yes, something has happened, and I don’t just think it is the harvest. Because of the form of the poem, and some of Glück’s references, it seems something very tall has come down, or collapsed. Something that was once there no longer is:

They eye gets used to disappearances . . .
Above the fields,
above the roofs of the village houses,
the brilliance that made all life possible
Become the cold stars.

Glück might be talking about an object, a tall structure (or structures, if you notice the plural is used in the relation between the words “disappearances” and “become”), or she might be talking about ideals (as she refers to often in part IV). She might be talking about both. Whatever the case, she uses the barren-field association of the month of October as representation of something monumental that no longer exists on the horizon. A careful reader will note that October obviously comes after September, and that two monumental somethings fell once in the month of  September.  Glück does spy a kind of hope though, as she leaves the poem on a positive note

my friend the moon rises:
she is beautiful tonight, but when is she not beautiful?

This Review first published in: Gently Read Literature

Read the review on the Issuu site: Gently Read Literature Issuu and turn to page 18.