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

 

It Transports You to Location

New review on Amazon:

Highly recommend The Salty River Bleeds

The Salty River Bleeds is another terrific creation by Stephen Page. It transports you to location with descriptions of nature and imagery. Wonderful poetry! My book magically disappeared and it turns out my teenage daughter had taken it and left it in her room. She also loved it! I highly recommend Stephen’s sophisticated poems.

 

With a Language that Flies Straight to the Truth

 

The Salty River Bleeds by Stephen Page

This is genuine good writing. This is not a walk in the gew gaw shop of strained emotions and overreaching images. This is writing carved from the raw material of actual living and work. There are narratives and there are lyrics with each word penetrating its subject like the point of a knife. There are good guys and there are bad guys and they are all exposed with a language that flies straight to the truth. “How long did you take to flay those sheep whose skins lie so limply wet in your truck?” Pay attention. This guy, Stephen Page, is going to make some noise in the shining cathedral of poetry.

 

–Rustin Larson, author of Library Rain https://rustinlarson.wordpress.com

Book: https://www.finishinglinepress.com/product/the-salty-river-bleeds-by-stephen-page/

Page’s Writing is as Gritty as the Sandy Prairie

Review: The Salty River Bleeds by Stephen Page

Length: 96 Pages

Publisher: Finishing Line Press

Get your copy on Amazon! 

 

The Salty River Bleeds by Stephen Page is a story told in verse about the lives of Jonathan and Teresa and the ranch on which they live. Using both poetry and poetic prose, the author makes the story come to life.

Page’s writing is as gritty as the sandy prairie and he does not shy away from coarse language or difficult topics. Page has created something raw and gritty that is full of local flavor. The reader can feel the heat of the pounding sun and smell the scent of the farm animals. Life on the ranch is hard and oftentimes painful; as such, Page’s writing will cause readers who would prefer to imagine an idealized version of the American West to be uncomfortable. His writing forces his readers to reckon with the harsh realities of life and how we treat the environment.

As the story progresses, the protagonist must deal with both the daily challenges of life on the ranch as well as his own internal struggles. There are no easy answers, and as such, the book leaves the reader with an unsettled feeling. It is this same discomfort that makes the book so powerful and so memorable. I found myself slowly reading and rereading Page’s words as I worked to understand their multiple layered meanings. In the end, Page takes his reader on a journey into America’s heartland as well as into our problematic past. Is there a future for Jonathan, Teresa, and their ranch? Or will the Salty River, along with the rest of the natural world, continue to bleed?

What Narcissism Means to Me by Tony Hoagland

North of Oxford

whatNarcicissumCover
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By Stephen Page
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After I read What Narcissism Means to Me, I wished I had chosen The Donkey Gospels.  Glancing through the other, after I read the first, I sense more immediacy.  Nonetheless, I arbitrarily chose to study Narcissism, will accept my choice, and thus I shall report.  It’s a great book.  A good read.  The structure is interesting, with America, Social Life, Blues, and Luck as titles of the four sections, as if that were the hierarchy from top to bottom for self identity.  The poems are narrated sarcasticly, ironically, self-loathingly.  The point of the collection is to show that when the self is the center of the universe and the ego presides over community and society, problems arise—racism, dictatorships, presidents taking self-motivated actions without concern for the people.  Hoagland portrays the narrator, the “I” of the poems, as narcissistic, but this is aptly a tool for…

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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.

Places/Everyone by Jim Daniels

Places/Everyone

By Jim Daniels

The University of Wisconsin Press

Reviewed by Stephen Page

everyoneReading Places/Everyone will take you back home.  You will drive through your old neighborhood where you grew up, shop at K-Mart, visit a pallet factory where you once worked, eat lunch in the break room, take a drive around the shop on a Hi-Lo, guzzle a six-pack with your friends out back in a vacant lot.  O.K.  Not everyone was born in Detroit, but most people have held at least one blue-collar job in their life.  The poems in this collection set in the 1970’s and 80’s—and for that reason they are dated, but they read as though they have become timeless.  The characters are menial laborers, factory workers, union-job holders, burger flippers.  Daniels captures the entrapment felt by the middle class dupe, the working-class hero, the minimum wage worker, the assembly line jockey—almost anyone who has worked for a weekly paycheck.

“My Father Worked Late” depicts a Detroit working person’s dilemma, that is, each day could bring feast or famine, overtime or lay-off.  A household earner usually had to work two jobs or overtime to pay the bills.  It is stressful and tiring:

Some nights when he wasn’t too tired

he took off his shirt

and sat in the middle of the floor.

We wrestled, trying to pin

back his arms, sitting on his chest

digging our heads into the yellow stains

under the arms of his t-shirt…………..

he sat up, cradling us both in headlocks

in the closest thing to an embrace

that I remember……..

Other nights  he looked right through us

mechanically eating his late dinner

yelling at anything that moved.

Some mornings we woke to find him

asleep on the couch, his foreman’s tie twisted

into words we couldn’t spell.

We ate our cereal as carefully as communion

Until our mother shook him ready for another day.

This poem shows the acceptable behavior of that time between a father and the rest of the family.  The man was usually, but not always, the sole breadwinner of the family. His role was to make money, not provide love.  There was not much demonstration of affection between a father and his children.  The father in this poem is probably no longer intimate with his wife either, for he sleeps “sometimes” on the couch.  This detached behavior is too much to handle for this father, and his days often end in depressive stupors and irate snapping at his family.

A number of the working men’s wives work, but only at minimum wage jobs:

Some of the wives work now

behind counters at McDonald’s

marking clothes at K-Mart

pulling in minimum wage

grocery money for another week.

And most of them do it only after the husbands have been laid off:

Up and down the streets

men mow their lawns

do yard work

many  try to grow vegetables.

From the title of the poem, “Hard Times in the Motor City,” it is obvious that this is not just Saturday lawn work, nor a reflection of nurturing natures.  It is men without jobs.  They keep busy by working in their yards.  Many men turn to drink as an outlet:

In the bar

Steve talks about

The afternoon movie….

He says he’ll dig ditches

or clean shitholes

all he wants is a job.

He’s got a wife, two kids,

He looks me hard in the eye:

“a man can always afford a drink.”

Of course, the irony being that turning to alcohol can result in procrastination and justification of spending money needed to pay for family food.  It’s a downward spiral.  Work less, drink more, squander money.  Drink more, squander money, work less.

How does having no job affect behavior ?  In “No Job”:

He pulls out

all the bushes in his yard

swinging a shovel at the roots.

He chases away the paperboy.

Television smashed in the driveway.

His wife hides from the neighbors.

No, no, no jobs:

He throws his knife in the air.

Frustration, frustration, frustration.   Of course it does not help that most workers are not college educated, and cannot move out of their world.  Most had only three choices when they finished high school, go to work for one of the Big Three:

High school, toking behind auto shop

parking lot sticky in the heat.

Ford, Chevy (GM), Chrysler—

where you gonna work?

The second section of the book is attention-grabbing because Daniels turns to second-person point-of-view, a technique not always easy to pull off.  Daniels does it well, and brings the reader into the world of the working-class stiff.  Digger, the main character of the section, becomes the man we all love to hate.  He is obnoxious, crude, rude, and rough around the edges—but with second-person as his ally, we the readers readily empathize with him.

In Diggers’ first poem, he is in a traffic jam on his way to work, worried whether he is going to make it on time or not.  It is not until we get to the line: “Maybe you’ll be late for work after all” that you realize he is kind of hoping he will be late.  He is a man going to a job he hates, but he is going anyway.  I am reminded of walking to school, hoping there would be an accident or some natural catastrophe that would make me late, for no other reason than to be late.  However, I knew if I were late, I would be in trouble, so I kept walking, conforming to the rules but at the same time, wanting to break them.

In “ Diggers Thanksgiving” we have a man whose parents are senile, probably at too young an age, and Digger thinks:

You think of putting them in a home.

You remember as a child

pulling the wings off flies:

so delicious, so delicious.

What can you do?  How does anybody justify doing something unpleasant?  Become apathetic?  Hardened?

What does a person do when they feel trapped in their lives?  How do he or she think?  Probably, something like this:

The sky darkens into night

while you shovel and lift

the wet thinning snow…..

you bend down again

for the heart attack

you know will kill you.

Digger experiences the feast/famine predicament too:

You drink beer after beer

on your porch staring

at your sun-scorched lawn

on our first weekend off

in two months.

Your neighbor’s lawn mowers growl

at you from all directions

If it don’t grow

                        Then I don’t have to cut it,

You think, but lift yourself

at last out of the broken rungs

of your chair and move

toward the side of the house…

you unweave the hose tangled

from the girls’ water fight

like it’s a rope on a ship—

you are in a late movies you saw last week—

you are on the ocean and this rope

anchors you down.

Suddenly the hose unkinks

and squirts you in the face.

It’s not salt water,

not fresh.

You stand in the driveway

watering the lawn, garden

the side of the house

holding the limp hose,

pissing on everything.

Digger is working overtime.  His first weekend off in two months and what does he have to do?  Take care of his lawn, that status symbol lying in front of his house that shows everyone in the neighborhood who he is, how he conforms to the norm.  He must maintain your lawn.  It is expected.  Most effective about this poem is Daniels’ choice of words at particular times. The “mowers growl” shows how Digger feels they are nagging him to get to his lawn work.  Then, “ holding the limp hose,” reveals Digger’s feeling of impotence.  Finally,  “pissing on everything.” tells how digger still can remain defiant in his thoughts.

In part three of the collection we go back to the first person.  “Short Order Cook,” one of the best of the collection, is a wonderful poem about the pride and ambitions of the minimum-wage worker.  But in the next poem, the cook reveals his feelings of helplessness:

“I don’t need to be smart

to work here.”

The grease sticks to my skin

A slimy reminder

Of what my future holds.

Places/Everyone is an exceptional first book.  Daniels’ voice is young, but not immature—it resonates with the authority of one who has worked many jobs and seen many places. Daniels’ language is simple, but that renders the personae in the poems.  Digger, the main character, portrays the typical working-class Joe—the internal rebel and the external conformist, the one who gets up early to go to work everyday even when he feels the job is not what he should be doing—and that reveals the main theme of the book—conformity. You will enjoy Daniels’ depictions of Motor City life, and even if you were not born in Detroit, you will feel ethos because this book reaches out to Everyperson everywhere who has worked at least one honest job.