'Coming Close' begins with a somber description of a worker who has been toiling with a polishing wheel for the previous three hours. As the poem hones in on the scene, the question arises: 'Is this really a woman?' Suddenly you... [more]
'Coming Close' begins with a somber description of a worker who has been toiling with a polishing wheel for the previous three hours. As the poem hones in on the scene, the question arises: 'Is this really a woman?' Suddenly you are in the poem, probing the buff, mechanical body of this worker and mapping the strenuous, monotonous steps of the job. At the poem's end you discover that, yes, she is a woman -- your white shirt is forever soiled by her grasping fingertips, forever marred by her suffering.
Heavy with physical description, this journey into the identity of another is Philip Levine at his best. Levine's narratives are lanky on the page; they are ramps that the reader hikes down, stumbling on the gross, often introspective details of the life of the industrial worker, the family member, or the political rebel. His poetry consistently achieves a harsh, yet uplifting, tone -- his language, like preacher-speech, is both colloquial and repetitive.
'What Work Is,' the title poem in Levine's most acclaimed collection, may be his definitive piece on the emotions of labor. Immediately he reaches out and grabs the collar of the reader. 'You know what work is,' he asserts, continuing 'if you're old enough to read this you know what work is, although you may not do it.' He keeps the reader on edge, questioning his own relationship to work. The reader waits in line, in the rain, only to be rejected for a job his body does not really want. The shoulders of a man in front of him remind him of his brother, and he is moved, shattered, by the love flooding over him. Then comes the punch to the stomach, Levine's message about the true nature of work: work is true love, work is loving hard, working hard in order to free a space in which to love honestly and courageously.
While Levine speaks of common people everywhere, he also speaks of himself. Born in Detroit, he was raised in a busy, chaotic family in which work and tragedy were no strangers. Upon leaving the nest he flitted from one factory job to the next -- Levine learned all too well that labor was dangerous, necessary, and often humiliating. Few American poets have captured the lifestyle of industrial work -- the emotional and physical endurance it requires and the social hypocrisy that surrounds it -- in the heart-plunging way that Philip Levine has. [show less]