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What Work Is: Poems





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About the book:

If there is such a thing as a working man's poet, then Philip Levine is it. Born into a blue-collar family in Detroit, Levine grew up amidst the steel mills and auto factories of Motor City. Laboring in the plants radicalized both Levine's politics and his art; in early works such as On the Edge and Not This Pig, he explored the gritty despair of urban working-class life, a reality that has continued to run through his later poetry as well. In his 1991 National Book Award-winning What Work Is, Levine revisits the scenes of his youth--only now the factories are shut down, the towns that depended on them devastated. In the title poem, Levine conveys a multitude of meaning in the single image of men standing in line waiting for work:

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.
Factory workers aren't the only subjects here, however; in "Among Children" (an American response to Yeats's "Among School Children") Levine contemplates "the children of Flint, their fathers / work at the spark plug factory or truck / bottled water in 5 gallon sea-blue jugs / to the widows of the suburbs." For these children, he contends, the Book of Job would be the most appropriate reading.

What work is, Levine tells us, is the accretion of a lifetime of experiences, compromises, and disappointments. It is drinking gin for the first time at 14, a premature leap into manhood; it is that first job with its double-edged promise of a "new life of working and earning," and later the unrealized dreams of escaping that life. Levine's poems move back and forth in time, touch on issues of race, religion, education--even gardening--and leave the reader with a moving portrait of working-class life from the 1940s to the present day. --Alix Wilber

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