Feb 20 – wage work

Friday February 20  —  Philip Levine  Detroit poet and US Poet Laureate  (+  Feb 14, 2015  age 87,  U.S. Poet Laureate 2011 & 2012)

“Thanks for giving him more recognition. Great poet. This will sound like a ‘bot’ but having lived in Detroit for many years, his work really spoke to me… far more than most of these ‘poet laureates’ who tend to do riffs on ‘walks in the woods with the dog’.”  (J C Harris comment NPR  Feb 16)

I’ve been noticing a change in the wind about wage work in the U.S.  For a while now the settled truth in some readings of the direction of U.S. history put wage work, hourly pay, moving off in the rear view mirror;  off to South East Asia or Mexico.  In the US everybody does desk work with a large, medium, small or tiny digital screen and keyboard.  So it sometimes seems.

But lately, you can read of manufacturing jobs coming back to the U.S., to recognition of skilled hands and not just skilled algorithms, as being important here.    You can read more and more about income inequality and the decades-long squeeze on hourly wages.   Even Walmart begins to recognize that it takes a hit when the wide world perceives a Walmart job as a dead end.  Philip Levine’s death on Valentine’s Day (cancer, age 87 – U.S. Poet Laureate 2011-12) and multiple readings of his iconic poem, “What Work Is,” opens a moment to notice stagnant wage work, undocumented sweat shop factory workers, and major labor unrest along the US Pacific coast.  Here’s a piece from this morning’s Crain’s Detroit Business that offers a snapshot. http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20150220/NEWS01/150229998/u-s-unions-poised-for-comeback-as-wages-stall-rich-get-richer

“Labor unrest.”   Bad news for the nation which hankers for an orderly and predictable daily order?  Maybe not.  Maybe unrest is the fruit of paying attention and the birth place of a living culture.  Giving birth is bloody and exhausting and the source of all our grace.

Sermonizing today.  Philip Levine stirs the blood I guess.   He reminds me that all around this campus women and men work like hell.  Makes me proud to work here too.

Have a good weekend.


john sj

PS      After the print version of the poem, you can click on a link to listen to Levine read it.

Today’s Post: What Work Is

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of 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. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

Philip Levine, “What Work Is” from What Work Is. Copyright © 1992 by Philip Levine. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

To listen to the poem and the poet, click the play button below:

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