Philip Levine’s “What Work Is”

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This is a powerful, beautiful poem by Philip Levine. His book of poems with the same title is wonderful. In its Whitman-esque way, it celebrates the dignity and honor in true work. Find an audio version here: http://www.ibiblio.org/ipa/poems/levine/what_work_is.php.

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 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.

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