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What Work Is by Philip Levine is a moving reflection on the existential cost of individuals who balance on the verge of unemployment. Before descending into a somber stream of conscious monologue, it portrays the heartbreaking darkness of a speaker standing in queue for employment at a Ford Motor Company facility. The poem is about the valiant fortitude of men, like the speaker’s brother, who endure long periods of waiting only to be arbitrarily denied the chance to find employment. It might be seen as a sibling’s grief upon realizing their brother’s suffering or as a metaphor for the value of empathy and unity among working-class people.
About the poet
American poet Philip Levine, who lived from January 10, 1928, to February 14, 2015, is most known for his works that depict Detroit’s working class. He maintained teaching jobs at several colleges in addition to spending more than thirty years as a professor at California State University, Fresno’s English department. In addition to being named Poet Laureate of the United States for 2011–2012, he served on the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets from 2000 to 2006.
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.
A group of men wait “in the rain in a long line” in the very first section of “What Work Is,” hoping there would be a job available. Even if the reader isn’t old enough to do the task themselves, they undoubtedly know what it is, the speaker assumes as they succinctly state that they are there for labor. In this way, Levine introduces one of the recurring themes in his poetry: the pervasive and, at times, oppressive influence of industry and capitalism in working people’s lives.
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.
The speaker conveys their frustration with the weather and the unpredictability of waiting for work while emphasizing that this poetry is not intended for the reader. They assert that this poem is “about waiting” and not only labor. The sense of waiting is described through a number of images, including moving from one foot to another and the impacts of the rain, which cause the speaker to believe that their brother is in front of them in a queue.
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,
Levine’s use of language is significant because it avoids referring to the unidentified man as merely a stranger instead choosing to forge a bond around sharing a sister. Looking at the man’s outline in the rain, the speaker notices parallels between them and their own brother, including their sorrowful slump, obstinacy, and reluctance to give in to the hours of pointless waiting. The speaker bemoans the man at the end of the queue who will reject everyone “for any reason he wants” and shows his disdain for him. An existential crisis in and of itself.
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.
The speaker feels a strong sense of sympathy and empathy for their missing sibling who worked a “miserable shift” the night before at a Cadillac manufacturer. Wagner requires them to study German before midday, and the speaker understands what dreadful work they both have to put up with. The speaker understands the type of dreadful task that each of them must endure.
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.
As the speaker’s reflections become increasingly critical of their connection with their sibling, the poem “What Work Is” comes to a somber conclusion. They ponder the last time they expressed their feelings for them verbally or hugged them by their “wide shoulders” while saying, “Maybe kissed his cheek?” The speaker acknowledges they had never done “something so simple, so obvious” in these pictures of expressing closeness and gratitude through verbal and physical means, which are lovely yet saddening. The speaker offers a number of unconvincing justifications when asked why they have never made an effort to show their brotherly affection. It’s not a result of immaturity, the existence of sibling rivalry, or any sort of manly incapacity to express emotion to another guy.