I was delighted to learn that Philip Levine will be our new poet laureate–not only because I love his poems, but because I actually got a chance to meet him when a literary group I worked for in San Antonio brought him to the city to speak. His poems are all "blue collar," with metaphors taken from his years working in the auto industry in Detroit. Despite their masculine overtones, I find them very appealing, because what they REALLY talk about is universal. For instance, here is one about connecting (or reconnecting) with a family member. Here’s an example:
What Work Is by Philip Levine
"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 paces.
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…"
One of the joys of Whitley’s life has been reconnecting with his younger brother. They talk on the phone every day. Despite incidents (some of them major) of hurting one another, they are still fast friends. But it’s taken a great deal of effort to bring them to that point, amidst all the sadness and recriminations of their childhoods and youth, together and apart.
But as the poet says, it’s hard work to keep up a connection like this, and some people don’t want to bother: "You know what work is, although you may not do it." But in a way, you can’t NOT do it, because you have to earn an emotional living, as well as a physical one. Without money, you’ll waste away and become homeless. Without hard-won emotional ties, you’ll waste away emotionally and become homeless and drifting in another way.
As someone who doesn’t really have a family from my past, since I’m kind of an orphan, I cling to the one I have now, because I know how valuable they are, and I’m willing to do the work necessary to keep them close. To me, this means thinking about them, caring about them, trying to give them what they need without interfering in their lives too much. It’s "work," but it’s worth it.