Several weeks ago Pulitzer Prize winning poet Philip Levine died.
Levine was widely hailed as one of America’s leading poets of the past 50 years. His poetry often focused on themes of working people.
Over the years I’d read an occasional Levine poem, but never paid that much attention to his work. Levine had a California connection, since for years he taught at Cal State Fresno.
Last year while browsing a local bookstore I came upon his 1991 volume which won the National Book Award for Poetry, “What Work Is”.
Levine often wrote about Detroit, where he grew up and where he worked in auto manufacturing plants in his early years. Auto workers, machinists, soap factory workers, fire fighters….these are some of the regular people whom Levine writes about.
Levine’s work celebrates the kinds of workers I’ve represented over decades of experience in California workers’ comp.
To give you a taste, here is his poem, “Fear and Fame”:
“Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight’s but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes-all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric
steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash
of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,
metals for sweetness, cleansers for salts,
until I knew the burning stew was done.
Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer
returned to the ordinary blinking lights
of the swing shift at Feinberg and Breslin’s
First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message
from the kingdom of fire. Oddly enough
no one welcomed me back, and I’d stand
full armored as the downpour of cold water
rained down on me and the smoking traces puddled
at my feet like so much milk and melting snow.
Then to disrobe down to my work pants and shirt,
my black street shoes and white cotton socks,
to reassume my nickname, strap on my Bulova,
screw back my wedding ring, and with tap water
gargle away the bitterness as best I could.
For fifteen minutes or more I’d sit quietly
off to the side of the world as the women
polished the tubes and fixtures to a burnished purity
hung like Christmas ornaments on the racks
pulled steadily toward the tanks I’d cooked.
Ahead lay the second cigarette, held in a shaking hand,
as I took into myself the sickening heat to quell heat,
a lunch of two Genoa salami sandwiches and Swiss cheese
on heavy peasant bread baked by my Aunt Tsipie,
and a third cigarette to kill the taste of the others.
Then to arise and dress again in the costume
of my trade for the second time that night, stiffened
by the knowledge that to descend and rise up
from the other world merely once in eight hours is half
what it takes to be known among women and men.”
With Levine’s death, a great voice has passed on.