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What Work Is

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  • Posted December 14, 2008

    On What Work Is

    Philip Levine's poetry evokes the vibrant durability and continuity of things. It is no accident that the seemingly unbreakable thistle, which survives California's harsh summers, is his "flower." At least he has celebrated it in such a way throughout his books. Possibly he has done so because its work is to survive, and it does. the way we must, impassively committed surviving, standing up though the harsh heat, the inevitable storms. Levine's poem, "What Work Is," should be read in this context. To work is to survive, and the details of how difficult or debased work can be are evoked in the title poem and the poem "Growth" (each the book What Work Is). Levine was the man, he suffered, he was there. But the symbolic importance of work operates as an emblem of the soul as well, since not knowing how to love, Levine writes, is to not "know what work is." We may seem to be closer here to the meaning of work as it occurs in the tragedies, desolations, and betrayals of the remarkable book of poems Hard Labor by the Italian poet Cesare Pavese than to the Whitman of "A Song of Occupations. But the paradox that Whitman extols, where "Objects gross and the unseen soul are one" are filtered through a rich groove into Levine's book in the poem "Soloing." In the poem his mother tells him "she dreamed/ of John Coltrane, "a young Trane/ playing his music with such joy/ and contained energy and rage/ she could not hold back her tears/." Levine sees the dream visitation as a Dream Vision, a gift of music from the great musician so lasting in the force of his passion that he is retained within, and resurfaces out of, the "unseen" after death in the mother's dream. And here the poet, almost Dante-like, coming into the smogged-over sea-dead L.A. basin simultaneously presents the dignified but saddened alone-ness of the mother with the mother who is still a source of sustenance, whose work as a mother is not over. There is then a placental quality to the poem since the mother's dream itself was the substance that fed the poet-son's language. The remarkable quality, especially of Levine's later poems, is this capacity for lucidly evoking the subtleties of how the inner and outer worlds of experience inter-relate. He could also be saying that sometimes you have to go through hell, and that it is worth going through hell, to receive a gift from the mother¿herself a symbol of what primarily sustains and devours all. But the possibly deeper comical or mystical intent is incidental. At the foundation of Levine's poetry is the durability that arises out of integrity: he is committed to finishing the "job," knowing there are all the reasons in the world to hesitate, but that if he did quit, if he were to ever "have turned back," he would have "lost the music." One of Levine¿s best books.

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    Posted June 12, 2014

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