Poem of the Day: 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 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,
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.

Philip Levine, "What Work Is" from What Work Is. Copyright © 1992 by Philip Levine. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

Source: What Work Is: Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991)

Philip Levine

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Poem of the Day: Animals

As the extinguished.
As creatures, coming out to play
in the twilight of creation
human faces intelligent and suffering,
turned upward entering the trees.
The charismatic megafauna:
polar bears, moose, rippling massive flanks
to shake loose biting flies.
The fox and the vixen. The leopard
dazzling in his camouflage, breaking
the urgent glass. In the underlayer
of  humus and moss and broken clay
the cryptogams, the earthworms turning
between the wizardly fingers
of the forest, managed growth
of the second order, the third, steered
toward what shoal, a history
for the benefit of imaginary extrinsic persons.
In the branches snowy owls
and ravens, or the rock pigeons we call
pigeons, that can't perch in trees, that swarm cities
like the flying rats they are, hungry,
iridescent at the neck like the
rats themselves shining like a collar
at the base of a public sculpture
monument to the fundamental flight
through corridors of power, mathematics,
heat death rippling like an invisible wave
down State Street, paralleling Michigan,
pushed by the restless concinnations
of  the El, cutting longitudes across the lake itself,
desert of water
meeting the migrations of alien carp and
cosmic rays, diving deep for the wreck
of the Edmund Fitzgerald
or swimming invisible lines, boundaries
policed by radar, from Canada
a mass of air launched by minute variations
in temperature, push and pull over heat
islands, carbon dioxide absorption,
ozone exhaustion invisible and intervening
like a god: that which manifests
through its action on substance, not itself
substance: weak forces, atmospheres,
unnamed unmet animal species
gone extinct, whole genuses, phyla,
unknowable kingdoms and principalities,
coral reefs burned black like
the crouched and burdened angels,
muscular sketches of our vacancy
as in an etching by Blake, horizontal,
the spiritual body
dividing like a hyphen the upper from the lower,
phatic messenger of  betweenness,
inhuman round eyes fixed on nothing, on suffering,
folly, sporting events, on Gaza — 
wings outstretched to bandage the eyes of  Heaven,
our eyes
as they would bandage the wound of a headless child
or conceal the strength of a people
from their weakness, the mortals
masquerading as their own fates, individuals
slashed open by solitude, acts of mourning
and revenge, writing themselves
into the text of righteousness. The messengers
reveal nothing, like the animals
marching slowly toward me now, two by two,
tongues lolling, eyes lit from within hollow and sparkling
as a cave concealed from light for thirty thousand years
but concealed no longer. Grace have I none
but what can be inferred
by arms opening, palms, head tilting back
to catch rain in my jaws:
what is born, now, what wrests its way
out of the eternal feminine, the body
my only warrant, against monuments my pledge
to the immaculate moment. What is born
is not of me, or the we, or of god, or animals.
It is a wing. It is bleeding.
It masks my eyes until the thunder comes
to open the openness over all.

Source: Poetry (May 2014).

Joshua Corey

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