Jun 28, 2014

Phillip Levine, "Coming Close": Labor and Place

Here is former Poet Laureate, and native Detroiter, Phillip Levine with a portrait of women who labor. Really labor.  Would you agree that he does not sentimentalize her or the work?


Am I the only one who thinks of a slight connection to Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters, although they strike me as agrarian while Levine’s woman is part of the American industrial scene? 

In “You must feed her, as they say in the language of the place,” the “her” is the machinery. (Right?).  So Levine characterizes industrial machinery as female, then goes on to say, “Make no mistake, the place has a language.” In this place the machinery is female, perhaps a demanding maternal figure who must be fed.

I think Levine's treatment of place and language might be the most interesting idea in the poem. Does a place have its own language? Does our language change according to place and situation? If so, is that about the power of place to shape human language, which amounts to human thought, emotion, and personality?

If our language changes as we move from place to place, are we being dishonest? No? Simply pragmatic? Is pragmatism inherently dishonest? And then of course, the old adolescent question, how much honesty can any of us handle? “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”  Remember the Jackster delivering that one?

Does the laborer’s laughter at the end amount to meanness, or is it an effort at jolly, rough fellowship?

Is the speaker’s feeling “marked” a bad thing?  What does “for your own” mean? I really don’t know why that’s there.



Julie Brown said...

The woman seemed to be almost part of her work, as described so well by the observer.

Stickup Artist said...

I took "her" to be the machinery, named by men, not women, like men refer to their cars as she and her. I took the laughter to be ironical, absurd, maybe a little bitter, like it's either that or cry. I'm not sensing fellowship, but an unbreachable distance between the white shirt and the filthy hand that has marked it. Hard labor is always called dignified by those that wear white shirts and do not have to do it. Those that labor hard get worn out early for pitiful pay, and there is no dignity in that.

Banjo52 said...

Julie, that's the way I see it.

Stickup, that strikes me as awfully good "big" thinking, and it's very well said. Of course, these days everyone seems to be saying the "unbreachable distance" is growing larger.

The "dignity of work" has always struck me as suspicious, too, and I wouldn't even confine it to manual labor, though that's where my doubts are greatest. But I also get plenty sick of hearing about the 70-hour work weeks of young-ish white collars climbing the corporate ladder--proudly. That equals dignity--especially on Wall Street, where deception, theft, cocaine, and whores seem to be the norm? Dignity? But I'm gonna tread softly because I do think the right person doing the right kind and amount of work for that person can be dignifying, at least compared to sipping latte or gossiping all day. I think (naively and without considering financial aspects) of farmers, doctors, and yes, teachers, and others as having a leg up on the POTENTIAL for dignity through their work.

It's a big topic or I'm just being long-winded again. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

One of the most pleasant jobs I ever had was as a janitor on the graveyard shift at the university. Of course, it was pleasant because I knew I'd resign in three months, once the health insurance kicked in, paid for a major wisdom-tooth extraction.

And to this day, I'm ashamed at laughing at our instructional videos. "Gone With The Mop," I said, among other things. The supervisors took the videos and the job seriously. It funded their lives, and probably supported their kids. I rather think they went home to a good dinner, a nice existence.

This has probably changed with outsourcing. I don't think the university now supports a janitorial supervisor with good pay, benefits and pensions.

In my three months, though, I learned a lesson. To this day, I know how to sling a mop, the way you have to swish it, to catch the dirt in all the corners.

Banjo52 said...

I'm beginning to think Work is right up there with Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n Roll in eliciting thoughtful, interesting comments. Thanks, AH.

When I see the lights on at night in a few of the windows in tall buildings, my first impulse is sympathy, even if I'm picturing a necktie guy and even if I suspect the nature of his work is something I'd find contemptible.

But within a second or two, I also think of the night cleaning crew. There's still sympathy for the ache-making work and what looks like loneliness, but sometimes I've thought how peaceful it might be up there, just a man or woman with mop, vacuum, duster. In my Utopian Janitorial Service, there is no supervisor, much less one with a bull whip. In that scene (and many others) I can entertain the possibility of dignity in work.

But there's no doubt that some physical labor ruins body, mind, and spirit over time (8 hours? 30 years?), and there's no doubt in my mind that a sizable percentage of white-collar work is designed primarily to find wily ways to screw the innocent and compete mindlessly for baubles.

Anonymous said...

Work fascinates me, too.

But you know, go ahead and romanticize janitors on the lobster and graveyard shifts. There's much to like. You're on your own; there are no supervisors because supervisors became supervisors so they could sleep normal hours. We did three hours work and got paid for eight, which was a fair exchange for the lost sleep.

Because you don't ever sleep right, for any collection of hours, in the daytime -- I talked to the guys who had been doing it for 30 years, and they all agreed.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

A place does have it's own language ….and that language can be offensive to outsiders (who've been known to co-opt it on occasion).

Interesting about the all night jobs..but what intrigues me more is how AH managed to get a job as a janitor during the time that she did. Back 'in the day' those kinds of jobs were't open to women.

when I did the graveyard shift I NEVER got used to that upside down feeling

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