I love the turn that Phillip Levine’s “What Work Is” takes, how it opens, essentially, with “You know what work is” and (assuming that you read on, that you’re not left behind either because you’re not old enough or because you know what work is but don’t do it) then ends with “You don’t know what work is.” And in between we get the picture of how much it takes to look for work, to wait for work, to stand in line in the rain trying not to surrender to despair, to the truth that there is no work, that your life, your status, your ability to provide (much less pursue the stuff, the life stuff, that you actually care about) is completely dependent on someone else. How much work it is not to have work to do. How much work it is to know that you’re wasting this time, that these hours will never be given back, nor accounted for, nor made right.
I’ve thought a lot about that kind of work in the last decade or so. It comes, I think, with the seemingly simple revelation that your parents, your mother and father, are real people. That they have lives. That they have – and had – dreams and desires and goals and passions. That at least some of them got subsumed into family, into the raising of a family, into the raising of you. That at least some of them got subsumed into responsibility. And responsibility is ever the enemy of dreams, of desires, of passions. Here, in the first third of the poem, I find that reflected, and I find the poem pushing me in that direction: think of how much work it is to exchange your life’s minutes and hours for responsibility and the need to stand in the rain waiting for work that won’t materialize.
But we understand, with the turn in the final third, that this work, this terrible backbreaking work, is nothing next to what it would take to do “something so simple, so obvious” as take your brother by the shoulders, look him in the eye and tell him that you love him. That, the poem insists, is work. We hide that away. We keep it from those around us. It becomes a part of our inner lives, our secret selves, what we sometimes (and maybe mistakenly) think of as our true selves. We make excuses for it (“I’m too young,” or “it’s too obvious,” or “I’m incapable of crying in the presence of another man”). But the truth is that we just don’t want to do the work.
Note, too, that the first time the brother comes up in the poem, it’s a mistake. The speaker, who becomes the “you,” misidentifies another man, a stranger, as his brother. And this blows the poem wide open – opens it to the possibility that not only can we not do this simple, obvious thing with our own families, our own brothers, but also that we willfully miss the opportunity to extend that love to the millions of unrelated brothers who, like us, stand in line and pretend that what we know to be true is false: that we’re not responsible to one another; that we don’t belong to anything larger than ourselves; that we know what work really is.