The title poem and other works in Philip Levine’s collection explore diverse realms of work and its meanings for workers. The settings includes descriptions of the landscapes and the interiors and exteriors of the workplaces. The poet presents the human actions in those settings and their emotional reactions to the settings and to other aspects of their work lives. Both aspects function to further his overall goals of providing insights into ordinary working people’s experiences—which may include the work of creativity.
"What Work Is" offers a setting of a rainy street outside a Ford auto plant, where potential workers wait in hopes of being hired. The speaker emphasizes the length of time and the tedium of waiting, as well as the people’s inability to shelter from the rain.
We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
…This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
The speaker thereby emphasizes their meager power compared to those who may or may not hire them.
…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.
This mundane experience nevertheless evokes a powerful emotional reaction from the speaker, who, while waiting, imagines he sees his brother. This erroneous impression stirs up great love in the speaker.
[S]uddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother…
The contrast between this exterior scene is drawn with an unstated impression of an interior bedroom scene, as the brother is
home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
The speaker offers the explanation that the brother’s autoworker job supports his real work—his passion—which is singing opera.
“Fear and Fame” recounts the experiences of the first-person speaker (who may be the poet) while working in a plumbing and plating factory, where their dangerous work involved handling containers of acid. Wearing a cumbersome protective suit, the speaker explains,
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…
The speaker calls attention to the fiery elements of the workplace, mentioning the “burning stew” they are preparing, and calls their workplace the “kingdom of fire.” Further reference to this as the “other world” and emphasis on the need to “descend” into it evoke Hell. The setting above the tanks is presented as being bright and “ordinary.” The contrast between the two realms and the speaker’s dress and activities in them emphasize the alternating danger and routine of a worker’s life.