Our Valley — U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine

Philip Levine
U.S. Poet Laureate 2011-2012

Just got back from a reading by U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine, who at 84 is spry and funny, charmingly self-effacing. They called him the father of the “Fresno School of Poetry,” tonight, with just a hint of scoffing from the Central Valley poets. Levine read at American River College to a sold-out audience. He announced he has just stepped down as poet laureate; his term ended last week.

It was good to see and visit with my creative writing professors — Traci Gourdine, David Merson, Harold Schneider, Michael Spurgeon and with friends from the Sacramento Poetry Center. And, it was good to hear a poem about where I live, to hear words capture what happens sometimes in the valley on a hot summer day — a whiff of salt reminds in an instant that something so powerful even the mountains have no word for it lies beyond the valley’s simmering bowl. I love this captured subtly, this shared intimacy with a place I know well. 

San Joaquin Valley in late spring

Our Valley

By Philip Levine b. 1928 Philip Levine

We don’t see the ocean, not ever, but in July and August
when the worst heat seems to rise from the hard clay
of this valley, you could be walking through a fig orchard
when suddenly the wind cools and for a moment
you get a whiff of salt, and in that moment you can almost
believe something is waiting beyond the Pacheco Pass,
something massive, irrational, and so powerful even
the mountains that rise east of here have no word for it.

You probably think I’m nuts saying the mountains
have no word for ocean, but if you live here
you begin to believe they know everything.
They maintain that huge silence we think of as divine,
a silence that grows in autumn when snow falls
slowly between the pines and the wind dies
to less than a whisper and you can barely catch
your breath because you’re thrilled and terrified.

You have to remember this isn’t your land.
It belongs to no one, like the sea you once lived beside
and thought was yours. Remember the small boats
that bobbed out as the waves rode in, and the men
who carved a living from it only to find themselves
carved down to nothing. Now you say this is home,
so go ahead, worship the mountains as they dissolve in dust,
wait on the wind, catch a scent of salt, call it our life.
 
My son Mark bought tickets to Philip Levine’s reading as a Mother’s Day gift. He said reading “What Work Is” convinced him I’d like the event. He was right, but disappointed that Levine didn’t read the poem Saturday night. Here it is with thanks to my wonderful son. I’m afraid it holds sentiments too many Americans share. 
By Philip Levine b. 1928 Philip Levine
    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)

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