The Real Work

I was going to use this space to write something wise about fatherhood and poetry—maybe about how being a dad to two young boys has made me more aware (sometimes painfully so) of the everyday: washing the leaning tower of dishes, cutting carrots for lunches, falling asleep in mid-sentence while reading Encyclopedia Brown for the hundredth time. And how those everyday details keep showing up in my poems and provide a way to enact what I consider the hardest thing about fatherhood: this struggle to pay attention to the needs of my kids while also tending to my own life. How do you make poems out of bowls of goldfish crackers?

And then, this week, Valentine’s Day no less, Phil Levine died. I’ve called him Phil for years, though I didn’t know him personally, other than meeting him at a few readings—the first time I heard him read, I drove my old ’85 Chevy Nova from Oakland to Fresno one night, his words jangling in my head the whole way back up Highway 5 through the dark. But I count Levine as one of my poetic fathers. In fact, when I think about his poems, I wonder if anyone taught me more about being a man than he did. Or maybe it’s that in some of his poems I found expressed a way to be a man that I never knew I felt until I read them.

Right from the third line of his iconic poem “What Work Is” Levine shows us we’re in the presence of a particular brand of toughness, often male, with some bluster thrown in: “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.” I love the way he dismisses us right there—he’s almost telling us to go take a hike. That’s not supposed to happen in a poem, is it?

But then this speaker, the guy talking to us, has something he wants to say. He wants to tell us about the guy ahead of him in line who he thought for a minute was his brother. This guy, like him, is waiting in line for work when there might very well be no work to be had. This guy, like him, waits in the rain because that’s what he has to do. It sucks, and he does it anyway.

The poem could end there, but it doesn’t because our guy suddenly admits to us the love he feels, the love he “can hardly stand” for his brother, who works a night shift so he can study opera. It turns tender without sentimentality: “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?”

It is just this kind of clear-eyed tenderness amidst some urban toughness that I’m often trying to find in my own work, and in my daily life with my sons. We know how hard and unjust the wide world can be, and if we forget, we’ll surely be reminded soon enough. It helps to be at least a little tough. But I hope my sons—or, better, all of us—find room for real tenderness, for the real work to which Phil calls us.

Gibson Fay-Leblanc‘s first collection of poems, Death of a Ventriloquist, received the Vassar Miller Prize and was published by the University of North Texas Press in 2012. His poems have appeared in many publications, including Guernica, Tin House and the New Republic. With graduate degrees from UC Berkeley and Columbia University, he has taught writing and literature in public and private middle schools, high schools, and colleges. In 2011 he was named one of Maine’s “emerging leaders” by the Portland Press Herald and MaineToday Media for his work directing The Telling Room, where he still occasionally teaches writing. He lives in Portland, ME with his family and is at work on a novel and a book of poems.

02.26.15 by Gibson Fay-Leblanc