“Don’t scorn your life just because it’s not dramatic, or it’s impoverished, or it looks dull, or it’s workaday. Don’t scorn it. It is where poetry is taking place if you’ve got the sensitivity to see it, if your eyes are open.” ― Philip Levine
The first poem I remember hearing was Seamus Heaney’s “Digging.” I was seventeen and flush with testosterone and pride when my literature teacher told us that Seamus Heaney, the Irish Poet, had died. She told us put our heads down our desks and to listen to the words she claimed contained the quintessence of Irish eloquence. I heard the last stanza, “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.” I was glad when the poem ended, as I felt equal parts embarrassed and annoyed that we had to do something so childish. And that I had to mourn a man I had never heard of who scribbled words no one read.
At the time, literature seemed so frivolous. “I cared not, at this period, for books; they were apart from me.” Hawthorne expresses this sentiment in “The Custom-House Sketch”—which I was supposed to have read. I wanted only to get through the class, eat lunch, and lift weights in a dim, greasy room at the YMCA. As I ran to the YMCA that day, I thought about the two interlocking parts of the poem as I remembered them. A man sitting at a desk thinking about his father, a farmer who dug up potatoes each day. The poem unravels to show that the man at the desk, the poet, has a different vocation. If he wants to dig into the past, he must do it with a pen. My breathing grew heavier as I ran along the river, toward the gym, away from any contemplative state of mind.
The next morning I woke up, brewed a quart of thin coffee and prepared for school. I got in my beaten up Saturn and drove east, toward the river, in the steamy early morning. At the intersection of telegraph and M-50, I stopped at a red light, looked over into a blue Taurus, and saw a hollow-faced man, eyes rolled back in his head, with a needle in his arm tied off at the crook, a spoon and a lighter balanced on his thigh. I watched him slowly recline and dig himself into the fabric of the backseat. I remembered Heaney’s poem. The driver of the car looked at me with hate when he realized that I was watching his friend. He took a sweatshirt from the passenger seat and threw into the back seat, covering his face, shrouding him from vision. The light turned green and I drove on to school.
I skipped homeroom that morning. I read over “Digging” in the computer lab, scrolling up and down. It all made sense. Heaney made potatoes beautiful, even though they weren’t. They were necessary and real and brutal and back-breaking. To him they were the realest things. In my beaten-up car that morning I needed a way to find some beauty in what I saw. “The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap / Of soggy peat”— I needed language like this to make sense of things. But I didn’t have potatoes, or nature really. Monroe is not Hemingway’s vision of Michigan, where Nick Adams hikes along the picturesque northern coasts, nor is it the Michigan where Jim Harrison walked through the hemlock and pine, across the frozen skin of Lake Superior. Monroe is a concrete square with the interstate running up to Detroit and down to the Toledo like a feeding tube. There is a lake, painted in oil slick, that caught fire in 1969, a river choked with invasive grasses, a beach where you have to watch for needles sticking out of the sand. You have a nuclear power plant spouting steam, auto factories, and addicts. This is my inheritance. If you dig into the place I come from, you may just hit sand and needles.
In the second semester of my freshman year, I found Philip Levine. I saw a video online where he read one of his poems and spoke about his desire to leave Detroit for the more artistic places: Chicago, New York, anywhere. This poem, “Philosophy Lesson”, remains one of my favorite poems. In it, he recounts a scene in which he asks a waitress, “’What do you think of Sartre / and the existentialists’” to which she promptly responds “’We get the eggs fresh / from down the road, my old man / bakes the bread and sweet rolls. / It’s all good.’” Levine then responds with a painfully accurate statement: “It’s not often / you get the perfect answer / to such a profound question.” When I first watched him reading that poem, stooped and thin with a glass of gin in his hand, I was struck that out of all the great poems, he decided to read a simple one which forced a downward look, a recognition of the beauty of human connection, a turn away from the torrid waters of lonely thought. After almost sixty years of teaching students, writing poems, and even translating spanish poetry, “Levine wanted a laugh from his audience, because he knew that he and they, like the people he wrote about in his poems and for whom he cared so deeply, had little else but each other.”
He died in February of 2015, not long after I found him, right at the moment when I had become angry that I did not have a place worthy to be written about. I have no claim to the warm delicacy of Didion’s Southern California, nor can I claim the Deep South and dust of Faulkner; the quotidian life of Southeast Michigan has steel and concrete and drugs, sadness and thick-backed men. But Levine showed me that these people, walking across this hardened land and living lives of quiet desperation, are beauty incarnate. In his poem “What Work Is” he describes the scene of workers waiting in line for a job at the Ford Factory in Highland Park. From this simple scene—men waiting to see if they have a job that day—Levine shows the beauty of human empathy as they struggle to make it, hoping for better lives. In the midst of that hard morning, he urges someone in the second person, perhaps himself, to love his brother. He admonishes him for withholding the love he keeps inside, for not doing the real work. Levine writes into that scene and finds a moment of clarity.
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.
The story of factory work is the story of people working in physical harmony. Levine realizes the lack of emotional harmony in the harmony of production—a stunning tension–and delves into the scene to find the beauty. It is a poem without melodrama or romance; it is pure empathy and guts. It is the realisation that people together in a tragic circumstance need only to connect. A single touch like the embrace of the brothers could not change the day’s work or the aching backs. It could not change the suffering, but suffering together is far more beautiful, far more poetic, than suffering alone.
This poem came to my mind the day after Thanksgiving, when my family drove up to Detroit together. After driving around Belle Isle, we drove a few blocks over to the grave of my great grandparents at Mt. Elliott Cemetery. My grandfather got out of the car and walked in a straight line to the grave of his parents. He stood and looked at the mahogany tombstone. My mother, worried about cleaning off the grave markers that were the same mahogany marble, sunk into the ground in front of the tombstone. My stepfather walked back to the car and found a flathead screwdriver and a ruler. He bent down and tore at the crabgrass with his hands, using the ruler to wipe the marker clean. Eventually, I knelt and pulled at the overgrown grass with him. You’ve never / done something so simple, so obvious.
The events of the poem happened thirty minutes north on I-75, a drive my grandfather made each day of his working life and that many hard-working men from Monroe make every day to do physical work, grinding out each day until retirement, through injury and overtime. As Theodore Roethke, another Michigan poet, wrote in his poem “Highway: Michigan”, “They are prisoners of speed / who flee in what their hands have made.” There is a way to distill the beauty out of the experience, but it must be searched for like a light switch in the dark. The little poetry that comes out of Southeastern Michigan is rigid and tough. There is no room for sentimentality or fluff. The fingers holding the pens have calluses and twisted joints. Like the poems of Theodore Roethke, Jim Daniels, or Thomas Lynch, Levine’s poems connect me to the land, the people, the roads and the highways of my home. They offer me a way of looking at the brutal reality of so many lives and sanctifying them by turning them into art, into artifacts that celebrate the light leaking out of the cracks. In the harshness, the untidy veracity of each life, lies the beauty.
Two years ago, my mother and I took a tour of the Detroit River, setting out from Wyandotte and heading north, along the river isles, toward the Ambassador Bridge that connects Detroit to Windsor, Canada. In the heavy current, the boat listed as it came to dock. When we got onto the boat, we climbed to the upper deck. The wind cut through the boat’s canopy as it pulled away from the shore, engine roaring. Traveling the river northward, time moves backward. Each city on the way up the Detroit River was founded a few years closer to when Antoine de la Monthe Cadillac stuck a flag in the salty earth he named Detroit in 1701. The buildings grow a few stories with each city older and more built up than the last. The buildings inch closer and closer to the riverfront, until cement covers the walkway along the river in Detroit.
In the middle of the river, islands teemed with loons, cormorants, ruddy ducks, and herons flying around in the river grasses and willows. That is, until you reach Zug Island, just south of the city in River Rouge. Hardened kids come from River Rouge, fifth generation autoworkers, thick-wristed men. What they call an island is actually a peninsula, built up into a behemoth of steel and machinery, a large foundry for U.S. Steel. The place smells like burning rubber and as the boat chugged along, I saw slag heaps smoking, a truck dumping a load of ash into a pit. Little lives in or around there, save for rats, gulls, and feral cats. My eyes watered in the acrid air.
We chugged on. Fifteen minutes farther north we saw the silhouette of the Renaissance Center set against the clouds. I saw one of the old Boblo Island ferry boats ballasted against a dock to keep it afloat. It was covered in bird scat and gulls. We chugged on through the dark water, past the last small islands before the bridge. When we approached the bridge and turned right before it, we could almost see the southern tip of Belle Isle. I thought of Antoine Cadillac, the first white man to see this place, and the story that unfolded of all the working class people, the hardworking men and women who looked out at the river from a factory or spent an afternoon on the grass at Belle Isle on a Sunday, each of whom had lived a life worthy of its own epic.
Coming back down the river with the current, we floated past Zug Island once again. Further down the river, birds sang. As we approached the dock I saw a man in a greasy flannel shirt, eating a sandwich on a park bench with his elbows on his knees.
Dirty miracles was what it all was.
Mark Naida is a junior studying French and English