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From The Bread of Time

In the spring of 1952 in Detroit, I was working at Chevrolet Gear and Axle, the "abandoned factory" of a poem in my first book, On the Edge, and I hated the job more than any I'd had before or have had since, not only because it was so hard, the work so heavy and monotonous that after an hour or two I was sure each night that I would never last the shift, but also because it was dangerous. There in the forge room, where I worked until I was somehow promoted to a less demanding, equally boring job, the stock we handled so gingerly with tongs was still red-hot as we pulled it from the gigantic presses and hung it above us on conveyors that carried our handiwork out of sight. Others had mastered the art of handling the tongs loosely, the way a good tennis player handles his racquet as he approaches the net for a drop volley, applying just enough pressure not to let go and not enough to choke it. Out of fear I squeezed for all I was worth, and all the good advice, the coaching I received from my fellow workers, was of no use.

One night, just after we'd returned to our machines after the twenty-minute break, the guy I was working with -- a squat, broad-shouldered young black man whose energy and good spirits I'd admired for weeks -- tapped me on the shoulder and indicated with a gesture that I should step aside. Together we'd been manning a small punch press; he handed me the stock that came along a conveyor, I inserted it in the machine, had it punched, and then hung it on another conveyor. On this occasion he said nothing, though even if he had I wouldn't have heard him over "the oceanic roar of work." He withdrew a short-handled sledgehammer from inside his shirt and, gripping it with both hands, hammered furiously at the press's die. He then inserted a piece of stock in the machine, tripped the button that brought the press down, and leaped aside before the press could whip the metal out of his hands. The press froze. I went to summon the foreman, Lonnie, while my partner disposed of the hammer. Lonnie took one look at the machine and summoned two men senior to him, or so I assumed since they arrived dressed in business suits. For twenty minutes they searched the area. I finally figured out that they were looking for the instrument with which the press had been sabotaged. Then they separated us and grilled me. There was no question, they assured me, that the press bore the marks of violence. What had "the nigger" done? I answered that I'd seen nothing out of the ordinary, the machine just broke down, almost tore my hands apart. Oh, they looked at each other, I wanted it that way. Well, they could certainly accommodate me. Before the night was over, I was back on the "Big Press," handling those red-hot sections of steel, my hands stiffening and kinking inside the huge gauntlets. Within a few days I was once again dreaming of fire as my hands gnarled even in sleep. I lasted a few more weeks, and when it became obvious that the "Big Press" was mine forever, I quit.

Five years later, while living in Palo Alto, California, on a writing grant from Stanford University, I received an article clipped from a Detroit newspaper and mailed to me. It told of the closing of Chevrolet Gear and Axle; its functions had been moved to a new, highly automated plant near Pontiac. I had already tried at least a dozen times to capture the insane, nightmarish quality of life at Chevy: that epic clanging of steel on steel, the smell of the dead rats we poisoned who crawled off into their secret places and gained a measure of revenge, the freezing winds at our backs as winter moved through the broken windows, the awesome heat in our faces, those dreamlike moments when the lights failed and we stood in darkness and the momentary silence of the stilled machines. In the springlike winter of 1957, sitting in the little poetry room of the Stanford library, which was mine alone each morning, half a country and a universe away from Chevy, I could recall almost without hatred that old sense of utter weariness that descended each night from my neck to my shoulders, and then down my arms to my wrists and hands, and how as the weeks had passed my body had changed, thickening as though the muscles and tendons had permanently swelled, so that I carried what I did with me at all times, even when I lifted a pencil to write my poems. It was not the thickening heaviness of myself I tried to capture in my abandoned-factory poem -- I only managed a glimmer of that -- for I was determined to say something about the importance of the awfulness I had shared in and observed around me, a worthy aim, certainly, but one that stopped me from writing the poetry of what I had most deeply and personally experienced.

Seven years later, in the spring of 1964, I was living in a large airy house in Fresno, California, a house of beautiful slow dawns. Each morning I would waken early, before six, and watch the light -- yellow and pale green as it filtered through the leaves of the sycamore outside my bedroom -- transform the darkness into fact, clear and precise, from the tiled floor to the high, sloping, unfinished wooden ceiling, It was a real California house. I would rise, toss on a bathrobe, and work at my poems for hours seated at the kitchen table, work until the kids rising for school broke my concentration. To be accurate, I would work unless the morning were spoiled by some uncontrollable event, like a squadron of jet fighters slamming suddenly over the low roofs of the neighborhood, for we lived less than a quarter mile from a National Guard airfield.

One morning in April of that year I awakened distressed by a dream, one that I cannot call a nightmare, for nothing violent or terribly unpleasant had occurred in it. I dreamed that I'd received a phone call from a man I'd known in Detroit, Eugene Watkins, a black man with whom I'd worked for some years in a grease shop there. Eugene was a tall, slender man, ten years older than I, and although he had his difficulties at home, he rarely spoke of them. In fact he rarely spoke. What I remember most clearly about working beside him was that I never like schlepping or loading or unloading in tandem with him because he had a finger missing on his left hand, and I had some deep-seated fear that whatever had caused that loss could easily recur, and I didn't want the recurrence to take some treasured part of myself. The dream was largely a phone conversation, in which I could see Eugene calling from a phone booth beside U.S. 99 in Bakersfield, 120 miles south of where I lived. He'd called to tell me he was in California with his wife and daughter. They'd driven all the way from Detroit and had just arrived. They wanted to know what they should do and see while they were in the West. As I babbled on about the charms of Santa Monica, L.A's Miracle Mile, the fashionable restaurants neither they nor I could afford, the scenic drive up U.S. 1 to Big Sur, I knew that what Eugene was actually seeking was an invitation to visit me. I even mentioned the glories of Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Park -- neither more than an hour from where I lived -- and yet I never invited him. Finally he thanked me for all the information I'd given him, said goodbye, and quietly hung up. In the dream I saw him leave the phone booth and shamble, head down, back to the car, exactly as I would have in his place. I awakened furious with myself for my coldness, my lack of generosity, my snobbery. Why, I asked myself, had I behaved this way? Was it because Eugene was black? Several black friends had visited my house. Because he was working-class? I was living in a largely working-class neighborhood. (Who else has an airfield at the end of the block?) Did I think I was so hot with my assistant professorship at a second-rate California college, with my terrific salary that was probably no more than Eugene earned? Was I trying to jettison my past and join the rising tide of intellectuals, car salesmen, TV repairmen, and bank managers who would make it to the top? What the hell was I becoming?

It finally occurred to me that I had not rejected Eugene, my past, the city of my birth, or anything. I had had a dream, and that dream was a warning of what might happen to me if I rejected what I'd been and who I was. The kids were up and preparing for school, so I climbed back in bed with my yellow legal pad and my pen. I was in that magical state in which nothing could hurt me or sidetrack me; I had achieved that extraordinary level of concentration we call inspiration. When I closed my eyes and looked back into the past, I did not see the blazing color of the forges of nightmare or the torn faces of the workers. I didn't hear the deafening ring of metal on metal, or catch under everything the sweet stink of decay. Not on that morning. Instead I was myself in the company of men and women of enormous sensitivity, delicacy, consideration. I saw us touching each other emotionally and physically, hands upon shoulders, across backs, faces pressed to faces. We spoke to each other out of the deepest centers of our need, and we listened. In those terrible places designed to rob us of our bodies and our spirits, we sustained each other.

The first lines I wrote were for Eugene Watkins. I imagined us together in the magical, rarefied world of poetry, the world I knew we would never enter. Although it's snowing there, when we leave the car to enter the unearthly grove, no snow falls on our hair or on the tops of our shoes because "it's the life of poems; / the boughs expensive, our feet dry." But of course that was not the world I was returning to; I wanted to capture in my poetry the life Eugene and I had shared, so before the poem ("In a Grove Again") ends, the grove transforms itself into any roadside stop where two guys might pause to take a piss:

Meanwhile back in the car there are talismans:

A heater, the splashed entrails of newspapers,
A speedometer that glows and always reads 0.
We have not come here to die. We are workers
And have stopped to relieve ourselves, so we sigh.

I remained in bed much of that week. The poems were coming, and for reasons I couldn't explain, I felt my inspiration had something to do with the particular feel and odor of the bed. While there I wrote most of the Detroit poems that appear in my second book, Not This Pig. I believe that they were the first truly good poems I'd written about the city. They are by no means all sweetness and light. There was and still is much that I hate about Detroit, much that deserves to be hated, but I had somehow found a "balanced" way of writing about what I experienced; I'd tempered the violence I felt toward those who'd maimed and cheated me with a tenderness toward those who had touched and blessed me.

Selected from The Bread of Time, copyright 1993 by Phillip Levine.

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