Workers Comp Zone


Several weeks ago Pulitzer Prize winning poet Philip Levine died.

Levine was widely hailed as one of America’s leading poets of the past 50 years. His poetry often focused on themes of working people.

Over the years I’d read an occasional Levine poem, but never paid that much attention to his work. Levine had a California connection, since for years he taught at Cal State Fresno.

Last year while browsing a local bookstore I came upon his 1991 volume which won the National Book Award for Poetry, “What Work Is”.

Levine often wrote about Detroit, where he grew up and where he worked in auto manufacturing plants in his early years. Auto workers, machinists, soap factory workers, fire fighters….these are some of the regular people whom Levine writes about.

Levine’s work celebrates the kinds of workers I’ve represented over decades of experience in California workers’ comp.

To give you a taste, here is his poem, “Fear and Fame”:

“Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,

gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet

like a knight’s but with a little glass window

that kept steaming over, and a respirator

to save my smoke-stained lungs. 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-all from a recipe

I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O’Mera

before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway

to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric

steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash

of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,

metals for sweetness, cleansers for salts,

until I knew the burning stew was done.

Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer

returned to the ordinary blinking lights

of the swing shift at Feinberg and Breslin’s

First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message

from the kingdom of fire. Oddly enough

no one welcomed me back, and I’d stand

full armored as the downpour of cold water

rained down on me and the smoking traces puddled

at my feet like so much milk and melting snow.

Then to disrobe down to my work pants and shirt,

my black street shoes and white cotton socks,

to reassume my nickname, strap on my Bulova,

screw back my wedding ring, and with tap water

gargle away the bitterness as best I could.

For fifteen minutes or more I’d sit quietly

off to the side of the world as the women

polished the tubes and fixtures to a burnished purity

hung like Christmas ornaments on the racks

pulled steadily toward the tanks I’d cooked.

Ahead lay the second cigarette, held in a shaking hand,

as I took into myself the sickening heat to quell heat,

a lunch of two Genoa salami sandwiches and Swiss cheese

on heavy peasant bread baked by my Aunt Tsipie,

and a third cigarette to kill the taste of the others.

Then to arise and dress again in the costume

of my trade for the second time that night, stiffened

by the knowledge that to descend and rise up

from the other world merely once in eight hours is half

what it takes to be known among women and men.”

With Levine’s death, a great voice has passed on.

Julius Young