With the news filled with the imminent bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler, much attention is being paid to the mistakes made by the managers of these manufacturing giants; the investment strategies of American and Canadian governments to keep them afloat, and to the job losses that will result as they emerge in some pared-down form.
Not enough is said, though, about the centrality of car culture in North American life, and the way the failure of such trademark American brands reflects fundamental shifts in technology and work in auto-building centres like Detroit and Windsor.
It may come as a surprise that there is a poet – Detroit-born Philip Levine – whose major works, as well as being wonderful and sad portraits of a particular time and place in postwar America, provide a primer on the history of work and daily life associated with the heyday of the American automotive industry.
The two collections that evoke these things in the greatest detail are What Work Is (Knopf), which appeared in 1991, and The Mercy (Knopf), published in 1999.
Levine writes elegies, narrative poems that tend to share a similar shape and length, aimed at evoking character, place and the era of the writer’s youth in the 1940s and 1950s. Detroit, though the hub of a key American industry, is described as “our least favorite city,” a place where soot and snow settle on the shoulders of men “in a long line/ waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.” It is the place that, some fifteen years later, would be “bombed and burned from the inside/ by its own citizens.”
Levine’s own youthful experience of shift work was dirty and brutal. It was taken up, he tells us, by the inhabitants of “a grid of crowded blocks/ of Germans, Wops, Polacks, Jews, wild Irish,/ plus some square heads from the Upper Peninsula.”
On these postwar streets, Levine and his compatriots found what he calls “village life,/ exactly what our parents left in Europe.” In a poem called Reinventing America, he reminds us that urban manufacturing served as a crucible within which the outsider and immigrant was remade as an American. And against the harshness of the work, the narrowness of its expectations, he remembers, too, a feeling of
joy that comes to a great artist
who’s just completed a seminal work,
though the work you’ve completed is “serf work”
. . . a solid week’s worth of it
in the chassis assembly plant number seven.
Cars themselves appear only rarely in Levine’s poems. Instead, the places where they are put together – the “night shift/ at Cadillac,” the upholsterer’s line “at Dodge Main” – rear up like mythic settings.
It is the looming presence of the factories on the cityscape, the baloney sandwiches eaten at lunch, the after-hours gatherings to smoke, drink and listen to Charlie Parker that draw Levine’s attention. He is attentive to the lostness of it all, the particular life of a young working man or woman in mid-century Detroit.
And he is aware, too, of the peculiar quality of his obsessive return to these themes in his poetry. “How ordinary/ it all was,” he admits,
the dawn breaking each morning, dusk
arriving on time just as the lights of houses
came softly on. Why can’t I ever let it go?
Norman Ravvin is chair of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies. His books include the story collection Sex, Skyscrapers and Standard Yiddish and A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity and Memory.