I began reading poet Philip Levine my senior year of college. I was unionizing the school cafeteria workers at the time, and though, improbably, I was still enrolled in classes, I struggled to produce for my poetry workshop. I penned a few lines about the workers–not about the indignities of the workplace per se, but about their home lives and the steady re-creation of a familiar existence in a foreign country. (Most of the workers were from central Mexico.) I wrote of the large backyard weddings I was sometimes invited to, of the trips to the junkyard to fix our cars, and of the languid afternoons spent listening to Mexican (but oh so Californian) radio and drinking cheap beers on the stoops of mobile homes. I wrote of the desolate post-industrial landscape of the Inland Empire of California, this place to which we had all relocated, I from France, they from much closer and, somehow, much farther. I tried to capture my long drives back to my apartment through the foothills when, having been immersed in Spanish for hours, I could almost forget I was in the U.S. I also wrote of how these workers—my camarades and compañeros–scraped together a domestic even when ends did not meet.
This poetry was overly sentimental. Embarrassed, I turned it in anyway: my commitment was no longer to my schoolwork. It was to this campaign, to the fight for a union and, more fundamentally, a work life that could match the poise and generosity of the workers themselves. My energy was dedicated to the struggle for a work life that could redeem—to whatever extent possible—the gut-wrenching immigration journey north.
My professor, Claudia Rankine, was quite generous herself. The mess of lyric prose I’d drafted could well have been left alone, but, instead, she pushed, pointing me to Philip Levine, “a poet,” she emphasized, “who writes about working people and does it well.” The more I read, the more I understood what she meant: Levine is a poet sensitive to the textures of working class lives; he is after the dignity of his subjects, whom he never pities.
A decade later, Levine continues to provide me with inspiration as I reread a remarkable essay of his called Nobody’s Detroit. The piece contemplates the reversal of fortunes of the Motor City, Levine’s hometown. He asks: is Detroit a city in which people’s “life work” is “only a footnote to the history of American idiocy and hubris?” (Levine, 2018, p.51). Is it a city that has “stepped out of history and simply begun to disappear block by block?” (Levine, 2018, p.50). No, he asserts, bringing to life the grandeur of “the isolated and inconsequential, of all that refuses to not be” (Levine, 2018, p.50). By the end of the essay, I am brushing away tears.
What is it about the story of capital flight—of workers and work left behind—that moves me so? This is not the story of any place I might call home. Paris, L.A., and New York are unjust cities, but they are unjust and overdeveloped. So why does this narrative grip me, so much so that it forms the backdrop of my current dissertation research on Newark?
Partly, I am haunted by the recognition that capital disinvestment from place prompts mass migration. When jobs leave, people leave: this is extraordinarily painful for those who stay and those who depart. My pain sharpens when I think of the fights of previous generations of workers to have a little bit of control over their lives, the sacrifices they made that carried them to victories which today, in the boarded auto factories of Detroit, more closely resemble defeats. Are residents of entire towns and countries to accept that they are so at the mercy of the flows of capital that they must become “indifferent to the geography of home”? (Levine, 2018, p.41). Was that not one of the lessons I learned in my very first worker organizing drive in the Inland Empire?
Maybe. But I had just made a momentous move from France to California at the time, searching a place to lay roots and, had this been my sole conclusion, it would have been rather devastating.
Actually, this was not what I learned. I was awakened much more vividly to the possibilities of recreating a home elsewhere, of the dignity of that task, which can only be accomplished through collective struggle. Places, like work sites, have to be fought for, and gains—however partial—will be made along the way by virtue of camaraderie and solidarity. The thrust of my disposition was then and remains today optimistic. Rereading essays like Nobody’s Detroit provides occasion to grieve what needs to be grieved, all the while recognizing the richness of mundane moments of everyday life, which never quits. My research builds from there. I seek answers for why places evolve the way they do and how workers, myself included, will change that evolution.
 Implausibly, I would resurface some these poems years later and publish them in Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey’s Hard Crackers. I cannot begin to repay the debt I owe to Claudia for pushing me to write and introducing me to poetry that, to this day, keeps me going.
Levine, P. (2018). Nobody’s Detroit. In My Lost Poets (pp. 37–51). Alfred A. Knopf.