The impact of industry on the psyche of Detroit writers has yielded vivid images of factory life. The Chevy Gear and Axle plant contributed to this phenomenon. Built in 1919, the factory was located at 1840 Holbrook, in Hamtramck. Over the century, the factory evolved, remaining a General Motors property until its sale in 1994 to American Axle and Manufacturing.
While many Detroit poets have addressed factory life in its various forms, Philip Levine specifies Chevy Gear and Axle as the topic for a poem, "An Abandoned Factory, Detroit" in his first book, On the Edge. Levine opens the poem with a powerful description of the structure:
The gates are chained, the barbed wire fencing stands, An iron authority against the snow, And this grey monument to common sense Resists the weather.
This "grey monument" is dedicated to the creation of the assembly line. The final lines of this stanza charge the factory with emotion: "Fears of idle hands / Of protest, men in league, and of the slow / Corrosion of their minds, still charge this fence." The human beings who once existed within the walls are not forgotten; they persist and press on the image.
Levine allows the reader a glimpse through a window at the monument's innards:
Beyond, through broken windows one can see Where the great presses paused between their strokes And thus remain, in air suspended, caught In the sure margin of eternity. The cast-iron wheels have stopped: one counts the spokes Which movement blurred, the struts inertia fought, And estimates the loss of human power, Experienced and slow, the loss of years, The gradual decay of dignity.
The power that once drove this factory is frozen in time. The observer counts the spokes that were once unseen by the workers who attended the quaking machines. Finally, he reflects on the meaning of what has come to pass and acknowledges the humanity that struggled among the cold, iron machines:
Men lived within these foundries, hour by hour: Nothing they forged outlived the rusted gears Which might have served to grind their eulogy. (On the Edge 25)
The brutality of factory work is eulogized by the very machines that are a testimony to the lives spent in their company.
Levine reminisces candidly about his time spent within the walls of Chevy Gear and Axle. He states, "I hated the job more than any I'd had 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 I would never last the shift, but also because it was dangerous" ("Home Dreams" 303). The effect of the work experience Levine refers to as "nightmarish" endures through his work. The message he strives to convey with his abandoned factory poem is the enormity of the horrible work in which he and others participated.
Maggie Burbo graduated with an English major from Marygrove College in 2002. She is now working on an MA in special education at Oakland University and lives with her husband and four sons in Ortonville, MI.
Photo credits: All plant photos courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.
Levine, Philip. "An Abandoned Factory, Detroit." On the Edge. 1961. Iowa City: Second Press, 1964. 25.
---. "Home Dreams." Michigan Quarterly Review 25 (1986): 303.