Literary Dude: Philip Levine and "Dearborn Suite"
Philip Levine, Henry Ford, the Rouge and the Poetics of Automobile Manufacturing.
“Dearborn Suite” by Philip Levine
Middle-aged, supremely bored
with his wife, hating his work,
unable to sleep, he rises
from bed to pace his mansion
in slippers and robe, wondering
if this is all there ever
will be to becoming Henry Ford
the man who created
the modern world. The skies
above the great Rouge factory
are black with coke smoke, starless,
the world is starless now, all
because he remade it in
his image, no small reward.
Monday comes, as it must, with a pale
moon sinking below the elms.
They told us another dawn was
on the way, possibly held up
by traffic on Grand Boulevard
or by Henry, master of Dearborn,
who loathes sharing the light
with the unenlightened among us.
That was 60 years ago.
The day arrived, a weak sun
but none the less an actual
one, its sooty light bathing
walls, windows, eyelids while
old pal moon drifted off to sleep.
As a boy I’d known these fields
rife with wild phlox in April,
where at night the red-tailed fox
came to prey and the horned owl
split the air in a sudden rush
for its kill. I loved that world
with its little woods that held
their darkness and the still ponds
clear as ice, that held the stars
each night until the dawn broke
into fenced plots of land,
claimed and named, barns and stables,
white houses with eyes shut tight
against the intrusion of sight.
Hell is here in the forge room
where the giant presses stamp
out body parts and the smell
of burning skin seeps into
our hair and under our nails.
The old man, King Henry, punches in
for the night shift with us,
his beloved coloreds and Yids,
to work until the shattered
windows gray. There is a justice
after all, there’s a bright anthem
for the occasion, something
familiar and blue, with words we
all sing, like “Time on My Hands.”
Philip Levine, Poet
Philip Levine (1928—2015) was described as “a large, ironic Whitman of the industrial heartland” by poet and critic Edward Hirsch.
Levine, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, was born and raised in Detroit. At 14, he began working in automobile plants. Much of Levine’s poetry is from the perspective of industrial workers. His poems are direct, accessible, realistic and sometimes grim.
He graduated from what is now Wayne State University in Detroit in 1950 and attended the University of Iowa where he studied with poets Robert Lowell and John Berryman. After earning a Master of Fine Arts Degree in 1957 Levine joined the English department at California State University, Fresno where he taught until he retired in 1992. In 2011-2012 he was the Poet Laureate of the United States.
Images of Light and Dark
“Dearborn Suite” was published in The New Yorker in 2008. The poem begins with a restless Henry Ford at the peak of his career pacing at night in Fairlane, his Dearborn, Michigan mansion. Ford wonders “if this is all there ever will be” to becoming the man who (as the stanza break emphasizes) created “the modern world.”
Much of “Dearborn Suite” explores images of light and darkness. The poem shows Ford’s dark side—he “loathes sharing the light/with the unenlightened among us.” And, in the second stanza the light of dawn was “possibly held up by/traffic on Grand Boulevard” or by “Henry, master of Dearborn.” Thus, the modern age has its drawbacks, morning traffic among them.
Another result of industrialization—the making of the modern world—is a starless sky “black with coke smoke” over the Rouge , Ford’s giant vertically integrated industrial complex at which everything from steel making to final assembly took place. At its peak, 100,000 people worked at the Rouge. The modern world Ford made has elements of darkness consistent with his personality.
But, even with Ford’s loathing of “sharing the light,” neither he nor the traffic on Grand Boulevard  can delay the ultimate arrival of the dawn light. Thus, a “weak sun, but none the less an actual one” arrives to bathe “walls, windows, eyelids” with “sooty light”—an image that calls up the persistent grime of the Rouge and other automobile plants of the era.
Henry Ford had strong opinions about the color of his company’s cars. He said “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” 
How the Poem is Constructed as a Suite
“Dearborn Suite” has such a consistent and regular design that it seems to have been machined in a plant. Each of the four sections of the poem is 14 lines in two stanzas that connect to each other. The first stanza of each section is eight lines; the second stanza of each section is six lines. The eight-six arrangement, with a line break in the middle, is the traditional form of a Petrarchan , or Italian, sonnet in which a question or problem posed in the first (eight line) section is resolved in the second (six line) section.
“Dearborn Suite” is a suite of four sonnets similar to the four cylinders that powered Ford’s Model T, the car that helped create the modern world by bringing mobility to the masses. 
Where the Speaker of the Poem Takes Us
In the first section, or sonnet, the speaker is a disembodied presence that witnesses the middle-aged Henry Ford, then at the peak of his power, restlessly pacing in his mansion.
The second sonnet describes the grim start of the workweek in an industrial environment when “Monday comes, as it must” and the dawn light in the form of a “weak sun” with “sooty light” arrives.
In the third sonnet, the speaker travels back in time before the advent of the modern world to an era of open fields and “ponds that held the stars each night.” In this world, the stars are not obscured by coke smoke; they are visible in ponds and the sky. When the dawn breaks it illuminates an agrarian world of “fenced plots of land/claimed and named” much like what Ford, as a Michigan farm boy, saw in his youth. The agrarian community has a forbidding sense of privacy: “white houses with eyes shut tight/against the intrusion of sight.”
In the fourth sonnet the speaker takes us to the heart of the Rouge which is described this way: “Hell is here in the forge”—where enormous presses stamp out car body parts and “the smell/ of burning skin seeps into/ our hair and under our nails.” The imagery is startlingly fragrant and tactile. “King Henry,” happy at the Rouge but not in his mansion, “punches in for the night shift with us,/his beloved Coloreds and Yids.” Although Ford hated unions, he loved the idea of his workers—they were, indeed, in a sense his “beloved.” 
The “justice after all” in working at the Rouge and creating the modern world is supremely ironic, even bitter. The justice is in the “bright anthem/ for the occasion”—a song “familiar and blue which we all sing.” The song, sung by everyone in the plant, is “Time on My Hands”—the perfect song to offset the mind-numbing repetition of working on a Rouge assembly line which seems to extend time infinitely.
A Few Final Thoughts
Alexandria, for all its many charms, has no large manufacturing facilities. The same could be said of Northern Virginia. Does this matter? On a day-to-day basis the answer may be “No.” However, our devices must be made somewhere. Complex manufacturing on an industrial scale is difficult and interesting. The story of how Henry Ford and his workers created the modern world in plants like the Rouge is amazing and, at times, a little terrifying.
Philip Levine’s four sonnets in “Dearborn Suite” tell that story in vivid and compelling ways.
 Ford was a cruel bigot. The phrase “coloreds and Yids” in section 4 captures his racism and anti-Semitism and he may be history’s most unlikeable Great Man. He made life miserable for almost everyone around him including his forward-thinking son, Edsel. At the onset of World War II, Henry Ford was in declining health. Edsel mobilized the Ford Motor Company in the war effort, primarily in manufacturing bombers at the Willow Run plant near the Rouge.
 The Rouge plant is named for the nearly Rouge River. There are three types of automobile plants: engine plants, stamping plants and assembly plants. In its heyday, all three functions were performed at the Rouge. Today, Ford manufactures its F-150 pickup truck at the Rouge in a modern and green assembly plant with a vegetated roof and extensive robotics. When the assembly line is working at full capacity the plant produces a finished truck about every 80 seconds.
You can find out more about a virtual or in-person tour of the Rouge:
 Grand Boulevard has a special resonance. It is a major east-west route between Detroit and its western suburb, Dearborn. It carried traffic to and from the Rouge in the pre-freeway era and it does so today. The massive Henry Ford Hospital complex is on West Grand Boulevard as was the former headquarters of General Motors. Careful About Alexandria readers will recall that Motown’s Hitsville, U.S.A. recording studio and former headquarters (and now a museum) is on West Grand Boulevard.
 My Life and Work by Henry Ford with Samuel Crowther.
 Francesco Petrarca, known as Petrarch, was a 14th century Italian humanist and poet. His rediscovery of Cicero’s letters was an important event in launching the Renaissance. He wrote 14-line sonnets in sections of eight and six lines. The other major sonnet form, the Shakespearean sonnet, is typically composed in three quatrains and a couplet. For more information, contact the English teacher in your service area. Calls may be monitored for quality assurance purposes.
 Ford, in an intuitive macroeconomic masterstroke, also accelerated the arrival of the modern world with his Five-Dollar Day (abhorrent to Wall Street interests and many economists of the era) that paid his workers enough so that they could afford to buy the company’s products.
 Ford’s negative personal characteristics should not obscure his accomplishments. He was a mechanical genius, a relentless worker, and capable of envisioning and implementing manufacturing processes at an astonishing scale. The first Model T left the plant in the fall of 1908. The Model T’s production run ended 19 years later in 1927 and the Ford Motor Company had sold 15 million cars. Ford built his first car—the “Quadricycle” shown below—in the garage behind his Detroit home. The contrast between that building and the Rouge complex is astonishing.