12.31.2009

Hazard: Writing at Work

The corner of cardboard
torn from a carton
and safely tucked
in a back pocket
with your scribbled line

I regret to say
has been rinsed washed
spun and tumbled and
though warm and fluffed
is quite blank.

I have left it
folded with the laundry.
Perhaps its shape
will remind you
of your words.

:: Susan Eisenberg, Pioneering: Poems from the Construction Site (1998)

12.30.2009

Working Late

A light is on in my father's study.
"Still up?" he says, and we are silent,
looking at the harbor lights,
listening to the surf
and the creak of coconut boughs.

He is working late on cases.
No impassioned speech! He argues from evidence,
actually pacing out and measuring,
while the fans revolving on the ceiling
winnow the true from the false.

Once he passed a brass curtain rod
through a head made out of plaster
and showed the jury the angle of fire--
where the murderer must have stood.
For years, all through my childhood,
if I opened a closet . . . bang!
There would be the dead man's head
with a black hole in the forehead.

All the arguing in the world
will not stay the moon.
She has come all the way from Russia
to gaze for a while in a mango tree
and light the wall of a veranda,
before resuming her interrupted journey
beyond the harbor and the lighthouse
at Port Royal, turning away
from land to the open sea.

Yet, nothing in nature changes, from that day to this,
she is still the mother of us all.
I can see the drifting offshore lights,
black posts where the pelicans brood.

And the light that used to shine
at night in my father's study
now shines as late in mine.

:: Louis Simpson

12.29.2009

The Picker

Bent from the waist,
sun beats yellow
into his shirt,
sears along his arms.

Through his legs
we see rows
of tomato seedlings,
dirt to the horizon
and blue sky,

and his hat round
with its black band
hangs in the sky
midway to heaven.

:: CB Follett, in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review #2 (1993)

12.28.2009

That Winter

Click here to read David's poem in Ploughshares.

12.26.2009

When I Was Dying

The dullest people I knew
gathered round my bed,
the ones who made me feel
stupid or ashamed when I
was living. My flustered
wife held my hand like a fish,
worried our children might
eat poorly at the neighbor lady’s.
Outside the door I heard
the nurse with massive arms
send off students who learned
nothing from me, but came
anyway for final grade changes.
And while my mother’s clergy-
man read aloud the governor’s
telegram I died. What did
I care, bobbing off in dark
blue sea, under light blue sky?

:: William Hathaway, The Gymnast of Inertia (Louisiana, 1982)

12.25.2009

Waiting

after the meeting the women go to lunch.
the waitress watches, awkward on her high heels
like some odd hoofed animal, while we decide.
a smile is stapled on her face like part
of the menu. small puckers of burns
are splattered part-way up one arm. she is
all of us, our first lurch into the working
world, learning to sell service, it is
where we begin, before we become
the women who go to meetings, the ones
who are never satisfied, we are pains
in the management ass, we're as tired of it
as they are, but still we keep asking,
saying, 64% is not enough, the waitress
is still who we are, coins rattle
their judgments in her pocket.
when she brings us our bill she asks
is there anything more that we want.

:: Leona Gom, in For a Living: The Poetry of Work
(Nicholas Coles & Peter Oresick, eds., 1995)

12.24.2009

Rainy Season

Christmas Eve and the stacks of the paper mill slow for the
evening,
though the smell lingers stronger than salt or sea. Tanker
ships
with their red metal containers float like rusted gifts through
the straits.
And we, like the trees, bend and snap against the season’s
short days.
The whole town is soaked: winter rains fill ditches, flood
yards,
blur the windows so next-door Christmas lights twinkle twice.
Tomorrow,
we’ll unwrap piles of paper, and then the factory will begin
again—
pump the grime of cardboard and pine across the saturated
sound in
gray, sour clouds. That smell again. The pulp won’t dry till
spring.

:: Katherine Bode-Lang, Spring Melt (2009)

12.23.2009

Mr. Robinson at the Airport

Here is the man who takes his suitcases.
They are friends, friendly. They smile, exchanging
bags and tip and thank you. Here is the woman

who takes his ticket. She scans the screens before her,
knows the names of the people at whom he will smile
when he confuses their seatbelts with his,

who will apologize when they squeeze past him
to use the lavatory. She knows his numbers,
price and flight, time and gate and seat.

She tells him where to go. She knows that he
is going somewhere, and that makes him happy.
The woman from whom he buys The New York Times

and lemon poppy seed muffin and Starbucks coffee
has everything he wants. She takes his money
and gives him just the change that is his due.

Soon, at a time over which he has no control,
he will walk onto the plane and find the seat
that is meant for him, and smiling people

will bring him food to eat and icy beverages
to drink. Until then, he will sip his coffee
and do the crossword and watch as ponderous,

hopelessly burdened things lift and dissolve
into this blue and cloudless sky, this empty, empty sky.

:: Christopher Cunningham, in West Branch #60 (2007)

12.22.2009

Walking to Work at Dawn

I lifted my fist, sniffed the pig blood in my knuckles,
and wondered what crevice of my body
the pork would claim as home.
I once watched a curandera in an orchard of figs,
her skin like the bark of an ash, save my friend Jesse.
We washed windows at the car wash.
He felt pain, coughed up blood,
and thought years of ammonia fumes
had settled in the folds of his gut
that only magic could reach with its sticks of mystery.
A fire burned under a ceramic pot.
The curandera added pinches of mint and cat’s claw,
and then she stirred the water
the way branches sway until there is only wind:
a faith blue jays hold in their wings,
diving through the morning fog for fruit,
crying, “Squa, squa, squa, squa,”
just before the frozen ground slams home.

:: David Dominguez, Work Done Right (Arizona, 2003)

12.21.2009

Roustabout

I was twenty-two, pretty maybe. It was a small twon
county fair: hot dogs, freak show, cotton candy,
and heavy wheels laden with light,
all tuned to the gaudy air.

The Octopus—remember that one? Eight
arms like extended girders, the thing was a metal
Shiva juggling worlds: a cup spun at the end
of each madly oscillating arm, every cup
overfull of squealing kids or lovers drunk
on the whip-sharp unexpected torque
toward the expected rapture.

He was maybe twenty-two, bare-chested, tanned
and gleaming in the southern September night,
a kind of summer in the lights that played
across him as he pulled levers set to arm
the bright contraption with speed and plunge,
with whirl and rise. His hair was almost red
in the lights’ translation. Not many
riders yet, when suddenly he leapt
onto one of the metal arms in its low sweep
and rose with it. And laughed.

I thought it might be for me, this showing
off. He jumped onto the next arm as it rose,
went up with it, then landed easy on the ground.
He vaulted the lowered ones as they went by,
stepped up again, and down again, then ducked
under so a steel arm grazed his cap. How long
ago it was.
How long did I stand and watch
that wild control before I turned
to find my husband and my child?

He’s likely dead now. Or deep asleep
in some wine-dark room, some ragged dream.
I think no golden years follow that life,
though I still see him shining new
against black sky and turning stars—
chancing it, taking on the monster,
winning, dancing it.

:: Betty Adcock, Slantwise (LSU, 2008)

12.20.2009

You Must

You must have a hope
that will let you stomp and sing
at any cold dawn.
You must not wait
to love the student who loves you
and would like to kill you.
You must read the story again
and again to the child
who receives you with a bovine stare.
You must get up
every day to punch in
not dreaming on transcendence,
not desiring new heroes or gods,
not looking the other way,
but looking for the other way
and ready to talk to everyone on the line.
You must not wait
for official approval
nor general consensus
to rage. You must
come again to kneel
in shiny, rock-strewn soil
not to pray, but to plant.
Yes, even now
as ice caps melt and black top
goes soft in the sun
you must prepare for the harvest.

:: Jon Andersen, Stomp & Sing (Curbstone, 2005)

12.19.2009

Eavesdropping

It was Mrs. Garvin, the doctor’s wife,
who told my mother, Well if you’re that broke
put the kids up for adoption.
Out under the porch light that summer
we slapped at mosquitoes and invented
our brave escape—luminous sheets
knotted out the window
were the lines of a highway down the house.
We would know the way,
like ingenious animals, to go
quietly toward the river,
but we could imagine no further
than the shacks on stilts
shivering in the water,
the Kentucky hills on the other side.
Denise, the youngest, took to sleepwalking,
wading room to room for the place
one of us—curled up in a bed’s corner—
might have left her. I’d wake
with her face pressed against my back,
her hands reining the edges of my nightgown.
I didn’t tuck her into my shoulder
but loosened her fingers and led her
back to her own bed, her fear
already seeping into me like water
or like the light spilling
from the milk truck
as it backfired down the street.

:: Michelle Boisseau, No Private Life (Vanderbilt, 1990)

12.18.2009

Things My Grandfather Must Have Said

I want to die in the wintertime,
make the ground regret it,
make the backhoe sweat.

January. Blue Monday
after the holiday weekend.
I want it to be hard on everybody.

I want everyone to have a headache
and the traffic to be impossible.
Back it up for miles, Jesus.

I want steam under the hood, bad directions,
cousins lost, babies crying, and sleet.
I want a wind so heavy their umbrellas howl.

And give me some birds, pigeons even,
anything circling for at least half an hour,
and plastic tulips and a preacher who stutters

“Uh” before every word of Psalm 22.
I want to remind them just how bad things are.
Spell my name wrong on the stone, import

earthworms fat as Aunt Katie’s arms
and put them under the folding chairs.
And I want a glass coffin,

I want to be wearing the State of Missouri
string tie that no one else liked. . . . God,
I hope the straps break

and I fall in with a thud. I hope
the shovel slips out of my son’s hands.
I want them to remember I don’t feel anything.

I want the food served straight from my garden.
I want the head of the table set. I want
everyone to get a pennant that says,

“Gramps was the greatest,”
and a complete record of my mortgage payments
in every thank-you note.

And I want to keep receiving mail for thirteen years,
all the bills addressed to me,
old friends calling every other month

to wonder how I am.
Then I want an earthquake or rising water-table,
the painful exhumation of my remains.

I want to do it all again.

I want to die the day before something truly
important happens and have my grandson say:
What would he have thought of that.

I want you all to know how much I loved you.

:: Mark Cox, Smoulder (1989)

12.17.2009

The International Athletes

At the car-wash you see them

under its marquee that flashes out $2.95
among giant blowers, brushes and suds
vacuum roar whirring of buffers

the line-up of boys: Carlos, Joaquin, Jesus

a bright Hollywood day, half of
Detroit will pass under their hands:
Cougar Caprice Cutlass
Mustang Pinto Impala
quick brown hands fly over the fins
of Firebird Falcon they polish
the fenders of Maverick, Squire, Ambassador

endless files of heavy metal, El
Camino, Silverado, Riviera
Camaro, Sapporo, Granada
ay chingado! el cacique El Dorado
with its chrome, its crest, its
appointments, its velvet upholstery

Julio, up from the rancho
his grandpa lost in Uruapan
Jorge, no work in the barrios of Puebla for a year
Pablo, whose children were starving in Tepic

electric with work
ecstatic with work
gleaming with sweat
their muscles ripple
under the dark skin of forearms
lean and lithe in T-shirts and
new tennis shoes, light-
footed they dance
around the sacred heavy metal
the little sparring dance
of soon-to-be champions
the car-wash their ring their workout
they are in training for the next job
better and yet to come

At dark, night school and English
Oscar jogs Alfonso lifts weights
Antonio writes his mama
Paco his vieja

una cerveza with the ritual washing of jeans
the shining boots by Radio Variedades

shared furnished rooms, cold
beans and tortillas, dreams
of a novia or a hard blonde gringa
or a neat little Colt
their hands had fondled at noon

:: Joan Lindgren, in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review #7 (1995)

12.16.2009

Duties

Even at an early age,
she sensed her dependence on death—
how strokes had straightened her teeth

and suicides started her college fund.
So she felt duty bound
to pray for the dead—
slipping downstairs into the funeral home

her parents ran from the first
floor of their house—
her mother peddling floral displays
as her father effortlessly alternated

between sympathy and a soft-sell
of his top-of-the-line caskets.
At night, while they took inventory
and balanced their books,

she knelt beside marble slabs
in the basement and clasped the cold
hands of strangers—saying prayers
for the anonymous souls

stockpiled beneath her roof,
waiting to pay Charon’s fare.

:: Brett Hursey, in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review #7 (1995)

12.15.2009

Down on the Strike Line with My Children

I'm down on the strike line with my children on a Sunday afternoon. The ten year old and his eight year old friend feel quite official as they take turns carryin a picket sign between them, marchin on the sidewalk in a ritual style.

Two women in their forties stop to take the leaflets and ask directions to another store. Another woman asks where she and her mother should go to buy a bike for her daughter's birthday.

Some people slow down to take leaflets before they turn into the store to shop for cassette tapes, men's thongs, mouthwash, or garden hose.

Most people look straight ahead at the doors of the store as they approach and pass our picket lines. The kids are confused and ask why these people walk past us, can't they read?

I tell them, maybe these people have a disease and we're invisible to them. You know, kinda like color blindness, only when you have class blindness you can't see workers, you can only see things like waffle irons and Winnebagos.

Or maybe they've had an operation so like is now like a game show where you compete for prizes against other workers. This operation is called a lobotomy.

After a half hour the thrill of marchin is gone so the kids now fight over who has to carry the sign. A man in his sixties pulls up [to] the curb in an old Pontiac. He wants to give each of the youngsters a quarter for a soda. He's a retired longshoreman.

Last spring I stood down on the docks with the longshore workers. I was sevn months pregnant on the first day of the strike. I stood with a picket sign in the cold bay breeze, my back to a parking space. A man from management in a blue Toyota pick-up drove toward me and rolled his truck into my back, bumping me forward off balance.

That day I thought about my woman friend Sandra who as six months was kicked into unconsciousness at a civil rights march. Her baby was stillborn.

But today the retired longshoreman is pullin out of his worn wallet a quarter for my ten year old, a quarter for the eight year old, and a quarter for my five month old in the stroller.

I'm down on the stirke line with my children and we are not invisible to each other, to those who won't cross our lines, or to those who pass by us.

:: Donna Langston, in Calling Home: Working Class Women's Writings (edited by Janet Zandy, 1990)

12.14.2009

Cabinet Factory

Click here to read Jason's poem in the inaugural issue of Scythe.

12.13.2009

Mercy

Under the half-light of the toolshed
my father’s lost beneath the tractor,

the white-knuckled lover
of broken machines.

He packs the new bearings,
dark fingers smooth the grease bead.

I hold the light and hand down the tools.
The afternoon holds its dust by the collar,

pins it against the shed. Having the right tools,
he tells me, is having angels-of-fucking-mercy.

I hold the light and hand down the tools,
my father’s hands lifting to meet them.

:: Michael McGriff, Dismantling the Hills (Pittsburgh, 2008)

12.11.2009

For Money, at the Hotel

someone every morning pulled out this chair for Mr. K
so he could eat his bowl of berries and bran flakes;

someone polished fingerprints
from brass banisters;

someone removed brown leaves
from lobby bouquets;

a carpenter made a straight wall curved
to match an armoire’s turn;

me and John, we crawled a wire
through forty yards of spidernests
to re-switch the canopy lights

and from 10-foot ladders watched a black Buick
aim high-speed for the doorman
who stood still for the regular’s tip.

:: Susan Eisenberg, Pioneering: Poems from the Construction Site (1998)

12.10.2009

Always Here

My father talks between emphysema gasps
about his high school days, the shot he made
to beat Hohenwald one night sixty years ago, the arc of it
high and too sharp but in it went with a kiss
from the top of the backboard. Now, just as gracefully,
he nods into his nap, his hands upturned, a lifetime
of hard work and still open and ready for more work.
He says he always liked this little ragged
town by the Buffalo River and that it was
as big as ancient Greece to him with just as much
going on—he never wanted to go anywhere else.
Served in Alaska in the world war,
saw Seattle, saw Anchorage, stayed overnight
in St. Louis on the layover flight back home
in 1945 and that was enough. Almost dark. His snore
is even and calm. Through the open window,
in the heavy summer evening, a catbird lights
on the backyard fence and sings the song
it always sings, the song of staying
in the same town all your life.

:: David Tucker, Late for Work (2006)

12.09.2009

1936

Her mother is rolling cigars in the factory.
She is best of all, even perfect. She taps
the woody threads, immaculate, into the acrid
raw silk of the wrapping.
Best of all, she can do it without thinking or asking,
could do it while talking, but doesn’t, ever.
And so she could never be the cackling
floor-boss or the foreman who stands there
tethered to the watch. She’s in it, for good,
on the floor, for life, watching the strings
tucked into their casings, each brown bud
taut below her long white hands.
And just her one thought—this is my
machine—the shroud around the shadows.
You, genre painter, who finds in this beauty
and who, from this, would make an enduring thing,
or you who could build from this some plot strung
with ornaments, constructing a monument
at the site of its senselessness,
turn away, turn from the din and the dust,
and choose someone else—not her.

:: Susan Stewart, The Forest (Chicago, 1995)

12.08.2009

The Girl Who Carved Jesus into Her Forearm

On that first morning she didn’t wear bandages,
I watched her tuck a loose strand of hair
behind her ear, her right sleeve
slipping to her elbow—the faint loop
of the final S curved around the edge
of her sweater, but the U sharp,
almost a V, the J distorted
as if she had trouble with the blade.
The night before I had been warned
not to stare, and don’t ask any questions
my mother’s voice low and firm like on those days
we went grocery shopping and she would yank
me away from Old Mr. Cummings
who stood on the corner of Main Street
yelling that Satan was in the five-n-dime again.

But it was hard not to watch
the star pupil in our Sunday School class
who now sat straight in front of me
in Friday homeroom, her fingers
twirling a No. 2 pencil like a thin baton.
It was hard not to think about
how the raw name turned red.
So instead, I focused on all my prayers
that God hadn’t answered—some things
all seventh graders must ask for, like an A
on a prealgebra pop quiz or perfect teeth
without the taste of braces,
and some things that had to be different
like more money on paydays,
so my parents would stop fighting.
I wondered if it worked—bleeding
in order to get God’s attention.

:: Karen Weyant, Stealing Dust (2009)

12.07.2009

Job Site, 1967

Please click here to read Lucia's poem in Ploughshares.

12.06.2009

Dirty Hands

Sitting under a cheap stamped early light fixture
he could imagine it was he who drove the Pontiac
all the way to Florida on only one quart of oil,
something it was impossible to explain to his new girlfriend
floating in her hot tub under a Niagara grape arbor.
He took a bite of sandwich and lived on the richness
of that dark wallpaper; he thought it was round fishes
and not just some green design made in Toledo,
the wallpaper capital of the world before the First War.
He wanted to tell her how worn out he used to be
at four in the morning crossing the empty highway
to start his second night and how he struggled
with the dirty stove so he could just move his fingers;
and he wanted to tell her what it was like luging eggs
in the Union Station in all that smoke, his lungs
turning to stone, his hands bleeding for years,
his eyes bloodshot, but that was when he touched
her face and the moon camethrough the grapes, the part
where the roof didn't shade the arbor, making a valley
not so different from what he knew, two clouds
breaking off like dogs breaking off, the rabbit silent
and running with his legs on fire, it was
a memory of the sun; he thought of their mouths
all open, the grapes were hard, the water was boiling
driving through West Virginia, the oil was smoking
under the hood, his eyes were closed, his hands were soaking.

:: Gerald Stern, Last Blue (Knopf, 2000)

12.05.2009

Frequency

All day long, side by side with the man, the iron forced
its torso against the flaming mud of the forge. In the end,
their twinned muscles unearthed the thin night of metal,
bursting free.

The man leaves his work in no rush. He plunges his arms
one last time into the stream’s darkened flank. Will he
know, at last, how to grasp the algae’s icy hum?

:: Rene Char, translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson in Asheville Poetry Review (15:1, 2008)

12.04.2009

From Emma's Scrapbook: 1953

She had heard it happen,
heard the bone break
as it happened and did not
need to read the account.
Still she kept the clipping,
though God only knows why.
The strap snapped, the one
holding her son to the top
of the power pole.

Andy became a lineman,
climbing and wiring
after a hot summer
of scaling trees, trimming
the tops to let in light
so they could make a movie
starring Gary Cooper.
Andy was agile and fearless
like his father, and proud
of his job, of making more
than the boys who stayed
in town and worked,
safe at Western Auto
or Brown’s Boots and Shoes.

It snapped and he fell,
and she heard his fingers
scrape the cross arm
as he tried to hold onto
the 30 foot pole, heard him
curse all the way to the ground
hitting Bob McClain on the head
with his flailing arms, heard
him hit the ground and land on
his feet, bounce once and fall

again and break his wrist.
For years he woke in the night
with a shout, reliving
the moment he knew he was
going down, and she heard
that too, heard it
each and every time.

:: Naton Leslie, Emma Saves Her Life (2007)

12.03.2009

Cutting Wood: After a Family Photograph

The rickety steam engine clatters
in a frosted hollow of southern
Indiana hills. White puffs of steam
hang above a hedgerow of bare trees
in the background. You stand there,
grandfather, the ends of your moustache
curling about the corners of unsmiling
lips, grazing at the circular saw about
to bite into the green pulp of a log.
I feel in my blood your reverence
for the medium of wood, respect
your demand for the precise cut.

For twenty-five years your son
crafted processed wood into chairs.
He still stares at the grains
in wood. Now I, who remember touching
your hand only once before you died
in my third year, sit behind a desk
and daydream of the forests which
fed that saw. Soon after you lay
in the earth, your son led me into
the woods and cupped my ears to
the leafy murmurs of shagbark hickory,
wild cherry, oak and beech. He taught
me how to kill for food the animals
that ate on the fruits of those trees.

One short summer’s work in a wood
factory still has me running my finger-
tips over the finished grain of woods
your rough saw once cut into lumber.
With your love of the precise cut,
grandfather, you would understand my
need to carve with a pen a line smooth
and delicate as wild cherry, yet tough
and durable as hickory. I glide over
the sawdust toward you, with the shadow
of the photographer caught in his picture.

:: Norbert Krapf, Finding the Grain (1977)

12.02.2009

The Benedictine Hand

“Now class,” she said, “we must be careful when
we push the glass tube through the stopper, thus.”
She slid it halfway through the rubber hole.
It stuck. She rammed it harder, twisted. It snapped,
and, snapping, drove the ragged end of glass
into her palm. Blood dribbled on the desk.

“Now that’s what you are not supposed to do,”
she said. She held two frozen fingers up,
as if to bless us. “I’ve cut the median nerve.
This is what’s called the Benedictine Hand.
It’s paralyzed.” She flexed her thumb and last
two fingers. The blessing fingers stayed erect.
Then, pale, she wrapped her red hand in a wad
of towels, left the room—quick, angry steps.

We boys, although it wasn’t accurate,
thereafter called her Mrs. Claw, not telling
each other how we squirmed that day or how,
Dear Mrs. Claw, we won’t forget the bright
blood, Benedictine Hand, or with what steel
you held before us your new deformity,
named it, explained it, and blessed us with your error.

:: Andrew Hudgins, The Glass Hammer (Knopf, 1994)

12.01.2009

Gray

Driving through the Monongahela Valley in winter
is like driving through the gray matter
of someone not too bright but conscientious,
a hard-working undergraduate who barely passes.
Everybody knows how hard he tries. I’m driving up
into gray mountains and there, it may be snowing
gray, little flecks like pigeon feathers, or what
used to sift down onto the now abandoned slag piles,
like what seems to sift across the faces
of the jobless in the gray afternoons.

At Johnstown I stop, look down the straight line
of the Incline, closed for repairs, to the gray heart
of the steel mills with For Sale signs on them. Behind me
is the last street of disease-free Dutch elms in America,
below me, a city rebuilt three times after flood.
Gray is a lesson in the poise of affliction. Disaster
by disaster, we learn insouciance, begin to wear
colors bright as the red and yellow sashes on
elephants, whose gray hides cover, like this sky,
an enormity none of us can fathom, though we try.

:: Maggie Anderson

11.30.2009

Rednecks

Click here to read Martin's poem in the spring 1995 isue of Ploughshares.

11.29.2009

Signing Up for Unemployment Benefits

At the Lorain Bureau of Unemployment,
I show the clerks my army discharge papers
and fill out the forms they give me
which explain how I’ve been defending

the right to earn the minimum wage.
I move from one line to another
and wait to show my paperwork to people
with jobs who tell me about the opportunities

in Corrections for ex-MPs.
I fill out more color-coded forms
under the fluorescent lights.
Before I joined the army, this building

used to be a grocery store.
I examine each form as carefully as day-old bread,
sign my name exactly the same way each time.
Somebody behind me shakes

hands with a buddy in another line.
Ronald Reagan wears a hard hat and a flannel shirt
on TV. He promises to put us all to work.
Faithfully, I carry my blue record book

each week from one factory to another,
collecting signatures, stamps, and numbers
that explain everything
except why I do not have a job.

:: Tim Skeen, Kentucky Swami (2001)

11.28.2009

Patchwork

From the scrap barrel at work I pilfered scraps—
rags, ends of bolts. Grandmomma jerked
thread through the cloth so hard the batting bulged.
We fought for those crude quilts, me and my brothers.
She yanked the stitches till they puckered, and slowly
the stolen scraps yielded a Drunkard’s Path.

Grandmomma’s ten years dead and her bad work
still keeps me hot at night, in Northern weather,
which she despised, just as she hated you
if you were Northern, rich, black, smart, or atheist.
I loved her because, like God, she loved me first,
ferociously. A love so close to hate
it’s taken decades just to say there is a difference.

I sat between her knees, head tilted back.
She thumbed the crusty threads. “There ain’t no call
paying some doctor to do this.” She snipped
the threads lacing my forehead, popped them out.
But first she studied them and said, “It’s sloppy—
those big loose stitches. I’d sew you tighter.” She grinned,
and with a lipless peck she kissed the stitches.

:: Andrew Hudgins, The Glass Hammer (Knopf, 1994)

11.27.2009

Little Elegy

Oh how he loved his cup
and now he’s dirt
under the pine trees

—Li Po

A moment of silence at Soup Kitchen
for our saint of the quick grip, faking
a side stitch to hide the bottle under his coat,

for his taped shoes and worm-eaten watch cap,
that clarifying fish pier scent, raw-grained
and terrifying smell of the skids,

how little it takes to wake up over a grate,
half-dissolved in shadow and mist—
half-dissolved, but still blissed out, bantering

with buddies, flailing on icy streets,
then catching hold of a lamppost and nodding
to it, to the sky, the glittery walk,

to a passing taillight, an old belief,
foolish or fearless, that everything’s sacred,
and now he’s gone.

:: Betsy Sholl, Late Psalm (Wisconsin, 2004)

11.26.2009

Paper Mill Town

So we can have our fine and cherished texts
(those rocket-launched epiphanies emerge
when we scratch temples, eyes hazy in thought),

they went to work—noses upturned in that
nearly shriveled and rotted pulpy stench
tossed sideways into air like chimney smoke

on gray days with no contrast to offer,
every day the same, unyielding; they went to work,
lonely machinists gripped rusty lunch pails

and counted hours, and counted hours,
while the boys—pimply, cactus-stubble shaved—
pushed mops and daydreamed backseat adventures

with girls who’d never acknowledge them,
and counted hours, and counted hours,
while clippings weighted tile floors like snowstorms

piled high as our shelves flaunting those book spines
on a slight tilt—dominoes that won’t drop.
And we lose ourselves in the words, those words,

can’t speak the story inside the story,
of how they made thought, and counted hours,
and counted hours—so we can think it.

:: Mindi Kirchner, Song of the Rest of Us (2009)

11.25.2009

Kingdoms of Laziness

There’s no charge for walking to the rail fence
where the ants have quit their jobs

and started a colony of good-for-nothings
who idle on their backs all day

singing show tunes.
Out here, yawns come loose

from your intentions
and go off on their own.

And the next thought
takes you like a dog in happy weather.

Nights are cool with a little wind.
Parked on either side of the street—

dusty, forgetful cars
that haven’t moved in days.

:: David Tucker, Late for Work (2006)

11.24.2009

Furniture Factory

Upstairs the sanders
rubbed fingernails
thin, hands shiny
and soft as a barber’s—
men past forty
down on their luck.
Below, I worked in a haze
of fine dust
sifting down—
the lives of the sanders
sifting down, delicately
riding the cluttered
beams of light.
I pounded nails
on the line.
The wood swallowed hard
nailheads like coins
too thin to pick up.
Lunchtimes I read—
You gonna be
a lawyer, Ace?—
then forgot the alphabet
as I hammered
afternoons flat.
My father worked there too
breathing the sanding
room’s haze.
We ate quiet lunches together
in the car.
In July
he quit—hands
soft, thick fingernails
feathery at the tips.

:: Vern Rutsala, in Brother Songs: A Male Anthology of Poetry (1979)

11.23.2009

Fan

Click here to read Maxine's poem in Ploughshares.

11.22.2009

Friends Dropping By

Their faces seem dark,
for I have been lost in the work
and for a moment cannot find my way back:
my hands shake slightly
from gripping the tool.

Coming from a place where
talking is the order of the day,
they settle in,
ears and mouths glittery with expectation.

I can serve cold tea and almonds,
now,
I can move between the rooms
and F. can smile at them—
the afternoon light lifts gold strips
across our faces—
we can form a slight but warming circle
around the floor

and they can leave,
laughing lightly and slamming car doors,
blowing off toward the dropped sun:

we stand back from the windows,
listening to the roses scratch against the house
and to the rustlings of the cat
far down the hall.

He moves first to start the rice.
I have found a new opening
in the wall,
the source perhaps of the faint ribbon of cold air
which drifted in all winter.

:: Carol Cox, Woodworking and Places Nearby (1979)

11.21.2009

Following the Blueprints

To the open possibility
of steel against sky
we weld, bolt and strap

wide staircases of marble, arched
skylights, commanding views

serviced by windowless corridors
where ceilings hang low, as though
the ones who will push carts and carry trays
are unusually small or
prefer to scurry, like mice
in closed dark spaces

or as though
extra headroom might give them
ideas.

:: Susan Eisenberg, Pioneering: Poems from the Construction Site (1998)

11.20.2009

The First Rabbit

When Lou’s hand broke
the rabbit’s neck,
we studied our hands for lack
of calluses. Mike swung a buck

by the legs, said
good-bye before he raised
his mallet. His first swing failed,
the next one dazed.

I cleavered head from torso,
watched the muscles contort,
the blood flow.
I peeled the coat,

lopped the feet,
gutted and rinsed the meat.
Later, we soaped away the sweet
reek of recent

death—deposits
of flesh and fat, our profit
of memory and sorrow—our habit
since that first rabbit.

:: Carol Peters, in Asheville Poetry Review (15:1, 2008)

11.19.2009

Five for the Roofer

He sits on the roof
at the peak of an A in the sky
and breathes.
It’s the sound of every hammer
he’s swung at this height,
each slow climb
up the extension ladder, shouldering
composition bundles,
their dead weight.

My mother in the kitchen below,
waiting for her mother to die.
The wind lifting the pheasants
away from our dog
in the yellowing fields.

~

Because he always climbs up
with rusty coffee cans
full of his father’s hand-forged nails,
the whittled stub of a pencil,
a chalk line, spirit level.
It’s as beautiful to him
as a pool of sparks,
as the lights
of the hardware store shining
all day on bins of screws—
those tiny spiral staircases
he collects by the handful.

~

I’ve been watching my father
all morning,
how he’s pushed rolls of tarpaper
across the slope,
running the dark edge
down a chalk line
so carefully
it looks like he’s been bending over
a star chart unrolled forever.

~

Only at night will she notice
the white crawling through his beard,
the sound of his knees like breaking twigs,
the old timbers of the house
settling on the foundation.

In bed, he thinks himself back to the roof.
Imagines working under the moon,
a glowing C-clamp of sky,
rain patch, metal-flashing.
He runs his hammer hand
along the peak of the roof,
the length of my mother’s back.

Jawline. Cheekbone.

He reaches out to her
with the five hearts of his hand.

:: Michael McGriff, Dismantling the Hills (Pittsburgh, 2008)

11.18.2009

Dynamiter

I sat with a dynamiter at supper in a German saloon
eating steak and onions.
And he laughed and told stories of his wife and children
and the cause of labor and the working class.
It was laughter of an unshakable man knowing life to be
a rich and red-blooded thing.
Yes, his laugh rang like the call of gray birds filled with
a glory of joy ramming their winged flight through
a rain storm.
His name was in many newspapers as an enemy of the
nation and few keepers of churches or schools would
open their doors to him.
Over the steak and onions not a word was said of his
deep days and nights as a dynamiter.
Only I always remember him as a lover of life, a lover
of children, a lover of all free, reckless laughter
everywhere—lover of red hearts and red blood the
world over.


:: Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems (1912)

11.17.2009

Preserves

I cut back my shriveled garden this November,
all fruits gone, leaves frost crunched but fragrant
with the last stores of water rising to the snipped stems.
In other yards, scarfed gardeners bundle stakes,
cast neat squares with winter rye,
are soundless but for movement, harvest
long plucked like the mills and jobs
that built these homes. They snug potatoes
for winter, firm the mounds over onions,
while I cut back the odd ornaments of roses,
lady’s mantle, thyme and lavender.

Through these softened Appalachians,
western Pennsylvania towns crouch half hollow,
Main Street a straight shot to foundries and old rails
bleeding rust into the gravel, scrub dead
grass and bent underbrush by the turnpike.
People here wrinkle against the cold. They still
can, put up food, cure meat, hunt and hold church
bake sales, dances, festivals, card games. They
keep shelves of pillowy pears, firmed apple butter,
cabbage pressed to glass and tomatoes
glistening with stymied sun.

On these coldest days, snow is like dust,
twisting glass ghosting along salt routed
pavement and stretches of potholes.
The windows of downtown darken with emptiness
so deep I see the back walls of former stores.
Farm fences mimic hillocks at sight’s edge,
where the sky is opaque milk crusted dry, and I see
only the slow steps of people in the fog,
grey as ghostly poplar trunks, hunched
shadows heavier than the cold’s
pale or the wind-worn stone of storefronts.

On those days, I understand their pantry shelves,
and why my wife wicks summer into a Ball jar.
We want to smell the work of summer’s
earth, our home when green and warm.
I crouched one day last August and pruned
the shrubby lavender stems pouched in blue,
stripped the stems and packed the buds
in a jar with alcohol gurgling deep. We left
the jar for months in our tight pantry,
among artichoke hearts and olives,
keeping it like food.

This winter, amid the buffeting brown and gray,
dulled by the dour churches and salt scud,
wrinkled truck drivers and breath smoked
with cold, I opened the jar, and the smell
spilled out, spicy-thick and vibrant
as the day I picked it, drenched in alcohol
that normally kills, preserving an essence
like light captured in silver, a photograph
of a smell. The foreign musk mingled with steel,
the rot of frost kill, canning steam and the whiff
of stored cabbage, all sharpened by cold.

:: Gabriel Welsch, Dirt and All Its Dense Labor (2006)

11.16.2009

Shelters for Refugees

Click here to read Olivia's poem in The Liberal.

11.15.2009

Larry Levis Visits Easton, PA. During a November Freeze

I said “Dear Larry” as I put down his book, Elegy,
across the street from the Home Energy Center

and its two embellished secular Christmas trees
and its two red wreaths over red ribbon crosses

enshrining a thirty-inch stove in one of its windows
and a fifty-gallon water heater in the other,

knowing how wise he would have been with the parking lot
and the tree that refused against all odds and all

sane agreements and codicils to let its dead leaves
for God’s sake fall in some kind of trivial decency

and how he would have stopped with me always beside him
to watch a girl in a white fur parka and boots

build the first snowball on Northampton Street she collected
from the hood of a Ford Fairlane underneath that tree

and throw it she thought at a small speed-limit sign
although it landed with a fluff just shy of the twin

painted center lines inducing the three of us,
her lover, Larry, and me to make our own snowballs

from the hoods and fenders of our own Fairlanes although
she threw like none of us and to add to it

she was left-handed, so bless her, may she have
a good job and children and always be free of cancer

and may the two of us scrape some roofs before the
rain relieves us, and may we find gloves for our labor.

:: Gerald Stern, Last Blue (Knopf, 2000)

11.14.2009

Farm Funeral

It is a great comfort
To pray to a Lord
Who can fill our every need

We gathered for our neighbor’s November
Funeral. She died at ninety-five years,
Falling at her son’s house, her
Hip breaking, sending her to the hospital
And complications and this:
Laid out in the farm house less than
Two miles from her birthplace.

All those years of driving horses into town
Of cooking for threshers each fall,
Of watching winter snows close the roads
For weeks at a time,
Those years show even as she lies silent,
Frail as kindling wood in the front parlor,
Surrounded by flowers too perfect for this house.

We are more together than at a loss.
Food piles up in the kitchen,
Granddaughters file in and out
Of the parlor, bored with latecomers’
Sympathies. The men
Sit in the kitchen and talk of picking
Corn and the young boy who lost his hand
In a husking bed two weeks ago.

The clock on the mantel chimes twice,
Starting a silence. The minister
Prays, we all pray.
The Twenty-Third Psalm is read
As the minister quiets the last
Of the sobbing with words of another
World. A sermon is read,
Heads drop into another prayer,
And it is over.

We are not alone under the grey sky,
The living turn to the living,
The sense of family, of the land
Suddenly seem very old. We are one.

:: William O. Boggs, Swimming in Clear Water (1989)

11.13.2009

Dennis Martin

Dennis Martin couldn’t wipe the smile off his face to save his life.
“You think this is funny?” the principal would ask,
fingering Dennis’ chest. “Look at me,”
he’d day, backing Dennis into a wall.
He was a big boy—six-two, 220, sophomore year.
A natural, coaches said, but he couldn’t keep

the foolish grin off his freckled face.
Shaking their heads, they’d send him home—
kicked off three teams by senior year.
One spring day he walked out of school and never came back.

You don’t need a diploma to clean the emergency room
of Boston City Hospital where he had access
to every pharmaceutical imaginable
and needed every one to keep the smile on his face,
while mopping up bloody remains.

“Dead man’s shift,” he joked with me, last time I saw him.
By then he was a spindly scarecrow, pale and shaking—
an ill-wind ululating within.
The freckles on his face stood out like scabs.
I bought him a beer. A month later he OD’d.
At the wake the casket was closed.
I’d like to think they couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.

:: Ed Meek, in Stickman Review (2:1)

11.12.2009

Carpenter

That winter, dark came early.
I remember halfway home
the leaves that murmured

in a red glow in the gutter,
the cold

whirring of the tablesaw
in the garage, my father
bent over frozen lumber
working.

While the sun rays slanted
like ramps of yellow glass
up to the roof,

I was on my knees
piling the shavings,
gathering nails

and marbles of pine sap.
When he was done, high
on his shoulder
I went flying,

my ear brushing
the fluorescent lamp

that hummed against the rafters.
Into the warm house,
into the bright kitchen we went

where the smell of doughnuts
hung from the ceiling.

:: Arthur Smith, in Brother Songs: A Male Anthology of Poetry (1979)

11.11.2009

The Butter Factory

It was built of things that must not mix:
paint, cream, and water, fire and dusty oil.
You heard the water dreaming in its large
kneed pipes, up from the weir. And the cordwood
our fathers cut for the furnace stood in walls
like the sleeper-stacks of a continental railway.

The cream arrived in lorried tides; its procession
crossed a platform of workers' stagecraft: Come here
Friday-Legs! Or I'll feel your hernia--
Overalled in milk's colour, men moved the heart of milk,
separated into thousands, along a roller track--Trucks?
That one of mine, son, it pulls like a sixteen-year-old--
to the tester who broached the can lids, causing fat tears,
who tasted, dipped and did his thin stoppered chemistry
on our labour, as the empties chattered downstage and fumed.

Under the high roof, black-crusted and stainless steels
were walled apart: black romped with leather belts
but paddlewheels sailed the silvery vats where muscles
of the one deep cream were exercised to a bullion
to be blocked in paper. And between waves of delivery
the men trod on water, hosing the rainbows of a shift.

It was damp April even at Christmas round every
margin of the factory. Also it opened the mouth
to see tackles on glibbed gravel, and the mossed char louvres
of the ice-plant's timber tower streaming with
heavy rain all day, above the droughty paddocks
of the totem cows round whom our lives were dancing.

:: Les Murray

11.10.2009

State Home

A mile down fields back of the farm
after scrubbing all day with the kids.
But there was the linen room.
I’d put a pail by the door,
kind of get in behind a big trunk
and pull blankets over. Not many called out;
between rounds I’d catch a few hours.
Nights weren’t too bad that way.
Bedpans and sponging, of course, and the doses
the nurse left instructions for,
and the women who’d scream and scream if they heard you
and the old men who wouldn’t swallow,
even if you took their hands away they never stopped sobbing.
But what no one liked was a laying-out
and that shift was when they’d die. One evening
the day staff all left laughing at me:
an old lady was going to go.
I had her with me all down the halls
the rattle was that loud.
About three it changed and I knew.
But I had whisky hidden for the cramps every month
or they’d get so I couldn’t work:
I slipped her some and she quieted.
I did that each time she choked.
They were wide-mouthed in the morning;
she hung on three days
and it wasn’t me when she finally went.

:: Amanda Powell, in Going for Coffee (1981)

11.09.2009

The Miner's Wake

Click here to read Jay's poem in Ploughshares.

11.08.2009

We want Bread and Roses Too

In January of 1912, 25,000 textile workers
in Lawrence, Massachusetts walked off their jobs.
The ten-week strike, “the strike that sang,”
focused attention on the condition of the unskilled,
foreign-born workers, among them young mill girls
who carried a banner, “We want bread and roses too.”


1. Plain Weave

Mixing bells and palls
and smoke you don’t even own.
In the short second month
the bricks are spoiled
and spoiled again in your eyes
on your way to work. You’ll be
the missing cog of wherewithal,
the saboteur of these industrious days.

You drop into each damp sack
of cloud the ash and raff
of promise and the promise
of beefsteak rare and the promise
of promise herself. You’ll get pie
in the sky when you die—
cold mince.
For bread
you take one length of the absolute
blue/black horror north of Boston.
This is the warp, the ends.
Through every other thread
you string yourself.
This is the weft, the shot,
the filling. This is the means
the ends are justifying.
For human good, for the good Lord,
the city’s motto says, for bread.

Dark as it is, we have our work,
ourselves. We bless the bread,
our scheduled death. We praise thee, O Lord . . .
We’re bored. We earn
our mess of pottage, two bits,
nine fingers.

2. A Thing Made

No one knows you’re in me
whole, thrumming. They think
I’ve swallowed the machine.
What a pity they can’t see
the sparrow in my throat.
What a pity that when they look,
they see the ceilings
with their perfect brass hooks.
They see a bolt of satin,
lace. A warrant for the concern.

It begins when it is finished,
when the bony imperatives
and the puns, the pranks
and statements of our common need
are done. And so we eat the crumbs.
And so it blooms. And you come
to me, then, with a lover’s knots
and grievances. So we want our bread
and roses too. Bread,
and roses too. And roses too.

:: Bruce Smith, The Common Wages (Sheep Meadow, 1983)

11.07.2009

76 Tank Farm, Highway 101

They’re gone now,
yet I still want to know
who watched over those drums,
put an ear to their rusted

sides and waited
for the petroleum hush
and strict sound of mass,
for rivets ticking loose.

I want to return
to their inception,
to panel after curved panel
craned into place, the salt-

choked wind touching
every weld, steel flushed
to steel, each bolt and blaze,
and the day laborers’ hands

as they assembled
this town’s only
spiral staircases,
that storybook architecture,

a silver helix wound down
form the vats’ chrome-
lipped edges, the diamond-
hammered pattern

in each step carrying a possible,
beautiful descent.
After stairs, the valves,
hurricane fences, razor wire,

the loading bay and scales.
Someone on scaffolding
stenciled the orange
one-story 76,

the year I was fleshed
into this world. How slowly
they were filled,
and how quietly emptied.

:: Michael McGriff, Dismantling the Hills (Pittsburgh, 2008)

11.06.2009

Rain to a Waterfall

The factory-girl black women she worked with
at Inland Manufacturing in Dayton, Ohio
too their breaks in the backseats of cars, had sex
in the afternoon and at dinner break. Which meant
they were whores, to hear my mother tell it. Divorced,
with kids, a woman alone in 1964, she had to earn
a living—this before the Women’s Movement
and anything like equal pay, when a job meant

a factory job, since it was the only sort of work
carried with it a wage you could live on, provided
you didn’t buy nice clothes or go out with men
who might or might not pick up a check without
expecting something from you. She tells me this
as if clearing her conscience for calling these women
anything but women with a hard road to walk
and guts to walk it. Which is to say she respects

now what they did then, these women whose men
had better things to do than raise kids and pay bills
and keep a house running and put food on the table.
It’s a truth made of practically all suffering, her truth,
and we could use more of this grudging acknowledgment
that what the rest of the world calls living should be
fine by us. It’s rain to a waterfall, that hate,
but it’s weighed on her and she wants rid of it.

:: Roy Bentley, Strange Privacies (2006)

11.05.2009

Dancing After Work

It’s happy hour still,
the black and white
floor beneath you
like an impossible game of checkers
you can’t stop playing,
while shadow puppets
reflect biceps that gesture
and curl into something
like smiles split under
the burdens of twelve-hour
shifts spent loading
and unloading all these things
that could never be yours,
but you carried them anyway.
Now’s the time to let it go.
Tilt the brim of your hat
like a wink toward a beautiful
woman, just enough to
exude swagger, then bend
your arms, a little awkward
at first, and shake wildly into
a festive chicken cluck
of total disregard.
You need to sense this
deep in your workman’s marrow,
tear out the parts of yourself
that still feel, like your feet,
a black boot sidestep
quick enough to take flight.
You need to understand this motion;
the carefree strut of your grin,
or a full-bodied slant to a friend
extended to anyone worn threadbare
and beyond this, where the body serves
no other purpose
but to follow the rhythm,
follow the rhythm,
and dance.

:: Mindi Kirchner, Song of the Rest of Us (2009)

11.04.2009

From Emma's Scrapbook: 1950

Nabbed the photograph caption says,
a smashed police car and a dead
deer lolling across the hood.

Police chief Volpe gave her
son Andy such a hard time when
he was young, once arresting him

when he and Brad Johnson cut down
parking meters with a hacksaw
and put them in Volpe’s cruiser

because he had given then parking
tickets—they were only high
spirited and Volpe couldn’t prove

a thing. Chief Volpe wasn’t hurt
in the accident, but his cruiser was
destroyed when the button buck leapt

through the windshield. He had
to get Lucius Lowry to tow him
into town, and everyone looked

at him, sitting in Lucius’ truck,
his precious Plymouth looking
like someone punched it in the face.

It was 1950 and Emma’s Andy
was serving in Korea, while Volpe
had avoided fighting in the last

war by declaring he was an only
son. Andy was Emma’s only child,
yet Chief Volpe got out of the fray.

As far as Emma is concerned, Joe Volpe
is a cowardly bastard, and the deer
was a slap in the face, a reproach

to those like him who claimed to serve
the law then stretched it to suit
themselves. She doesn’t forgive easily,

if at all, and the day she went down
to the jail to get Andy she all but
took Volpe’s head off right there.

Ever since, Emma swore if she saw him
crossing the street and she was driving,
she’d have him draped across her hood.

:: Naton Leslie, Emma Saves Her Life (2007)

11.03.2009

My Father

lies on the same couch that he used to
only sit on, straight up as if the newsmen
might ask him to spring into action.

He used to work twelve hours a day making
ice cream from scratch. Then home, charging
around the lawn. Grass that had been mashed
flat he brought to attention then cut it off
at the roots, snuffing it out,
heartless.

He took one vacation, looking at the water in
Michigan with one eye, turning at every little
thing, each sound a customer. We dined at
roadside stands, covering six states in a week.
He ate standing, like a man on the run.

I saw him again last summer, four months past a
coronary. He rested in bed, gathering strength
for a nap, hands behind his head,
eyes full of ceilings.

:: Ron Koertge, The Father-Poems (1973)

11.02.2009

Milking

Click here to read Paul's poem in Ploughshares.

11.01.2009

Old Green

Old Green stops to say goodbye,
retiring after 43 years.
No green coveralls today.
Dressed in street clothes
hair slicked back
he even manages a shy smile
as I shake his hand.

The Company gave him an aerial photo
of the plant, and all the guys
sign their names around it
and Good luck.
All you can see is the roof
and the parking lots
and the tiny, tiny cars.
As hard as you look
you’ll never find him.

:: Jim Daniels, Punching Out

10.31.2009

What He Said

I have a wife, my wife
loves me like a child. She is
eighteen and the beauty of it all
let me tell you is seeing her
whole life like one good day
in my hands. There’s late shift,
no luck, her mother’s house—
but I count ten and hell,
the night stops, moonlight
pours through the windows.
Her arms are flimsy; she sleeps
hugging her knees. I’ve watched
for hours the rungs of silver
climbing the curtains. I believe
if the world slept days, I could think
what worked and what didn’t.
I’d get somewhere. But let it go.
We’re goners. The moon anyway is
false light, another face,
one more, done for.

:: Janet Kauffman, Where the World Is (1988)

10.30.2009

Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!
—this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color—
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of canse
so that they softly say:
ESSO—SO—SO—SO

to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

:: Elizabeth Bishop

10.29.2009

Roy McInnes

1. THE MAN

Roy McInnes is a welder. He spends his life
with chains and block and tackle, steel and torches,
lives his days inside a hood looking like
a medieval warrior, peering through a small rectangle
of blackened glass, watching light brighter than the sun.
He listens to the groan of generators, the crack and snap
of an electric arc liquefying steel. His hands
are always dark and on his upper lip there is
a mustache
as if wiped there by a greasy finger.

Roy McInnes is a small man and frail.
He speaks quietly and slowly and moves that way.
He seems at ease inside his body, comfortable there.
When you shake his hand his grip is warm and gentle
and you can feel the calm he carries in his person
flow into your arm.

Roy and I were visiting one day, years ago,
after we had got to know each other some,
and we got to talking about work
and I said, because I was afraid to tell the truth,
that I’d just about rather garden than do anything,
to which Roy responded, and there seemed to be
some sadness in his voice,
“Well I don’t know about just about.
All I know is what I’d rather do than anything.

I’d rather weld.”

2. THE TRUCK

Roy’s truck is an extension of himself,
which is not to be confused with the way some people
buy a fancy car with velour seats, electric windows
and suddenly start wearing cardigans and oxfords, suddenly become
little more than yet another piece of optional equipment.
In Roy’s life it is the truck that gets transformed.

I met his truck the day I first met him.
Not that he introduced me or anything like that,
it’s just you can’t help noticing.

When Roy bought the truck new-to-him, it was just a pickup,
a common insect like a million others identical to it.
He brought it home, put it in his shop and six weeks later
it emerged a strange, metallic butterfly, unique and fanciful,
translated to
an articulation of his private vision,
a function of Roy’s need and whimsy.

New, the truck was rated at three-quarter ton,
but with the added braces to the frame, heavier shocks,
special springs, dual rear wheels and heavy duty tires
it can carry four.

Roy cut the bed away right down to the frame
and welded on a diamond-plate floor and roof,
using two inch steel pipe for posts, one at each four corners,
one in the middle on each side. Then up forward,
toward the cab and half-way back, he welded
sheet metal walls and welded shelves to them
and all the shelves have doors on hinges, all made of steel.
There are hooks and clamps welded to the walls everywhere
so when he goes down a bumpy road his tools won’t bounce around.

Roy McInnes is a carpenter who builds with steel,
with boiler plate and torches.
In place of nails he binds his dream
with hydrogen and oxyacetylene.

Shaper, moulder, alchemist,
intermediary, priest,
his hands communicate a vision,
they create with skill and grace
an act of intercession between reality and need.

3. THE SHOP: PART 1

Roy’s house and shop are on the edge of town.
The shop was built in stages.
The tall center section with its steep-pitched roof
is sided with slabs from the local mill, whereas
the lean-to shed on the left
is particle board; the one on the right is Homasote.

Some people say it’s ugly, but what they can’t, or won’t,
understand is: the sidings write a history
of its construction. Rome wasn’t built in a day either.

When Roy built the center section he needed an opening
large enough to admit big trucks, like loggers’ rigs,
but couldn’t afford the kind of rising, jointed,
overhead doors gas stations and garages have
so he found a way to use ordinary storm doors,

the kind with glass so get could get some lit in there,
by hitching them with hinges side to side
and stacking them three high so now he’s got
two folding doors which make an opening fifteen feet wide
and seventeen feet high: two doors of doors
made from eighteen smaller doors.

Roy heats the shop with a homemade, quadruple-chamber,
oil-drum stove: four fifty-five gallon drums:
two side by side above one, the fire box, and one above the two:
a glowing diamond of cylinders all welded to each other
and held apart by rods and all connected by a pipe
which leads the smoke from one drum to another and finally,
when it has bled the smoke of heat, exits to the chimney.

Beyond the stove at the back of the shop
stacked willy-nilly against the wall
there is an intricate confusion of iron pipes, cast iron scraps,
angle iron, sheets of aluminum and steel, diamond plate,
expanded metal, loops of heavy wire and braided cable
and a half-dozen categories of other things I can’t identify—
a mine, the raw material of his dreams.

The shop is always cluttered, dirty and there is
a permanent grime that clings to everything.
Generators and tanks of gas and orange rubber hoses
snaked across the floor. The place smells of oil and grease,
of that molecular rearrangement of the air the welder’s arc
produces.

This is a place where—against the grinder’s scream and whine,
the moan of generators straining, the crackling spit of metal
rent asunder—human speech is pointless, drowned
in a cacophony of human voices. And when the machines
get still, it is a place to see through the smoky fog
something medieval, brooding, dark, fantastical.

It would be so easy to see this place as sinister,
to see the wizard/priest who rules this lair as evil,
that would be so easy if
you didn’t know that he is Roy—
the one who lets the calm of his body flow into your arm
when you touch his hand.

4. THE SHOP: PART 2

Stand in the highway; look at the shop straight on;
pretend it isn’t what it is; get beyond its function.
Look at its lines, at the proportions of height to width,
sheds to center section—an early Christian basilica,
or something Gothic.

The tall center section, narrow, steep-roofed—the nave.
The sheds—the aisles,
roofed over flying buttresses.
And those doors of doors are cathedral doors.

There are no rose windows here, no clestory, no triforium,
no vaulted ceilings or clustered piers, and it’s ratty,
but it soars—not too high or very gracefully
but it soars.

It is a January day.
The doors of doors fold open.
Roy appears in hood and grimy apron.

Then, just down the road, smoking through the village,
the penitent comes, the one who seeks the healing touch
of fire.

Guy Desjardins, trucker of logs and lumber
who just this morning while loading the biggest butt-log beech
he ever saw in his life, snapped the boom.
The truck lurches down the road, clam and boom dangling,
a wounded beast, Gargantua’s broken arm. Guy shifts down,
pulls to the doors of doors and in.

There are no acolytes, no choir
but the engine sings its cracked and pulsing song
and the censer spurts heady clouds of smoke to the rafters.

The doors come closed, truck shuts down
and for a moment Guy and Roy stand
before the diamond juggernaut of cylinders, their hands
outstretched in ritualistic adulation, readied for the altar
of cutting flame: The Mass of Steel and Fire.

From the clutter of his accidental reredos
Roy brings an angle iron. A ball peen hammer bangs,
generator moans, light arcs and snaps, steel flows
a second time—a liquid, balm, metallic salve
and the healing touch.

:: David Budbill, in Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life

10.28.2009

Nostalgia

for Cecilia Vicuña

This is my shop where the black wheel turns with greasy knob and heavy glove

My waist is never this circular and insistent, it stops whenever you stop
whenever you leave to check water-pressure that rises
with the Passaic coming down faster after a good storm’s
protest, claiming the world its own

My chest is always uneasy with clouds
of filament seeping through clenched teeth
to form tightly woven bandages around air that bursts when I cough
breaking my lungs’ thin tissue

Must this happen when I love you
more than the strength of chains pulling bales of cotton
when I become lost in the ecstatic spools that spin spin
like an underground press writing love poems to the long-faced regime

Who over sees the over-seer and must I cut my hair

Semi-roused this revolution I begin is for desire

So that the daily aprons are replaced by the seamless mechanics of the sun
entering and leaving all parts of the city, a national manufactory of bodies
turning away from the wheel and towards each other until they explode
with frayed ends like that sudden rupture from mother’s stare

And you glossy-tipped enter my room with dust in your mouth
smoky hair and skin with brown oil, a gray lover
never clean enough for the white sheets we never cease weaving
searching for the quiet origins of the piston and the smooth interlocking of teeth

I am flax with cracked shell, I am being pulled through combs over and over
perfectly shrinking through the eye of the machine’s miracle needles inching in
and out in and out of braids, becoming smaller to wind myself around bobbins
the product of post-colonial water application

I must keep you above the clamor/inside the endless motion/on the tips of my fingers

My fertile imagination conceives a great manufacturing center

My legs and your legs forming twine that never snaps
independent of the process, faster than the eye, tight and fiber-less
repaired instantly between waxy digits, forming tapestries never to be worn
thin in the usual manner: no cloth for daily needs, no rag for the usual forehead

You would be water-power to turn the mill wheels and I the navigable river to carry
string us back
thread to pre-woven
fiber earth language
filament of knots
twine heaven-tied
cord nature flexible
yarn interpreting
linen our looming
cotton bodies

Lying face to face, irrepressible and shameless along these Great Falls of Paterson

:: Rosa Alcala, in Beloit Poetry Journal (49:4, Summer 1999)

10.27.2009

Night: 1

In bed,
the work is left behind
and brought still closer in.

I know that in my dreams
new shapes evolve,
sculptures done in heavy purple woods
and pale wood light as a star.
I know that you will think all night
about how long the joints will hold
and when and how you came to love
the wood so much.

Against you and away from you
under this dark green blanket
I know that any work is possible

and likely to be done
when there is light enough.

:: Carol Cox, Woodworking and Places Nearby (1979)

10.26.2009

Out of Work

Click here to read William Corbett's poem in Ploughshares.

10.25.2009

My Town

Where it belongs on the state
tourist map, well above the red lobster
on the coast and in between the man
skiing down the slope and the shining dome
of the capitol building, you’ll find nothing
except a moose standing in the grass.
But who would come to this place

to see the three-foot-long spotted
yellow butterflies faithfully displayed
on the side of LaFlamme’s house, or gather
with the others in the Grange Hall to hear
old Ethel Chadwick recite with a lisp
and the dazed, oddly beautiful look
in her eye “The Cremation of Sam McGee”

in its entirety on Old Home Day?
Anyway, what (as people from the city
might say after straying off Route 2
to find our few houses thrown downhill
among the trees) do they do here
for work? Nothing important, as you might
guess from how early in the morning

they start up the hill to do it, driving
to the shoe shop two towns over,
or the paper mill, or just down the road
to the store, where Betty DeCarlo stands all
day at the counter asking the same question:
“Can I help you?” I’m the one waiting
in line behind the couple with the skis

on their minivan who don’t even notice her alert,
genuine eyes, on their way through Eyeblink,
Maine, to someplace they’ve heard of,
and I’m the one lying awake listening
to the cars struggling up our hill in the darkness
of 5 o’clock a.m. to start their long day,
and at twilight sitting down in the old parlor

with the Redlevskis, that’s me, with a bag
of rhubarb I’ve just picked from my garden
for the two of them. On the television
in the corner a frowning man, on mute,
mimes all the news of concern to the nation.
Meanwhile, they are talking about how good
it is to eat fresh sticks of rhubarb raw, a concern

so small you wouldn’t care much about it
unless you could be there to see the face
she makes for the taste, a mixture of sorrow
and pleasure that seems to have her whole life
in it, and to hear, in the lamplight, the intimate
twang of their voices telling me this news
at evening in my town, as I’m telling it

to you now, in this only other place I know
where unexpected things can happen, off the map.

:: Wesley McNair, in Green Mountains Review (18:2, 2005)

10.24.2009

My Father's Story

The blast furnaces dead, the cities dark,
the iron and ice ringing underfoot
but ringing for nothing, all for nothing,
no light in any house but kerosene,
the Depression a huge fact, a frozen hump
he couldn’t get over or around,
the primitive helplessness
of his parents—outraged,
the young man leaves to cut
ice on the pond, 40¢ an hour,
his bucksaw biting deep
into another man’s property.
If he can’t shape steel
he will sheathe these blocks
in yellow sawdust and lay them up
against the coming heat.
The ice at least will have
its occupation: in July, sweating
his sweat, oozing its wet golden drops
onto the ice house floor.

:: Patricia Dobler, Talking to Strangers (1986)

10.23.2009

My Father

My father was four years in the war,
and afterward, according to my mother,
had nothing to say. She says he trembled
in his sleep the next four years.
My father was twice the father of sons
miscarried, and afterward, said nothing.
My mother keeps this silence also.
Four times my father was on strike,
and according to my mother, had nothing
to say. She says the company didn’t understand,
nor can her son, the meaning
of an extra 15 cents an hour in 1956
to a man tending a glass furnace in August.

I have always remembered him as a tired man.
I have respected him like a guest
and expected nothing.
It is April now.
My life lies before me
enticing as the woman at my side.
Now, in April, I want him to speak.
I want to stand against the worn body
of his pain. I want to try it in
like a coat that does not fit.

:: Peter Oresick

10.22.2009

Mission Tire Factory, 1969

All through lunch Peter pinched at his crotch,
And Jesus talked about his tattoos,
And I let the flies crawl my arm, undisturbed,
Thinking it was wrong, a buck sixty-five,
The wash of rubber in our lungs,
The oven we would enter, squinting
—because earlier in the day Manny fell
From his machine, and when we carried him
To the workshed (blood from
Under his shirt, in his pants)
All he could manage, in an ignorance
Outdone only by pain, was to take three dollars
From his wallet, and say:
“Buy some sandwiches. You guys saved my life.”

:: Gary Soto

10.21.2009

Unsettling the Farm

Over everything drift
clouds of stars, rivers of stars.
Its Halloween profile sharp
in a sky of indigo, the pale orange
crescent moon wanes above a forested
ridgeline cut deep and left high
by the Elkhorn. Barking, yapping,
DuAnne and Pea-Wit agitate the night
around the house, as if down the hill
other dogs are coursing the long
creek-hugging arms of fertile bottomland
under its slab of ground fog.
Awake, fretting again about his sheep,
the farmer gets up and stares into the dark.

At daylight, after coffee and cigarettes,
he trucks himself and the help
to plant-beds to pull up and bundle
green finger-thick tobacco
for setting in the nine harrowed acres.
As the Dodge bounces along
in dried ruts, the farmer
spots a collie, a ratty stray
running hell-bent, spooked
by the pickup clanking. So
the farmer brakes, gets out
and whistles, wishing
he had the rifle with him,
watching the collie disappear
where the field turns to nettles.
Then the workday begins, heats up
and goes on into sunset, the crew
pulling plants, setting plants,
the farmer brooding—tobacco, money,
rain, mold. Work done, his supper
down too fast, the farmer drops
off into sleep and might dream about
his fragile crop. In fog,
pursued, his sheep run
desperately.

:: Dan Howell, Lost Country (1993)

10.20.2009

Dust

Someone spoke to me last night,
told me the truth. Just a few words,
but I recognized it.
I knew I should make myself get up,
write it down, but it was late,
and I was exhausted from working
all day in the garden, moving rocks.
Now, I remember only the flavor—
not like food, sweet or sharp.
More like a fine powder, like dust.
And I wasn’t elated or frightened,
but simply rapt, aware.
That’s how it is sometimes—
God comes to your window,
all bright light and black wings,
and you’re just too tired to open it.

:: Dorianne Laux, What We Carry (1994)

10.19.2009

10.18.2009

Figures

The chalkboard and the mirror were the same.
It set our teeth on edge to taste dust
clapped from erasers, to stand as if unclothed
before the class, screech that yellow stylus

across the black complaining board, repeating
our compulsory figures. Mrs. Fender raked
a kind of Freddy Krueger hand from left
to right, slice perfect parallels. We kept

inside those lines, seeded ideas. Some
took root. George Washington Bridge, George
Washington Bridge:
words to mutely mouth
when stuck without a clue. It looks as if

you're singing with the choir, reciting the Pledge
of Allegiance, one nation, invisible, and who
could you trust to say what that meant? Above
the trough where all the boys lined up to pee

a long mirror hung, flaking, permanently
fogged like Mrs. Fender's cataract:
hard to tell if she were watching you
or not. Once on a dare you tasted silver

peeled from the mirror's back. Your brother swore
you'd die from eating mercury. It seeps
into bones and waits, accumulates
like yellow dust in the creases of Mrs.

Fender's hands. We breathed it in, obedient,
unsharpened, industrious minors coughing through
our drills, our efforts reduced to that dust
we still taste on our clumsy tongues.

:: Ron Mohring, Beneficence (2003)

10.17.2009

Late News

In a small town in western Pennsylvania, a Polish workman
is killing everyone.

Who can say how the world seems
to Dombrowski this morning? It is as different
as a doberman’s or a general’s.

If this is a war,
Dombrowski is winning. If we are the enemy,
as by now we are, cover his hairy chest with ribbons.

Dombrowski peers out of his shell of a house
and the neighbors go round like neighbors
in a gallery and the police go round.

A man down the line at the plant says Things
ate on him lately, but no more than nobody else.
He does not wish to be named.
The dead
do not wish to be named, pending notification.

It is a quiet neighborhood, the kids lying
beside their bicycles, the lovers kissing nothing
forever on the porch swing.

Is there something
Dombrowski wants? The chief says A nut like that,
they ought to kill themself.

What if, in sullen wisdom,
we give in, retreat from the little town, or all
of Pennsylvania? Let the mad inherit their corner
of earth.

There would be space for miles
where only wind would blow. After a while, the mines
would go back to the grass. Bass would lie deep
in the Allegheny, as if they had never gone away.

One morning even Dombrowski might lay down his gun,
walk naked in a meadow that had been his yard.
Great waves of butterflies would ride the wind
and the ground would drum with distant hooves.

There is a sun so old no man has seen it.
In Pennsylvania, Dombrowski lifts his eyes.

:: Richard Blessing, in Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life

10.16.2009

The Janitor

Late after work a man sweeps an office.
He can’t go home until the floor is finished:
swept, mopped, waxed. The brush with the long metal handle
is pushed around the filing cabinet and under the desks and chairs.
He mumbles now searching still for dust
while pushing it toward the door.
A draft in the hall raises some dust
and pushes it back at him.
He keeps the beat of the soft sound of his sweeping,
but now furiously, back and forth, as he
bumps the desk and bangs a wall, leaving a dent.
He mutters: “Dust, dust, dust.” He raises his broom,
shaking it at the surrounding silence.

:: William Oandasan, in Beloit Poetry Journal (30:2, Winter 1979-80)

10.15.2009

In the Frame of Innings, Pendleton County, West Virginia

Remember it shin-deep, that coppery, sulphuric hue
of the North Fork of the South Branch—

the way it caught the summer glow
and threw it back to us tarnished?

We cruised those towns along the shallow ribbon:
Petersburg, Moorefield, Wampler Farms. August heat.

The summer’s sweet promise grown over-ripe,
scudding away downstream where eagles once nested

in the high-eaved banks.Bruised stink of poultry on the air.
Our fathers’ workshirts crumpled on the bedroom floors

foretelling our destinies, a sweaty heap: twenty years old and nowhere to go.
Just get ahold of what you can and swing like hell, Dad said. D’ya hear me?

We were young men, old boys grown too old from work,
the Guard, the low empty skies of our homes.

Sundays we gathered at the ballpark by the swale,
at the edge of hairy cornfields, where crows swarmed

and the river’s dog-legged riffles kept the beers cold.
Filling into our bodies roughly, abundantly

we were ready to put order to the green frenzy, our randy lives
with ball and bat, the smack of knuckles on leather palms,

the hey-nana-nana of pop and fling, gulping
our fleeting youth in the frame of innings.

Around there it all floats down the Potomac, on to Washington,
someplace else. The jobs, the college-bound, the new corridor

they had to run so many off to lay—a gash
in the ridgeline marks the route—

Eminent domain, the government called it.
Farm lines redrawn. Mountains thrust aside and scarred.

Big chugging trucks headed out of state. Loss arriving
in rehearsal for departure, hauling out the pieces.

So when someone like Travis Harper
could manage to rear back and uncoil

from some sweet sovereignty of motion
a slider that swept in from the knees

and bit the heart out of the plate, you bet
I dropped my shoulder, held my stare

and followed through with all I had.
It left me slack-jawed, glazed, then smiling.

What else to do but tip my hat
and marvel at this little bit of mastery?

—a moment of perfection amid
the sloppy, high-scoring hours of those days.

Afterwards, swerving down dirt roads,
throwing dust into the gleaming night,

we pressed the pedal home and, since we could,
took one last swig of the high life before retiring.

:: Ryan Walsh, in Green Mountains Review (18:2, 2005)

10.14.2009

Haircut

“Quit sniveling! Sit still!” And in disgust
he palmed my head like a basketball
and forced it down and buzzed the clippers up
my neck again. Hair sifted down my collar.
I squirmed. He jerked the pink bath towel
tighter against my throat, and hair
flew up and landed in the sugar bowl.
Then gradually, to even out mistakes,
my hair grew shorter, more like stubble,
more like West Point or hot Fort Hood,
where I was born. We saved some money.
But now it’s his turn and he sits,
hands folded on his lap, unsteady,
while I, with tiny scissors, snip
the gray hair curling from his nostrils
and from both ears; and, Jesus, at sixty
the death hairs really get their growth,
don’t they? the scissors pinch his skin
and he tries not to flinch. “Sit still!”
I snarl, and I’m so horrified
I say it one more time. “Sit still.”

:: Andrew Hudgins, The Glass Hammer (Knopf, 1994)

10.13.2009

The Tip

It was boss cook’s fault. He left
the window wide open and now
the stockroom was crawling with cicadas.
He yelled and stomped them with his big
boot feet. “Stop!” I said, and ran for the broom.

Out front the regulars hollered for coffee.
One cicada escaped and made an emergency
landing on the counter. Pernell, who worked
graveyard shift at the power plant,
coaxed the thing onto his hand.

The trustful creature
didn’t dart like a roach. It perched
right on Pernell’s knuckles
calm as a man who’s worked a tough shift
with a clear conscience.
“He don’t eat
much,” said Pernell.
The cicada had a body like a dog poop,
crystal wings and orange eyes that broke the light
weird, like a 3-D postcard of Jesus. Miz Boulden
cringed. Her lipstick was on crooked
again. The cicada rubbed its hindparts
on its wings and chirred. Outside,
its tribe revved up the heat, like a UFO.

I said, “How do they know when to
come back?”

“God tells them,” said Pernell.

“God nothing,” Miz Boulden said. “Last time they came
my son was still living. That was when?”

“ ’53,” Pernell said. Boss cook hollered at me
to get sweeping. Pernell clucked: “Why
you work for that stringy-hair sucker?
You too sweet.”

I swept and swept.
The cicadas backflipped and scratched
the air. I threw them all
—living and dead—out
the back door, and let it
slam.
The sun cut through the pines.
I wished I was back in the woods with the bugs,
listening.

When I got back to the counter, Pernell had left.
“He took his pet with him,” Miz Boulden said.
“That boy’s not right. Now, where’s my eggs,
missy?”
Up the hen’s butt, I thought.
I bit my tongue and cleared Pernell’s
cup. Underneath, crisp as an insect’s
wing, I found the new five.

:: Belle Waring, Refuge (1990)

10.12.2009

Offerings to an Ulcerated God

Click here to read Martin Espada's poem in Ploughshares.

10.11.2009

Typewriter Keys Pantoum

Typewriter keys dance to human fingers
Attached to hands searching for love
Amid a chorus of harmonious singers
Digging underground for a treasure trove

Attached to hands searching for love
Perfume of stargazers captivates the body whole
Digging underground for a treasure trove
Villages and cities alight in rapturous glow

Perfume of stargazers captivates the body whole
Moving in concert with the forces of labor
Villages and cities alight in rapturous glow
Workers’ councils gather neighbor to neighbor

Moving in concert with the forces of labor
Solving problems with cooperation and care
Workers’ councils gather neighbor to neighbor
With food and water and dwellings to share

Solving problems with cooperation and care
Indigenous people no longer asunder
With food and water and dwellings to share
Mountains and rivers but two of nature’s wonder
Indigenous people no longer asunder
Earth’s inhabitants strive to live side by side
Mountains and rivers but two of nature’s wonder
Expropriating property far and wide

Earth’s inhabitants strive to live side by side
Playing bamboo flutes both young and old
Expropriating property far and wide
Free to nourish children, humanity’s gold
Playing bamboo flutes both young and old
Amid the chorus of harmonious singers
Free to nourish children, humanity’s gold
Typewriter keys dance to human fingers

:: Nellie Wong (2003)

10.10.2009

Kentucky Swami

My father cuts his fingers pulling off
rusty tin underpinning from the shed.
He hasn’t stopped to put on the gloves.
A strike with the claw hammer, a pull
with the bare hand, then a sizing up
of a new sheet of galvanized tin.

It’s always the same lesson, his Appalachian
childhood and mine: if we can’t make it,
we have to do without; if we can make it,
then we have to accept corners slightly
out of square and lines almost level.
His fingers leave streaks on bright metal.

:: Tim Skeen, Kentucky Swami (2001)

10.09.2009

Old Man Pike

Old man Pike was a sawyer at the mill
over in Craftsbury.
He lived just down the road from here.
Every morning he walked six miles through the woods
over Dunn Hill saddle while the sun rose.
He took dinner and supper in the village
then walked home across the mountain in the dark.
Sally Tatro who used to live on my place
would hear him coming through the night, singing.
Sometimes he’d stop to gossip
but mostly she only saw him stride by the window
and disappear.

The old man could have stayed at home,
milked cows, like everybody else,
but he needed an excuse to go and come
through the mountains, every day,
all his life, alone.

Old man Pike didn’t believe in the local religion of work,
but out of deference, to his neighbors maybe,
he bowed to it,
placed its dullness at the center of his life,
but he was always sure, because of his excuse,
to wrap it at the edges of his days
in the dark and solitary amblings of his pleasure.

:: David Budbill, in Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life

10.08.2009

Plenty

The battered pickup’s bed
is a cornucopia
overflowing with sweet potatoes,
long tapered tubers
irregular and glorious as clouds
backlit by an orange sunset,
headed for roadside stand or market
or maybe back to Europe
where Spanish explorers, just home
from the New World, introduced them
half a millennium ago
as batatas, possessed (they insisted)
of aphrodisiacal powers,
which later inspired son-hungry Henry VIII
to import huge quantities
and gorge himself on sweet potatoes
baked into pie after pie
the way my father’s mother cooked them,
with light brown sugar
and cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves,
those spices teasing the warmth
out of the smooth meat
that had banked its glowing coal
underground all summer long,
waiting to feed the family
and every famished ancestor
with elemental sweetness,
filling our mouths
with temporary plenty
bite after bite.

:: Michael McFee, Shinemaster (2006)

10.07.2009

Early Dark

The down on Glory Tucker’s jaw was blue,
and the wheel wells of his bumperless
Galaxy 500 were black enough to seem
violet when he parked beside his father’s
house. He held me gingerly about the waist
and gave me the imperceptible kiss
impossible to find on my side of town
where all the lips were wet and clumsy
with the embarrassment of good breeding.
Glory held two fingers to the bottom
of my spine and moved me to the door
circled in broken bowls, chains,
and the leaping, drooling dogs.
His father was parked in the damp
light of the TV, and the cans
around his chair rattled when he stood,
nodded somewhere beyond me and touched
my shoulder in that delicate way
I knew from his son, who offered me
then, a cold, white carnation dipped in blue.

When my mother said other side
of the tracks,
with that hard look,
I thought mostly of the ties I’d followed
along the river, the bridge I’d never
dared cross because there was only
space enough for one train. For every
good girl who dreamed of one day straddling
a Harley behind a boy from the other
side and peeling the stars out of the sky
like coins for the rest of her life,
there was one like me who knew
I’d have to go alone, slapping
those stars on like lights, shaking
the shadows out of the streets,
and holding the jailed faces of those
fathers up to mine, lest I forget
how much comfort I’d owe a man
who had nothing but a bottle, a chair,
blue light and the woman whose face
reminds him only of the last time

he was alive. Though I pretended
not to, I understood why my mother
asked what their fathers do, dear.
I did not tell her that Glory was
a father, that the photo of the red-haired
baby on the TV his father gazed into,
was his, that I had met his father
in a bar just outside the gates
to the glass factory, that I already knew
you couldn’t love a man into a better life,
but I wasn’t done pretending, would not
even now, give up that one night
we parked his silver car in a pool
of bruised moonlight on South River Road
and lay down head to head on the highway’s
cool white line, daring the future
to crest the next hill and marry us
to the steely path out of the valley.

:: Leslie Adrienne Miller, Ungodliness (Carnegie Mellon,1994)

10.06.2009

The Boy

My older brother is walking down the sidewalk into the suburban summer night:
white T-shirt, blue jeans—to the field at the end of the street.

Hangers Hideout the boys called it, an undeveloped plot, a pit overgrown
with weeds, some old furniture thrown down there,

and some metal hangers clinking in the trees like wind chimes.
He’s running away from home because our father wants to cut his hair.

And in two more days our father will convince me to go to him—you know
where he is—and talk to him: No reprisals. He promised. A small parade of kids

in feet pajamas will accompany me, their voices like the first peepers in spring.
And my brother will walk ahead of us home, and my father

will shave his head bald, and my brother will not speak to anyone the next
month, not a word, not pass the milk, nothing.

What happened in our house taught my brothers how to leave, how to walk
down a sidewalk without looking back.

I was the girl. What happened taught me to follow him, whoever he was,
calling and calling his name.

:: Marie Howe, What the Living Do (Norton, 1998)