Steers in Winter

Christmas day we played the savior.
Overnight ice swallowed anything
close to green, and then the north wind
set in to freeze. From the high barn window,

we saw the cattle in the bottomground
standing church-pew still, dumb, fat,
stupid, but mostly stunned with what
must’ve seemed a horrid pale apocalypse.

We loaded bales on a flatbed wagon,
shot a tractor’s nose full of ether,
and skidded down the lane to the pasture.
We thawed the chain with language and a hatchet.

Those Angus steers stood quiet as the damned.
Even when we slit the orange twine
and kicked out sheaves, they stood like stones,
too cold to believe in the grace of hay.

:: William Jolliff, in West Branch #54


Egg Toss at the Family Reunion

You had to be underhanded. You had to toss
the egg gently to your partner and back up
after each catch. Two steps, I think,
and the lobbed egg falling towards you
made you back your body away from your hands,
cupped, as if waiting for a baby to drop
from the sky. The boys didn’t get very far,
in fact, seemed to like the bloodless
yolk on their fingers, the splattering catch.

I remember those picnics as if they were always
just before dusk, and I was always small
in brand new summer playclothes, blue stars
on red and white stripes, my parents side-lined among the adults
until each kid had had a fair chance.
Then even the elderly aunts would join in, the greats
and the great-greats, their thick shoes and floral knit dresses
unprotected, their soft, identical white hair,
their long faces and turned-up noses, like mine,
their ringed fingers, dead husbands, empty graves.

: Deirdre O’Connor, Before the Blue Hour (2002)


Out-of-Luck, Massachusetts

The town that couldn’t be licked
gives up, sunk
between these hills. The sacred
heart beats fainter, blessing the poor
in spirit. Boarded-up
factories litter the river. It does no good,
town fathers knitting their brows,
there’s not enough shoe leather left
to buy a meal. In company houses
the unemployed wear out
their welcome. Diminished
roads run east, west, anywhere
better than here.

:: Mary Fell, The Persistence of Memory (1984)


The Crabmeat Pickers

The crab pickers work in nothing like luxury.
After a day and a half the Chesapeake thrill
gives way to a numbness in the wrists that spreads
upward into the shoulders and neck.
But how quick they are, how easily beautiful.
The older woman’s carcasses arc out
to a crate that heaps with gleaming gills and eyes.
Her daughter’s skin is shining;
the tiny beads on her neck have turned
the color of the farthest water.
They’ve long since returned the fact of the bay
to its own element,
turning their backs, trading their view
for rhythm. For rhythm
if anything shortens the day,
and the every-second flip of a back-fin into a pail
means money in a pocket. Rhythm means
they pay attention just to what is small
(she wipes away the necklace of sweat),
to what occurs in their hands,
in their fingers inside the intricate shells
that click minutes away, six cents a minute.
All day while they work the bay is off repainting itself,
glowing now with cottages and yachts, providing
them with the raw material and a choppy beat,
an odd crabbed pulse of beauty they refine to true detail.

:: David Groff, Theory of Devolution (2002)


A Little-Known Truth about Financial Success

when i get the money, i’m gonna pitch the first ball in the world series, and
i’m gonna buy the stanley cup, and i’m gonna sit so close to andre agassi at
wimbledon that i’ll be able to stab him over and over again in-between sets
(and i’ll get away with it), and i’m gonna make jabba the hutt a quarterback,
and i’m gonna be the towel boy for the laker girls, and i’m gonna force pro
wrestlers to wrestle, and i’m gonna parachute off of manhattan skyscrapers,
because i want to impress the simple of mind.
when i get the money, churches, lakes, museums, malls, shoes, power tools,
crayon colors, and chinese people will all be named after me.

when i get the money, i’ll have pudding pops in madagascar with uma thurman
and spock, and me and tarantino are gonna buy the bones of bruce lee and put
them in a movie called, “the bones of bruce lee are alive!,” and i’m gonna
burn doogie howser’s stupid diary, and i’m gonna have punky brewster in a
nightgown reading me bedtime stories, and i’m gonna buy expensive crystal,
because it’s expensive.

when i get the money, i’m gonna be the model american, and white suprema-
cists will admit their inferiority to me in mandarin chinese, and barney will be
maimed, and michael bolton will be assassinated, and everyone will be denied
uttering the words “alanis morrisette” in a public place, and bands like the
rolling stones, led zeppelin, and the eagles, whom i formerly thought were all
dead, will just be put into retirement.

when i get the money, i’m gonna have a microchip in my head, so that i can
say, “i have a microchip in my head,” and i’m gonna make alyssa milano a star
again, and i’m gonna teach children how to fly, and punk rock girls all over the
world will have their sid & nancy shirts say, “sid & beau,” and the cast of
friends will be exiled to b-movie hell, and my face will be on every condom’s
receptacle tip, and mel torme is gonna rap “ice ice baby” to me while i shower,
and i’m gonna kill the offspring, before there are any more of them.

when i get the money, i’m gonna have a tibetan monastery in my backyard,
and i’m gonna make every muslim learn breakdancing, and i’m gonna set fire
to the protestants, and i’m gonna make priests wear l.a. gear, and i’m gonna
give rabbis cadillacs with big, furry interiors, and i’m gonna give wiccans a
broom and a pointy hat and put them in my screen production of cats, only it
will be called witches, and i’m gonna go to jerusalem and build mini-malls
that only sell nativity scenes, and i’m gonna make mormons work comedy
clubs while on missions for god, and i’m gonna start a grape kool-aid drinking
religion where everyone knows what might happen, but drink up anyway and
end up happy they didn’t die from cyanide poisoning. ~

when i get the money, i’m gonna publish 382 pg. books with nothing but my
name on the cover, and people will buy them, and i’m gonna have benefit
concerts where i sing everyone else’s songs really badly, and i’m gonna eat
barbecued smurf everyday, and i’m gonna reveal to the world that mr. rogers
is really delta burke in disguise, and i’m gonna get an incurable cancer and
cure it by applying a salve made out of the breast tissue of gloria estefan.

when i get the money, i’m gonna buy all of the baby kittens in the world,
eagerly awaiting the second coming of alf.

when i get the money, i’m gonna roam the galaxy in a star destroyer piloted by
bill cosby and danny zucco, in search of movie roles for michael j. fox.

when i get the money, the actors from the breakfast club are going to come
over and watch the movie with me and they’ll have to listen to me say repeat-
edly, “wow! i really thought your careers would take off after that!”

when i get the money, i’m gonna throw my weight around,
when i get the money, i’m gonna use people,
when i get the money, i’m gonna own mtv,

and sure, money can’t buy you love,
but love
buy you

:: Beau Sia, in Poetry Nation [anthology]


Chin Music


Watch. My father is about to get knocked on his ass
crossing the playing fields behind Fredonia High School,
Fredonia, New York, where for once
Lake Erie holds to the wrecked shore,
the sky drifts blue and he isn’t
punching a fist into his catcher’s mitt,
that big dumb ear.
It is April 1945; practice over.
His cleats give him the dancing, half-tough
gait of a boy earth loves
a full second more than the rest of us, and why not?
Outfield’s given up its ice
for mud, new-minted green, and my father
is lovely and angry and believes
he will live this way forever,
pinned to the longing for Bunny
Ritowsky under his hands, in his mouth,
while the vineyards murmur and cleave to their wire
and the steel mill confers its one
shadow through the backseat, through them.


What we don’t know will hurt us,
but not yet. Tomorrow
is a tease, forever gaining in accuracy
what it lacks in momentum,
rising and falling, setting us up like dust
in the bright crosshairs.
Worse, when the future comes we hardly ever hear it.
Like the perfect green recruit
marched straight from central casting into mortar fire
before the first reel is over.
Someone named Petey or JoJo
yells Duck! What’s the difference?
The ground comes up, the black stars of blood
pop in our mouths like flashbulbs,
We land with our arms shrugged as if
we were fresh out of money or information.


Actually, a discus hits my father. Ordinary lead.
The force should kill him but he wakes
in the janitor’s room,
a dozen hands throbbing ice water
in stinging slaps against his cheek.
He swims toward the hammered surface, sputters—
already pain is making him famous!
Horse-smell of liniment, sweat, and the huge
furnace breathing;
something in the boy rises to meet
that hot voice of care:
forget this town, this small-hearted life
you were meant to live
. And it's all true
if he can just raise himself to his elbows
or stop vomiting.
Then everything hushes, no one
looking at him at all, the tide of the room
pulled by the half moon of the radio’s speaker
sobbing, Ladies, Gentlemen, the President,
Our beloved President
. Then the bell rings for real.
The country begins its long
reeling into death and my father’s life begins.

:: Dorothy Barresi, All of the Above


Sleeping on the Bus

How we drift in the twilight of bus stations,
how we shrink in overcoats as we sit,
how we wait for the loudspeaker
to tell us when the bus is leaving,
how we bang on soda machines
for lost silver, how bewildered we are
at the vision of our own faces
in white-lit bathroom mirrors.

How we forget the bus stations of Alabama,
Birmingham to Montgomery,
how the Freedom Riders were abandoned
to the beckoning mob, how afterwards
their faces were tender and lopsided as spoiled fruit,
fingers searching the mouth for lost teeth,
and how the riders, descendants
of Africa and Europe both, kept riding
even as the mob with pleading hands wept fiercely
for the ancient laws of segregation.

How we forget Biloxi, Mississippi, a decade before,
where no witnesses spoke to cameras,
how a brown man in Army uniform
was pulled from the bus by police
when he sneered at the custom of the back seat,
how the magistrate proclaimed a week in jail
and went back to bed with a shot of whiskey,
how the brownskinned soldier could not sleep
as he listened for the prowling of his jailers,
the muttering and cardplaying of the hangmen
they might become.
His name is not in the index;
he did not tell his family for years.
How he told me, and still I forget.

How we doze upright on buses,
how the night overtakes us
in the babble of headphones,
how the singing and clapping
of another generation
fade like distant radio
as we ride, forehead
heavy on the window,
how we sleep, how we sleep.

:: Martin Espada, in The Progressive


Young Mothers I

That look of attention
on the face of the young mother
like an animal,

bending over the carriage, looking up,
ears erect, eyes showing
the whites all around.

Startled as a newborn, she glances from side to side.
She has pushed, lying alone on a bed,
sweating, isolated by pain,
splitting slowly. She has pressed out
the child in her. It lies, separate,
opening and closing its mouth, its hands
wrinkled with long immersion in salt water.

Now the mother is the other one,
breasts hard bags of rock salt,
the bluish milk seeping out, her soul
there in the small carriage, the child in her
risen to the top, like cream,
and skimmed off.

Now she is alert for violation,
hearing acute as a deer’s, her pupils
quick, her body bent in a curve,
wet rope which has dried and tightened,
a torture in some cultures.
She dreams of death by fire, death
by falling, death by disemboweling,
death by drowning, death by removal
of the head. Someone starts to scream
and it wakes her up, the hungry baby
wakes and saves her.

:: Sharon Olds, Satan Says (1980)


Conversation with a Fireman from Brooklyn

He offers, between planes,
to buy me a drink. I’ve never talked
to a fireman before, not one from Brooklyn
anyway. Okay. Fine, I say. Somehow
the subject is bound to come up, women
firefighters, and since I’m
a woman and he’s a fireman, between
the two of us, we know something
about this subject. Already
he’s telling me he doesn’t mind
women firefighters, but what
they look like
after fighting a fire, well
they lose all respect. He’s sorry, but
he looks at them
covered with the cinders of someone’s
lost hope, and he feels disgust, he just
wants to turn the hose on them, they
are that sweaty and stinking, just like
him, of course, but not the woman he
wants, you get me? And to come to that—
isn’t it too bad, to be despised
for what you do to prove yourself
among men
who want to love you, to love you,
love you.

:: Tess Gallagher, Willingly


Man Walking to Work

The dawn is a quality laid across
the freeway like the visible
memory of the ocean that kept all this
a secret for a hundred million years.
I am not moving and I am not standing still.
I am only something the wind strikes and clears,
and I feel myself fade like the sky,
the whole of Ohio a mirror gone blank.
My jacket keeps me. My zipper
bangs on my guitar. Lord God help me
out by the lake after the shift at Frigidaire
when I stop laughing and taste how wet the beer
is in my mouth, suddenly recognizing the true
wedding of passage and arrival I am invited to.

:: Denis Johnson, The Veil



We drove to the coast
in my father’s ’51 GMC.
We hiked over furrows
to the shore.
We stepped in runnels.
My father knew the man
driving the tractor.

We got set up.
My father said number eights
with treble hooks would work best.
A pelican came in just behind a breaker,
laid his beak into it, skimmed
with the seine God had given him.
He was a beautiful gray bird.
Young, my father said.
“He’s a young bird,” is what my father said.

My father took off his boots and socks,
sat in the wet sand,
let the water find him.
He let the water come up on him.
The way the sea sounded right then,
It forced me to listen.

:: Marc Petersen, This Is My Brother Talking (1998)


Strangers Like Us: Pittsburgh, Raleigh, 1945-1985

The sounds our parents heard echoing over
housetops while listening to evening radios
were the uninterrupted cries running and cycling
we sent through the streets and yards, where spring summer
fall we were entrusted to the night, boys
and girls together, to send us home for bath
and bed after the dark had drifted down and eased
contests between pitcher and batter, hider and seeker.

Our own children live imprisoned in light.
They are cyclone into our yards and hearts,
whose gates flutter shut on unfamiliar smiles.
At the rumor of a moon, we call them in
before the monsters who hunt, who hurt, who haunt
us, rise up from our own dim streets.

:: Gerald Barrax, Leaning Against the Sun (1992)



Take the concentration intricate
work requires—a needle, embroidery. The in

and out through the eye, thread and
fabric pulled. Or the cautious

hands of my mother, webbing yarn
into a sweater, the genius

click of her needles. It’s enough
to make me jealous of that kind

of patience. When I took the box of give-
away stuff to the garage

I found swatches of crepe and a lace
tablecloth discolored by

wine, as if a dinner party had
decided to throw their bad manners out

in the open, leave their spoils. The luxury
of this fabric, its airy matter.

I’d like to tailor it, get it down
in a form myself. All you need

is a pattern, she’d tell me. No,
I thought, pawing my scissors,

one snag is all it takes,
one disruption—

:: Emily Rosko, in Notre Dame Review #17, winter 2004



Each acetate page in the manual
adds layers to the Visible Man: bright organs,
systems, intricate feathery networks:
skeletal, respiratory, circulatory.
Blue for veins. Red for arteries.

I peel gauze dressing from Isaac’s hip,
undrape the gaping window.
Position the catch tray. Dribble
peroxide from the bulb syringe
to clean the wound. A patient must

be turned, repositioned every
three hours. The time it takes for skin
to begin its breakdown. The red
bedsores caving in. The opening
that will not close, though we debride

twice daily. Isaac shifts in bed,
lifts the wasted leg. I watch
the ivory ball pivot in its
socket. The rubbery
artery draped over it, pulsing.

:: Ron Mohring, Beneficence (2003)


Working in the Rain

My father loved more than anything to
work outside in wet weather. Beginning
at daylight he’d go out in dripping brush
to mow or pull weeds for hog and chickens.
First his shoulders got damp and the drops from
his hat ran down his back. When even his
armpits were soaked he came in to dry out
by the fire, make coffee, read a little.
But if the rain continued he’d soon be
restless, and go out to sharpen tools in
the shed or carry wood in from the pile,
then open up a puddle to the drain,
working by steps back into the downpour.
I think he sought the privacy of rain,
the one time no one was likely to be
out and he was left to the intimacy
of drops and runoff, the shine of pools behind
grass dams. He could not resist the long
ritual, the companionship and freedom
of falling weather, or even the cold
drenching, the heavy soak and chill of clothes
and sobbing of fingers and sacrifice
of shoes that earned a baking by the fire
and washed fatigue after the wandering
and loneliness in the country of rain.

:: Robert Morgan, Wild Peavines (1996)


Deuce and a Quarter

The dust of my father the furnace missed
Is here in his Buick Electra 225
That has been parked, unopened,
In the driveway since his death.
In order to sell it,
We exhume the door to look for papers,

And (surprise) here is his sweat,
Mingled with pitted chrome and wasps’ nests.
Bridle with no horse, plow without a field,
Not even the house was his like this.

And now his death
Is everyday business,
And I am any son
Who must finally remove the plates,
Then phone a truck to pull
This collision away;
A car, like any car.

:: Cornelius Eady, You Don’t Miss Your Water (1995)



When I hear men boast about how passionate
they are, I think of the two cleaning ladies
at a second-story window watching a man
coming back from a party where there was
lots of free beer. He runs in and out
of buildings looking for a toilet. “My Lord,”
the tall woman says, “that fellow down there
surely does love architecture.”

:: Jack Gilbert, The Great Fires


Night Shift at the Plating Division of Keeler Brass

The secretaries drive by the factory
Dreaming of rich uncles.
Across the street at Charley’s,
The bar is jammed.
The neon sign pops and blinks
Like a wounded eye.
The heat rises over Godfrey Street.
In the plating section at Keeler Brass,
The acid bubbles in the iron tanks.
I strip down to my shorts,
Pull on the rubber gloves,
And lift heavy racks into the tanks,
The tendons in my arms
Pulse at the wrists.
Old Dutch works beside me,
An Allegan farmer,
He milks twenty-five cows
Before he comes to work.
He knows that college kids are worthless,
And works to wear me down.
In the last aisle, he swings the brass
Before a giant fan, the sweat drying
On his face as the metal drips
And shines like gold.
He moves among the vats,
Dreaming of metallic women in wheatfields,
Humming like machines.
He glows like burnished metal.
I am tempted to push him in,
A huge brass-plated skeleton
Swinging before the fan.
Instead, I soap my acid burners in the shower,
And hit the street, deserted now
Except for an Indian walking his dog.

:: James B. Allen


Crepes Flambeau

We are three women eating out
in a place that could be California
or New Jersey but is Texas and our waiter
says his name is Jerry. He is pink
and young, dressed in soft denim
with an embroidered vest and, my friend says,
a nice butt. It’s hard not to be intimate
in America where your waiter wants
you to call him Jerry. So why
do you feel sorry for him
standing over the flames
of this dessert?

The little fans of the crêpes are
folding into the juice. The brandy
is aflare in a low blue hush and golden
now and red where he spills
the brown sugar saved
to make our faces wear the sudden burst. We
are all good-looking and older and he
has to please us or try
to. What could go wrong? Too much
brandy? Too little sugar? Fire
falling into our laps, fire
like laughter behind his back, even
when he has done it just right. “Jerry,”
we say, “that was wonderful,” for now
he is blushing at us
like a russet young girl. Our lips

are red with fire and juice.
He knows we could go on
eating long into the night until the flames
run down our throats. “Thank you,”
he says, handing us our check, knowing
among the ferns and napkins that he has
pleased us, briefly, like all
good things, dying away
at the only moment, before
we are too happy, too
glad in this pioneer décor: rough boards,
spotted horses in the frame.

:: Tess Gallagher, Willingly


Dreams of Affluence

I am a housewife vacuuming
her swimming pool. Under my toes
under the blue vinyl, moles
hump their tunnels. The cat
lays them pale and dripping at
our doorstep. She has learned
how to dive. The chlorine
has bleached her white.
You cannot tell her from a mole.

I am diving through my life.

:: Ann Deagon, There Is No Balm in Birmingham


In Adversum

For forty-five minutes I told
my foreman lies about my brother
Wallace—how after half a lifetime
of trying, Wally finally managed
to get himself struck by lightning
on a sunny day, like a poet,
and how Wally dropped everything
climbed into his old green Buick
and headed downstate to find
a thirty-foot walnut log, how
blue exhaust twirled behind him
like a tornado lying down on the job,
and how he brought the log back,
and how he unloaded it in his yard,
and how he carved his totem
although he’d never done much
of anything with tools before,
and how he got me and half
his neighbors to struggle with it,
like ants with a grasshopper leg,
until his wife finally took over
and we got the thing planted for him—
for forty-five minutes I went on,
holding Bogeyman Frank at bay
while I was supposed to be painting
a cage, a wire-mesh cage. I was proud
because he asked me if it was true.
It would be I said,
If I had a brother named Wallace.
Paint the damned cage he said.

:: Timothy Russell, Adversaria (1993)


The Song of the Wage Slave

When the long, long day is over, and the Big Boss gives me my pay,
I hope that it won't be hell-fire, as some of the parsons say.
And I hope that it won't be heaven, with some of the parsons I've met--
All I want is just quiet, just to rest and forget.
Look at my face, toil-furrowed; look at my calloused hands;
Master, I've done Thy bidding, wrought in Thy many lands--
Wrought for the little masters, big-bellied they be, and rich;
I've done their desire for a daily hire, and I die like a dog in a ditch.
I have used the strength Thou hast given, Thou knowest I did not shirk;
Threescore years of labor -- Thine be the long day's work.
And now, Big Master, I'm broken and bent and twisted and scarred,
But I've held my job, and Thou knowest, and Thou will not judge me hard.
Thou knowest my sins are many, and often I've played the fool--
Whiskey and cards and women, they made me the devil's tool.
I was just like a child with money; I flung it away with a curse,
Feasting a fawning parasite, or glutting a harlot's purse;
Then back to the woods repentant, back to the mill or the mine,
I, the worker of workers, everything in my line.
Everything hard but headwork (I'd no more brains than a kid),
A brute with brute strength to labor, doing as I was bid;
Living in camps with men-folk, a lonely and loveless life;
Never knew kiss of sweetheart, never caress of wife.
A brute with brute strength to labor, and they were so far above--
Yet I'd gladly have gone to the gallows for one little look of Love.
I, with the strength of two men, savage and shy and wild--
Yet how I'd ha' treasured a woman, and the sweet, warm kiss of a child!
Well, 'tis Thy world, and Thou knowest. I blaspheme and my ways be rude;
But I've lived my life as I found it, and I've done my best to be good;
I, the primitive toiler, half naked and grimed to the eyes,
Sweating it deep in their ditches, swining it stark in their styes;
Hurling down forests before me, spanning tumultuous streams;
Down in the ditch building o'er me palaces fairer than dreams;
Boring the rock to the ore-bed, driving the road through the fen,
Resolute, dumb, uncomplaining, a man in a world of men.
Master, I've filled my contract, wrought in Thy many lands;
Not by my sins wilt Thou judge me, but by the work of my hands.
Master, I've done Thy bidding, and the light is low in the west,
And the long, long shift is over . . . Master, I've earned it -- Rest.

:: Robert Service [1874-1958]


I Don't Want Your Millions

I don't want your millions, mister,
I don't want your diamond ring;
All I want is the right to live, mister.
Give me back my job again.

I don't want your Rolls-Royce, mister,
I don't want your pleasure yacht;
All I want is food for my babies;
Give me my old job back.

We worked to build this country, mister,
While you enjoyed a life of ease;
You've stolen all we built, mister;
Now our children starve and freeze.

Think me dumb if you wish, mister;
Call me green or blue or red;
This one thing I sure know, mister:
My hungry children must be fed.

I don't want your millions, mister,
I don't want your diamond ring.
All I want is a right to live, mister.
Give me back my job again.

:: Jim Garland



We were threshing envelope after white envelope
on a conveyor in redundant Detroit,
your sons bought you twenty-four Dutch Masters,

Jonas Raimundas

one hangs from your lip like a bitten sausage.
It is amazing how your mouth moves around it;
you are speaking Lithuanian to the gears,
and to me you are saying again
how they first shot your mother and then your father.
You rolled the muslin wrapped bodies to the sea
because it was January;
you were fifteen,
your shoulders could not break the earth,
and now, at night, you believe
the Baltic is rising over there while
you are here.
Your uncles have always said
you have dark hair,
the color of your mother’s,
and eyes, too,
as blue, as deep as ikons.

:: Catherine Anderson


3 A.M. Kitchen: My Father Talking

For years it was land working me, oil fields,
cotton fields, then I got some land. I
worked it. Them days you could just about
make a living. I was logging.

Then I sent to Missouri. Momma
come out. We got married.
We got some kids. Five kids.
That kept us going.

We bought some land near the water.
It was cheap then. The water
was right there. You just looked out
the window. It never left the window.

I bought a boat. Fourteen footer.
There was fish out there then.
You remember, we used to catch
six, eight fish, clean them right
out in the yard. I could of fished to China.

I quit the woods. One day just
walked out, took off my corks, said that’s
it. I went to the docks.
I was driving winch. You had to watch
to see nothing fell out of the sling. If
you killed somebody you’d
never forget it. All
those years I was just working
I was on edge, every day. Just working.

You kids. I could tell you
a lot. But I won’t.
It’s winter. I play a lot of cards
down at the tavern. Your mother.
I have to think of excuses
to get out of the house. You’re
wasting your time, she says. You’re wasting
your money.

You don’t have no idea, Threasie.
I run out of things
to work for. Hell, why shouldn’t I
play cards? Threasie,
some days now I just don’t know.

:: Tess Gallagher, Amplitude: New & Selected Poems (1987)


Motherless Children

How many ways do I want to kill this woman, this young bureaucrat at the Office of Social Services, for wanting to kill me? Kill me slowly by degrees, kill me with provisions, kill me in measured words, kill my mother by rubbing her sad life with my father in her face. O, how this woman, bored, dulled by repetition, wants my mother officially rendered inert, reduced to a mere boarder in a broken-down ghetto house, how she wants the word bastard to define our conversation.
What did I say or do? Who knows, but I do know this look she’s giving me, after telling me that there’s no place for my mother’s well-being in their guidelines, that as far as they’re concerned, she isn’t even legally a part of my family. I know this look. This woman wants to observe a screamer, a ripper, she wants her dreams of a babbling monkey to rise.
Blow up, she whispers, as she explains what she isn’t going to do for me, how my father’s bound to disappear, item by item, first his house, then his cars, then all his money except for what it takes for a pine box and a hole.
She thinks she’s the facts of life, a wall with no apparent handholds, the river referred to in the old spirituals: deep, wide, fraught with many sorrows, and her eyes dare me to become a nigger and kick over the table.

: Cornelius Eady, You Don’t Miss Your Water (1995)



Then one of my students with blue hair and a tongue stud
Says that America is for him a maximum-security prison

Whose walls are made of Radio Shacks and Burger Kings, and MTV episodes
Where you can’t tell the show from the commercials,

And as I consider how to express how full of shit I think he is,
He says that even when he’s driving to the mall in his Isuzu

Trooper with a gang of his friends, letting rap music pour over them
Like a boiling Jacuzzi full of ballpeen hammers, even then he feels

Buried alive, captured and suffocated in the folds
Of the thick satin quilt of America

And I wonder if this is a legitimate category of pain,
Or whether he is just spin doctoring a better grade,

And then I remember that when I stabbed my father in the dream last night,
It was not blood but money

That gushed out of him, bright green hundred-dollar bills
Spilling from his wounds, and—this is the weird part—,

He gasped, “Thank god—those Ben Franklins were
Clogging up my heart—

And so I perish happily,
Freed from that which kept me from my liberty”—

Which is when I knew it was a dream, since my dad
Would never speak in rhymed couplets,

And I look at the student with his acne and cell phone and phony ghetto clothes
And I think, “I am asleep in America too,

And I don’t know how to wake myself either,”
And I remember what Marx said near the end of his life:

“I was listening to the cries of the past,
When I should have been listening to the cries of the future.”

But how could he have imagined 100 channels of 24-hour cable
Or what kind of nightmare it might be

When each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you
And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river

Even while others are drowning underneath you
And you see their faces twisting in the surface of the waters

And yet it seems to be your own hand
Which turns the volume higher?

:: Tony Hoagland, What Narcissism Means to Me


Expect Nothing

Expect nothing. Live frugally
On surprise.
Become a stranger
To need of pity
Or, if compassion be freely
Given out
Take only enough.
Stop short of urge to plead
Then purge away the need.

Wish for nothing larger
Than your own small heart
Or greater than a star,
Tame wild disappointment
With caress unmoved and cold.
Make of it a parka
For your soul.

Discover the reason why
So tiny human midget
Exists at all
So scared unwise.
But expect nothing. Live frugally
On surprise.

:: Alice Walker, Revolutionary Petunias


Bread and Roses

As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing "Bread and roses, bread and roses."

As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children and we mother them again,
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread but give us roses!

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes it is bread we fight for but we fight for roses too!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the woman means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler - ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses!

:: James Oppenheim


In Ipsissima Verba

I could never explain
how the word array
describes the principle
of frond arrangement
in black walnut trees
to anyone in the mill.
Forget the black locusts
erupting here and there
across the strip-mined fields
like mortar explosions.
I’m still working on the swirl
of the weeping willows.

No. You go through the gate
and no matter what time it is
you say “Morning,” all day long
knowing maybe you’re the only one
who knows you’re in mourning,
and you call everybody “Uncle,”
and everybody in the mill
has the same initial,
which doesn’t stand for Francis,
and you tell Uncle Melanie
F. Risovich you love her
and want her to have your babies
so she’ll know you’re crazy
in case you ever find yourself
so unaccountably joyful
you start yammering
about how birds feed or fly
or various aspects of design
you see in different trees
or how you feel like the young girl
you once saw doing one-hand cartwheels
down the middle of Elm Street,
her blonde hair sweeping the asphalt.

:: Timothy Russell, Adversaria (1993)



The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,
The nearly invisible stitches along the collar
Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians

Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break
Or talking money or politics while one fitted
This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist. The presser, the cutter,
The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,
The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze

At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.
One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes--

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.

A third before he dropped her put her arms
Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held
Her into space, and dropped her. Almost at once

He stepped up to the sill himself, his jacket flared
And fluttered up from his shirt as he came down,
Air filling up the legs of his gray trousers--

Like Hart Crane's Bedlamite, "shrill shirt ballooning."
Wonderful how the patern matches perfectly
Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked

Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme
Or a major chord. Prints, plaids, checks,
Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans

Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian,
To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed
By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,

Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers
To wear among the dusty clattering looms.
Weavers, carders, spinners. The loader,

The docker, the navvy. The planter, the picker, the sorter
Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton
As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:

George Herbert, your descendant is a Black
Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma
And she inspected my shirt. Its color and fit

And feel and its clean smell have satisfied
Both her and me. We have culled its cost and quality
Down to the buttons of simulated bone,

The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters
Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,
The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.

:: Robert Pinsky, The Figured Wheel