In Linea Recta

“Rattle of contents is acceptable in this type of merchandise.”

1959 was a pivotal year
for Ruth and Charlie.
They already had four boys,
and though they didn’t know it yet,
Ruth was finally pregnant with Theresa.
Charlie had a new job,
a promotion, from the mill
to the old General Office.
In December, they bought a new house
two miles away. They loaded
their new, aqua-and-white station wagon,
made fifty trips up two hills,
their furniture always in danger
of sliding out.
How was I to know,
riding on that green tailgate,
a purple dresser wanting to push
me to the blurred asphalt
running away from my feet,
that in a quarter of a century,
I would be sitting at a window
remembering that warm December day
when I was eight years old
and trying to understand what happened,
how that practically innocent boy
came to inherit a steel mill
thumping in his chest like a heart attack?

:: Timothy Russell, Adversaria (1993)


How to Like It

These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving.
A man and a dog descend their front steps.
The dog says, Let’s go downtown and get crazy drunk.
Let’s tip over all the trash cans we can find.
This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.
But in his sense of the season, the man is struck
by the oppressiveness of his past, how his memories
which were shifting and fluid have grown more solid
until it seems he can see remembered faces
caught up among the dark places in the trees.
The dog says, Let’s pick up some girls and just
rip off their clothes. Let’s dig holes everywhere.
Above his house, the man notices wisps of cloud
crossing the face of the moon. Like in a movie,
he says to himself, a movie about a person
leaving on a journey. He looks down the street
to the hills outside of town and finds the cut
where the road heads north. He thinks of driving
on that road and the dusty smell of the car
heater, which hasn’t been used since last winter.
The dog says, Let’s go down to the diner and sniff
people’s legs. Let’s stuff ourselves on burgers.
In the man’s mind, the road is empty and dark.
Pine trees press down to the edge of the shoulder,
where the eyes of animals, fixed in his headlights,
shine like small cautions against the night.
Sometimes a passing truck makes his whole car shake.
The dog says, Let’s go to sleep. Let’s lie down
by the fire and put our tails over our noses.
But the man wants to drive all night, crossing
one state line after another, and never stop
until the sun creeps into his rearview mirror.
Then he’ll pull over and rest awhile before
starting again, and at dusk he’ll crest a hill
and there, filling a valley, will be the lights
of a city entirely new to him.
But the dog says, Let’s just go back inside.
Let’s not do anything tonight. So they
walk back up the sidewalk to the front steps.
How is it possible to want so many things
and still want nothing. The man wants to sleep
and wants to hit his head again and again
against a wall. Why is it all so difficult?
But the dog says, Let’s go make a sandwich.
Let’s make the tallest sandwich anyone’s ever seen.
And that’s what they do and that’s where the man’s
wife finds him, staring into the refrigerator
as if into the place where the answers are kept--
the ones telling why you get up in the morning
and how it is possible to sleep at night,
answers to what comes next and how to like it.

:: Stephen Dobyns


Slicing an Egg

Make every word count, I say
to my students the way
my mother said make every step
count in the kitchen. Still I bumble
after so many years, forget
to bring salt to the table,
return twice for the gallon
of milk. Today, I hold a boiled
egg in my palm, slice it
into salad. I nick the fleshy underside
of a finger and remember her
with a towel around her hand
stirring gravy and hauling
dinner to the field before
she drove to town for stitches.

:: Tami Haaland, Breath in Every Room


I Stop Writing the Poem

to fold the clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I’m still a woman.
I’ll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
our tenderness. I’ll get back
to the poem. I’ll get back to being
a woman. But for now
there’s a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it’s done.

:: Tess Gallagher, Moon Crossing Bridge



My uncle’s humped back sweats
like his other parts,
like the clean golden hair
on his arms and head.
On his thick neck.
It’s a dark circle that pools
as the afternoon gets hotter
against the coarse broadcloth of his shirt
and he leans to finish his work
troweling concrete, setting masonry,
so my aunt,
an articulate woman with bright eyes,
can wear linen.

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


The Labor of Waking

Difficult work. For the man who falls out
of mass migrations, waking to a cot in Kazakhstan, for the woman who can wed
sleep as salt weds water
but rises for the graveyard shift, for all five billion of us

meandering wakers, tongues
ballooned beyond speech, seeing in sleep
a side of things more greenly,
where a room’s wrought
in bolder hues, and seethes with meaning, it is difficult.
Of course, we must pretend

it is easy, must cast off our starred coverlets

as if they were nets, flop out
onto the cold floor. We must not unsettle
the dog, we must not cry—
though there was a first waking, a tumbling and splitting
where we were permitted to show

the gut urge, our hatred for being here.

Then we had purple faces,
clenched fists, closed eyes, the most perfect wail.
To give back an honesty to things
we would, the five billion of us, each day wake with the visible
signs of our horror, bloodied

with the fluids of elsewhere—and dream, a great placenta,

would fall out with us, baggy
and black, deflated on the floor.
Some spirit of good would swab and dress
our bodies, would take photographs:
the puckered lips, the dark tomato faces,

our wrinkles, little nowheres

from the nowhere we’d been.
We would gurgle, not yet knowing
those valleys where many walk,
the pits into which the awakened fall,

that there will come so many terrors to us

and to our measured hours.
Or that, after many mornings, many days,
we would come to love
this waking life enough to dread its loss.

:: K. A. Hays, Dear Apocalypse (2009)


rituals of spring

(for the 78th anniversary of the shirtwaistfactory fire)

from bareness to fullness flowers do bloom
whenever, however spring enters a room
oh, whenever, however spring enters a room

march 25th, 1911
at the triangle shirtwaist factory
a fire claimed the lives of 146 people, mostly women,
mostly children in the plume of their lives,
in the room of their lives
begging for spring, toiling and begging for spring

and in my head
as i read the history, afraid to touch the pictures
i imagine the room, i imagine the women
dressed in pale blues and pinks,
some without heads or arms—sitting
some without legs or waist—hovering
hundreds of flowering girls tucking spring into sleeves,
tucking and tugging at spring to stay alive

and so a shirtwaist for spring
a dress with a mannish collar, blousing over breast,
blousing over sweat, tapering to fit a female waist,
tapering to fit a female breath
sheer silk, cotton, linen
hand done pleats, hands done in by pleats
hands done in by darts and lace

colors of spring
pale blues, pale pinks, yellows, magentas, lavender, peach,

secret thoughts of spring
falling in love under a full moon, forever young
with money enough to buy a flower or two,
time enough to smell it
yes, from bareness to fullness a flower will bloom
anytime, everytime spring enters a room
and here, near these machines, hundreds of flowering

shirtwaist factory room 1911
crowded, hard, fast, too fast, closed windows,
locked doors, smell of piss, of sweat,
of wishes being cut to bits,
needle stabs, electric shocks, miscarriages over silk,
fading paisley, fading magenta,
falling in love will get you fired, forever old,
never fast enough, buying flowers is wasteful
so hurry, hurry, grind your teeth and soul
six dollars a week send to grandfather,
four dollars a week send to aunt ruth, sleep over the
machine and you’re done for, way before you open your
eyes ma’am, madam, miss, mrs. mother, girlie
hundreds of flowering green spring girls in rows
waiting with needles in hands for spring to show

women workers
from ireland, poland, germany, france,
england, granada, mississippi
thin clothes, thinner hopes, months full of why,
of how, of when
answers always less than their pay
but the sewing machines grew like weeds,
thick snake roots strangling the flowers everyday
strangling the roses, daisies, lilies everyday
hundreds of blooming girls
hundreds of blooming, spring girls

the shirtwaist building 1911
135 feet high, wooden, cold, three floors,
not enough stairs,
one fire escape ending in mid-air,
ending in the spring mid-air
a tender room of hundreds of blooming bright girls
hundreds of daisy bud girls who pray for spring
to enter their world,
who pray and sweat for spring to enter their world

the strike the year before
and they shouted: open the doors,
unwire the windows, more air,
more stairs, more quiet time, more fire escapes
and to the ground damn you,
and more toilets, more time to be sick,
more time to be well,
and remove the fear and slow it down,
for god’s sake, slow it all time, it’s spring

they shouted
hundreds of flowering girls,
hundreds of flowering girls shouted
for spring to hurry, hurry and enter their world

triangle won a half day
but the doors remained locked,
windows remained wired, no extra air,
no extra quiet time, or sick time, the fear stayed,
nothing slowed
and god watched hundreds of flowering girls twirl
hundreds of flowering girls willow and twirl

march 25th 1911 at triangle
a worker is expendable
a sewing needle is not
a worker is bendable
a sewing needle is not
a worker can be sent straight to hell
a dewing needle is heaven sent
and must be protected well
over hundreds of flowering girls,
hundreds of flowering sweet dandelion girls

march 25th, smoke
smoke, stopping the machines
run to wired windows, run to locked doors,
run to the one and only fire escape,
everyone run to the air
hundreds of flowering girls

stopping eyes, stopping hearts stopping worlds
elevator move faster, elevator you are a machine
managed by a human being move faster, c’mon faster
carry all the flowering girls, carry all the sweet,
sweet orchid girls

catching bouquets of girls in a corner, tall, long
stemmed lilies on fire in a corner,
from bloom to ashes in a corner, smell
them in the rain hundreds of tulip girls

on a window ledge
pelees for life, on a window ledge lovely, ribboned young
ladies on their tiptoes twirling, twirling
an arabesque for life
hundreds of flowering girls
smell them in the rain
hundreds of jasmine girls

the ladders were too short
the hoses were too short
the men holding the nets were not gods, only men
who were never trained to catch falling bodies, or
falling stars, or hundreds of flowering girls, hundreds
of carnation bud girls

and the girls
were girls not angels jumping,
not goddesses flying or hovering
they smashed, they broke into
large pieces, smell them in the rain

and the sidewalks
opened in shame to meet the flowering girls
the sidewalk opened in such horrible shame to cradle
the remains of violets
and the gutters
bled for hours, choking on bones, shoes, buttons,
ribbons, holy sewing needles
the gutters bled for hours all the colors of spring
the cool magenta of delicate spring

and the fire ate
the locked doors and the wired windows,
ate the fast machines
in their narrow rooms, ate the lace and hand done pleats,
the silk, the cotton, the linen,
the crisp six dollars a week, the
eternal buzz of someone else’s dreams
nightmares and scream of quiet girls,
loud skull cracking noises from sky girls
smell them in the rain, the lilacs, daffodils
in the rain

spring, 78 years later
triangle is now part of a university, with offices
and polished intellect, arched unwired windows,
hydraulically controlled and unlocked doors,
air conditioning, swivel chairs, marble walls and fire

but oh, hundreds of flowering girls still roam
hundreds of blushing spring girls still roam
78 years later in the paint, in the chrome
in the swivel of the chairs
hundreds of blossoms twirling in the air
daring to descend if ever, oh ever the fire comes again

yes, like lead they will drop
if ever, oh ever the fire comes again
to hundreds of flowering girls
smell them in the rain, iris, peonies, magnolias,
bending for the rain


failure of an invention

i am not any of the faces
you have put on me america

every mask has slipped
i am not any of the names

or sounds you have called me
the tones have nearly

made me deaf
this dark skin, both of us

have tried to bleach
i can smell the cancer.

this thick hair, these thick lips
both of us have tried to narrow

begging entrance through
the needle of your eye

some of me broken
in the squeeze

and even as i carry
a bone of yours in my back

your soul america
no matter what we’ve tried

i’ve never been able to bear

:: Safiya Henderson-Holmes, Madness and a Bit of Hope (1990)


War Bride

White men always want her
to be a war bride. They want
my father to have carried her home
from Nam like a photo
of a pin-up girl, creased and stained,
but still pretty in that voiceless way.
They want my mother
to speak broken English when she speaks at all,
to stumble over her letters and transpose
her idioms and look confused
when they laugh at her speech. They want her
to shuffle her walk and wear her hair
in one long, raven braid
the length of her spine, like a twisting rope
for my father to pull when she tries to run.

But the truth is, my mother
was born in northern California, met my father
in a textile plant in New Jersey.
Truth is, I am a second generation
Chinese-American, which makes me
a second generation war bride,
a native of atomic power
and evasive maneuvers.
It means I learned early how to scream
like a pinned-down girl,
how to break language
before it could break me,
how to transpose the words
that would keep me
laughing and confused.
It means I wear my hair shorn like a monk
or a warrior, so I cannot be caught,
and I twist my spine into one long stride
to walk fartherand farther from the wedding
of whiteness, from the men
who would make me their bride.

:: Jennifer Perrine, in Gertrude (2001)



She has nothing, neither
power nor wealth, but what
the father of her children
gives her. All is well. She
remains beautiful on a pittance.
They have acquiesced to the stale-
mate that is sex and make do
now with each other’s public
desirability, private near-
brushes in the bed each night.
And when war comes and calls for
her sons, though she may sit on
damask or plush and drink red
or white, as she chooses,
and lament to friends, provided
they are women, all, she can but
suffer the loss of what she has
furnished. She cannot toss
her sabots into the gears that
sustain her. She cannot tear the
clothes off her own beautiful
body and barter.

:: Linda McCarriston, Little River



The mouse discovered in the sweater drawer
does not wrestle with decisions. Before
I’ve reached the attic and brought down

a box suitable for transfer, she’s gone.
The rubbery pink babies wriggle, blind.
What now? I’m frozen by her stark response,

resist its blunt efficiency. I don’t need
the sweater, don’t even like it. I’ll go without.
I want her to come back, carry them off

as a mama cat nips her young by their necks,
trots away dangling their limp bodies. Her
lesson’s clear: Cut your losses, begin again.

:: Ron Mohring, Amateur Grief (1998)



After his ham & cheese in the drape factory cafeteria,
having slipped by the bald shipping foreman
to ride a rattling elevator to the attic
where doves flicker into the massive eaves
and where piled boxes of out-of-style
cotton and lace won’t ever be
decorating anyone’s sun parlor windows.
Having dozed off in that hideout he fixed
between five four-by-six cardboard storage cartons
while the rest of us pack Mediterranean Dreams
and Colonial Ruffles and drapes colored like moons,
and he wakes lost—
shot through
into a world of unlocked unlocking light—
suddenly he knows where he id and feels half nuts
and feels like killing some pigeons with a slingshot.

That’s all, and that’s why he pokes
his calloused fingers into the broken machinery,
hunting for loose nuts a half inch wide—
five greasy cold ones that warm in his pocket—
and yanks back the snag-cut strip of inner tube
with a nut snug at the curve to snap it
at the soft chest of a dopey bird.
Then the noise of pigeons flopping down
to creosoted hardwood, and then a grin
the guy gives me & all his other pals later.
And afternoon tightens down on all
our shoulders, until the shift whistle
blasts, blowing through the plant like air
through lace. As it always has, as it does.
That bright. That stunned.

:: David Rivard, Torque



Someone calls Duchess, our fawn Great Dane, back
Across the dusty road: she’s nearly to the lawn
When the Buick hits her, she rolls
And then gaining her legs
Runs into the field of goldenrod where my father
Finds her; when he presses
The large folded handkerchief against the wound, it vanishes
Along with his forearm. She was months dying.

One night returning from my aunt’s house, we stopped
At a light and watched a procession of cars
Coming down out of the first snow, down
Out of the mountains, returning to Connecticut. Everywhere
Roped to the hoods and bumpers were dead deer.
The man behind us honked
His horn. My father waved him on. He hit
The horn again. My father got out and spoke
With him in a voice that was frightening
Even for a man with a horn. We left the door open
And the four of us sat there in the dome light
In silence. Wanting to be fair,
I thought of squatting cavemen, sparks flying
From flints into dry yellow lichen and white smoke
Rising from Ethel Rosenberg’s hair.

:: Norman Dubie, Groom Falconer (1992)


Domestic Tranquility

I need a ritual to perform,
clean and sane, for this perfect washday,
the sun burning the top of my head
and forearms raised to the line,
the surrogate wind breathing
my wife’s blouses, my daughter’s dresses and jeans.
I need a formula to recite
free of mumbo jumbo and cant,
as fit for me and this day, and I say
to hell with Kenmore, Whirlpool, Maytag,
who needs Norge, Wards, Westinghouse, GE?

When I strung my clothesline from the post
where the rosebush fans over the redwood fence,
I was careful not to scare the rabbit away,
come to the yard for clover,
crouching on the cool ground along the fence
among the mint that’s grown high as my knee;
it sits in there still and breathless with revelation,
the laundry like sweet apparitions flapping overhead,
my presence humming through the intoxicating leaves.
I wish that kind of myth to give my daughters,
as free of cruelty and lies
as the vision of this small waiting animal.
Today I have only this day so perfect for the wash
drying by sun and wind, and a miracle for the rabbit
at peace under the rose bush.

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


Beth-esda (Place of Ease)

The Washington Gas man
in his blue uniform
is here to fix the stove. I
must look shocked. Traffic’s
bad, he’s sorry he’s
late. He knows
the Pentagon was hit, his son
works there. I offer
my phone. That’s OK,
he says and pulls the stove
from the wall. He doesn’t
think he’ll get through
Early this morning
after the bus loaded my son
in his wheelchair, roared
him off to preschool, my
husband and I talked
outside on the corner
for some time. The sky
bluer than we could
imagine, deep, clear.

My husband works
near the White House.
The first time I call him
I say I just wanted you
to know, one of the World
Trade towers is on fire, does
anyone you know
from law school work there?

Before a snow storm
in WDC we go to the
market to buy bread and
milk and bottled water
because we think
we’ll be trapped until
the plow shows up. We know
with more than twelve
inches, they’ll clear snow
emergency routes over
and over even though
no one can get to them.

I am still talking to
my husband’s voicemail
now I am screaming
because the South Tower
has exploded, the fireball
is thirty stories high. I
hang up.

When I go to the World
Market today the owner
wants cash. All I can see
from the store windows
is gridlock.

I call my husband again
this time he picks up, says
he is on a conference call
with the home office in NYC
they have heard the World
Trade Center is on fire, but
nothing is wrong
In Times Square.

A friend, Terri, says she stayed
at her desk because
leaving made no sense. From her
window, she watched
the tanks and army take DC.

Now the phone lines are
jammed my cell phone has
no signal I don’t know if
schools will close early
my son can’t speak.
I don’t know if they will
use the regular bus driver.

My daughter clings to me like
a marsupial as I run past
the lawn guy who doesn’t seem
to know the World Trade Center
is on fire and the Pentagon
has been hit. Neither
does Robin, my neighbor.

A few days later, I turn
the corner by Our Lady
of Lourdes and the street
is full of blue American
Airlines uniforms.

The North Tower is leaning
at a funny angle. I have
never seen a building
curve like that. Robin and I
shout at the talking heads
who think someone
will do something even
we are surprised when
it straightens slowly and
implodes so neatly
floor after floor.
That week
Robert’s teacher asks
why I think they won’t
find more bodies. I say the
kinetic energy the force
expended in those seconds.
It is beyond her. Her neighbor
died at the Pentagon.

My husband gets home
at noon. While we wait for
Robert’s bus I want to pack
the car trunk of we need
to do is put the kids
in their car seats. Roger says
no, all the planes are down
he thinks we should
stay. Finally the bus.
Just like any day.

All night there is no
noise except when
the F-16s pivot above
in formation circling
the Beltway. When they
fly low, the house shakes
inside the engines’ screams.

After the Senate building closes
due to anthrax, book group
meets at Patty’s house to read
another novel about World
War II. Patty knew
a family killed on the plane
that hit the Pentagon. Renee’s
father says he will fly
out from California to show
her how to properly
seal her windows with plastic
and duct tape so she will be
OK if there is nuclear fallout.
Dad, she told him, we’ll just
Be dead.
My son’s physical
therapist and I are amazed
by his stepping, his new
range of motion usually
he is so immobile and
contained. We know
the fourth plane was for
the Capitol and not
the White House. Kristen thinks
to hit it they would have
to zig-zag and precision
nose-dive. We don’t think
they were skilled pilots.

That fall, my son’s doctors
write extra scrips for
his medications because
we don’t know what
might happen next. I pack
one evacuation bag
for school and put one
on a shelf in his closet.

This year, Robert has
turned a corner he is
in first grade. He can
raise his right hand
for yes, his left for
no. He will never
be OK.

:: Jeneva Stone, in Colorado Review (spring 2006)


His Life

I don’t know what he thinks about. At night the vault of his face closes up. He could be underground. He could be buried treasure. He could be a donkey trapped in the Bisbee Mine, lowered in so long ago with pulleys and belts, kicking, till its soft fur faded and eyes went blind. They made donkeys pull the little carts of ore from seam to seam. At night, when the last men stepped into the creaking lift, the donkeys cried. Some lived as long as seventeen years down there. The miners still feel bad about it. They would have hauled them out to breathe real air in the evenings, but the chute was so deep and they’d never be able to force them in again.

:: Naomi Shihab Nye, Mint (1991)


Suppressing the Evidence

Alaska oil spill, I edit you out.
You are too terrible to think about.
I X, I double-X you out.
The repeated floods in Bangladesh:
The starving poor who stare at us,
Stare with plaintive smiles,
Smiles without hope
As they clutch a bulbous-bellied child,
I erase your dark faces.
I edit you out.

From the dark windows of their limousines
The rich long since have waved their ringed hands,
Said Abracadabra, to disappear the poor.
Their streets are swept clear
So the homeless are sucked down the dirty drains.
Only their reflections in the tinted glass
Stare back in their complacent discontent:
The blind rich, in their blind car.

On Madison a young emaciated man
In a threadbare jacket shivers in the snow.
Help me. Please. I have no place to go.
I hold out a dollar bill between his face and mine
Like the fan of an old Japanese courtesan,
Then hurry past as his face turns to smoke.

I flee the city, back to my comfortable farm
In the valley of wine. I drink the wine.
I do not turn on the news.
I and the wine will blot it out.
And we erase more and more of the world’s terrible map;
How may we bear witness, as we should?

I must hold in my mind one small dead otter pup.

:: Carolyn Kizer, Cool, Calm & Collected


The Experts

When the man in the window seat
flying next to me
asks me who I am
and I tell him I’m a poet,
he turns embarrassed toward the sun.
The woman on the other side of me
pipes up that she’s 4’10” and is going to sue
whoever made these seats.

And so it is I’m reminded how I wish I were
one of the aesthetes
floating down double-lit canals
of quiet listening, the ones
who come to know something as
mysterious and useless
as when a tree has decided to sleep.

You would think for them
pain lights up the edges of everything,
burns right through the center of every leaf,
but I’ve seen them strolling around,
their faces glistening with the sort of peace
only sleep can polish babies with.

And so when a waitress in San Antonio
asks me what I do, and I think
how the one small thing I’ve learned
seems more complex the more I think of it,
how the joys of it have overpowered me
long after I don’t understand,

I tell her “Corned beef on rye, a side of salad,
hold the pickle, I’m a poet,” and she stops to talk
about her little son who, she says, can hurt himself
even when he’s sitting still. I tell her
there’s a poem in that, and she repeats
“Hold the pickle, I’m a poet,”
then looks at me and says, “I know.”

:: Jack Gilbert, in American Poetry Review



The first morning of Three Mile Island: those first disquieting, uncertain, mystifying hours.
All morning a crew of workmen have been tearing the old decrepit roof off our building,
and all morning, trying to distract myself, I’ve been wandering out to watch them
as they hack away the leaden layers of asbestos paper and disassemble the disintegrating drains. After half a night of listening to the news, wondering how to know a hundred miles downwind
if and when to make a run for it and where, then a coming bolt awake at seven
when the roofers we’ve been waiting for since winter sent their ladders shrieking up our wall,
we still know less than nothing: the utility company continues making little of the accident,
the slick federal spokesmen still have their evasions in some semblance of order.
Surely we suspect now we’re being lied to, but in the meantime, there are the roofers,
setting winch-frames, sledging rounds of tar apart, and there I am, on the curb across, gawking.
I never realized what brutal work it is, how matter-of-factly and harrowingly dangerous.
The ladders flex and quiver, things skid from the edge, the materials are bulky and recalcitrant.
When the rusty, antique nails are levered out, their heads pull off; the underroofing crumbles.
Even the battered little furnace, roaring along as patient as a donkey, chokes and clogs,
a dense, malignant smoke shoots up, and someone has to fiddle with a cock, then hammer it,
before the gush and stench will deintensify, the dark, Dantean broth wearily subside.
In its crucible, the stuff looks bland, like licorice, spill it, though, on your boots or coveralls,
it sears, and everything is permeated with it, the furnace gunked with burst and half-burst
the men themselves so completely slashed and mucked they seem almost from another realm,
like trolls.
When they take their break, they leave their brooms standing at attention in the asphalt pails,
work gloves clinging like Br’er Rabbit to the bitten shafts, and they slouch along the precipitous
the enormous sky behind them, the heavy noontime air alive with shimmers and mirages.

Sometime in the afternoon I had to go inside: the advent of our vigil was upon us.
However much we didn’t want to, however little we would do about it, we’d understood:
we were going to perish of all this, if not now, then soon, if not soon, then someday.
Someday, some final generation, hysterically aswarm beneath an atmosphere as unrelenting as
would rue us all, anathematize our earthly comforts, curse our surfeits and submissions.
I think I know, though I might rather not, why my roofers stay so clear to me and why the rest,
the terror of that time, the reflexive disbelief and distancing, all we should hold on to, dims so.
I remember the president in his absurd protective booties, looking absolutely unafraid, the fool.
I remember a woman on the front page glaring across the misty Susquehanna at those looming
But, more vividly, the men, silvered with glitter from the shingles, clinging like starlings beneath
the eaves.
Even the leftover carats of tar in the gutter, so black they seemed to suck the light out of the air.
By nightfall kids had come across them: every sidewalk on the block was scribbled with
obscenities and hearts.

:: C.K. Williams, Tar


The Goldfish Floats to the Top of His Life

The goldfish floats to the top of his life
and turns over, a shaving from somebody’s hobby.
So it is that men die at the whims of great companies,
their neckties pulling them speechless into machines,
their wives finding them slumped in the shower,
their hearts blown open like boiler doors.
In the night, again and again these men float
to the tops of their dreams to drift back
to their desks in the morning. If you ask them,
they all would prefer to have died in their sleep.

:: Ted Kooser, Sure Signs (1980)


Five-year-old Boy

Gabriel at five is leaning on the world
the way a factory foreman leans on
a slow worker. As he talks, he holds
a kitchen strainer in his hand. At the end of
the conversation, the handle is twisted,
the mesh burst—he looks down at it
amazed. Mysterious things are always
happening in his hands. As he tells a story,
he dances backwards. Nothing is safe
near this boy. He stands on the porch, peeing
into the grass, watching a bird
fly around the house, and ends up
pissing on the front door. Afterwards he
twangs his penis. Long after
the last drops fly into the lawn,
he stands there gently rattling his dick,
his face full of intelligence,
his white, curved forehead slightly
puckered in thought, his eyes clear,
gazing out over the pond,
his mouth firm and serious;
abstractedly he shakes himself
once more
and the house collapses
to the ground behind him.

:: Sharon Olds, Satan Says (1980)


Seventh Birthday of the First Child

The children were around my feet like dogs,
milling, nipping, wetting, slavering,
feed sieving from their chops like plankton.

I slid on their messes, I found their silky bodies
asleep in corners, paws fallen
north, south, east, west,
little sexes gleaming.

Ankle-deep in their smell, their noise,
their noses cold and black
or going soft with fever, I waded, I slogged.

Crowding around my toes like tits,
they taught me to walk carefully,
to hold still to be sucked.
I worked my feet in them like mud
for the pleasure.

And suddenly there is a head at my breastbone
as if one of the litter had climbed
onto the branch of a dwarf tree
which overnight grew to here
bearing you up, daughter, with your dark
newborn eyes. You sit in the boughs,
blossoms breaking like porcelain cups around you.

:: Sharon Olds, Satan Says (1980)



We’re driving to visit my aunt and uncle
in Massachusetts when my father decides
he can’t drive anymore with five screaming kids
in the back so he jerks to a stop at a roadside motel.
In the car, we wait as he checks in,
the upholstery slick with sweat and drool
and the spittle of insult. Our first motel
ever. Behind us, the small pool glows
the blue of imagined clarity, a holy water font
with a diving board. None of us
is going to sleep, but for now,
we’re silent. Windows rolled down, chlorine
drifting in with the sting of money spent.
It’s all we remember: five of us lined up
on that diving board, saying our prayers.

:: Jim Daniels, Night with Drive-By Shooting Stars


A Shrine

One floor below, the fridge
stutters awake, makes its mechanical adjustment
the way I’d clear my throat; and from bed
I know it’s late, late and dark.
There’s no traffic yet on Lexington,
no low thrum of trucks idling
making deliveries on Grand, grinding trash.

But something’s disturbed the dog,
who shakes herself briskly
and circles again on her pillow.
Her tags and collar tinkle high-pitched and gentle
and would not rouse me if I weren’t
already wakeful, lying with my eyes
deceptively closed, as if my father
were back again. Checking on me.
Expecting me asleep.
Home from the paper past midnight,

he stood at my door letting his quarters
and thin dimes in his pocket
shift through his fingers, jingling,
his presence and the early hour
mildly announced. And though I’d watched
and waited, I hid myself
unbreathing in my child body
to keep him there, to savor
that fragile music.

:: Janet Holmes, Humanophone (2001)


A Chance

A girl drops my composition class.
She tells me in a note
she won’t be back.
She’s not ready for this class.
I gave her a no credit on her first assignment.
It suffered from fundamental errors.
After class, she told me she’d worked harder
on this paper
than she’s ever worked before.
She told me her friends had told her
the paper was fine.
Even her mother had told her it was good.
“But you say it isn’t,” she said.

I’m seventeen when my family has to move.
We’ve got eight kids, so
the walls need repair.
My dad and I stay behind to do it.
He hands me a spackle knife
And a wad of newspaper.
He says, “Use the newspaper to fill the holes.
Then butter on the spackle.
Not too much:
You’ll have to sand it
when it dries.
After you sand we’ll paint.”
He goes upstairs
To start on the bathroom.

I stand in the hall
holding the knife and the newspaper.
A grudge fills me:
Why do I have to do this?
What good can it do me?
When my dad comes back downstairs
and sees that I haven’t started,
he picks up the knife and the spackle.
He screws some newspaper into a hole.
He pastes on some spackle.
He faces me, the knife and spackle in his hands.
“Okay,” he says, offering me a chance.
“Now you.”

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


Saying Goodbye to the Old Airport

Greater Pittsburgh International Airport
looks like it was built by Mussolini:
giant bronze eagle over the entry,
fat black marble columns squatting
like the entrance to Hell. I’ll miss it,
old terminal of the steel petit bourgeois.
I hear it’s going to be converted
to food boutiques: boutique bakeries,
boutique souperamas, perhaps boutique meatshops
selling gutted rabbits, like empty pink purses
magically transformed into Lapin Provence
so the provincials will have something
to write reviews about, though I miss
the ugly places with blood on them
that tell us where we came from, what was done
to our grandparents, and our rude uncles who wore
handlebar moustaches and swore at the bosses.
My grandmother scrubbed floors her whole life
and her finest possession was a chip of diamond
on a wire ring. She’d be amazed at this place,
how town after town there’s mo failure visible,
gleaming miles of steel and glass so that
only if you search for the hidden places,
the towns in valleys we don’t visit, the shacks
in the shadows of the rusting mills, like medieval
lackeys around their fallen lord, do you find
the fat mutti sitting in her broken chair,
the grange halls, windowframes peeling and the glass
loose, where the poor danced.
I used to tell visitors how
the great magnate Frink on his deathbed
said “tell Mr. Carnegie I’ll see him in hell”
and surely he has, if there is a hell beyond the Ohio.
Or maybe there isn’t, or maybe the sleepwalkers
in the malls are what we know of it, deracinated,
deodorized, in their eternal artificial spring.
The last joke of history on those who don’t know it
is that it writes us. In all the great malls
sad, desperate or blank faces, as though
the Pinkertons were coming up river again
with their guns, as though history were repeating
itself, as Groucho said, but this time as farce.

I used to laugh with visitors at this hideous
terminal, its fascist flag bank flapping and flapping
but I always said, “somehow it grows on you” and later
getting out of the car at the place where I work, I’d say
“before the university paved this space over
for parking there was a cemetery here.”
But of course the authorities didn’t remove the remains,
just smoothed asphalt over what after all
were nameless immigrant graves. Painted straight
white lines. Put up signs. Stuck meters,
starved wingless angels, all over it.

:: Ed Ochester, Allegheny (1995)



It’s no crime to take things,
like life, a little at a time.
At Brown Shoe Company he stitches
leather on the big machines, careful
not to sink the needle into his own hide.

There is no choice but work,
no luck but money:
a good boot, strong sole
brings ten dollars on the street.
At lunchtime, on five-minute breaks

he lets them fly
out of windows, land by the factory wall
where he finds them later
walking home.
He names greed the thief:

someone else’s stealing seventeen cases
puts guards at stockroom doors,
alarms on walls, throws
his modest business
off for weeks.

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


Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

:: Robert Hayden, Angle of Ascent: New & Collected Poems