Friend, you want to make lace
and your only tool is an ice pick.
Know, then, that your palms will open,
the weave may never close,
the result may be pegboard
or chicken wire or Swiss cheese.
Know that no one believes
in lace anymore,
that the few who do
can sew better than you.
Know this: another yard of lace
won’t change anything,
but oh, how vibrant
and well-built the light
that enters
through the clumsiest holes.

:: Paja Faudree, in Agni #37


Who Tells You How to Live

To journey like an ant from that crushed garter snake
in the road to intricate tunnels of saliva and grit—

would that please you? Keeping to the pattern of travel
with a precise burden of food on your back—is that enough?

Early morning in this forest is a racket of birds
and squirrels. Swamp rabbits chew the damp grasses.

Those kittens someone dumped from a car smash wildly
in the underbrush. Soon it will be too hot to feed.

One or two airplanes cross—invisible
cosmic insects below a blue swim of galaxies.

Isn’t it enough that the body keeps working its parts,
that words spill bright as birds above this seeded earth?

Who tells you how to live in this blessing of dust?
See, the ants come and go. They look like they are singing.

:: Pamela Stewart, The Red Window (1997)


To Work

Brookshire had come to work second shift
at Walker Manufacturing the day it opened

and stayed until the recession shut it down
a dozen years later. He was an end finisher,

six-foot-four and strong enough to hang
the bent and welded tailpipes and mufflers

on a fast-moving chain that would loop them
through a room-sized oven for rustproofing.

He loaded and unloaded them left-handed
until that arm was so muscular it looked

like the claw of a human fiddler crab,
until that hand was so thickly calloused

he didn’t need to wear protective gloves
when he handled the rough or heated metal.

He liked the work, its good wage and routine
and not having to think about what he did.

He liked his forearm, its Popeye tattoo
that slowly vanished underneath the grime

of a nine-hour shift, as daylight itself
clocked out while he worked. He liked leaving

the plant at one-thirty in the morning
exhausted, especially in the summer,

walking into the cool mountain night
dark as the water that would soon be flowing

from his skin as he carefully scrubbed away
all the filth that had seeped through his clothes,

blackening his pale body utterly
except where his underwear and socks had been,

His sleep was clean and deep and very long.
To work is to get dirty then get paid.


The Miner's Lamp

A metal cylinder a foot high,
finned and vented, the middle section glass,
that he carried into the tunnels
before the shift began, to check for gas,
the flame inside the glass turning color
at the least trace of gas,
walking by himself, darkness ahead and behind,
groan and thump of timbered walls and ceiling,
water drip and rats.
Thinking of what?
Pigeons maybe or potato soup and black tea,
of how he was transformed each time
he found no gas, of his wife and children,
or of the tin whistle he liked to play
on his way home across the railroad trestle
over Black Creek, along the dirt road
to our alley, the gate, and him
almost dancing up our back steps,
a man returned again from underground.

:: Harry Humes, Underground Singing (2007)



What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

:: Langston Hughes, Collected Poems


A Man on the F Train

A man on the F train
is singing for change. His voice
resonating from some empty cavity of his body
is beautiful, stronger than his legs
bowing past passengers, hand cupped for silver praise.
We have all his money
who avoid his eyes and don’t listen
because singing on the subway is begging
while singing in a club for a ten-dollar cover is success.
Here it’s a dollar-fifty for the ride
and whatever you can spare ‘cause baby it’s cold outside
and I pay him a dollar, thin paper apology
because his voice is beautiful, resonating
in some empty cavity of my body.

:: Amy Meckler, What All the Sleeping Is For (2002)


Song of the Man Who Has Hit Bottom

Nothing much happens here, inside
this broken hold. Strings of kelp
plait me a green mustache, so fish
don’t know me. They just prowl by,
like-minded in their schools,
working those vulgar gills, and I wonder:
where’s the recovery team?
Everything tight up there? Bad year?
These cycles will reduce us all
to bare bones soon.

But sometimes in my dreams I’ve seen
my savior, in his brilliant metal
helmet. Through the faceplate
I’ve seen him, sucking, like a lamb,
on the long hose that loves him.
His face is kind and dull among
those plump dioxide grapes he labors
musically to expel.
His glove touches the hull,
attaching a crumpled bladder.
He vanishes, jerked upward
like bait reconsidered.

Mind you I’m not complaining.
One simply learns to wait. One takes
this fringed pink anemone
to wife. Her name is Friday.
She’s going to do everything else.

:: Edison Dupree, Prosthesis (1994)


Letter to the Cracker Company

Forgive my clumsy writing, but
I am old. My fingers, and
I used to take pride
but hope you can read this.

I don’t eat much, the cat even
ran away. You could see
in her eyes when she looked up
when there wasn’t enough.

But I still buy them still
three blocks away, not far
but when you are old
it is a long way to go

to return crackers
when they are crumbled
when I open the package
already all crumbled

and my table is small
so a lot spills on the floor
and now even the cat.
I know it is not your fault

sometime crushed on delivery
trucks or the shelf but my table
is small and I am too old
to take anything back.

:: J Allyn Rosser, Bright Moves (1990)


Short Story

My grandfather killed a mule with a hammer,
or maybe with a plank, or a stick, maybe
it was a horse—the story varied
in the telling. If he was planting corn
when it happened, it was a mule, and he was plowing
the upper slope, west of the house, his overalls
stiff to the knees with red dirt, the lines
draped behind his neck.
He must have been glad to rest
when the mule first stopped mid-furrow;
looked back at where he’d come, then down
to the brush along the creek he meant to clear.
No doubt he noticed the hawk’s great leisure
over the field, the crows lumped
in the biggest elm on the opposite hill.
After he’d wiped his hatbrim with his sleeve,
he called to the mule as he slapped the line
along its rump, clicked and whistled.

My grandfather was a slight, quiet man,
smaller than most women, smaller
than his wife. Had she been in the yard,
seen him heading toward the pump now,
she’d pump for him a dipper of cold water.
Walking back to the field, past the corncrib,
he took an ear of corn to start the mule,
but the mule was planted. He never cursed
or shouted, only whipped it, the mule
rippling its backside each time
the switch fell, and when that didn’t work
whipped it low on its side, where it’s tender,
then cross-hatched the welts he’d made already.
The mule went down on one knee,
and that was when he reached for the blown limb,
or walked to the pile of seasoning lumber; or else,
unhooked the plow and took his own time to the shed
to get the hammer.
By the time I was born,
he couldn’t even lift a stick. He lived
another fifteen years in a chair,
but now he’s dead, and so is his son,
who never meant to speak a word against him,
and whom I never asked what his father
was planting and in which field,
and whether it happened before he married,
before his children came in quick succession,
before his wife died of the last one.
And only a few of us are left
who ever heard that story.

:: Ellen Bryant Voigt, The Lotus Flowers (1987)


from Border Triptych

for Gloria AnzaldĂșa

For the past fifteen years, six days a week, at half past eight,
Jorge has biked into my checkpoint station. He hawks
over his papers, allows me to examine his lunch box,
& then wheels off to his twelve hour shift at the pallet & crate

factory. I'm close to madness. I suspect
he's been smuggling contraband, prescription or illegal.
He sports new toupees under a cap depicting an eagle
devouring a snake. He rides spit-shined bikes that I inspect

by taking them apart, checking inside the hollow
pipes, sometimes slicing open the tires, but so far, nothing.
Jorge always remains calm, & doesn't say a damn thing.
Yesterday, a few days from my retirement, I swallowed

my pride, & swore, if he told me the truth, to keep my lips tight.
The bastard smiled, & casually replied, I smuggle bikes.

:: Eduardo Corral, The Border Triptych


Backed Up in the Soul (Collected from CNN)

Hours later, still in the difficulty of what it is to be, just like that, just the way Stevens said, inside it, standing there, maybe wading, maybe waving, standing where the deep waters of everything backed up, one said,

climbing over bodies, one said, stranded on a roof, one said, trapped in the building, and in the difficulty, nobody coming and still someone saying, who could see it coming, the difficulty of that.

The fiction of the facts assumes innocence, ignorance, lack of intention, misdirection; the necessary conditions of a certain time and place.

Have you seen their faces?

Faith, not fear, she said. She'd heard that once and was trying to stamp the phrase on her mind. At the time, she couldn't speak it aloud. He wouldn't tolerate it. He was angry. Where were they? Where was anyone? This is a goddamn emergency, he said.

Then someone else said it was the classic binary between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have-nots, between the whites and the blacks in the difficulty of all that.

Then each house was a mumbling structure, all that water, buildings peeling apart, the yellow foam, the contaminated stench of mildew, mold.

The missing limbs, he said, the bodies lodged in piles of rubble, dangling from rafters, lying face down, arms outstretched on parlor floors.

And someone said, where were the buses? And simultaneously someone else said, FEMA said it wasn't safe to be there.

What I'm hearing, she said, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas.

He gave me the flashlight, she said, but I didn't want to turn it on. It was all black. I didn't want to shine a light on that.

We never reached out to anyone to tell our story, because there's no ending to our story, he said. Being honest with you, in my opinion, they forgot about us.

It's awful, she said, to go back home to find your own dead child. It's really sad.

And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, she said, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.

You simply get chills every time you see these poor individuals, so many of these people almost all of them that we see, are so poor, someone else said, and they are so black.

Have you seen their faces?

Then this aestheticized distancing from Oh my god, from not believable, from dehydration, from over-heating, from no electricity, no power, no way to communicate

We are drowning here

Still in the difficulty

As if the faces in the images hold all the consequences

And the fiction of the facts assumes randomness and indeterminacy.

He said, I don't know what the water wanted.
(It wanted to show you no one would come.)

He said, I don't know what the water wanted.
(As if then and now were not the same moment.)

He said, I don't know what the water wanted.

Call out to them.
I don't see them.
Call out anyway.

Did you see their faces?

:: Claudia Rankine, in Jubilat #12


Bits and Pieces

Streetlamp glint on my watch, a Christmas gift, I’m ten, the tin
wristband pinches my skin, my sister calls again from the kitchen
window, it’s getting late,
I sit on the cool clay of the empty driveway, knees pulled in to my
chest, I’m eight, I’m making a pact with myself—“Never forget,” a
cat, skulking, lean, passes his orange-white length along my ankle,
that thing I vowed to remember, what was it?
Sun on my face, sun on the wide water, bow of a rowboat, I might be
five, wooden oarlocks clunking behind me, who holds the oars?
The Ford has a flat, I help my father fix it, we kneel in an arc of light
in the lumberyard, I’m three weeks into the second grade, a mist
of rain moistens the lug wrench resting in my open palm,
Stretched on a mossy pond bank, beyond a gully a block from home,
I plunge my arm in the green-black murk up to the elbow, urging
a tadpole into my mayonnaise jar, on the street above me a cement
truck slows, wheezes, downshifting,

Only these few scenes gleaming in the cave of the past, only these
chipped hieroglyphics, as if hints of some other steady
underneath-it-all self, undiscoverable, hushed,
Or maybe the spider I startled in the washtub, twisting the spigot that
morning in one of my early summers, means nothing, and the
memory of it now means nothing,
Why think still of the way that spider circled the drain—or the day,
studying snails and rotting leaves beneath the side porch, I found
my uncle’s long lost blue fedora, limp but only slightly stained?
What is it about the time the weather turned, the sky purpling
suddenly, and I ran a mile to school ecstatic, pelted by sleet?
What was I then, what am I now, who can come to myself only in bits
and pieces?

:: Chris Forhan, Forgive Us Our Happiness (1999)


What Every Soldier Should Know

To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will;
it is at best an act of prudence.

—Jean-Jacques Rousseau

If you hear gunfire on a Thursday afternoon,
it could be for a wedding, or it could be for you.

Always enter a home with your right foot;
the left is for cemeteries and unclean places.

O-guf! Tera armeek is rarely useful.
It means Stop! Or I’ll shoot.

Sabah el khair is effective.
It means Good Morning.

Inshallah means Allah be willing.
Listen well when it is spoken.

You will hear the RPG coming for you.
Not so the roadside bomb.

There are bombs under the overpasses,
in trashpiles, in bricks, in cars.

There are shopping carts with clothes soaked
in foogas, a sticky gel of homemade napalm.

Parachute bombs and artillery shells
sewn into the carcasses of dead farm animals.

Graffiti sprayed onto the overpasses:
I will kill you, American.

Men wearing vests rigged with explosives
walk up, raise their arms and say Inshallah.

There are men who earn eighty dollars
to attack you, five thousand to kill.

Small children who will play with you,
old men with their talk, women who offer chai—

and any one of them
may dance over your body tomorrow.

:: Brian Turner, Here, Bullet (2005)


Lady Death

This time I know who it will be:
sirens spiraling two houses down,
EMTs pumping Mr. Phillips’ chest,
Randy naked at the parted curtain,
telling what unfolds. Blinking neighbors
on their lawns, awkward and useless
as furniture; the street crew digging
a hole, methodical, not even
pausing. Men at Work, Randy says, meaning
both teams, one urgent and the other
what? Indifferent? Or just playing
their part: some rescue, some watch, some die
and some just dig. Me, I can’t decide
where I belong. Forty years, I’m thinking,
fifty: that’s how long these folks
have stayed put. I’ve lived here just twelve,
long enough to see them
disappear. The ribs crack
during chest compression, Randy says.
Mr. Kubeczka last fall, before that
Mrs. Doyle. My David that same year,
though not of age. Mr. Curry, then
his wife. Mr. Root. The nameless woman
up the street who lived so long
without running water they simply yanked
the tub and toilets out instead of scrubbing.
How sad, I said, but David
disagreed: She kept her house
until she died. I say good for her!
And each time Ruby walked
from house to house, yellow umbrella
bobbing in the rain, in the stunning
heat, collecting signatures and cash
for flowers. We took to calling her
Lady Death, especially the year
cancer bleached and stripped
her body down; the only time she didn’t call
was for David, but she was starting chemo.
Five weeks later she found me out
in the garden: rickety, shrunken,
two sweaters flapping, she shuffled past
the wet azaleas to hug me and say
Throw it all away,
his clothes, his shoes. I’m telling you
it’s better in the long run.
That summer
I thought she might go next, but pressed her
a twenty for Tom’s wife and said,
Not you. Ruby blushed. I wonder if she hates
this task? She’s the only one who’s met
the families who buy these emptied houses,
change the locks, change the neighborhood,
if that’s what we have. I don’t feel
part of it. Perhaps it’s gone, or maybe
it’s part of what she does, maintaining
such a ritual, connecting us, strangers
despite ourselves.

:: Ron Mohring, Survivable World (2004)


Prayer Against Dying on Camera

Lord, not shot in liquor store stick-up,
jugular uncorked and finely misting or

splatter-patterning display case plate glass
and me so many pixels collapsing

at the feet of bikini’d cardboard
cutout models, purchase a puddle,

last words of my kind, “Oh, shit,”
lip-readable. Jesus not suddenly

in latex novelty emporium or slam-
bang stroke on jumbotron in a coliseum

screaming, not tumbling
from the burning building in a series

of photographs, speed increasing,
one frame famous because I look so calm.

:: Aaron Anstett, No Accident (2005)


Short-order Cook

An average joe comes in
and orders thirty cheeseburgers and thirty fries.

I wait for him to pay before I start cooking.
He pays.
He ain’t no average joe.

The grill is just big enough for ten rows of three.
I slap the burgers down
throw two buckets of fries in the deep fryer
and they pop pop spit spit . . .
psss . . .
The counter girls laugh.
I concentrate.
It is the crucial point—
they are ready for the cheese:
my fingers shake as I tear off slices
toss them on the burgers/fries done/dump/
refill buckets/burgers ready/flip into buns/
beat that melting cheese/wrap burgers in plastic/
into paper bags/fries done/dump/fill thirty bags/
bring them to the counter/wipe sweat on sleeve
and smile at the counter girls.
I puff my chest out and bellow:
“Thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries!”
They look at me funny.
I grab a handful of ice, toss it in my mouth
do a little dance and walk back to the grill.
Pressure, responsibility, success,
thirty cheeseburgers, thirty fries.

:: Jim Daniels, Places/Everyone



When Nijinsky died, they cut open his feet
to find the secret of his dance. His bones,

it turns out, were like anyone’s.
With each step, our heels sink that much

deeper into earth. We have
nowhere else to go. Once my mother

crossed and recrossed an entire field
to find my sandal. Now she’s gone;

she left her darning.

:: Jody Gladding, Stone Crop


Housekeeping in a Dream

The sky is a piece of mind
outside the kitchen window, the dishes
the dirt. My mother whispers
how to do it
in my ear make a list, make
a meal that will last
all week on Sunday, lie
to your husband, fry onions in butter until
they’re soft and invisible as worms, vacuum
like it matters so much of our flesh
is flaking away diffusing
like pink light
through powdered milk
and wind
roars down the hallway, knocks
the houseplants to their knees.
Her photo on the wall smiles
at my bedroom, my back, snapped
so long ago
she isn’t even ill. I nail
a cup and saucer
to the kitchen table for her:
a permanent place. She stands
outside the kitchen window, barefoot
on a crust of snow, touches
her bald white head with her fingers and cries.
I open the freezer and stare at the frost for a while, until
my face flushes white, and my neck, my hair
turns gray
and blows away
and a younger woman brings
my groceries
in brown paper bags over
the children’s faces. Now
I can only see their eyes
through the holes they have scissored
to escape me. Perhaps
there was a meal
of dusk and love I should have made
but it’s too late. I take a lover for something
to lie to my husband about
and forget the rest. I’m sleeping
when my family comes back.

:: Laura Kasischke, Housekeeping in a Dream (Carnegie Mellon, 1995)


The Dancing

In all these rotten shops, in all this broken furniture
and wrinkled ties and baseball trophies and coffee pots
I have never seen a postwar Philco
with the automatic eye
nor heard Ravel’s “Bolero” the way I did
in 1945 in that tiny living room
on Beechwood Boulevard, nor danced as I did
then, my knives all flashing, my hair all streaming,
my mother red with laughter, my father cupping
his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance
of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum,
half fart, the world at last a meadow,
the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us
screaming and falling, as if we were dying,
as if we could never stop—in 1945—
in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh, home
of the evil Mellons, 5,000 miles away
from the other dancing—in Poland and Germany—
oh God of mercy, oh wild God.

:: Gerald Stern, Paradise Poems (1984)


Dead Men

One summer doing maintenance work
at a university, Jimmy’s crew
had to move cadavers
for the medical school.
Chumley pulled a bag off,
said Hey Jimmy!
This here’s your buddy, man.
Wake up and say hello,
Chumley told
the corpse. He slipped a hammer
from his coveralls and whapped it
on the forehead, crunching bone.
Wake up, man, Chumley said,
then walked out
by the supply shed and got sick.
That was the easiest job,
Jimmy tells Rita. They didn’t
make us do a damn thing else
all summer. I want to be
burned, my ashes scattered
from here to New Jersey.
I don’t want no fucking assholes
to look at me.
Baby, I seen dead men.

:: Kim Addonizio, Jimmy & Rita (1997)


The Secretary Chant

My hips are a desk.
From my ears hang
chains of paper clips.
Rubber bands form my hair.
My breasts are wells of mimeograph ink.
My feet bear casters.
Buzz. Click.
My head
is a badly organized file.
My head is a switchboard
where crossed lines crackle.
My head is a wastebasket
of worn ideas.
Press my fingers
and in my eyes appear
credit and debit.
Zing. Tinkle.
My navel is a reject button.
From my mouth issue canceled reams.
Swollen, heavy, rectangular
I am about to be delivered
of a baby
Xerox machine.
File me under W
because I wonce
a woman.

:: Marge Piercy, To Be of Use (1973)


Harbor Lights

I’m coming home through the red lacquered lobby,
corridors the bitter green of ginkgo
marred by the transoms’ milky light.

I am sixteen and the room’s three-fifty a night
in the Chinese hotel on Water Street,
and I’ve been out again to the grocery

where they sell cigarettes, one for a dime,
and to look at the stone face
in the shop window. I’m calling her

the angel, the mother of angels, and chiseled
upon the marble of her face is a veil
so thin it isn’t stone at all

but something that emerges out of her chill dreaming.
It’s like watching your mother sleep,
minutes after you have been conceived,

and her closed eyes say it’s all right
to wake alone, almost at evening, in a city hotel
where all night from the room next door

comes the sound, I swear, of chopping.
It’s the room of the old woman
the men at the desk call Mama, and the best

I can imagine is that she’s working late
for the café down the block,
cleaving celery, splitting the white

and acid green of bok choi. All day
she’ll wash the floors in the halls,
hissing to herself in sounds I imagine

are curses, damning the residue of the streets
the residents track all night
onto the speckled constellations

of the linoleum. She scrubs until it’s flawless
as black water off the piers down the block,
until the floors gleam green under the window

where RESIDENTIAL shimmers, watery electric
shantung blossoms over and over
two stories above the street.

Nights like this, when it’s raining
and the chill seems almost visible,
coming in across the Sound and the waterfront’s

rambling warehouses, the radiator pronounces,
almost exactly, my mother’s name.
Then the pipes with their silver garlands

sing runaway. I’ve taken the pill I bought
on the corner, where someone’s always reciting
the litany of an impossible future:

Purple Doubledome, Blue Microdot, Sunshine.
I’m waiting for the flowers in the cracked linoleum
to twist and open, scrubbed into blossom,

waiting for the harbor lights
to burn—the night caught in my hotel window
like a piece of film in a projector,

melting, so that light comes searing out of the darkness
first as boiling pinpricks, then a whole angel.
What I’ve bought is nothing, aspirin

or sugar, but I don’t know that,
and I’m waiting to come on. It’s raining harder,
the knife in the next room striking

the block, the glass beading up
and then erasing itself, shimmering the lights,
and the stone face around the corner

dreams her way out of the world
of appearances behind her window,
her glaze of rain, her veil.

:: Mark Doty, Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (1991)


Mining Camp Residents, West Virginia, July, 1935

They had to seize something in the face of the camera.
The woman’s hand touches her throat as if feeling
for a necklace that isn’t there. The man buries one hand
in his overall pocket, loops the other through a strap,
and the child twirls a strand of hair as she hunkers
in the dirt at their feet. Maybe Evans asked them to stand
in that little group in the doorway, a perfect triangle
of people in the morning sun. Perhaps he asked them
to hold their arms that way. Or bend their heads. It was
his composition after all. And they did what he said.

:: Maggie Anderson


Yellow Light

One arm hooked around the frayed snap
of a tar-black patent-leather purse,
the other cradling something for dinner:
fresh bunches of spinach from a J-Town yaoya,
sides of split Spanish mackerel from Alviso’s,
maybe a loaf of Lagendorf; she steps
off the hissing bus at Olympic and Fig,
begins the three-block climb up the hill,
passing gangs of schoolboys playing war,
Japs against Japs, Chicanas chalking sidewalks
with the holy double-yoked crosses of hopscotch,
and the Korean grocer’s wife out for a stroll
around this neighborhood of Hawaiian apartments
just starting to steam with cooking
and the anger of young couples coming home
from work, yelling at kids, flicking on
TV sets for the Wednesday Night Fights.

If it were May, hydrangeas and jacaranda
flowers in the streetside trees would be
blooming through the smog of late spring.
Wisteria in Masuda’s front yard would be
shaking out the long tresses of its purple hair.
Maybe mosquitoes, moths, or a few orange butterflies
settling on the lattice of monkey flowers
tangled in chain-link fences by the trash.

But this is October, and Los Angeles
seethes like a billboard under twilight.
From used-car lots and the movie houses uptown,
a brilliant fluorescence breaks out
and makes war with the dim squares
of yellow kitchen light winking on
in all the side streets of the Barrio.

She climbs up the two flights of flagstone
stairs to 201-B, the spikes of her high heels
clicking like kitchen knives on a cutting board,
props the groceries against the door,
fishes through memo pads, a compact,
empty packs of chewing gum, and finds her keys.

The moon then, cruising from behind
a screen of eucalyptus across the street,
covers everything, everything in sight,
in a heavy light like yellow onions.

:: Garret Hongo, Yellow Light (1982)


End of Shift

At the end of our last training shift, we ride
the elevator from production
to packing. The flashing orange light lapping
our four new faces, the skin
free of the factory’s traces—the grimace
the older guys carry in a glance.
Only our words seem capable of aging us,
we curse until we recognize our fathers.
The loudest one asks me,

“If you could fuck any chick here
Who would it be?”

and I see the question for what it really is: training.
Crafting the response will take the same
muscular precision I’ve practiced all day,
my ability to stop and clean the machinery
without losing a finger. I think of saying
that no one here is worth a look, that I’m here
for the money not the women. I consider
the easier answers, a list of blondes,
so that the guys can tell whether I’m a tits or legs
kind of man.

I think, briefly, of trapping them with the truth
in the elevator’s cage. Telling them in our own
blunt tongue what kind of tail I’d rather be chasing—
my desire for something broader than the most
storied blonde in the building. Like daring their own
wayward glances in the locker-room
with a harder stare in this orange blink of light—

but today we learned about Quality Assurance.
That daily art of remaking expectation, each of us
contributing our work and devotion—
the guy from corporate said we put ourselves into

the product. So I shrug, and offer
the most unlikely name
for a joke at an ugly woman’s expense. I am not myself,
but I pass the test.

:: Kevin Shaw, in Still Blue: More Writing by (for or about) Working-Class Queers



I love to see men coming out of holes:
manholes and sewer drains and train tunnels
or down the poles of firehouses, the gong
going like crazy, a dozen heroes
in the making. Through the bedroom window
comes the housepainter to touch up my sills,
a college boy, naked from the waist up,
who talks of Nietzsche between drying coats,
or hauled up from my well the dowser calls
There’s water! as he dabs his sweaty face.

I’m known to gawk at men in coveralls,
jackhammering themselves into the earth,
then rising out of the rubble like the dead
or the bellringing priest pulling the ropes,
then descending through the steeple trapdoor,
one of God’s discard angels without wings.
Perhaps it’s their fragility I love—
men caught between things, concentrating on
plummeting through the dark, then coming back,
smiling, unscathed, with their hardhats still on,

no time to think of conquests, empires, women,
the makes of cars, the best in mutual funds,
who won the Super Bowl. No, they’re knee deep
or more in circumstance: the mainline broke!
There’s trouble in the bowels of the earth
that needs urgent fixing! When they emerge
shaken by what they’ve seen, tears in their eyes
at disasters and deaths averted—that’s when
I love them most—when they remind me of
that moment when their mothers gave them birth.

:: Julia Alvarez, in Green Mountains Review (2002)


Girl in the Doorway

She is twelve now, the door to her room
closed, telephone cord trailing the hallway
in tight curls. I stand at the dryer, listening
through the thin wall between us, her voice
rising and falling as she describes her new life.
Static flies in brief blue stars from her socks,
her hairbrush in the morning. Her silver braces
shine inside the velvet case of her mouth.
Her grades rise and fall, her friends call
or they don't, her dog chews her new shoes
to a canvas pulp. Some days she opens her door
and musk rises from the long crease in her bed,
fills the dim hall. She grabs a denim coat
and drags the floor. Dust swirls in gold eddies
behind her. She walks through the house, a goddess,
each window pulsing with summer. Outside,
the boys wait for her teeth to straighten.
They have a vibrant patience.
When she steps onto the front porch, sun shimmies
through the tips of her hair, the V of her legs,
fans out like wings under her arms
as she raises them and waves. Goodbye, Goodbye.
Then she turns to go, folds up
all that light in her arms like a blanket
and takes it with her.

:: Dorianne Laux


Charlie in His 101st Year

Zinc oxide on the hands he recalls as chalky
resin like a smear of lead, another
failure of color in the coal-blasted rail yard,
the smear on the rails through the steam,
the earthy smell of coal smoke
in his face like a mean wind,
through the train’s great iron hisses
and the shivering screams of the rails.

He would wrestle his orders out in Dutch
at the bullied demand of German railmen
who barked at the English of Newcomers,
the lumpy Poles and scrubbed Welsh come
to the Lehigh Valley. Can he remember this
every night, staring into the middle horizon
of his solitude, borne of his longevity,
while the night outside is wet in Queens?

His wife died so long ago the dent in the mattress is gone.
The front room is a table lit with candy,
the brightness of sugar against the peach walls.
His rooms are still and dustless
as air unmoved, more photograph than shelter.

In Fort Dix the rooms were tented canvas,
coarse as his steam hardened skin, their color
a new smear over the short commands.
He taught men to wield rifles
and the ornaments of their uniforms,
their faces taut with the shine of plenty,
bellies lean but thick with meat,
arms bulked like trains.
The cabin’s dirt lawns were ringed in stone
and yews, tidy and hedged, kept the dust down.
A thousand men in lines comforted him.

In a restaurant, the waiter leans down
to place Charlie’s hand close to the fine line
on a credit card slip, so he can sign.

The yews around his house grew well,
and now block his view. A penance
for prudence. Sometimes he wonders
how pleased he might have been to die in a penumbra
of booze, by a fire, among the poplars of Palmerton,
within earshot of the only sounds he still hears from there:
trains shifting rails, a conductor’s howl, a mad bell.

He remembers the soldiers: missing teeth
and blue tattoos, the killers and con men,
scholars and farm boys, all toting smokes
and bibles fit to the palms of their hands.

He grew out of the Great War, made a life in commerce
of dreams, a film man grinning at the advent
of sound. Crowded theatre in Hollywood, he lurked
in the back, felt faces wince at the first sounds
of war on the newsreels. He thought of trains.

In the decades he spent feeling the fading of light,
reels of Victory Gardens and war bonds, the sweet
riveter and the lack of chocolate, he tasted the domestic
suffering of the grandest home gestures. He
was born the year Whitman died

the first breaths of air quickened with the death
of optimism, the death of the frontier, the innocent
traveler, and he spent a life chasing that first
taste he never knew. Instead he inhaled the flash
of gun carbon, the coal smoke of locomotives, gasoline
ozone and a whiff of fallout.

He thinks the yew outside his window has spirit
moving through cells in a way still unexplained—
the faith in that process the closest he gets to hope,
the last shreds he has of belief in something
beyond his staunch acknowledgment of time,
as he has aged beyond even the last suspicions
of a God.

He thinks he has an idea, now,
of what God could be—
his vision marbles, and he fumbles quickly for his tea,
sips, long since accustomed to burning his tongue.
The taste is metal, sharp, and clear.

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


To the Chick in a Workshop Circa 1995 Who Said Real Poets Don't Write about Truck Drivers

You said I should stop
writing poems about
one armed waitresses,
truck drivers, net menders,
greasy people in factories, and
with a roll of your eyes--
The South.

Just because you shaved
your head and not your legs
didn't make you a poet,
Suburb Girl.

I ran into you last week
at the grocery store.
You carry a briefcase,
have a cute little bob
hair do and you
don't write much but
are on tenure track and
can quote all the classics.

Of course, there were
grits in my shopping cart.
I've got a crappy day job
and I'm still writing poems
about a Vietnam vet named
Gator and a shrimp boat
captain with a glass eye.

But now, I'm much more
poetic, because I can
incorporate foreign
phrasing into my
line breaths.
Pissez au loin, fille riche.
Piss off, rich girl.
I've got a truck driver
to write about.

:: Julie Buffaloe-Yoder, in Side of Grits


The Donora Geomancy

In 1948, nineteen people died in Donora, Pennsylvania,
During a weekend of heavy smog.

By reading the scattered patterns of seeds or sands,
By inspecting leaves or twigs, by tossing small things
In numbers and guessing, we might foresee
The first day of suffocation, the coughing
Furious throughout the thick, postwar inversion.

No one, then, read seriously a splash of stones.
No one murmured and looked up, terrified to moans
By the crossed and parallel handful. No one
Sang the prophecy of bone, Donora’s deaths
At the end of the history of ruined lungs.

Now we regather the ashes to carry them
Like icons, renege the lead of the waste future.
Now we pursue the smogged, discredited past,
The quiet struggle of zinc workers who perform
The gasp chorus before smother interrupts.

Donora locked in power’s smoke-filled room, hidden
In closets and under beds; Donora pulling
The sick to adrenalin’s miracle,
Pushing the old to the great divining
Of flowers scattered over a drop of coffins.

On the hillsides, the last, late cabbages in soot;
On the hillsides, sheep gone black where anyone
Could carry remnants from the wire works
In his fist, shake them loose upon the ground
Which bears no grass, and begin to study.

Five days of pollution’s narrowed throat. Five days
In the dry mist which rehearses the wheeze and pause
On the four-step staircase, the afternoons
Of the darkness funerals where mourners
Pay attention to the coughed prayers of neighbors.

And not prayer, but rain which scoured back shadows
Into the day. Not prayer, but zinc works shutdown.
And so short a closure, so short the rain, so few
Moved away in the following months, the world
Returned to its own assurances:

Belief in beads, belief in tumbled ash and bone,
Faith of the hundreds who recovered, the thousands
Who suffered unrecorded, who worked again,
Comforted by how the near-dead revived, how grief
Is not compulsory in the age of science.

:: Gary Fincke, Blood Ties (2001)


Black Money

His lungs heaving all day in a sulphur mist,
then dusk, the lunch pail torn from him
before he reaches the house, his children
a cloud of swallows about him.
At the stove in the tumbled rooms, the wife,
her back the wall he fights most, and she
with no weapons but silence
and to keep him from the bed.

In their sleep the mill hums and turns
at the edge of water. Blue smoke
swells the night and they drift
from the graves they have made for each other,
float out from the open-mouthed sleep
of their children, past banks and businesses,
the used car lots, liquor store, the swings in the park.

The mill burns on, now a burst of cinders,
now whistles screaming down the bay, saws jagged
in half light. Then like a whip
the sun across the bed, windows high with mountains
and the sleepers fallen to pillows
as gulls fall, tilting
against their shadows on the log booms.
Again the trucks shudder the wood-framed houses
passing to the mill. My father
snorts, splashes in the bathroom,
throws open our doors to cowboy music
on the radio. Hearts are cheating,
somebody is alone, there’s blood in Tulsa.
Out the back yard the night-shift men rattle
The gravel in the alley going home.
My father fits goggles to his head.

From his pocket he takes anything metal,
the pearl-handled jack knife, a ring of keys,
and for us, black money shoveled
from the sulphur pyramids heaped in the distance
like yellow gold. Coffee bottle tucked in his armpit
he swaggers past the chicken coop,
a pack of cards at his breast.
In a fan of light beyond him,
the Kino Maru pulls out for Seattle,
some black star climbing
the deep globe of his eye.

:: Tess Gallagher, Instructions to the Double