Degrees of Gray in Youngstown

You might come here some weekday because you
have to. The last job you had you lost last week.
You walk downtown, past warehouses so long
empty that nobody remembers their names. You stand
in line with others. Now hiring, the sign says.
100 jobs, 3,000 applicants. The jail is packed,
filled past capacity. Nobody likes to be here.

The main business is conducted in the Phar-
Mor center. Ironic considering the problems
of the company. Ironic. The city speaks of unemployment.
The mills stand alone. The beautiful
stone courthouse. Homeless standing in its shadow.
Shadows of great mills, once spewing smoke
and flame. Nothing but shadows. Gray. Nobody
likes to be here.

This is your history. When you graduate, “Where
will you move?” people ask. Why must I move? This
is my history! When you travel people must know
of Youngstown. “Oh yes, where the mills used to be.”
The Pentagon is coming, or is it? Avanti? The church bells
echo. Nobody likes to be here.

Where did it go wrong? How did plans change? The move just
started one day. Some to Boardman, some to
Poland, some to Canfield. The jobs left,
but they didn’t take the workers. They are
still here. The steel mills left. The skeletons
remain. Dinosaurs of long ago. And the shadows.
Gray. Nobody likes to be here.

:: Jeff Ortenzio, in Mahoning Valley Poetry: An Anthology (1993)


Days Since Last Accident

There used to be an orange
glow in the sky, accompanied
by a din of pounding
hammers, tooting whistles,
and rumbling trains. Rats emerged
from the depths of the mill
as big as small dogs, forming
packs, scrounging for
food. The sign on the
bridge over Wilson Avenue
My grandpa walked under it.
He molded bars and shells, creating
the teeth of our nation. I
would sit on my porch
on Jackson Street, knowing
Grandpa made the light by
feeding pieces of soul
and flesh into the furnace.
At the end of shift, parched, Grandpa
walked under the sign again.
One day, he knew if
he kept coming back, there
would be no more pieces
left, so he quit—
now, the light in the sky
is gone. Nothing
can ever replace it.
Even the
rats have abandoned
us for fresh

:: Joe Gorman, in Mahoning Valley Poetry: An Anthology (1993)


Razorback Gift Shop

Finally, somewhere you can love
as no one else seems to anymore:
Razorback cozy, Razorback scarf,
pillowcase stenciled with the Razorback song.
You're here because you want to pay
tribute to your next-door neighbor
who hoards Dean Martin memorabilia
or your cousin who scours the Net
for the early, neglected Ronnie Milsap.
What else but love? A knit hat,
a pair of gloves, a bright red comforter,
love in your decision to pull over
and push open the warped screen door.
Soon, crooked, steep two-lane,
cows chewing and counting down the days.
Quick, hideous death to the irony-mongers.
You're here because you're thinking of
your parents in another state,
after dinner, holding hands, watching the news,
and that you might never see them again.

:: Michael Diebert, in Valparaiso Poetry Review, 7:2 (2007)


Are You Saved

Opal Green sits in a room full
Of clocks, the yellowed hairpin
Lace of her thin pillow
Like a September sun ascending.
The air smells old, though
The windows are open,
And she talks on
About her father working
On the railroad, riding
The rails, she says,
From Erie to Emporium
And back again.
The clocks still tick
In an odd chorus behind
Her lace-haloed thin hair,
And time is as confused
As the mixed strokes
Of different pendulums.
They all talk different,
She says, but time
Is all the same to each
Of them. The hour is a song
Of many bells lasting minutes,
Even at three in the afternoon
When they are all chiming,
The last beginning as the first
Is ending. She looks to a small
Picture of Jesus on the wall.
Sometimes I won’t have to think
Of time anymore, she asks, are you saved?

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


Finding a Long Gray Hair

I scrub the long floorboards
in the kitchen, repeating
the motions of other women
who have lived in this house.
And when I find a long gray hair
floating in the pail,
I feel my life added to theirs.

:: Jane Kenyon, From Room to Room (1978)



Good Friday, Caledonia County

The yard crew screamed for the other truck.
Joe brought it and picked the load off Jack with the crane.
A wonder, how quickly he did.
But he could have waited years, for all it did:
powder and marrow already, the bone;
and the flesh—mat, thread, muck.

Now Jack’s wife must work a job.
His mother’s helping at home, who’s come to think
that somehow she was there
to watch the long-logs shift, and she was there
to see them tumble over bunk-stakes.
She claims the binders didn’t grab.

Then Joe got down by Jack on his knees.
Joe Maloney . . . Joe One-and-Only.
The others turned from the wounds.
Common stuff enough for loggers, wounds,
like sawdust, pine knots, skinny money.
But they couldn’t make themselves look at this.

Jack calls her monkey and mountain goat
his daughter, his baby—or angel. She loves to climb.
“Like you did,” moans his mother.
It’s been a year to the day. Jack loves his mother,
but she’s worn him down these months with gloom.
And wasn’t it he who’d caught that load?

He’d stood there blessing the song of engines.
He’d be home soon; the trucks were stacked and going.
Coals still throbbed in the yard.
The crew had kept a fire, for the landing yard
was chilly; heartbreak spring winds blowing.
The glow of the embers caught Jack’s attention.

The soft ditch sucked at the big rig’s tire.
Jack’s mother slumps, seeing it all, she imagines.
His daughter giggles, climbs.
Joe was the one to come down, who used to climb,
back when he logged the west-slope Tetons.
“It’s a different pretty out there,” he declared,

“but pretty.” Now Joe drove a truck.
Jack’s daughter mounts the dresser, couch and counter,
anything that stands.
For now, her father only sits or stands.
Bless Joe for kneeling down, no matter,
thinks Jack, who’ll find some other work.

His mother says the hemlock fell
as though it aimed at her son’s right thighbone.
The God who’s plagued her mind
and life had simply taken it in mind,
and there you were, hell and damnation!
Jack lets her chatter: what the hell?

His daughter’s aiming ever higher.
He’d seen Joe feel his shirt sometimes for nitro.
Joe by God was all right.
So he’d tell you: “By God I’m all right.”
The coals had cooled to indigo.
The dusk had been going dark, and darker. . . .

Beautiful, though. Beautiful now.
The light-poles’ crosses. The knolls. The sky.
The trees beyond Jack’s window.
The hard young stars, aglow. And through the window,
He’ll watch his weary wife arrive,
who glows as well. She sees him through,

his daughter too, who’s bound to climb,
who dreams of rising to rafter and collar beam.
A ghost pain makes Jack jump.
His crutch falls away with a clack. His daughter jumps
to help him. Angel. Joe came down.
Jack’s mother sighs. His family’s home.

:: Sydney Lea, Prayer for the Little City (1990)


Industrial Poem

That night, Slim Abernathy
pushed the wrong button and wrapped his friend
three times around a drive-shaft
in directions the bones won’t bend.

They shut her down and eased him out
broken most ways a man can break
yet he clung to his ruin for twenty-four hours
like a man to a life-raft for his death’s sake.

But they’d hardly hurried him away from there
as we stood around shockdrunk, incapable of help
when they cranked those expensive wheels up again
and started rolling more goddamn pulp.

“Hamburger for lunch tonight, boys!”
joked a foreman to the crew.
I wished he’d smelled our hate but he never even flinched
as the red-flecked sheets came through.

:: Peter Trower, in Going for Coffee (1981)


Keeping Fear Away

At the site the ribbons flutter
They are tell-tales of wind
of men
who have surveyed the valley

I am a jughound planting the geophones
to record the blast vibrations

Sometimes between shots we wait
Are bored like children

We blow up rocks and trees for fun
I toss half a stick of geogell
into the air Shoot it with a shotgun
Rip the morning air apart

We are near a field I watch
Doug blow the ass off a gopher
halfway down its hole
with the cap wire trailing behind

I watch a raven pick up the bread
wrapped around a blasting cap
Fly for a hundred feet
up into his sky And then
the electric touch and black feathers
floating down to the shouts
and yahoos on the ground

I help the powder monkey
shove geogell into the mountain
Make it vibrate under our feet
Sound of the blast comes back
comes back

I wonder at the power of the men
I work for
They will make me rough like their talk
I will laugh with their gestures
that say they are not afraid
of women sex manhood

:: Peter Christensen, in Going for Coffee (1981)


Two Weeks Notice

Soon the bolt will appear.
I hang on a ladder up the side
of a barge, through still
moments of imminent rain,

regarding the foreshortened image
rippling in oily water below;
my face, diffused as twenty years
gone, with more stories and less time.

Already my clothes bear the mark:
company paint splotches, riddled
jacket from molten showers, torn
pants with permanent dirt

and the dull metal toe showing
through the workboot—impressions
after the yard’s swapped your best
years for fatigue and hangover.

The face dissolves in the wash
of a tug casting off, straining
on its springlines, the crew
inscrutable in their departure.

That roving gull, perched on the
shop roof, is the weathervane
of our fortunes here—hire and layoff,
by the season or the contract.

I haven’t overstayed yet.
My hands are still strong, intact,
able to enfold hers tightly, as when
we lay under changing windowlight,

or later, moored in drowsiness, our
dreams glimmering like riding lights
seen through a swell, then like grids
of distant cities . . .

The bolt noses through, and my
indentured hand grasps the wrench,
the hex nut as we refit this scow,
send it back to the unseen ocean,

from which tugs are towing home
the night. Two years there’s been
the job to curse, to lean on,
to joke about, to finish.

The work outlasts me. Soon I
will finish, but restless boots
will cover the wharves,
the ship decks.

:: David Conn, in Going for Coffee (1981)



She stored the old country
In a cedar box: folded quilts,
Stiff, brown-tinted photographs of plump children
With a solemn wet-nurse. Her shrewd eyes
Refused to shrink, to be female, shy.
Pride seamed her taffeta,
held the table’s oilcloth straight,
nurtured African violets ledging
dining room windows. At twenty-two
she denied her only suitor and said
she didn’t like the way he walked.
No man unlocked her camisole.
She did for others: stretching
washed crocheted curtains
on pine frames in the drying sun,
pinching creamy yeast dough
into braids and buns. Afternoons,
her hearing aid turned down,
she rocked before TV, her rosary
pooled between her knees.

:: Patricia Henley, Back Roads (1996)


Ash Alley

I am trying to remember coal dust on my tongue,
and beagles howling after dump trucks,
and wasn’t the moon always sooty above the colliery,
and didn’t the white birch sway,
and didn’t we peel bark to make whistles,
and how many steps were there, twenty-seven
or thirty-five from Main Street up to the Reading Station,
and was it below the Second Street bridge
or just above the foot bridge
where they found the old miner in the creek,
black water washing over his face,
and what was it like to hop a coal train,
hauling ourselves up the handholds above the clank
of steel wheels and couplings, and how far did we ride.
I know there was always coughing
and wasn’t there always someone calling our name.

:: Harry Humes, Underground Singing (2007)



Living in the earth-deposits of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power

:: Adrienne Rich, The Dream of a Common Language (1978)



My father cuts down random trees
in the woods around his trailer.

He says he’s making room
so some can get bigger.

He spent his life counting
auto parts and dollars

in the Controller’s office
at the Ford axle plant.

He holds a chainsaw in his hands.
My father took a demotion

so he would not have a heart attack
like the two guys who had the job

before him, Yeah, there really was
this guy called the Controller.

Is. Is this guy. My father’s got
a pretty good pension. Buys

himself a trailer in the woods
and a chainsaw. The woods,

they look okay to me, I tell him.
But what do I know. He’s got it

oiled and gassed, wrapped up
like a favorite gun. My father,

he’s standing there, intent
and serious, wondering

where to begin.

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


Souls from Emerson

This is a kind of sunflower,
only smaller and less demanding,
on a side street in Phillipsburg
faced away from the tuck fumes and the air horns.

It replaces the dead beehives and tobacco leaves,
bowed over from exhaustion,
and crawls over the side of the bird house and the wire fence
like a morning glory or daisy.

I come back here twice,
once to climb the hill
and once to touch the old head
and break a leaf off at the stem.

And I come back to see if I can find
the whitewashed wall
and hear the wild dog again
and see his fenced-in garden, the souls outside

going up and down like souls from Emerson,
trying to find a home on Marshall Street
beside the clothes pins and the oil drum,
near the slush and the pink mimosa—

left on the Parkway just before Jacob’s Auto Parts,
across from the green island separating
the cars rushing west to Cleveland and Ypsilanti
and the cars rushing east to Whitehouse and Coney Island.

:: Gerald Stern, Paradise Poems (1984)


The Armful

For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns—
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with, hand and mind
And heart, if need be, I will do my best
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road.
And try to stack them in a better load.

:: Robert Frost



By a dry swale across a meadow
of tussocks, a pastureland of bluegrass
and fescue—the Mental Hospital

For a week we’ve been vanishing
ghostly creatures in a bright pall of dust

there, wearing cheap snouts
to be able to breathe,
stuffing ears with foam cylinders

hoping to muffle a continuous
jackhammer hell
in a windowless 18 x 36 cooler with ceramic
block-wall echoes and a killing
floor of three-inch concrete
then tile, then ten more footlike
inches of concrete cured harder
every year of its 35 or so—
and everything has to go

So we like our short breaks

With sore hands, we wipe away
the pale mask of work

We move outside
and little clouds of dust move with us,

trailing to where we slump upright
in the breeze, the blue air
Today, from above, we hear
a noise, we look:

thirty feet high
along the ridge of the cafeteria
roof strides a bearded man, tall
and thin and wearing the state’s pajamas

He stops and waves
We wave too

:: Dan Howell, Lost Country (1993)



Force-feeding swans—let me tell
you—was hard. And up
every morning 4:30 counting

the lambs out to pasture,
each one tapped on the forehead with a stick
to be sure it’s there.

Uncle Reaper half the time so drunk
he’d pull his milkstool
under the horse: more work

explaining the difference. Gramma
and Cousin Shroud putting up
8000 jars of beets, Auntie Bones

rapping her wooden spoon
against my ear: “More bushels, bumbler!”

I’ll tell you—I understand
how come the dancing bear tore off his skirt
and headed back to the Yukon,
how come all of a sudden jewels in avalanche
down the spine of my sleep . . .

But still, still when it rains
I remember all of us: farmers, simple sweatmongers
of the dirt whose turnips depend on it,
I remember how we called it down, how down
we desired it to fall: the rain.

:: Thomas Lux, Sunday


What I Wouldn't Do

The only job I didn’t like, quit
after the first shift, was selling
subscriptions to TV Guide over the phone.
Before that it was fast food, all
the onion rings I could eat, handing
sacks of deep fried burritos through
the sliding window, the hungry hands
grabbing back. And at the laundromat,
plucking bright coins from a palm
or pressing them into one, kids
screaming from the bathroom and twenty
dryers on high. Cleaning houses was fine,
polishing the knick-knacks of the rich.
I liked holding the hand-blown glass bell
from Czechoslavakia up to the light,
the jeweled clapper swinging lazily
from side to side, its foreign,
A-minor ping. I drifted, an itinerant,
from job to job, the sanatorium
where I pureed peas and carrots
and stringy beets, scooped them,
like pudding, onto flesh-colored
plastic plates, or the gas station
where I dipped the ten-foot measuring stick
into the hole in the blacktop,
pulled it up hand over hand
into the twilight, dripping
its liquid gold, pink-tinged.
I liked the donut shop best, 3 AM,
alone in the kitchen, surrounded
by sugar and squat mounds of dough,
the flashing neon sign strung from wire
behind the window, gilding my white uniform
yellow, then blue, then drop-dead red.
It wasn’t that I hated calling them, hour
after hour, stuck in a booth with a list
of strangers’ names, dialing their numbers
with the eraser end of a pencil and them
saying hello. It was that moment
of expectation, before I answered back,
the sound of their held breath,
their disappointment when they realized
I wasn’t who they thought I was,
the familiar voice, or the voice they loved
and had been waiting all day to hear.

:: Dorianne Laux, What We Carry (1994)


Elegy for the Clotheslines

No laundry flutters in the wind today.
No bright towels or underwear festoons
our lives, and no sheets billow like loose sails.
No one leans out the windows, gathering in
bundles of sun-warmed clothes with which we might
renew ourselves. Only the dingy air
hangs between the houses, under a sky
permeated with the lint of smog.

The clotheslines that once crisscrossed these backyards
are mostly gone. The gadgetry that used to
lift our clothes into the sky like kites
has broken down: now the tall poles lean,
their pulleys rusty and their rungs askew.
These abandoned ladders to the sky,
Only the ivy climbs them now. But night
slides down them still into the neighborhood.

:: Jeffrey Harrison, The Singing Underneath (1988)


Overhead Crane

Insect-click of circuits
clang of struck steel
bells and the vast orange bulk
of the building-wide crane
rumbling forward on charged rails
swinging its fat hook—
an electrified fisherman
of rivets, girders, and grids.

In the plexiglass box below its belly
I squat with my hands full of power,
I’m the brain of this robot—
it moves obedient to my whims,
lives at a lever’s thrust—
I am its slave and its master.
Together we’re an irresistible force,
strongest back in this potline.

Beneath our shadow the pots fume—
double row of giant conductors
riding on bathtubs of bauxite-flux
juggling molecules into aluminum,
alchemy on a mammoth scale—
enough voltage to light a small city
floods and hums here forever.
The air is acrid with smoke and ozone.

The potcrews cough though the passages;
inferno-tenders in Stanfield shirts,
the line dwindles off to infinity.
Red and deadly, the magma bubbles
but I’m above and beyond all that,
safe in this plastic cocoon
breathing filtered air,
fishing for tubs of molten soup.

My robot and I ride herd on hades
but it’s lonely here at the top.
A machine’s not much on conversation.
I’m trapped in an isolation booth,
amuse myself with mad thoughts
like revving up the beast fullbore,
thundering down the monotonous tracks
smashing clean through the wall to freedom.

Or running completely amok
charging off up the line
swinging my hook like a judgment
upsetting ore-trucks, braining foremen.
I’m God in a plastic box.
I’ve been in this smelter too long;
one of these shifts I’m just liable to do it.
Heads up, you bastards—it might be tomorrow!

:: Peter Trower, in Going for Coffee (1981)


Math Class

Figure at the minimum
1 steer every 2 minutes
30 steers an hour
pulling 200-pound hides off each

6,000 pounds of hide an hour
48,000 pounds of hide a day
240,000 pounds of hide a week
12 million pounds of hide a year

working 30 years
that’s over 360 million pounds of cowhide
1 guy
2 hands

:: Ernie Brill, in Going for Coffee: An Anthology of Contemporary North American Working Poems (1981)


Bridge Half Gone

They are dismantling, on the other side
of Brooklyn, the Williamsburg Bridge.
After years of crumble, shifts
of workers rush up the erosion

with twenty-four-hour shaking,
shrill cracking, breakdown
assaulting your home one block away.
You’re only in my bed

to get some sleep, aren’t you?
Some respite from metal on metal,
all day rupture, flood lights
at night as the third shift works,

which flood your apartment, too—
no curtains, yellow walls.
You forget your home
in the shell of my sheets

no sound or vibrations
seem to pass through.
In my own bed, you push me
as far away as you can.

Balled in your pod you sleep
as if there is no one
just outside your walls
taking herself apart.

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


In the Light Factory

Half-moon of sweat, small hook
of a scar, broken glass
across the burnt stone of a knuckle—
this is Standard Electric Inc.
Friday evening at 4:45.
Soon you will stop making light

after eighteen hours at the mould,
and the steady white circuit of sleep
is all that will matter.
Go home to bed, to dream
the conduit crossing another life—
beyond the surge and spark seared

against the back of your eyes—
the direct current to fortune,
an inheritance of industrial diamonds.
Monday you will rise again,
eat nothing, smoke
and recall the names

for the delicate gauges of copper
filaments, your life slipping
up a sleeve of high-tension wire,
ampere of the blue spark
that won’t stop trying
to make it all as bright as possible.

:: Timothy Geiger, Blue Light Factory (1999)



Chicago—and the days of the terrible job,
the terrible ride to work above neighborhood
and neighborhood, every window below
caught in the same torn curtain, or so it seemed
from the El, a thing dizzy with its own
volts and brakes. I pressed my cheek
against the glass and kept looking: even the flashing
backyards turned ancient, each
almost a square, pinned down with a chair
tilted backward or broken. How long is anyone
twenty-three or four—endless moment
dragged through its bored cousins. Years.

And my job: papers into files, files
into their buzzing slots, day after day
at the great university. Near Christmas, nothing
much to do, my office mate hummed
as she sewed and folded ornaments, her desk
an acre of sequins and ribbon. I typed
deep into the early twilight—poems—and stared
them through. Poor things. It was like walking
sideways into the massive heart—a heart
as big as a room—at the Museum of Science and Industry,
following the dim light
in the blue-pitched veins, that gun barrel
double rap in my head. Someone’s
real heart, the guide said, amplified one hundred times.

Coming home, I’d see the old man
severed at the waist, and walk by quickly.
Each day he’d set up at the El, his odd little chair,
his can of frosted ballpoint pens. I once
bought two. Pretty soon—I don’t know.
I quit before long. By then, it was summer.
The half-man in his tee shirt
began to balance bottle
onto bottle into a glittering, threatening lace.
Look out, he’d say, rolling
Back on his ball bearings the size of a fist,
Careful of us, loving our danger.

:: Marianne Boruch, Moss Burning (1993)


Paving Parking Lots

Whitman would have loved the asphalt crew
stomping around with caked and oily boots,
bronze-like with tattooed arms rippling from
their sleeves, heroic arms that pull on rakes,
with blackened baseball caps set low against
the blank suspicious stares of boss and sun.

They’re smoke and smell of oil, and glistening black
necks, and fiery red necks, necks of working
guys following Claude the foreman hollering hoarsely
above the engine roar of paving machines,
all of them followed up by No-hat Jack,
who steer his six-ton diesel-driven roller
through billowing noise back and forth just so.

Whitman would have yearned: such godly muscles,
gorgeous shoulders, ordinary faces
sweating before his face, myth come to life,
Skoal and Camels there beside the cooler.
They’re men who know what’s two and two, perhaps
can read a bit. They’re men who’ve never heard
of the great eccentric bard—couldn’t care less—
who take no bows before their audience.

:: Patric Pepper, Temporary Apprehensions (2005)


A Man May Change

As simply as a self-effacing bar of soap
escaping by indiscernible degrees in the wash water
is how a man may change
and still hour by hour continue in his job.
There in the mirror he appears to be on fire
but here at the office he is dust.
So long as there remains a little moisture in the stains,
he stands easily on the pavement
and moves fluidly through the corridors. If only one
cloud can be seen, it is enough to know of others,
and life stands on the brink. It rains
or it doesn’t, or it rains and it rains again.
But let it go on raining for forty days and nights
or let the sun bake the ground for as long,
and it isn’t life, just life, anymore, it’s living.
In the meantime, in the regular weather of ordinary days,
it sometimes happens that a man has changed
so slowly that he slips away
before anyone notices
and lives and dies before anyone can find out.

:: Marvin Bell, Iris of Creation (1990)


To Be of Use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

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



So when opportunity arises, you understand why we would cram like livestock in dark cargo holds? Privacy is not in our Chinese vocabulary. We can contend with the crooked arms, the strange smells and the tumbling, rolling waves. We can risk peril in airless containers stacked with computer parts or frozen meats.

We dream of money, regular remittances, rebuilding the old home or ancestral altar, inspired by the urban miracles glittering along our coast and our mighty diaspora, colonies everywhere you can imagine.

But every yearning, we also know, exacts a price. What mantras does one chant as one crouches senselessly cold in a truck journey that never seems to end, darkness upon darkness? As one shudders, what thoughts? Martyrdom? The rustic beauty of home? Or how best to savour these last molecules of oxygen?

:: Paul Tan, in Softblow



It’s Gardena, late Saturday afternoon
on Vermont Avenue, near closing time
at the thrift store, and my father’s
left me to rummage through trash bins
stuffed with used paperbacks, 25¢ a pound,
while he chases down some bets
at the card clubs across the street.

The register rings up its sales--$2.95,
$11.24, $26.48 for the reclaimed Frigidaire—
and a girl, maybe six or so, barefoot,
in a plaid dress, her hair braided
in tight cornrows, tugs at the strap
of her mother’s purse, begging a few
nickels for the gumball machine.

She skips through the check-stand,
runs toward the electric exit, passing
a fleet of shopping carts, bundles
of used-up magazines (Ebony and Jet)
stacked in pyramids in the far aisle,
reaches the bright globe of the vendor,
fumbles for her coins, and works the knob.

My father comes in from the Rainbow
across the street, ten hands of Jacks
or Better, five draw, a winner
with a few dollars to peel away
from grocery money and money to fix
the washer, a dollar for me to buy
four pounds of Pocket Wisdoms, Bantams,

a Dell that says Walt Whitman, Poet
of the Open Road,
and hands it to me,
saying, “We won, Boy-san! We won!”
as the final blast of sunset kicks through
plate glass and stained air, firing through
the thicket of neon across the street,
consuming the store, the girl, the dollar bill,

even the Rainbow and the falling night
in a brief symphony of candied light.

:: Garret Hongo, Yellow Light (1982)


The Shipfitter's Wife

I loved him most
when he came home from work,
his fingers still curled from fitting pipe,
his denim shirt ringed with sweat
and smelling of salt, the drying weeds
of the ocean. I would go to him where he sat
on the edge of the bed, his forehead
anointed with grease, his cracked hands
jammed between his thighs, and unlace
the steel-toed boots, stroke his ankles,
his calves, the pads and bones of his feet.
Then I'd open his clothes and take
the whole day inside me-- the ship's
gray sides, the miles of copper pipe,
the voice of the foreman clanging
off the hull's silver ribs, spark of lead
kissing metal, the clamp, the winch,
the white fire of the torch, the whistle
and the long drive home.

:: Dorianne Laux