Among Elms and Maples, Morgantown, West Virginia, August, 1935

Houses are wedged between the tall stacks
of Seneca Glass beside the Monongahela
and waffle up steep hills. Here, the terrain
allows photographers to appear acrobatic.
Walker Evans liked standing on a hill, focusing
down so it seemed he was poised on a branch.
He liked the single telephone pole against
the flat sky, crossed off-center like a crucifix.
Beneath it, among elms and maples, is the house
my mother lived in with her sister and their mother
nearly fifty years ago. In this shot, Evans
only wanted the rough surfaces of clapboard
houses, their meshed roofs and slanted gables.
He didn’t want my mother peeling the thin skin
from tomatoes with a sharp knife, my clumsy
Aunt Grace chasing the ones she’d dropped
around the linoleum floor. That would be another
picture, not this one. I look back from the future,
past the undulating, unremitting line of hills
Evans framed my family in, through the shaggy fronds
of summer ferns he used as foreground and as border.

:: Maggie Anderson



At the edge of town, we trudged through the slime into dragonflies,
teenage tornadoes, breathless to capture them flying upside down,
backwards, sideways, luminescent blue, racing pulsed Persian rugs,
and then waiting, crouched, mud sucking our toes, for the male to
take her from behind between her unseeing eyes, kohl brown like
Nefertiti. In the shade of the cattails the beautiful ones fucked.

My friend Holly and I had come to this trench of old rain for the
breeding, the larvae leaving the water crawling on their three belly
feet, lamellas still pale with surfacing, wings stretching and drying,
spewing them out into the sky. Two dark-haired girls, one a bowl-cut
brownette, and the other a Lady Godiva with radiant white teeth,
crazy to sift from our skins and become fully grown nymphs. It

was this quickness, all the caught gaudiness, a lightning metamorphosis
we craved, sure we’d fly from this crackerjack town, escape the slowness
of Snyder’s Blue Ribbon, its sawdust-swept floors, its meat freezer where
the cows hung in beheaded trances of tallow and nakedness. Beaten
down by years of merciless office work, I slouch here before a monitor,
thinking my way back to endless summer. I spit Holly’s death into a
paper towel, friend who didn’t make it to legal drinking age,

her car speeding into Sunday morning’s iridescent sun, colliding with a
concrete divider. Her father and mother never recovered, her sister sat
outside for years chain smoking, but it couldn’t be quieter sitting here
typing my life away, no frantic male cleaning out the sperm of his
predecessor before he copulates, no busy burying of eggs, instead a
cubicle floats like the coming snow over girlhood’s brazen shadow.

:: Stephanie Dickinson, in Birmingham Poetry Review (27: 2003)



You row slowly, pulling
with your narrow shoulders,

your punt moving through crud
on Lake St. Clair:

sewage from a cottage, roused mud,
a tall beer.

You do this daily now, in 1938.
Because it is all you have told me,

it is all I can think of you doing,
or like to,

when your insides touch my finger
through this rubber glove.

:: Phil Hall, in Going for Coffee (1981)


The Laundromat

My clothes somersault in the dryer. At thirty
I float in and out of a new kind of horniness,
the kind where you get off on words and gestures;
long talks about art are foreplay, the climax
is watching a man eat a Napoleon while he drives.
Across from me a fifty year old matron folds clothes,
her eyes focused on the nipples of a young man in
silk jogging shorts. He looks up, catching her.
She giggles and blurts out, “Hot, isn’t it?”
A man on my right eyes the line of my shorts, waiting
for me to bend over. I do. An act of animal kindness.
A long black jogger swings in off the street to
splash his face in the sink and I watch the room
become a sweet humid jungle. We crowd around
the Amazon at the watering hole, twitching our noses
like wildebeests or buffalo, snorting, rooting out
mates in the heat. I want to hump every moving thing
in this place. I want to lie down in the dry dung
and dust and twitch to scratch my back. I want to
stretch and prowl and grow lazy in the shade. I want
to have a slew of cubs. “Do you have change for
a quarter?” he asks, scratching the inside of his thigh.
Back in the laundromat my socks are stickling to my
sheets. Caught in the crackle of static electricity,
I fold my underwear. I notice the honey-colored
stains in each silk crotch. Odd-shaped, like dreams,
I make my panties into neat squares and drop them,
smiling, into the wicker basket.

:: Dorianne Laux, Awake (1990)



Shucking and silking
done, we bend over
a stainless steel sink,
side by side by side
scraping sweet kernels
down the cob
or up,
Silver Queen,
twenty-five dozen ears
to be frozen
for winter tables.

A butcher knife,
older than the oldest one,
fits her hand. We defer.
The other takes a sharper
knife. I take potluck, last
in this assembly line.
We cut down the cob,
raking off little white knobs,
scraping the row,
milk squirting
like squeezed lemon.

Each immersed in her own close
commerce, we do not discuss
dementia, two-pack-a-day habits
or what we feed addictive genes.
For there is work, work.
We only argue tiny matters:
did Mama cut up the cob
and scrape,
or down?

:: Kathleen Thompson, in Birmingham Poetry Review (27: 2003)



for Anna Swiezy, my Bohemian grandmother

She shored in Baltimore,
ten years old, reckoning
streets bricked in gold.
Instead, linoleum cabbage roses
flowered and smelled of urine
in every room
she ever lived in.
Days, she labored
candy factories and glass works.
Nights, she learned shorthand,
scheming to barter for indoor plumbing,
oranges, silk stockings.

At twenty-five she moved Midwest
and married a game warden,
prompt in his brown uniform.
She wrote stories and answered
contest jingles. They always
voted Democrat. Early on
his heart deadlocked,
left her in the widow bed.
Palsy stung her feeble,
her mouth brooking saliva,
her legs slow. On the chiffarobe,
Christ was thorn-rimmed,
thin and dark, draped
in glass bead rosaries.
Mornings, she typed,
piling up manuscript like counterfeit,
the story of the new world,
toilets, factories, suffragettes.

:: Patricia Henley, Back Roads (1996)


Neighborhood Roofs

All summer, so many roofs
torn off and put back—one
three story I biked by,
so steep, the men hanging there by ropes.
Here, one sang, here, pointing to a place
past lathe, into simple posts
and beams before I, quick,
turned the corner
and lost it.

It’s just that
watching roofers from my kitchen once
I saw the old man we hired
move so lithely
on our garage—tearing off and putting back,
for days, the blunt unhurried hammer.
I watched his granddaughter
up there too, though
they never spoke. She put on earphones
and across and down the incline
moved to music. She painted her hammer
blue. Sometimes, raised,
it vanished into the sky’s
same color. I walked out one time
and shouted up—water? lunch?
But they didn’t want anything,
looking down at me like some dim
distant stars, the night
too cloudy.

Roofers are crazy, a carpenter told me.
I think of the rope that held
those men, the light and air
flooding into that attic
after a century of dark.
To be up there, to invite a house
back to its x-ray,
to the few beams it was—
they must dream everything wrong,
in reverse, and be
glad of it, stripping down
past that first wish to be something
to the deeper one, to be
nothing, before giving up
and building back.

:: Marianne Boruch, Moss Burning (1993)


Underground Singing

It rose out of air holes and off hot slate,
even from the bottom
of the muddy pond where we swam,
and out of dry snakeskins snagged on laurel roots,
our fathers in their knee-high
black rubber boots, faces blue-scarred,
singing to keep the ghosts back
in abandoned tunnels where nothing lived,
where bones of never-rescued miners lay
and ghosts drifted and shimmered,
and sometimes caused slate to clatter
off some miner’s hard hat, or a flare of gas,
our fathers singing in wet cramped places
where they worked on their bellies,
arms and legs moving
as they shoveled coal down a chute,
their singing sometimes a raspy breath
over the top of an empty bottle
or lace curtains rustling at dusk.

:: Harry Humes, Underground Singing (2007)



Weather-shy, they call them:
The ones found always
To the landward side of a fleet,
Someone hostage between themselves and the sea.
Edgy at the first whine in the rigging.

Sometimes, it’s that rogue wave,
That rock breaking suddenly by your bow,
Or that one time
When it seemed the boat would never right:
When maybe someone else didn’t make it.
That time the sea drove your stomach high
Into your throat, and threw fear
Like a glass float blown into the grass
Far above some storm-tide line in the mind.

Or, just a steady accretion;
Silting of small starts and heart-races,
Recollections of faces simply no longer seen,
Sedimentation of times you knew you didn’t know.
Those flashes when you could see the catastrophe
And its end: yourself bloated, like a marker buoy
Floating at the end of your net.

These waves break, break, and break on
Wearing away, regardless how slow, until that day
They finally grind you smaller than the sea.

:: John Skapsi, in Going for Coffee (1981)


Work Horse

I own you because I have to.
I am not self-sufficient.

When I tried to be poor
I was thrown gold;

When I kept the gold
I was called a wastrel;

When I gave it back
I was shunned for my ingratitude.

And you tried to please me
but I will never be pleased.

We are simpatico;
We both know futility.

We made the land work
But neglected the niceties.

Those who have done the reverse
dislike us.

We dislike ourselves
for the work seems like grief.

And what is work anyway
but a turgid mirror

whose revelations quiver
in recalculation:

We are something today;
we are nothing today.

We are something today;
we are nothing tomorrow.

:: Kathryn Maris, in Cimarron Review


Park Avenue

The helpless rich were just holes to me,
slots in the shaft of the service elevator,
where I’d deliver maids and florists,
testing my bad Spanish as we floated
even with the landings. I emptied
morning trash, looking for shoes, mopped
the stairwells, then stalled my elevator
on the 13th floor where nobody could
find me, sat on a milk crate and read
Moby Dick, ruminating with Ishmael
in the crow’s nest. That was the back;
when you worked the front you had to stand
for hours, touch your cap and talk to them.
Several times a day you got to see
the tall blond nurse step through the lobby
to and from the plastic surgeon’s office,
and when she smiled at you her blue eyes
seemed like wealth itself. The tenants
gazed right past us, into mirrors
or down at the rugs, three whale-sized
Orientals laid end to end, inspecting them
as we trailed behind to press the button
for their floor and ride with them in silence
in the walnut paneled elevator, wondering
why they wanted our company—didn’t
they know how much we knew about them
just by when they came and left, their visitors,
their trash, packages—magazines in brown
paper wrappers to Mr. Harriman 12A,
wrinkle cream and Valium to Mrs. Decker 7D,
a quart of Johnny Walker Black daily
to Dr. Niedermeyer Penthouse West?
Did they know how plainly their voices
echoed down elevator shafts when they
spoke on the phone and scolded their maids?
Or were we included in their privacy
because they thought they owned us
the way you’d own a parrot, knowing
it sees everything, repeats little, outlives
marriages, standing for decades, sun
down, Christmas morning, in the lobby,
bow tie, stripe down the pants, whistling?
Did it comfort them to know their addresses
were lodged in our heads when we went home
to our sweaty lives across the East River
where people got shot and married hairdressers?
The others, I mean. I’d come to New York
for graduate school, and in September,
having relieved each in turn, for the two
weeks vacation afforded him by the union,
I said goodbye to Martin Casey, Pat O’Rourke,
Vic Dumbrowski, Mickey Noonan,
Joe Lotto and the real Tony Curtis—
the doormen of 1150 Park
who drank too much and played the horses,
had thick-as-worms varicose veins
from standing, waiting, waiting, sprinting—
old men in heavy shoes hailing cabs in the rain.

:: Douglas Goetsch, in Third Coast (spring 2003)


The Jockey

Where are your gloves? Joyce demands
as we roll George Fenster, guide his hand
to the bedrail. He grips it tight. His ratchety voice
scrapes out an anguished Sorry. Shit like clotted paint.

I swipe his buttocks clean with a wet towel, roll
the halfsheet tight beneath him. Joyce fanfolds
the new sheet, creases it tight against his body.
We flip George to the other side. Quick swipe,

pull out the soiled linen, unroll and snap tight
the clean sheet, yank it free of wrinkles. Flop
his body back. Smooth the gown. Check the pillow.
George’s eyes glisten. His face like a pig’s. The scar

bisects his forehead, parts his thinning hair.
He was 23. Had had a decent year.
His father bought the horse, took it to his farm
outside Paducah. Shot it standing in its stall

the following winter. I forget, I say. I pretend
they’re someone’s children, ignore the threat
of infection. Don’t, says Joyce flatly,
eyes stern above her mask.

:: Ron Mohring, Beneficence (2003)


Killing Bees

Finding carpenter bees in decking,
my neighbor tries to balance
his love of all creatures with the buzzing
destruction of his home. He tells me
he decided to co-exist at first, wondering
just how much damage can bugs really do.
Months later, when he sees inside
the hollowed beams above his porch
and feels the soft push of the wood yield
to a finger poke, he envisions a fall,
the roof crashing around one of his kids.
He runs to Wal Mart, a place he detests,
and fills a green basket with can
after can of killing spray and, that evening
enacts an orgy of chemical death—
clouds of it, a stink like lighter fluid
spiked with lemon. He blinks at the haze,
his hand goes to his mouth, again and again.
His children watch him cough, and they crack
the door. His daughter wants to help.
He yells at her to get back. Startled,
she hits her head as she backs up. His son
starts to whimper. The haze thickens
and catches the hue of sunset.
His wife yells to hurry up
and slams the door. A bee staggers
along the beam. He wants to crush it
with his thumb, his tongue, to taste
it die, to make it pay for every hurt,
to sting back for his eyes, his house,
his place, to protect the eyes he sees now,
wet behind the glass doors, the eyes
that will want to look to him forever.

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


The Business Suit

after Lynn Emanuel

Of what stripe is this habit
on a hanger, this modern mail hanging
in the tailor’s window? We wish to wear it, it wishes
to be worn, it wears like a wish—

trim with interlock, it’s a fraternity
of pinstripes, straight, homogenous, legion,
finished with topstitch—a skyscraper
on whose blueprints we’d love to smudge our fingers.

It’s an elevator enclosing the girded
portfolios of a certain body of men—
the placket overlapping is a nighthawk’s breast,
the feathers’ waxy surface, small protection—

when they’re in it, they’re camouflaged,
another nova among a sea of stars.
Right now it’s a beacon locked
behind plate glass; while we’re busy

washing off the ink, it glows there
the dim flame of itself
in a sky of dusk, a sky of dawning,
not burning up, not burning out.

:: Sheila Sinead McGuinness, in Birmingham Poetry Review (27: 2003)


Working for Oysters

Four other Oysters followed them,
And yet another four;
And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more—
All hopping through the frothy waves,
And scrambling to the shore.

Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll

“The Oyster business is picking up.”
Pickers, Shuckers, Packers
picking, picking, picking
up at piece work pace
from beach to knife to plastic pack
to distributor to store and more and more
Oysters, Oysters, Oysters
none of them hopping until I close my eyes
when even more and thick and fast they come past
my Oystered mind.
It’s a pure primitive business:
farming the ocean’s floor;
it’s a pure primitive business:
picking, shucking, packing;
it’s an impure sad system
that keeps Oysters from the poor.
Rich in minerals, rich in vitamins, rich in calories,
rich in taste, Oysters are marketed for the monied.

“To work in this business you’ve got to be able
to eat ‘em raw.”
To work in this business you’ve got to be strong,
patient, persevering, pacific and probably poor.
To work in this business you’ve got to have rubber boots,
gloves, scarves, hats, coats, files, knives and nerve.
To work in this business you’ve got mostly to
make light of labor, lots of labor.

But: you meet some good hard working people;
you are perfectly fit for leisure time digging;
and you get your fill of Oysters
and more and more and more.

:: Shirley Miller, in Going for Coffee (1981)



Grey, massed under the skin of your hands
Wet concrete cracks your fingers
To bled claws.

And your wrists and elbows—they grate bare
On your sleeves’ raw cloth, grit
In the stuck wrinkles.

All day you feel the fattening trowel sweep
Forward and back and forward and back
As the concrete stiffens under.

And the heavy blood of your neck and tilted shoulders,
Your arms heavy, stones holding down wet stone,
Wet and heavy as the work that holds me down
All the hours of the day and the night.

What you have done with your hands hardens
For a long time, slowly, the job over.
As we stand on the concrete.

:: Herbert Applebaum, in Going for Coffee (1981)


Off from Swing Shift

Late, just past midnight,
freeway noise from the Harbor
and San Diego leaking in
from the vent over the stove,
and he’s off from swing shift at Lear’s.
Eight hours of twisting circuitry,
charting ohms and maximum gains
while transformers hum
and helicopters swirl
on the roofs above the small factory.
He hails me with a head-fake,
then the bob and weave
of a weekend middleweight
learned at the Y on Kapiolani
ten years before I was born.

The shoes and gold London Fogger
come off first, then the easy grin
saying he’s lucky as they come.
He gets into the slippers
my brother gives him every Christmas,
carries his Thermos over to the sink,
and slides into the one chair at the table
that’s made of wood and not yellow plastic.
He pushes aside stacks
of Sporting News and Outdoor Life,
big round tins of Holland butter cookies,
and clears a space for his elbows, his pens,
and the Racing Form’s Late Evening Final.

His left hand reaches out,
flicks on the Sony transistor
we bought for his birthday
when I was fifteen.
The right ferries in the earphone,
a small, flesh-colored star,
like a tiny miracle of hearing,
and fits it into place.
I see him plot black constellations
of figures and calculations
on the magazine’s margins,
alternately squint and frown
as he fingers the knob of the tuner
searching for the one band
that will call out today’s results.

There are whole cosmologies
in a single handicap,
a lifetime of two-dollar losing
in one pick of the Daily Double.

Maybe tonight is his night
for winning, his night
for beating the odds
of going deaf from a shell
at Anzio still echoing
in the cave of his inner ear,
his night for cashing in
the blue chips of shrapnel still grinding
at the thickening joints of his legs.

But no one calls
the horse’s name, no one
says Shackles, Rebate, or Pouring Rain.
No one speaks a word.

:: Garret Hongo, Yellow Light (1982)


Kossow's Triangle

Bashed, crumpled
and crammed into
a load-off by the
articulated backhoe

Was it ever new?
Building about the
size and shape
of the lot stranded
between oncoming streams
of State Route traffic and
beside Iron City
Sash & Door. Often
we took our lunch break
at Kossow’s to watch Leon
the door perforator
drink his lunch in
beers and shots then
wobble back to work.
Floor joists had weakened
over the years so that
the whole joint leaned
south and, without care,
the drunks might settle
all in one corner.

:: Stephen Lewandowski, in Blueline (24)


Renting Out the Fields

I no longer
lay claim to
this pasture, this fertile field
for another man
whose sweat falls,
mingling with the ripe soil
has made claim,
as well he should.
This plowed furrow
that lay so many years
within my sight,
this acre of rockstrewn worry
no longer listens when
I speak of tomorrow’s plan.
Another man
has lifted my burden
of broken balers and rain-soaked hay.
I sit, instead,
and from my porch
watch his tractor toil,
wondering whether
the seed he plants so late
will amount to anything.
Certainly not the
six hundred bales of
best alfalfa
in my day.

:: Rhonda Buchanan Pray, in Blueline (24)


Female Ancestor

For Irene, whom I never met

A farm woman opens
the oven door of the coal stove
to stir the embers, re-latches
the door with a cast iron tool, sets
it down, wipes her hands, moves
to the sink where she bends
to peel and soak potatoes. She turns
to wipe down the oil cloth,
unbottle pickled beets
into the blue glass dish passed down
from her grandmother.
After the meal she bends over
the sink, scrapes and washes
crusted pots, feeds scraps
to the dog. Her daughter dries and puts
the dishes away.

For decades the woman bends
over washing, over mending.
She hangs out the heavy sheets,
bends over ironing, over tubs
of water drawn from the cistern
and heated for baths.
She bends with sleepy children
over their school books,
bends over their fever-flushed
faces. Twice she bends over
a tiny coffin. She bends
over her husband’s back,
her veined, callused hands
kneading his work-hardened
muscles. Before she dies
she cuts down one of his suits,
hums as she bends over to sew a traveling
outfit for her daughter’s trip to college,
the long train ride that will
separate them forever.

:: Ann Hostetler, Empty Room with Light (2002)



Before they paved the streets of Mesilla
they dug a trench in front of our house, four feet
wide, five feet deep, where the sidewalk
would eventually go, and my father laid a wide board
across it so he could pull his car into the drive, come
and go, come and go, which is what he did,
and my brother spent that entire summer
in the trench, under the board, alone down there
in the silt and shade, finding out what he was.
Everyone was waiting to see what was going
to happen next. I'd long since given my days over
to watching the men from the city—those men
in their plain blue shirts or not, knuckles
thickly clotted with tar—they returned each morning
with their bent, black shovels and a weeping drum of tar.
One thing led to another. That's progress. A road
is the crudest faith in things to come.

:: Carrie Fountain, in Cave Wall (2008)



Having been a farmer’s daughter
she didn’t want to be a farmer’s wife, didn’t want
the smell of ripe manure in all his clothes,
the corresponding flies in her kitchen,
a pail of slop below the sink,
a crate of baby chicks beside the stove, piping
beneath their bare lightbulb, cows calling at the gate
for him to come, cows standing in the chute
as he crops their horns with his long sharp shears.
So she nagged him toward a job in town;
so she sprang from the table, weeping, when he swore;
so, after supper, she sulks over her mending
as he unfolds his pearl pocketknife
to trim a callus on his palm.
Too much like her mother, he says, not knowing
any other reason why she spoils the children,
or why he comes in from the combine with his wrenches
to find potatoes boiled dry in their pot,
his wife in the parlor on the bench
at her oak piano—not playing
you understand, just sitting like a fern
in that formal room.
So much time to think,
these long hours: like her mother,
each night she goes to bed when her husband’s tired,
gets up when he gets up, and in between tries
not to move, listening to the sleep of this good man
who lies beside and over her. So much time alone,
since everything he knows is practical.
Just this morning, he plunged an icepick
into the bloated side of the cow unable to rise,
dying where it fell, its several stomachs having failed—
too full, he said, of sweet red clover.

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


"Yonder see the morning blink"

Yonder see the morning blink:
The sun is up, and up must I,
To wash and dress and eat and drink
And look at things and talk and think
And work, and God knows why.

Oh often have I washed and dressed
And what's to show for all my pain?
Let me lie abed and rest:
Ten thousand times I've done my best
And all's to do again.

:: A E Housman, Last Poems (1922)


Work Song

My name is Henri. Listen. It’s morning.
I pull my head from my scissors, I pull
the light bulb from my mouth—Boss comes at me
while I’m still blinking.
Pastes the pink slip on my collarbone.
It’s OK, I say, I was a lazy worker, and I stole.
I wipe my feet on his skullcap on the way out.

I am Henri, mouth full of soda crackers.
I live in Toulouse, which is a piece of cardboard.
Summers the Mayor paints it blue, we fish in it.
Winters we skate on it. Children are always
drowning or falling through cracks. Parents are distraught
but get over it. It’s easy to replace a child.
Like my parents’ child, Henri.

I stuff my hands in my shoes
and crawl through the snow on all fours.
Animals fear me. I smell so good.
I have two sets of footprints, I confuse the police.
When I reach the highway I unzip my head.

I am a zipper. A paper cut.
I fed myself so many times
through the shredder I am confetti,
I am a ticker-tape parade, I am an astronaut
waving from my convertible at Henri.

Henri from Toulouse, is that you?
Why the unhappy face? I should shoot you
for spoiling my parade. Come on, man,
put yourself together! You want so much to die
that you don’t want to die.

My name is Henri. I am Toulouse. I am scraps
of bleached parchment, I am the standing militia,
a quill, the Red Cross, I am the feather
in my cap, the Hebrew Testament, I am the World Court.
An electric fan blows
beneath my black robe. I am dignity itself.

I am an ice machine.
I am an alp.
I stuff myself in the refrigerator
wrapped in newsprint. With salt in my heart
I stay good for days.

:: Mark Levine, Debt


What They Wanted Us to Bring Back

When there are no jobs at his union hall, my cousin Joe
drives home to work on his house. Its back porch
overlooks the charred lump of Moffat’s breaker.
He bought the place from a miner’s widow
who didn’t mind the view. The view keeps his mortgage low.
It’s a handyman’s special.

Masked against paint dust, my cousin scrapes a razor blade
back and forth on the staircase’s balusters,
rubbing through stubborn layers to bare the first coat—
the one whose brush marks mimic the quarter-sawn oak
its first owners couldn’t afford.
Paint dust sparkles in red light lancing

through an Art Nouveau tulip in the window on the landing.
(Ordered from Sears Roebuck in 1915.
Four houses on his block have it.)
My aunt wishes he’d buy a new raised ranch in Abingdon.
My cousin shrugs, admits it’s nothing great, this two-family,
with its rotting porch brackets. Not historic, just old.

It’s not as if Joe has managed to buy back the place
lost to the bank years before our birth
when a cave-in shattered our great-grandfather’s hip.
Still, I don’t ask my cousin why he puts in
overtime paring back each turning
in the staircase’s cheap millwork until it looks as it did

the day the whole town walked to Throop
to help shoulder the coffins of the forty men killed
in the Pancoast Mine’s collapse. I don’t ask him why
he stays in town, why his back yard overlooks
the strip-mined pit our family’s men stepped into,
one by one, to work they never thought of not taking.

We don’t speak of what he wants to bring back.
You’d think, after listening to the last
of the old men gasp into oxygen masks
in Moses Taylor Hospital, my cousin Joe
would board up his window, move out of town.
Too much has happened here; the place is tired.

Why do his buddies who torched the breaker
stay? Why does my cousin click a new blade
into his scraper? Why, miles from Taylor,

do I write its poem of ashes, over and over?

:: Sherry Fairchok, The Palace of Ashes (2002)


Phone Call


Hello, Mr. Williamson? This is David Lee, I live in Paragonah. Dur-
ing my morning run I passed by your stockpens west of Paragonah
and I saw that one of your cows, the black-white face, I think, seems
to have calved during the night. I think around sunrise, the calf was
still steaming, at least I think so. But the cow seems to be in some
trouble, I think her uterus has prolapsed and she probably needs
some help. I was running and didn’t stop and walk over to see, in-
stead I turned around and came back to call and let you know so you
can go out and see if she needs help.

Who’s this? Is this church business?

No, no. Wallace, I’m the guy who runs out by your stockpens every
morning. You wave at me. Today I ran early and saw that you’ve got
a cow in trouble. She’s an angus-hereford cross. She’s calved and her
vagina has protruded. You ought to go out and check on her as soon
as you can.

Is this about selling Amway?

:goddammit, this morning
in your west pen
the black balley dropped her calf
and her ass is out
down to her knees.
She needs help.

Oh goddam
it’s that two year old heifer
I didn’t know she was that close
I gotta go.
Look mister whoever you are
you call back
take and give my wife your name
I owe you
but I cain’t talk now
I gotta go
but I sure thank you
I’ll make it up to you
someday somehow

:: David Lee, Day’s Work (1990)


Found Poem from a Book in a Box of Books I Sold to A Novel Idea before Moving to Kentucky Again

for Cinnamon Dokken

Setting off from the islands in early summer, the boats sailed south along
the coastline after the migrating fish, ending up in East Anglia at the end
of the year. The women traveled south in special trains to work at gutting
and packing the herring catch. These women worked in crews of three,
continuing late into the night of the catch was large. Standing in front of
a wooden trough, two of them gutted while the third packed the fish
between layers of salt. Their fingers bound in bandages to protect them-
selves against the razor-sharp knives and the rough salt, their clothes
covered in fish guts and scales, the women worked at phenomenal speed.
To earn a living wage required a skilled crew to pack thirty barrels of fish a
day, one fish every five seconds through the course of a ten-hour day. In
the early years of the century, these women were paid eleven or twelve
shillings a week, with their lodgings and travel thrown in. Despite the
harshness of their working conditions, many looked back on these days
with affection and nostalgia for the comradeship of their fellows.

:: Tim Skeen, Kentucky Swami


Mennonite Farm Wife

She hung her laundry in the morning
before light and often in winter
by sunrise the sheets were ice.
They swung all day on the line,
creaking, never a flutter.
At dusk I’d watch her lift each one
like a field, the stretches of white
she carried easily as a dream
to the house where she bent and folded
and stacked the flat squares.
I never doubted they thawed
perfectly dry, crisp,
the corners like thorn.

:: Janet Kauffman, Weather Book (1981)


The Nurse

My mother went to work each day
in a starched white dress, shoes
clamped to her feet like pale
mushrooms, two blue hearts pressed
into the sponge rubber soles.
When she came back home, her nylons
streaked with runs, a spatter
of blood across her bodice,
she sat at one end of the dinner table
and let us kids serve the spaghetti, sprinkle
the parmesan, cut the buttered loaf.
We poured black wine into the bell
of her glass as she unfastened
her burgundy hair, shook her head, and began.
And over the years we mastered it, how to listen
to stories of blocked intestines
while we twirled the pasta, of saws
teething cranium, drills boring holes in bone
as we crunched the crust of our sourdough,
carved the stems off our cauliflower.
We learned the importance of balance,
how an operation depends on
cooperation and a blend of skills,
the art of passing the salt
before it is asked for.
She taught us well, so that when Mary Ellen
ran the iron over her arm, no one wasted
a moment: My brother headed straight for the ice.
Our little sister uncapped the salve.
And I dialed the number under Ambulance,
my stomach turning to the smell
of singed skin, already planning the evening
meal, the raw fish thawing in its wrapper,
a perfect wedge of flesh.

:: Dorianne Laux, Awake (1990)