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)


  1. GREAT choice.

  2. One of my favorite poems -- and poets -- ever.