Three Sayings from Highlands, North Carolina

but pretty though as
roses is
you can put up with
the thorns

Doris Talley, Housewife & Gardener


you live until you die—
if the limb don’t fall

Butler Jenkins, Caretaker


your points is blue
and your timing’s
a week off

Sam Creswell, My Auto Mechanic

:: Jonathan Williams, in Asheville Poetry Review (15:1, 2008)


Turning Trays

Each vineyard is a world of crosses.
They sink in fog each winter, in summer
dangle green redemption. Late August,
grapes sugar even as you cut. You must cut
and lay and spread and turn each tray
again and again. Flesh shrivels,
browns in the sun. Bronzed nuggets
fall from the stem, and you,
as far from the beginning as the end,
cannot walk away.
You cannot escape turning trays.
One row ends; another begins.
You must finish this row
and the next
and the next.

I once feared I’d end up stuck mid-row,
a line of brown paper trays behind me,
neat bunches of grapes splayed across
each tray. Raisin grapes trailed me,
pearls the size of my fingertips.
Here is where I tackled imagery:
taut flesh between my teeth,
sweet liquid down my throat.
Here is where I struggled for the end
of each line, no dirt roads or dry canals
to turn me back. I learned to savor
strands of words, weigh their ripe perfection.
I learned to measure a scrub jay’s call,
a dragonfly’s rainbow flight.
I learned there is no stepping away,
no leaving behind what remains:
one more row to turn,
unfinished lines to tend.

:: Diana Garcia, When Living Was a Labor Camp (2000)


Orange Bears

The orange bears with soft friendly eyes
Who played with me when I was ten,
Christ, before I'd left home they'd had
Their paws smashed in the rolls, their backs
Seared by hot slag, their soft trusting
Bellies kicked in, their tongues ripped
Out, and I went through the woods
To the smelly creek with Whitman
In the Haldeman-Julius edition,
And I just sat there worrying my thumbnail
Into the cover-What did he know about
Orange bears with their coats all stunk up with soft coal
And the National Guard coming over
From Wheeling to stand in front of the millgates
With drawn bayonets jeering at the strikers?
I remember you could put daisies
On the windowsill at night and in
The morning they would be so covered with soot
You couldn't tell what they were anymore.
A hell of a fat chance my orange bears had!

:: Kenneth Patchen, Red Wine and Yellow Hair (1949)


The Fish Come in Dancing

the fish come in dancing
dark torpedoes
flurry of white silver
as they jump

pulling lines Len says
Christ they’re strong
big silver muscle
running from the boat

nylon brands
cuts on your fingers


your blood mixes
with theirs

the fish come in dancing
50 coho heavy
in the fishbox
off Sangster
and gas running low

clean them to the scream
of seagulls
blood & guts crawls
into every crack

you throw them up
at Norpac & god
they flop flat &
rainbows on their sides

it gets harder to love
the things
you kill

:: Kevin Roberts, in Going for Coffee (1981)


You Can Have It

Click here to read Philip Levine's poem.



She slides over
the hot upholstery
of her mother’s car,
this schoolgirl of fifteen
who loves humming & swaying
with the radio.
Her entry into womanhood
will be like all the other girls’—
a cigarette and a joke,
as she strides up with the rest
to a brick factory
where she’ll sew rag rugs
from textile strips of Kelly green,
bright red, aqua.

When she enters,
and the millgate closes,
final as a slap,
there’ll be silence.
She’ll see fifteen high windows
cemented over to cut out light.
Inside, a constant, deafening noise
and warm air smelling of oil,
the shifts continuing on . . .
All day she’ll guide cloth along a line
of whirring needles, her arms & shoulders
rocking back & forth
with the machines—
200 porch size rugs behind her
before she can stop
to reach up, like her mother,
and pick the lint
out of her hair.

:: Catherine Anderson


from Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking

she thinks about everything at once without making a mistake.
no one has figured out how to keep her from doing this thinking
while her hands and nerves also perform every delicate complex
function of the work. this is not automatic or deadening.
try it sometime. make your hands move quickly on the keys
fast as you can, while you are thinking about:

the layers, fossils. the idea that this machine she controls
is simply layers of human work-hours frozen in steel, tangled
in tiny circuits, blinking out through lights like hot, red eyes.
the noise of the machine they all sometimes wig out to, giddy,
zinging through the shut-in space, blithering atoms;
everyone’s hands paused mid-air above the keys
while Neil or Barbara solo, wrists telling every little thing,
feet blipping along, shoulders raggly.

she had always thought of money as solid, stopped.
but seeing it as moving labor, human hours, why that means
it comes back down to her hands on the keys, shoulder aching,
brain pushing words through fingers through keys, trooping
out crisp black ants on the galleys. work compressed into
instruments, slim computers, thin as mirrors, how could
numbers multiply or disappear, squeezed in sideways like that
but they could, they did, obedient and elegant, how amazing.
the woman whips out a compact, computes the cost,
her face shining back from the silver case
her fingers, sharp tacks, calling up the digits.

when she sits at the machine, rays from the cathode stream
directly into her chest. when she worked as a clerk, the rays
from the xerox angled upward, striking her under the chin.
when she waited tables, the micro oven sat at stomach level.
when she typeset for Safeway, dipping her hands in processor
chemicals, her hands burned and peeled and her chest ached
from the fumes.

well we know who makes everything we use or can’t use.
as the world piles itself up on the bones of the years,
so our labor gathers.

while we sell ourselves in fractions. they don’t want us all
at once, but hour by hour, piece by piece. our hands mainly
and our backs. and chunks of our brains. and veiled expressions
on our faces, they buy. though they can’t know what actual
thoughts stand behind our eyes.

when they toss the body out on the sidewalk at noon and at five.
then they spit the body out the door at sixty-five.

:: Karen Brodine, Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking: Poems (1990)


Wolf Whistle

You hardly ever hear it anymore
but the wolf whistle was unmistakable
then, and turned heads, too.
It was Raymond Biochetti, who
I later learned served serious
time, wolf-whistling up a foxy thing
that turned out to be my mother
at the bus stop outside third
period math class of a childhood
as lost as any whistle. You may
mot even know what I mean, or
if you do you probably haven’t heard
it much. It’s so out of fashion now,
so impolite.
The last time the great
wolf whistled was ’79 and I was three
flights high on a scaffolding with
Robert Otis in Roxbury, and both of us
whistled into the sweet morning air
before it baked us, before a winch
unbuckled, floating us for a moment,
no more, on whatever carried our
song to her. She looked up—what
harm?—and waved at two guys black
and white, tall and short, young
and older just trying to hang on.

:: Larry Moffi, in How to Be This Man: The Walter Pavlich Memorial Poetry Anthology (2003)


Waiting at the Curb: Lynwood, California, 1967

for Deborah Escobedo

When the porch light snaps on,
Moths come alive around its orange glow.
Mother pushes open the screen door and calls,
Viejo. It’s Laugh-In.” Father is watering
His lawn, the one green he can count on. He can’t count
On money, or his Dodgers slipping on the green
Carpet of Chavez Ravine and into third place,
With nineteen games to go. “Be right there,” Father says,
And then considers his daughter emerging in cutoffs
Cut too short. And what’s with the gypsy blouse
And those 45 records on her thumb?
Maybe he could speak his mind about decency,
Maybe he could lift his hose and spray off this girl child
Who has gone too far. But he rolls the garden hose
Onto the sling of his arm. “Debbie, where are you going
With no clothes on?” he asks. The daughter spins
The records on her thumb, and answers,
“Dad, this is how it is.” She steps off the porch,
Cuts across the wet lawn, and waits at the curb
For a friend in her own cutoffs, for music that speaks to them,
For their cheeks collapsing from the pull on a paper straw.
She turns when the neighbor’s screen door opens—
A woman in curlers yells to her old man, “It’s Laugh-In.”
America is getting ready,
America is shoveling ice cream into Tupperware bowls,
America is setting up trays in front of snowy TVs.
This daughter wags a shaggy head of hair at the old folks,
Pulls at her cutoffs creeping up. I gotta get outta here,
She thinks, and spins the music of her time
On what could be a hitchhiker’s thumb.

:: Gary Soto, in Green Mountains Review (18:2, 2005)


Maintenance Mechanic

in memory of Slim

Channel-locks repose in his callused hand
like a baby in its mother’s skirted lap;
his other hand welds to a coffee cup
filled with the sweet mud mechanics demand.
I ask about his wife; I understand
she’s in remission now. He sighs; he sips.
It seems to hit his belly with a plop.
“Yeah,” he says, “I ain’t got nothin’ planned.”

What do I envy? His country music? Flat-
top and twang? His many wives? Or his tools?
He’s everything I never thought to be.
I scan his leather face for clues. We chat
about “bootlickers ‘n’ fools.” Forget our souls.
And his sick wife. And bright eternity.

:: Patric Pepper, Temporary Apprehensions (2005)



Who can love nightwater’s blackness
When a swimmer goes out as bait
To bring in the blueblack fish?
The rope trailing men at shore:
First dive to deep water, hoping
Not to find the body of search
But brushing then grasping
An arm convulsed and frozen.

The water like crude oil at surface
In the brilliance of flashlights,
The confusion of timebursting lung,
The draw of rope to land
And the deadness of a young man
In the quiet heat.

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


Jorge the Church Janitor Finally Quits

Click here to read Martin Espada's poem "Jorge the Church Janitor Finally Quits" at Ploughshares.


Round Lake

I tell an easy story, all lies,
at parties. Ask me what I like,
I say digging pits, scrubbing sticks.
Ask me am I married. Easy.
I say no, divorced. You wonder
do I work. Sure, I drill two exact
pinholes in a block of steel.

You I’ll tell two things: the summer
I was twelve I saw the rich men from Detroit
without their wives unravel sails
with the care I’d seen them count their cash.
Their hair was white and gray and brushed.
Their big sails hooked a wind and then two boats
with even-handed men slipped by,
slipped straight in a hush into blue.
I knew that they were making deals out there.
I thought I’d swim sometime to check
but everybody else said, oh yeah,
they’ll hack some waves and yell,
back to your shack, girl. Git, git, git.
But I was sure the men would simply be precise:
Look, we’ll tell you this, and this.
I learned to manage pretty well. And next:
when I was seventeen and pregnant, I saw fire
spread across the lake in whorls,
the flames low, swirled, a richness
like embroidery, or golden robes.
I saw this for myself. And again
that winter, looking down through ice
in calms, in paths of blackened fish,
the sparks careened. A few like mica
flecked at the shores of eyes.
The lake steadied itself with lights
every season after.

Without leaving home
or reading anything I understood,
I knew what traveling could do.
And here I am with square knots tying lies—
when all along it was the lake,
in blue and white and gold geometry,
that dressy fire, that took me in.

:: Janet Kauffman, Where the World Is (1988)


My Father after Work

Putting out the candles
I think of my father asleep
on the floor beside the heat,
his work shoes side by side
on the step, his cap
capping his coat on a nail,
his socks slipping down,
and the gray hair over his ear
marked black by his pencil.

Putting out the candles
I think of winter, that quick
dark time before dinner
when he came upstairs after
shaking the furnace alive,
his cheek patched with soot,
his overalls flecked with
sawdust and snow,
and called for his pillow,
saying to wake him
when everything was ready.

Putting out the candles
I think of going away
and leaving him there,
his tanned face turning
white around the mouth,
his left hand under his head
hiding a blue nail,
the other slightly curled
at his hip, as if
the hammer had just
fallen out of it
and vanished.

:: Gary Gildner, The Runner (1978)



a woman serves somebody else’s food and
stands by
while they eat her own children sit up
hungry late
irons nice and flat the ruffles on
somebody’s clothes
you didn’t see her she was the color of the
shadow she waited in
she came in the back door early in the morning
back in the honeysuckle days of your
she was young and pretty and had gold
on hands and knees she scrubbed your
floors with a brush
now she sweeps trash from the corners of
your streets
with a broom and a workfare vest

:: Sarah Menefee, I’m not thousandfurs (2002)


Cow Barn

Feed troughs and empty stanchions
line the aisle down the middle,
no cow flop or smell even left
after all these years, nothing
but imagination to put the cows back,
lowing and chewing and waiting
in the pre-dawn dark for the man
to come and blow on his fingers
and set to work drawing milk out
from swollen udders. Only the swallows
are left, nesting on beams, clearing
the air of insects that kept cows’ tails
flicking. And high in the empty loft
a pigeon coos, with only an echo in answer.

:: Matthew J Spireng, in Blueline (24)



it is what you
cannot see
the drowned log
swimming dark under
like some Grendel
torn from earth and

it is what you
cannot hear waiting
to beat its dumb
point up like a great
fish through
gumwood planks

it is what is unspoken
of boats gone
without a trace
as if some great bird
lifted them dripping
from the sea

it is like
walking in thick grass
in snake country
watching 20 feet ahead
for the thing to rear up
and strike

against wind & water
skill & guts
against this

is what you see
in the faces of fishermen
squatting on the dock

:: Kevin Roberts, in Going for Coffee (1981)


Teaching My Son to Drive

The Wareham Cemetery seems the safest place,
a miniature town of children’s blocks,
a place so harmless
the baby rabbit squatting in the drive
doesn’t know enough
to move. We’re alone.
The only policemen on duty are trees
holding over us the shelter of their quiet.
I climb out. My son
sets our phone book on my seat,
gets in my place, sits down, releases
the brake, shifts into first, lets out
the clutch. The car jerks and stammers,
fighting off a stroke, totters forward,
and we’re creaking like a toy train up its track
in this toy world, we’re a joke.
Slow is comic when it’s slow enough.
We crawl around the loop
past the little buildings without doors,
my son peering over the wheel,
his face grim,
determined not to stall, pretending
to steer the enormous thing
that’s steering him.

:: Jonathan Holden, The Sublime (1996)


Love on Earth

Click here to read Victoria Boynton's "Love on Earth" in Stickman Review.


Road Sign

this is how we say hello, one index finger
raised from the steering wheel as we pass
on these narrow roads tight enough to graze
each other’s fenders if we’re not vigilant

our other fingers stay furled to the wheel
to guide us around the road-kill curves,
the single finger released to mark the instant
of our common crawl over shared ground

this one finger the only voice we can afford,
but ample speech for the moment, briefly
perpendicular, as if we are checking wind
direction in the truck cab, pointing out the

shortest route to paradise, or tallying the
count—of fish caught on a bad day, of deer
taken during muzzleloader season, of the
chance we yet have to get it right

:: Tim Poland, in Stickman Review (6:1)


Hired Hand

You need some help
out to your place for anything?
What John? I sed
It’s a man come around
looking for work
here and there he don’t charge much
name Norman and he’s willing
to work for money

you cain’t get no good help
I hired this one college boy
to help me put sheetiron
on my barn roof
that didn’t work out
I told him a look
I’m gone splain this one time
and did what I wanted him to do
but ever time he walked by
that pile of sheetiron
he’d stand there combing his hair
in the reflection of it
trying to look purdy
all I had out there was me
and them ewes
I couldn’t take a chance on it
whatall might be on his mind
I had to work and the ewes
was arredy bred up
I let him go that day

Norman ain’t too smart
but he ain’t purdy
and don’t worry about it
him and a rooster
could stand there and stare
at a line you drawn
in the dirt with your foot
half the morning till you shook him
but if you tell him
what to do and check up on him
he’ll get it done
all of us working together
I imagine we can finish it
before winter comes
but he can come help out
over to your place too
I suspicion if you need help
but he ain’t much conversation
he just understands
whichever you tell him to do
you shouldn’t ask him
for anything more than that
that’s all you’re paying him for

:: David Lee, Day’s Work (1990)


The Gray Man

We are cutting weeds and sunflowers on the shoulder,
the gray man and I, red dust coiling up around us,
muddying our sweat-smeared mugs, clogging our hair,
the iron heel of an August Kansas sun pushing down
on the scythes we raise against it and swing down
in an almost homicidal rage and drunken weariness.
And I keep my distance. He's a new hire just off
the highway, a hitchhiker sick to death of hunger,
the cruelties of the road, and our boss hates
poverty just enough to hire it, even this old man,
a dead, leaden pall upon his skin so vile it makes you
pull away, the gray trousers and state-issue black
prison boots, the bloodless, grim, unmoving lips,
and the eyes set in concrete, dark hallways that lead
to darker rooms down somewhere in the basement
of the soul's despair. Two weeks. He hasn't said
a word. He's a goddamned ghost, I tell my father.
Light flashes from his scythe as he decapitates
big clumps of yellow blooms, a flailing, brutal war
against the lords of labor, I suppose, against the state,
the world, himself, who knows. When we break,
I watch the canteen's water bleed from the corners
of his mouth, a spreading wound across his shirt,
the way he spits into the swollen pile of bluestem
and rank bindweed as if he hates it and everything
that grows, a hatred that has roots and thickens,
twisting, snarled around itself. A lizard wanders
into sunlight, and he hacks at it, chopping clods
until dust clouds rise like mist around him, and then
he speaks in a kind of shattering of glass cutting
through the hot wind's sigh, the fear: Love thine enemy.
He says it to the weeds or maybe what they stand for.
Then, knees buckling, with a rasping, gutted sob
as if drowning in that slough of dirty air, he begins,
trembling, to cry.
I was a boy. The plains' wind
leaned against the uncut weeds. High wires hummed
with human voices in their travail. And the highway
I had worked but never traveled lay across the fields
and vanished in that distant gray where day meets night.

:: B.H. Fairchild, Usher (2009)


Directions to the Otter Creek Correctional Facility

When the guards clear my classroom for an evening recount,
I step outside and stand near the fence.

Here are years of cigarette butts casually flicked
into the rolls of concertina wire. No one can reach

in there to clean them up. I take strength from the cigarette butts.
In Kentucky, tobacco plants receive a lot of tough love

by having their blossoms pinched off to strengthen the leaves.
Beyond the fence, the wall of the mountain rises straight up

like a lump on the head a police baton might leave.
Here are the loneliest men in America. Some things help, I guess.

The bags of magazines, the books I bring in.
Each week before I’m allowed through the gate, I answer the same question:

Do you have any weapons, drugs, or contraband on your person?
I admit it was uncomfortable at first, but it’s routine now

like washing your hands after using the toilet.
How have so many in America found their way here?

Through the whorehouses of Okinawa, which are a kind of prison.
Through having been shot at four times, and four times missed.

Through the broken window of a liquor store.
Through the sincere love of alcohol, marijuana and other drugs.

Through junk cars, bad luck, and poverty, poverty, poverty.
Blue jays fly in and out of the yard with impunity. This must hurt to watch.

:: Tim Skeen, Kentucky Swami (2001)



is sitting in the boat
kicker pushing you along
after quarter mile portage
with a square stern freight canoe
twelve raw seal skins
one whole seal
a pack sack full of meat
six horse outboard motor
four gallon gas tank
ten gallon drum half full
two bedrolls and skins
a wet tent with poles
three rifles and a stove
tool box seal net rope
and one whole hour
before the next portage

:: Jim Green, in Going for Coffee (1981)


Mail Order Catalogs

Pewter loons, ceramic bunnies, and faux bamboo
are for the suburbs, and bird feeders in Tudor
and saltbox models, and tulips to force in delft.

But in smoky bars in small towns late on week nights,
where the old songs on the jukebox call in
their emotional debts only from habit,

for everyone’s derisively broke, and father out
in the washes and hollows from which men
drive vehicles to town to apply for loans for vehicles,

and from which women must buy a good dress by mail—
loneliness is the product and the customer gets sold to it:
country music, booze, and sunset shot through the cheesecloth

of topsoil powdered as fine in the dusky air as make-up
rich women wear back east. Once this darkening sky
was ocean thousands of feet up, and we were floor.

:: William Matthews, Forseeable Futures (1987)



Click here to read Charles Simic's poem "Factory" online at the Poetry Foundation.



It was something like love
that called my mother up at 3am
to rise for the Star-Ledger
deliver the papers to the paper deliverers,
her Chevy truck rumbling down Rt. 31,
passing the same cops, the same delivery trucks
heading northbound. It is something like love
that made that memory part of my history—
how many other moments do I have to pull hard on
to remember, like pulling a pike through
swamp water to eat it? Yet that comes so easily,
and now I can say it was love that put potatoes
and spam on the table. And it is love
that makes me cringe at the term “white trash”
because potatoes sometimes were all we could afford
and how we dressed is how we had to dress and I
watched TV a lot because everyone was working
or sleeping off the work and all the money we got
we paid to other white folks who weren’t white trash
because they owned used car lots or worked
as loan officers and even though I am the only one
in the family who even went to college or graduate
school or is a professor and author and distinguished
fellow I am still a dopey student of this world
and love my family and how hard they worked and still work
but really worked then just to be called white trash
while giving me the wings of encouragement
and “day-old shelf” bread in my soup
to make it and write this poem which I write
because I love them and love them deeply,
old good-for-nothin’ jagged-toothed white
white white trash that I motherfuckin’ am.

:: BJ Ward, Gravedigger’s Birthday (2002)


Emma Goes Back to the Home-place

We canned two bushels of peaches.
There are lots of tomatoes
for eating but they’re not
ripening too fast so we can
keep up with them. We don’t
have the flowers we used to.
My husband Will’s garden was full
of dill and he’s been fighting it
all summer. I made dill pickles,
though I can’t eat them. I want
to finish so I can replant violets.
I have two and three in a pot.

Last week I took a notion to get
some of mother’s lamb’s tail,
and figured it was still growing
down on the old home-place,
even though the land has been
fifty years wild, most of it
strip-mined. So yesterday we took
a ride down to Sherret. Things
have grown up something awful,
lots of farms have gone back.

We parked and I took Will back
the old lane, and at the bottom
of the mountain steps we found
a stand of those long white
blossoms—must have been a good
year for them, they were all over.
Mother had them up by the porch,
on the mountaintop, but now
they’ve seeded themselves below.
I dug down and got a good clump
and put it in a cardboard box.
We didn’t go up to the old place.
The steps are gone, and I’m sure
the house is too.

Next we visited one of my old
girlfriends. She was married
to a friend of my first husband.
I haven’t seen them since my son
was born nearly sixty years ago.
Even their neighbors knew me,
but for a while I kept them guessing.

I had been Sunday school secretary
and she was treasurer. When I told
her that, she had forgot. She has
turned kind of shaky. I said:
I am Emma Dobson, but I used to be
Peggy Lindsay, and before that
Margaret Woster.
I didn’t go
into how I got all those names,
but I was born Emma Margaret,
then each of my husbands called
me a name to go with theirs.

She knew me by my first and cried
My God and hugged me. I imagine
there’s lots of folks I still know
all over down there, if I could
keep up with where they’ve gone.
I made them acquainted with Will.

:: Naton Leslie, Emma Saves Her Life (2007)


Losing Father's Pocketwatch

I lean to heft the anchor in, when oh,
it’s gone . . . spinning down gold,
to copper, to black, into the crappie hole,
and cold terror climbs the rungs of my spine.

After father learns, he stands like a sentry
on the dock. Night drifts up slow, a glacier
of coal, as he surveys the jade-black lake,
breath pouring thick from the chimney
of his throat. It seems time has stopped,
or turns underwater in the watch alone.

Rooted on porch steps, I witness him
strip his shirt, bend, and dip flannel
to cool his severe brow. By now, the sky
is a massive anvil, and I wish I’d hammered

the watch to dust, mangled the hands
before his eyes till he slapped me hard.
Instead, he spears out arms and buries
himself in water, hopelessly kicking
toward the hole, the sharp smacks
of his strokes ringing the air.

: Gregory Fraser, Strange Pietà (2003)



His real name is Moses, but everyone
calls him Eddie (or Andy). He's
62 and I say hold your head up
that's a boy.

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


We Slit the Last

We slit the last
belly by dark,
guts an orange heap
on the wet gravel
next to the river
in rain haze mist;
scrubbed the slime
and the blood from
stiff hands in icy
currents, fast river
rumble filling our
ears. Wiped our fingers
on parka fronts,
trudged hollow clumping
in hip boots, back
to the yellow warm tents.
Lighted lamps inside
the canvas, shadows
moving on limp walls.
Boiled up a char, ate
with bannock and tea,
eyes getting heavy
from the purring stove
people warmth
soft talk
old stories new
tales of travel
talk of tomorrow, how
full the trap will be
char lunging at the rocks
thrashing about the pool
foaming the water
when we wade in
kakivak in hand
just as the sun
slips round the ridge.

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