Just Another Walk on Water

When I stumble on the gunwales, now and then
Come visions of missing the handrail some wave:

Of treading water, cold seeping inward,
Watching my boat drive on driverless.
(Regretting I could never train it
To come when I whistled.)
Treading water with that ship receding
The only dot of heat on the horizon.

Wondering just what I’d say to myself
In that last wet conversation.

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


Poem to the Sea

She’s a cunning bitch,
waits at the periphery
for double vision
then one light chop and
vertigo sinks
like a toy boat down the ear canal.

It’s a miserable existence
on this trawler,
5 a.m. bacon frying
1800 r.p.m. gastric juices brining
sifto salt up the nose,
guts sliding like a fish on a wet board;

so tie me leeward and bury me
with coffee fumes,
diesel, potato scraps and egg.

Leaning over this edge
nothing is as constant as the
sea always moving;

even the swell of my breasts
makes me sick.

:: Carolyn Borsman, in Going for Coffee (1981)


Tool Box

Under the rusting red metal lid we’re waiting for you—your father’s tools.
We always knew you weren’t going to build a doghouse or repair the stairs or
tighten a bibcock faucet, but we wanted to be of use as in the old days. Ah, the
old days! When we heard your father’s tread on the basement steps, we were
thrilled. The hammer clenched its head, the bubble trembled in the level, the
pliers stretched its jaws. But after your father died it was worse than we ex-
pected. You carted us out to your car, left us for months in the trunk, and then
stuck us on the floor of this hall closet next to the vacuum cleaner. Now the
hacksaw’s teeth are rusting, the file’s worn down, and the measuring tape sags
beside the plane. The poor jackscrew, no longer attached to a work bench, has
grown forgetful, and thinks it’s really a micrometer caliper. All you care about
is duct tape these days, tearing off flashy shreds to cover your botched work
while the tough little nails languish. So watch out! All of us in here are fed up
with your disregard for some of mankind’s oldest inventions, so if you ever do
open this lid you’re going to get hurt.

:: Maura Stanton, in New Ohio Review (2009)


The Truck Driver's Husband: A Letter

after Ezra Pound, after Rihaku (Li Tai Po)

While Mom was still cropping me crewcut close,
I played around the trailer parks, in jeans
and hot-rod tee shirts, vandalizing all.
You used to swing by—swing your girlish hips—
smack your red lips off cherry Popsicles,
and say that I could just whip the weenie
forever. So we plagued that crazy place,
taunting the neighbors, pissed on and pissed off.

But we were married soon, when you got pregnant.
I was frightened, didn’t laugh for years.
I hired on at Smitty’s Gulf for peanuts—
pumped gas, changed oil, learned how to fix a car.
When you’d come down with Danny on your hip,
I wouldn’t look up from underneath the hood.

At twenty-six I wanted you forever.
Never sorry then, I stared away,
dreamed of the place I’d have with you, the home
where I would die someday, be carried out.

At thirty-eight you got your license, left
to drive a rig from Florida to Maine.
And you’ve been gone twelve months today. The semis
winding out at night still make me think.

I’m sober seven months and painted the house.
I wish you’d seen the garden here this year:
tons of tomatoes, four bushels of beans.
It hurts. I’m sorry now. My beard is peppered.
If you swing past and have some time to talk,
call me, please, and I’ll come out to meet
you, anywhere you like on I-95.

:: Patric Pepper, Temporary Apprehensions (2005)



In August he speared tobacco, the long stalk,
like a girl in green skirts, lifting her,
balancing her—then the hollow crack
through the marrow as she came down.
On the ground, the velvet leaves wilted
like difficult tropical things, lopped
for the tourists to poke and hold to the light.
Late in the day, when I drove the tractor
into the field, I watched him shift his weight
and lift each lath to the scaffolding of the wagon.
There was an awkward moment, unmistakable,
when he held the leaves in his arms,
against the length of his body, setting his hand
for the last handling; and he breathed in
the leaves’ dust, his mouth on the leaves’ hair.
Many times in August, the hottest days,
I saw him embrace, like a father who knows his crimes,
these withering girls.

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


Building a New Home

The generator kicks and whines,
steam shovel treads grind limestone
to dust. I got up at dawn,
the first blue light anointing
the sweaty backs of the clouds,
both eyes burning with essential salt
leaking down my scalp.
New buildings
Break away from the red broken clay.
Excavation before foundation—
five thousand nail per plywood frame.
We’re working towards something
better—full of daylight, and easy
to enter.
This must be
the song my father taught me:
build each one as if it were my own.
Always take care of my tools,
they are the only things that matter
in this world. They will make me
known among these men.

:: Timothy Geiger, Blue Light Factory (1999)


The Bad Old Days

The summer of nineteen eighteen
I read The Jungle and The
Research Magnificent
. That fall
My father died and my aunt
Took me to Chicago to live.
The first thing I did was to take
A streetcar to the stockyards.
In the winter afternoon,
Gritty and fetid, I walked
Through the filthy snow, through the
Squalid streets, looking shyly
Into the people’s faces,
Those who were home in the daytime.
Debauched and exhausted faces,
Starved and looted brains, faces
Like the faces in the senile
And insane wards of charity
Hospitals. Predatory
Faces of little children.
Then as the soiled twilight darkened,
Under the green gas lamps, and the
Sputtering purple arc lamps,
The faces of the men coming
Home from work, some still alive with
The last pulse of hope or courage,
Some sly and bitter, some smart and
Silly, most of them already
Broken and empty, no life,
Only blinding tiredness, worse
Than any tired animal.
The sour smells of a thousand
Suppers of fried potatoes and
Fried cabbage bled into the street.
I was giddy and sick, and out
Of my misery I felt rising
A terrible anger and out
Of the anger, an absolute vow.
Today the evil is clean
And prosperous, but it is
Everywhere, you don’t have to
Take a streetcar to find it.
And it is the same evil.
And the misery, and the
Anger, and the vow are the same.

:: Kenneth Rexroth, The Collected Shorter Poems (1963)


Bird for Tony: Quitting the Job at the Fish Lure Factory in Providence, RI

There was this backstreet somewhere in Providence
and a factory there then where local girls
assembled fish lures at a wooden slab of window seat.
I did too, dreaming silver to ring my fingers
and watching sunlight defy the breath of space
between the stretch of brick walls and shift hours.

These days when my knuckles swell and redden,
like an old arthritic memory in the joint,
I try to recall how it was done: the routine
hook to feathered parts, hand to press, the crank
and quick flip of clips into the inspector's pile,
Tony measuring my mistakes twice the size
of the other girls' accomplishments.

The other girls chattered through break time
about Soaps and True Confessions, the dying art
of making-out at the last of the drive-in movies
out on the highway, living it up Saturday night,
boys who made in from Newport. They lined up
at break time for a blast of Marlboro country.

I turned over mistakes to find a good one missed.
Tony watched the clock, chopped a minute off my five.
I didn't know the rules then, slipped out of the shop
into high noon when he caught me by my sleeve,
said he'd give me better wages than the rest,
if I'd come back under-the-table.

It was then he brushed his stubbled jaw against my cheek,
said it again, in a voice the way I never heard
a man's before so low and have too many times since.
He said he always wanted a smart little bird to train.
I flexed my aching fingers, stuck out the middle one to him,
turned and climbed the stony hill ahead, laid down
in a shadetree dream, becoming big as afternoon itself
and vast as the possibility of a bird winging sky.

:: Andrena Zawinski, Traveling in Reflected Light (1996)


Bury Me in My Overalls

Bury me in my overalls, don’t use my gabardine,
Bury me in my overalls or in my beat-up jeans.
Give my suit to Uncle Jake,
He can wear it at my wake,
And bury me in my overalls.

The undertaker will get my dough, the grave will get my bones,
And what is left will have to go for one of those granite stones,
But this suit cost me two weeks pay
So let it live another day,
And bury me in my overalls.

The grave it is a quiet place, there is no labor there,
And I will rest more easy in the clothes I always wear.
This suit was made for warmer climes,
Holidays and happy times,
So bury me in my overalls.

And when I get to heaven, where they tally work and sin,
They’ll open up those pearly gates and holler, “Come on in!
A working stiff like you, we know,
Has had his share of Hell below
So come to glory in your overalls!”

:: Malvina Reynolds, Song in My Pocket (1954)


Morning Coffeebreak

The difference between now and then
is when I’s young
all I wanted to do was run off
and find me a river
or a stocktank with a tree by it
to hang my clothes in
so I could cool off and swim

now I just think about that mountain
and a aspen tree with leaves
that won’t hold still to see what color it is
even when the wind doesn’t blow
the bark so white it’s cool
in the afternoon when I set down
with my back up to it
watching a chipmunk go down a hole
and one of us goes to sleep
and the other one don’t care
whether he dreams about him or not

:: David Lee, Day’s Work (1990)


Factory Work

All day I stand here, like this,
over the hot-glue machine,
not too close to the wheel
that brings up the glue,
and I take those metal shanks,
slide the backs of them in glue
and make them lie down
on the shoe-bottoms, before the sole
goes on. It's simple, but the lasts
weigh, give you big arms.
If I hit my boyfriend now,
in the supermarket parking lot,
he knows I hit him.

Phyllis, who stands next to me,
had long hair before the glue machine
got it. My machine ate up my shirt once.
I tried to get it out, the wheel
spinning on me, until someone with a brain
turned it off. It's not bad
here, people leave you alone,
don't ask you what you're thinking.

It's a good thing, too, because all this morning
I was remembering last night,
when I really thought my grandpa's soul
had moved into the apartment,
the way the eggs fell, and the lamp
broke, like someone was trying
to communicate to me, and he
just dead this week. I wouldn't
blame him. That man in the next aisle
reminds me of him, a little.

It's late October now, and Eastland
needs to lay some people off.
Last week they ran a contest
to see which shankers shanked fastest.
I'm not embarrassed to say
I beat them all. It's all
in economy of motion, all the moves
on automatic.
I almost
don't need to look at what
I'm doing. I'm thinking of the way
the leaves turn red when the cold
gets near them. They fall until
you're wading in red leaves up to your knees,
and the air snaps
in the tree-knuckles, and you begin
to see your breath rise
out of you like your own ghost
each morning you come here.

:: Deborah Boe, Mojave (1988)


Farmer's Tan

My father’s arms lie worse than his eyes;
the red of his perma-burned forearms stretches only
to the bottom of his shirt sleeves, from there
oaken muscles hardened by decades of rice farming,
covered by loose skin bleached the color of sun-faded paper
take up the fight. If you ignore that sagging face,
chin slumped beneath the weight of lies told
and heard, skip over the neck, a motley cliché,
and go straight to the chest, you’ll see that same fragile skin
falling down to his black toenails, ruined by rice field water.

He offers me a stiff hug and I feel the halting muscles grip
and relax, stone slips into putty
unreliable as time. Life will throw its booted foot
before his feet but few times, now.
This man, this stone pillar who could break me
as easily as glass in a child’s hands,
has been worn down by water over the years.

:: C L Bledsoe, in Stickman Review (3:1)


A Red Palm

You’re in this dream of cotton plants.
You raise a hoe, swing, and the first weeds
Fall with a sigh. You take another step,
Chop, and the sigh comes again,
Until you yourself are breathing that way
With each step, a sigh that will follow you into town.

That’s hours later. The sun is a red blister
Coming up in your palm. Your back is strong,
Young, not yet the broken chair
In an abandoned school of dry spiders.
Dust settles on your forehead, dirt
Smiles under each fingernail.
You chop, step, and by the end of the first row,
You can buy one splendid fish for wife
and three sons. Another row, another fish,
Until you have enough and move on to milk,
Bread, meat. Ten hours and the cupboards creak.
You can rest in the backyard under a tree.
Your hands twitch on your lap,
Not unlike the fish on a pier or the bottom
Of a boat. You drink iced tea. The minutes jerk
Like flies.
It’s dusk, now night,
And the lights in your home are on.
That costs money, yellow light
in the kitchen. That’s thirty steps,
You say to your hands,
Now shaped into binoculars.
You could raise them to your eyes:
You were a fool in school, now look at you.
You’re a giant among cotton plants.
The lung-shaped leaves that run breathing for miles.

Now you see your oldest boy, also running.
Papa, he says, it’s time to come in.
You pull him into your lap
And ask, What’s forty times nine?
He knows as well as you, and you smile.
The wind makes peace with the trees,
The stars strike themselves in the dark.
You get up and walk with the sigh of cotton plants.
You go to sleep with a red sun on your palm,
The sore light you see when you first stir in bed.

:: Gary Soto, New & Selected Poems (1995)


In a Red Dress

in a red dress
a woman on her knees
washes a floor
a hundred years ago

she is shaping the life of her children
she thinks as a woman
does of freedom
a dark place in the woods
where the north enters the trees

she wonders if words mean history a woman
losing her children
if reading is a crime

she does not ask for pity
there is a damp rag on the floor

she wipes
in the dress she slept in the dress
she had her children in

she scrubs the floor
does not brush her teeth
she picks them with straw or sticks

she moves on her knees
and watches the ceiling in the water
reflected in the water
everything in her life
is hard like the floor she

the water in her hands
the water is between her legs
her body like a sack of muscle
her hands are dark with water

she wonders about her children
how many children if she could count
past her fingers
about her body
the words she would find if she could read

she gathers water
like sounds in her head
she kneels
like a slave
in church
like a slave preparing to dance
in front of the pig house
she pretends
to be quiet
her mind is grinding
pissing in the evening meal

:: Sam Cornish, Sam’s World (1978)


The People in My Building

for Marylouise Burke

The people in my building live alone
in studio apartments. Six floors, one
elevator, a basement full of roaches
where I met Diane folding laundry.
She told me that our building used to be
owned by a hospital trustee who rented
exclusively to nurses. One by one
they married off and moved away to live.
A few are left: Theresa in 6D
who comes home at noon in surgical scrubs
to walk her blind schnauzer; Jane in 2F
who receives all those queensize catalogs.
Diane handed me her number.
I called and got St. Vincent’s Hospital.

A tall old lady on the third floor
sold everything to move in with her son
in Colorado, where she could breathe the air.
She used to be a Radio City Rockette—
showed me black and white glossies to prove it.
I bought her air conditioner, her blender
and one pair of long nylon stockings.
The small, mustachioed man on the sixth floor
has a mutt named Lady, a Vietnam Vet
sticker on his door, a tiny Puerto Rican
boyfriend who sometimes wears a dress,
turns tricks on Gansevoort Street, and when
he forgets his keys, we see him climbing
past our windows up the fire escape.

I only hear the gay couple next door
when one of them is shouting from the bathroom.
They talk like married people, which they are.
Ruth, the widow on the other side,
would press her ear to her kitchen wall
each night, and pounded if she heard
Johnny Carson on my television.
We all hated her, and then she died—
she’d been dead for days, the firemen said.
You can know your building if you’re interested
in sadness. Good things probably happen
but they don’t seem to make it through
the walls. Sometimes in the elevator
we’ll stand together, breathing in silence.

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


And If You Wonder How I Could Have Such Heroes

I remember at Christmas
my brother would come home wealthy and drunk
staggering out of the oil patch
looking for love

The men who froze
clanged against the cold nights
were my heroes
They had money cars women
How they drove fast
and killed themselves

When you work in the oil patch
you think you’re giving something
You know the sweat off your ass
has set up the people
who condescend from their Cadillacs

You drink and act tough
maybe get drunk enough to fight
When the money is gone
you disappear like a trapper
into the wilderness of iron

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


Bare Island

Thirty-five southeast
the wind is with us;
we race towards Bare Island
cutting phosphorescence
by light of our radar
glowing orange
in half light,
and when the anchor is dropped
land melts, speckles of the fleet
spread into orange
grey orange
and a circle of black.

We cut the engine, and
with dark spits like the arms of
an octopus around us,
the anchor lights of
some hundred boats around us
clustered into tentacle buds,
as anything electric
to the night,
we pour the last of the whisky
and hunch in the galley for warmth.

Trawlers still run in,
slipping the length of the island
looking for a dark place,
like so many lit parasites,
and when they find it
there they hang,
against the wind.

Well into night
the squall changes direction;
southwest drags our anchor.
With black water sounds
scraping hull
the inside dark as pitch,
we rock in our bunks.
Stars cram an overhead hatch.
The clock ticks,
wood with metal,
breathing with precision,
but darkness is the only measure of light.

When Bare Island spreads grey as land;
when the wind slackens,
another day of fishing begins
and grey as any other
and yet another day.

:: Carolyn Borsman, in Going for Coffee (1981)


The Scythe

My father divided the sun's arc
with the curved knife of a scythe,
cut the day down in swung crescents
and sap-dyed steps through a field

that kept no purpose but to be open
and grow high. His cutter's lilt,
the tilt and torsion, was his father's.
Before that it was grained in the curl

of the snath, never shaped but grown
in the grey ash that made its handle,
a tool uprooted, a movement
found and anchored like a stone.

At his center of gravity: this rune.
His blade-span and sway mouthed its name
in the way the firm muscle of a rainbow
trout speaks the river's mind.

I was far behind in his swath,
spreading straw to dry yellow in the sun,
rolling hay into riddles, unfurling tarps
to peg down all the work we'd done.

Each shadow grew long in the tooth,
and when the scythe hung dormant
on nail hooks sunk in the stable wall
I took it down with both hands,

held the handles, fixed a balance
with the bone-rule cradled in its blade,
felt a gait and radius shifting weight
as relic-marrows tightened in my frame.

:: James Langer, Gun Dogs



Coffee cups, brown glaze on white,
stand along the bench.
Spilled liquid leaves clumps of grey sawdust
around unfinished work.
The tools are dull,
and I have sat on my crooked stool for hours
trying to think of mirror designs.

A friend comes by to see how the work goes,
to share new books,
to drink tea from an ivory cup.
I pick up a slipstone,
and we whisper through the afternoon.

:: Carol Cox, Woodworking and Places Nearby (1979)


Storm Cloud

I observed the dark cloud expanding
above the ridge as I folded the laundry
and admitted to myself that I know
far less than the ant or spider.
For how long did I make this error
of thinking I knew more than the creatures?
Of not enjoying the smallest chores?
Now that I have imagined myself
from above, I see my tasks as blessings
in the ruse of motions, as if the world
were invisible to the dead and I was
merely dancing for them on an empty
stage from a great, great distance
that is also near, adjusting my glasses,
folding a towel, looking up.

:: Chard deNiord, in Green Mountains Review (18:2, 2005)


Black Box

Because the cockpit, like the snowy village in a paperweight,
parodies the undomed world outside, and because
even a randomly composed society like Air Florida

flight #7 needs minutes for its meeting, the tape
in the black box slithers and loops with its slow,
urinary hiss like the air-filtering system in a fall-

out shelter. What’s normally on the tape? Office life
at 39,000 feet, radio sputter and blab, language
on automatic pilot. Suppose the flight should fail.

Cosseted against impact and armored against fire,
the black box records not time but history. Bad choice.
The most frequent last word on the black box

tape is “Mother.” Will this change if we get
more female pilots? Who knows? But here’s
the best exchange: “We’re going down.” “I know.”

:: William Matthews, Forseeable Futures (1987)


The Healys Had a Farm

Click here to read (and hear) Thomas Healy's poem "The Healys Had a Farm" at Drunken Boat.



I’m mowing the yard
when the wind suddenly shifts
from the direction if U.S. Steel.
The sun catches the graphite flecks
and makes the world sparkle like it does
sometimes when you stand up too fast.
The place where my father works
darkens our lungs. The trees, the car,
the house, the street, the mower,
the hair on my body all shine
the same dull light. I brush up
against the door and leave behind a smear
like a line erased by the fat pencils
with which we learned to write.

:: Tim Skeen, Kentucky Swami (2001)



A man with a stopwatch stares
at my hands, his thumb on the button.
He is timing how long it takes me
to take this part, put it in my machine,
push two buttons, take it out.

He is trying to eliminate my job.
But I take a second or two
to scratch my balls.
Got to allow time for that,
I wink at him.

He shakes his head,
his bright orange earplugs
wedged in tight.

I guess finally it’s not him
who decides. He seems reluctant
to meet my eyes, jotting quick notes
in the aisle.

Somebody somewhere’s got a watch
on him too. Somebody’s put us both here
where we can’t hear each other.

:: Jim Daniels, Punching Out (1990)


The Story of Glass

From the holes of the earth, from
truck, from silo, from cullet,
from scale, batch, tank, heat-wind; from

heat, from ribbon, from flow, roll
roll, from lehr, they feed the line.

They crosscut, snap, they flour lites,
plates, plates, plates on belts, coveys,
glass, glass you grab, you pull, you

lift, you pack, you kick, you count,
and you turn, they feed the line.

You reach, you grab, you pack, you
tap, into skid, into crane,
into pack, uncut and cut-

down, they stock, they bay, they stack
skid, skid on skid, box, and they

feed the line. They multi-cut,
they Race 1, they feed you glass
and it comes, it waits. you pack,

it moves. stops, and you pack, it
comes, it comes, it comes without

pause, it comes without thought, it
comes without Jesus or Marx,
it comes, it comes, you pack, they

feed the line. You band, you crimp,
you ship to Kuwait, Detroit,

to Crestline, Ohio, they
profit, it comes, they feed the
line. You eat, you sleep, you bail

glass from your dreams, you drown, you
faint, you rest, you rage, you love,

feed they feed
the line, glass, industry you,
from earth.

:: Peter Oresick


Dubuque Street

If this were my lawn I would stand here staring
at the gray clouds moving across the small moon.

I would watch the flutter on the furthermost leaf
behind the rainspout and the crumbling brick.

I would plan the next twenty years without flinching,
one knee in the tomatoes,

one knee in the cement,
my hands all black from dreaming and digging and praying
in the soft dirt.

:: Gerald Stern, Leaving Another Kingdom (1984)



She sits on the hood of her boyfriend’s car,
the wax gone white, ready to be rubbed.
On the door, in the smear, she has written
her name in smooth capitals: JENNIFER.
She leans back on the cool windshield, pulls
her suntanned legs to her chest. She pinches
a thigh. Sighs. Twists her hair into a knot
on her head. Three doors down her mother
starts lunch. Her brother jumps, touches
the ceiling. Ten years from now his prints
will still be there. She feels a sharp pain
in her side and bends to it, not knowing
a small pink egg had burst through her ovary,
that it will leave a scar the shape of a baby’s
clipped nail. She hopes her dad doesn’t
call her in before her boyfriend gets back.
She heard today in school that the world
could end. She can’t imagine it. She closes
her eyes and thinks about her boyfriend’s
muscles, the soft yellow chamois that will
snap from his hands. She thinks about later
tonight, at the drive-in, how they’ll sit
so close in this car, how it will shine.

:: Dorianne Laux, Awake (1990)


From Emma's Scrapbook: 1938

Her son Andy’s teacher,
Mr. C.A. Conley, sent home
a page of the boy’s handwriting,
and a picture of a sailing ship
he colored. The ship is under
a blushed setting of rising sun,
the ocean is smeared with violets,
the saffron sails are as proud
and full as pregnant aprons.

But the script is what makes
her wonder at what they are
teaching the boy, what odd
new words have been trying him.
Fourth grade, already a class
beyond what his father passed,
and his uppercase letters look
like fine buildings in town,
laced and painted in three colors.
His lowercase script shirks
across the page like ants
trailing some rumored sweetness.
The wispy line of numerals
were an afterthought.

This is a sample of my best
it says below,
and she is sure it is, sure
it will never be as fine
as this again. She folds
the ruled paper eight times,
and puts it away in her book.

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


Road Sign

Click here to read Tim Poland's "Road Sign" online at the Stickman Review.


Picking Tomatoes

Sunday morning
ten past eight
I am walking to work
in tomatoes

I am in the tomatoes

I am a tomato

Walking home
I was a tomato,
sure as hell
won’t be one
next year

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