What He Said

I have a wife, my wife
loves me like a child. She is
eighteen and the beauty of it all
let me tell you is seeing her
whole life like one good day
in my hands. There’s late shift,
no luck, her mother’s house—
but I count ten and hell,
the night stops, moonlight
pours through the windows.
Her arms are flimsy; she sleeps
hugging her knees. I’ve watched
for hours the rungs of silver
climbing the curtains. I believe
if the world slept days, I could think
what worked and what didn’t.
I’d get somewhere. But let it go.
We’re goners. The moon anyway is
false light, another face,
one more, done for.

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


Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!
—this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color—
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of canse
so that they softly say:

to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

:: Elizabeth Bishop


Roy McInnes


Roy McInnes is a welder. He spends his life
with chains and block and tackle, steel and torches,
lives his days inside a hood looking like
a medieval warrior, peering through a small rectangle
of blackened glass, watching light brighter than the sun.
He listens to the groan of generators, the crack and snap
of an electric arc liquefying steel. His hands
are always dark and on his upper lip there is
a mustache
as if wiped there by a greasy finger.

Roy McInnes is a small man and frail.
He speaks quietly and slowly and moves that way.
He seems at ease inside his body, comfortable there.
When you shake his hand his grip is warm and gentle
and you can feel the calm he carries in his person
flow into your arm.

Roy and I were visiting one day, years ago,
after we had got to know each other some,
and we got to talking about work
and I said, because I was afraid to tell the truth,
that I’d just about rather garden than do anything,
to which Roy responded, and there seemed to be
some sadness in his voice,
“Well I don’t know about just about.
All I know is what I’d rather do than anything.

I’d rather weld.”


Roy’s truck is an extension of himself,
which is not to be confused with the way some people
buy a fancy car with velour seats, electric windows
and suddenly start wearing cardigans and oxfords, suddenly become
little more than yet another piece of optional equipment.
In Roy’s life it is the truck that gets transformed.

I met his truck the day I first met him.
Not that he introduced me or anything like that,
it’s just you can’t help noticing.

When Roy bought the truck new-to-him, it was just a pickup,
a common insect like a million others identical to it.
He brought it home, put it in his shop and six weeks later
it emerged a strange, metallic butterfly, unique and fanciful,
translated to
an articulation of his private vision,
a function of Roy’s need and whimsy.

New, the truck was rated at three-quarter ton,
but with the added braces to the frame, heavier shocks,
special springs, dual rear wheels and heavy duty tires
it can carry four.

Roy cut the bed away right down to the frame
and welded on a diamond-plate floor and roof,
using two inch steel pipe for posts, one at each four corners,
one in the middle on each side. Then up forward,
toward the cab and half-way back, he welded
sheet metal walls and welded shelves to them
and all the shelves have doors on hinges, all made of steel.
There are hooks and clamps welded to the walls everywhere
so when he goes down a bumpy road his tools won’t bounce around.

Roy McInnes is a carpenter who builds with steel,
with boiler plate and torches.
In place of nails he binds his dream
with hydrogen and oxyacetylene.

Shaper, moulder, alchemist,
intermediary, priest,
his hands communicate a vision,
they create with skill and grace
an act of intercession between reality and need.


Roy’s house and shop are on the edge of town.
The shop was built in stages.
The tall center section with its steep-pitched roof
is sided with slabs from the local mill, whereas
the lean-to shed on the left
is particle board; the one on the right is Homasote.

Some people say it’s ugly, but what they can’t, or won’t,
understand is: the sidings write a history
of its construction. Rome wasn’t built in a day either.

When Roy built the center section he needed an opening
large enough to admit big trucks, like loggers’ rigs,
but couldn’t afford the kind of rising, jointed,
overhead doors gas stations and garages have
so he found a way to use ordinary storm doors,

the kind with glass so get could get some lit in there,
by hitching them with hinges side to side
and stacking them three high so now he’s got
two folding doors which make an opening fifteen feet wide
and seventeen feet high: two doors of doors
made from eighteen smaller doors.

Roy heats the shop with a homemade, quadruple-chamber,
oil-drum stove: four fifty-five gallon drums:
two side by side above one, the fire box, and one above the two:
a glowing diamond of cylinders all welded to each other
and held apart by rods and all connected by a pipe
which leads the smoke from one drum to another and finally,
when it has bled the smoke of heat, exits to the chimney.

Beyond the stove at the back of the shop
stacked willy-nilly against the wall
there is an intricate confusion of iron pipes, cast iron scraps,
angle iron, sheets of aluminum and steel, diamond plate,
expanded metal, loops of heavy wire and braided cable
and a half-dozen categories of other things I can’t identify—
a mine, the raw material of his dreams.

The shop is always cluttered, dirty and there is
a permanent grime that clings to everything.
Generators and tanks of gas and orange rubber hoses
snaked across the floor. The place smells of oil and grease,
of that molecular rearrangement of the air the welder’s arc

This is a place where—against the grinder’s scream and whine,
the moan of generators straining, the crackling spit of metal
rent asunder—human speech is pointless, drowned
in a cacophony of human voices. And when the machines
get still, it is a place to see through the smoky fog
something medieval, brooding, dark, fantastical.

It would be so easy to see this place as sinister,
to see the wizard/priest who rules this lair as evil,
that would be so easy if
you didn’t know that he is Roy—
the one who lets the calm of his body flow into your arm
when you touch his hand.


Stand in the highway; look at the shop straight on;
pretend it isn’t what it is; get beyond its function.
Look at its lines, at the proportions of height to width,
sheds to center section—an early Christian basilica,
or something Gothic.

The tall center section, narrow, steep-roofed—the nave.
The sheds—the aisles,
roofed over flying buttresses.
And those doors of doors are cathedral doors.

There are no rose windows here, no clestory, no triforium,
no vaulted ceilings or clustered piers, and it’s ratty,
but it soars—not too high or very gracefully
but it soars.

It is a January day.
The doors of doors fold open.
Roy appears in hood and grimy apron.

Then, just down the road, smoking through the village,
the penitent comes, the one who seeks the healing touch
of fire.

Guy Desjardins, trucker of logs and lumber
who just this morning while loading the biggest butt-log beech
he ever saw in his life, snapped the boom.
The truck lurches down the road, clam and boom dangling,
a wounded beast, Gargantua’s broken arm. Guy shifts down,
pulls to the doors of doors and in.

There are no acolytes, no choir
but the engine sings its cracked and pulsing song
and the censer spurts heady clouds of smoke to the rafters.

The doors come closed, truck shuts down
and for a moment Guy and Roy stand
before the diamond juggernaut of cylinders, their hands
outstretched in ritualistic adulation, readied for the altar
of cutting flame: The Mass of Steel and Fire.

From the clutter of his accidental reredos
Roy brings an angle iron. A ball peen hammer bangs,
generator moans, light arcs and snaps, steel flows
a second time—a liquid, balm, metallic salve
and the healing touch.

:: David Budbill, in Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life



for Cecilia Vicuña

This is my shop where the black wheel turns with greasy knob and heavy glove

My waist is never this circular and insistent, it stops whenever you stop
whenever you leave to check water-pressure that rises
with the Passaic coming down faster after a good storm’s
protest, claiming the world its own

My chest is always uneasy with clouds
of filament seeping through clenched teeth
to form tightly woven bandages around air that bursts when I cough
breaking my lungs’ thin tissue

Must this happen when I love you
more than the strength of chains pulling bales of cotton
when I become lost in the ecstatic spools that spin spin
like an underground press writing love poems to the long-faced regime

Who over sees the over-seer and must I cut my hair

Semi-roused this revolution I begin is for desire

So that the daily aprons are replaced by the seamless mechanics of the sun
entering and leaving all parts of the city, a national manufactory of bodies
turning away from the wheel and towards each other until they explode
with frayed ends like that sudden rupture from mother’s stare

And you glossy-tipped enter my room with dust in your mouth
smoky hair and skin with brown oil, a gray lover
never clean enough for the white sheets we never cease weaving
searching for the quiet origins of the piston and the smooth interlocking of teeth

I am flax with cracked shell, I am being pulled through combs over and over
perfectly shrinking through the eye of the machine’s miracle needles inching in
and out in and out of braids, becoming smaller to wind myself around bobbins
the product of post-colonial water application

I must keep you above the clamor/inside the endless motion/on the tips of my fingers

My fertile imagination conceives a great manufacturing center

My legs and your legs forming twine that never snaps
independent of the process, faster than the eye, tight and fiber-less
repaired instantly between waxy digits, forming tapestries never to be worn
thin in the usual manner: no cloth for daily needs, no rag for the usual forehead

You would be water-power to turn the mill wheels and I the navigable river to carry
string us back
thread to pre-woven
fiber earth language
filament of knots
twine heaven-tied
cord nature flexible
yarn interpreting
linen our looming
cotton bodies

Lying face to face, irrepressible and shameless along these Great Falls of Paterson

:: Rosa Alcala, in Beloit Poetry Journal (49:4, Summer 1999)


Night: 1

In bed,
the work is left behind
and brought still closer in.

I know that in my dreams
new shapes evolve,
sculptures done in heavy purple woods
and pale wood light as a star.
I know that you will think all night
about how long the joints will hold
and when and how you came to love
the wood so much.

Against you and away from you
under this dark green blanket
I know that any work is possible

and likely to be done
when there is light enough.

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


Out of Work

Click here to read William Corbett's poem in Ploughshares.


My Town

Where it belongs on the state
tourist map, well above the red lobster
on the coast and in between the man
skiing down the slope and the shining dome
of the capitol building, you’ll find nothing
except a moose standing in the grass.
But who would come to this place

to see the three-foot-long spotted
yellow butterflies faithfully displayed
on the side of LaFlamme’s house, or gather
with the others in the Grange Hall to hear
old Ethel Chadwick recite with a lisp
and the dazed, oddly beautiful look
in her eye “The Cremation of Sam McGee”

in its entirety on Old Home Day?
Anyway, what (as people from the city
might say after straying off Route 2
to find our few houses thrown downhill
among the trees) do they do here
for work? Nothing important, as you might
guess from how early in the morning

they start up the hill to do it, driving
to the shoe shop two towns over,
or the paper mill, or just down the road
to the store, where Betty DeCarlo stands all
day at the counter asking the same question:
“Can I help you?” I’m the one waiting
in line behind the couple with the skis

on their minivan who don’t even notice her alert,
genuine eyes, on their way through Eyeblink,
Maine, to someplace they’ve heard of,
and I’m the one lying awake listening
to the cars struggling up our hill in the darkness
of 5 o’clock a.m. to start their long day,
and at twilight sitting down in the old parlor

with the Redlevskis, that’s me, with a bag
of rhubarb I’ve just picked from my garden
for the two of them. On the television
in the corner a frowning man, on mute,
mimes all the news of concern to the nation.
Meanwhile, they are talking about how good
it is to eat fresh sticks of rhubarb raw, a concern

so small you wouldn’t care much about it
unless you could be there to see the face
she makes for the taste, a mixture of sorrow
and pleasure that seems to have her whole life
in it, and to hear, in the lamplight, the intimate
twang of their voices telling me this news
at evening in my town, as I’m telling it

to you now, in this only other place I know
where unexpected things can happen, off the map.

:: Wesley McNair, in Green Mountains Review (18:2, 2005)


My Father's Story

The blast furnaces dead, the cities dark,
the iron and ice ringing underfoot
but ringing for nothing, all for nothing,
no light in any house but kerosene,
the Depression a huge fact, a frozen hump
he couldn’t get over or around,
the primitive helplessness
of his parents—outraged,
the young man leaves to cut
ice on the pond, 40¢ an hour,
his bucksaw biting deep
into another man’s property.
If he can’t shape steel
he will sheathe these blocks
in yellow sawdust and lay them up
against the coming heat.
The ice at least will have
its occupation: in July, sweating
his sweat, oozing its wet golden drops
onto the ice house floor.

:: Patricia Dobler, Talking to Strangers (1986)


My Father

My father was four years in the war,
and afterward, according to my mother,
had nothing to say. She says he trembled
in his sleep the next four years.
My father was twice the father of sons
miscarried, and afterward, said nothing.
My mother keeps this silence also.
Four times my father was on strike,
and according to my mother, had nothing
to say. She says the company didn’t understand,
nor can her son, the meaning
of an extra 15 cents an hour in 1956
to a man tending a glass furnace in August.

I have always remembered him as a tired man.
I have respected him like a guest
and expected nothing.
It is April now.
My life lies before me
enticing as the woman at my side.
Now, in April, I want him to speak.
I want to stand against the worn body
of his pain. I want to try it in
like a coat that does not fit.

:: Peter Oresick


Mission Tire Factory, 1969

All through lunch Peter pinched at his crotch,
And Jesus talked about his tattoos,
And I let the flies crawl my arm, undisturbed,
Thinking it was wrong, a buck sixty-five,
The wash of rubber in our lungs,
The oven we would enter, squinting
—because earlier in the day Manny fell
From his machine, and when we carried him
To the workshed (blood from
Under his shirt, in his pants)
All he could manage, in an ignorance
Outdone only by pain, was to take three dollars
From his wallet, and say:
“Buy some sandwiches. You guys saved my life.”

:: Gary Soto


Unsettling the Farm

Over everything drift
clouds of stars, rivers of stars.
Its Halloween profile sharp
in a sky of indigo, the pale orange
crescent moon wanes above a forested
ridgeline cut deep and left high
by the Elkhorn. Barking, yapping,
DuAnne and Pea-Wit agitate the night
around the house, as if down the hill
other dogs are coursing the long
creek-hugging arms of fertile bottomland
under its slab of ground fog.
Awake, fretting again about his sheep,
the farmer gets up and stares into the dark.

At daylight, after coffee and cigarettes,
he trucks himself and the help
to plant-beds to pull up and bundle
green finger-thick tobacco
for setting in the nine harrowed acres.
As the Dodge bounces along
in dried ruts, the farmer
spots a collie, a ratty stray
running hell-bent, spooked
by the pickup clanking. So
the farmer brakes, gets out
and whistles, wishing
he had the rifle with him,
watching the collie disappear
where the field turns to nettles.
Then the workday begins, heats up
and goes on into sunset, the crew
pulling plants, setting plants,
the farmer brooding—tobacco, money,
rain, mold. Work done, his supper
down too fast, the farmer drops
off into sleep and might dream about
his fragile crop. In fog,
pursued, his sheep run

:: Dan Howell, Lost Country (1993)



Someone spoke to me last night,
told me the truth. Just a few words,
but I recognized it.
I knew I should make myself get up,
write it down, but it was late,
and I was exhausted from working
all day in the garden, moving rocks.
Now, I remember only the flavor—
not like food, sweet or sharp.
More like a fine powder, like dust.
And I wasn’t elated or frightened,
but simply rapt, aware.
That’s how it is sometimes—
God comes to your window,
all bright light and black wings,
and you’re just too tired to open it.

:: Dorianne Laux, What We Carry (1994)




The chalkboard and the mirror were the same.
It set our teeth on edge to taste dust
clapped from erasers, to stand as if unclothed
before the class, screech that yellow stylus

across the black complaining board, repeating
our compulsory figures. Mrs. Fender raked
a kind of Freddy Krueger hand from left
to right, slice perfect parallels. We kept

inside those lines, seeded ideas. Some
took root. George Washington Bridge, George
Washington Bridge:
words to mutely mouth
when stuck without a clue. It looks as if

you're singing with the choir, reciting the Pledge
of Allegiance, one nation, invisible, and who
could you trust to say what that meant? Above
the trough where all the boys lined up to pee

a long mirror hung, flaking, permanently
fogged like Mrs. Fender's cataract:
hard to tell if she were watching you
or not. Once on a dare you tasted silver

peeled from the mirror's back. Your brother swore
you'd die from eating mercury. It seeps
into bones and waits, accumulates
like yellow dust in the creases of Mrs.

Fender's hands. We breathed it in, obedient,
unsharpened, industrious minors coughing through
our drills, our efforts reduced to that dust
we still taste on our clumsy tongues.

:: Ron Mohring, Beneficence (2003)


Late News

In a small town in western Pennsylvania, a Polish workman
is killing everyone.

Who can say how the world seems
to Dombrowski this morning? It is as different
as a doberman’s or a general’s.

If this is a war,
Dombrowski is winning. If we are the enemy,
as by now we are, cover his hairy chest with ribbons.

Dombrowski peers out of his shell of a house
and the neighbors go round like neighbors
in a gallery and the police go round.

A man down the line at the plant says Things
ate on him lately, but no more than nobody else.
He does not wish to be named.
The dead
do not wish to be named, pending notification.

It is a quiet neighborhood, the kids lying
beside their bicycles, the lovers kissing nothing
forever on the porch swing.

Is there something
Dombrowski wants? The chief says A nut like that,
they ought to kill themself.

What if, in sullen wisdom,
we give in, retreat from the little town, or all
of Pennsylvania? Let the mad inherit their corner
of earth.

There would be space for miles
where only wind would blow. After a while, the mines
would go back to the grass. Bass would lie deep
in the Allegheny, as if they had never gone away.

One morning even Dombrowski might lay down his gun,
walk naked in a meadow that had been his yard.
Great waves of butterflies would ride the wind
and the ground would drum with distant hooves.

There is a sun so old no man has seen it.
In Pennsylvania, Dombrowski lifts his eyes.

:: Richard Blessing, in Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life


The Janitor

Late after work a man sweeps an office.
He can’t go home until the floor is finished:
swept, mopped, waxed. The brush with the long metal handle
is pushed around the filing cabinet and under the desks and chairs.
He mumbles now searching still for dust
while pushing it toward the door.
A draft in the hall raises some dust
and pushes it back at him.
He keeps the beat of the soft sound of his sweeping,
but now furiously, back and forth, as he
bumps the desk and bangs a wall, leaving a dent.
He mutters: “Dust, dust, dust.” He raises his broom,
shaking it at the surrounding silence.

:: William Oandasan, in Beloit Poetry Journal (30:2, Winter 1979-80)


In the Frame of Innings, Pendleton County, West Virginia

Remember it shin-deep, that coppery, sulphuric hue
of the North Fork of the South Branch—

the way it caught the summer glow
and threw it back to us tarnished?

We cruised those towns along the shallow ribbon:
Petersburg, Moorefield, Wampler Farms. August heat.

The summer’s sweet promise grown over-ripe,
scudding away downstream where eagles once nested

in the high-eaved banks.Bruised stink of poultry on the air.
Our fathers’ workshirts crumpled on the bedroom floors

foretelling our destinies, a sweaty heap: twenty years old and nowhere to go.
Just get ahold of what you can and swing like hell, Dad said. D’ya hear me?

We were young men, old boys grown too old from work,
the Guard, the low empty skies of our homes.

Sundays we gathered at the ballpark by the swale,
at the edge of hairy cornfields, where crows swarmed

and the river’s dog-legged riffles kept the beers cold.
Filling into our bodies roughly, abundantly

we were ready to put order to the green frenzy, our randy lives
with ball and bat, the smack of knuckles on leather palms,

the hey-nana-nana of pop and fling, gulping
our fleeting youth in the frame of innings.

Around there it all floats down the Potomac, on to Washington,
someplace else. The jobs, the college-bound, the new corridor

they had to run so many off to lay—a gash
in the ridgeline marks the route—

Eminent domain, the government called it.
Farm lines redrawn. Mountains thrust aside and scarred.

Big chugging trucks headed out of state. Loss arriving
in rehearsal for departure, hauling out the pieces.

So when someone like Travis Harper
could manage to rear back and uncoil

from some sweet sovereignty of motion
a slider that swept in from the knees

and bit the heart out of the plate, you bet
I dropped my shoulder, held my stare

and followed through with all I had.
It left me slack-jawed, glazed, then smiling.

What else to do but tip my hat
and marvel at this little bit of mastery?

—a moment of perfection amid
the sloppy, high-scoring hours of those days.

Afterwards, swerving down dirt roads,
throwing dust into the gleaming night,

we pressed the pedal home and, since we could,
took one last swig of the high life before retiring.

:: Ryan Walsh, in Green Mountains Review (18:2, 2005)



“Quit sniveling! Sit still!” And in disgust
he palmed my head like a basketball
and forced it down and buzzed the clippers up
my neck again. Hair sifted down my collar.
I squirmed. He jerked the pink bath towel
tighter against my throat, and hair
flew up and landed in the sugar bowl.
Then gradually, to even out mistakes,
my hair grew shorter, more like stubble,
more like West Point or hot Fort Hood,
where I was born. We saved some money.
But now it’s his turn and he sits,
hands folded on his lap, unsteady,
while I, with tiny scissors, snip
the gray hair curling from his nostrils
and from both ears; and, Jesus, at sixty
the death hairs really get their growth,
don’t they? the scissors pinch his skin
and he tries not to flinch. “Sit still!”
I snarl, and I’m so horrified
I say it one more time. “Sit still.”

:: Andrew Hudgins, The Glass Hammer (Knopf, 1994)


The Tip

It was boss cook’s fault. He left
the window wide open and now
the stockroom was crawling with cicadas.
He yelled and stomped them with his big
boot feet. “Stop!” I said, and ran for the broom.

Out front the regulars hollered for coffee.
One cicada escaped and made an emergency
landing on the counter. Pernell, who worked
graveyard shift at the power plant,
coaxed the thing onto his hand.

The trustful creature
didn’t dart like a roach. It perched
right on Pernell’s knuckles
calm as a man who’s worked a tough shift
with a clear conscience.
“He don’t eat
much,” said Pernell.
The cicada had a body like a dog poop,
crystal wings and orange eyes that broke the light
weird, like a 3-D postcard of Jesus. Miz Boulden
cringed. Her lipstick was on crooked
again. The cicada rubbed its hindparts
on its wings and chirred. Outside,
its tribe revved up the heat, like a UFO.

I said, “How do they know when to
come back?”

“God tells them,” said Pernell.

“God nothing,” Miz Boulden said. “Last time they came
my son was still living. That was when?”

“ ’53,” Pernell said. Boss cook hollered at me
to get sweeping. Pernell clucked: “Why
you work for that stringy-hair sucker?
You too sweet.”

I swept and swept.
The cicadas backflipped and scratched
the air. I threw them all
—living and dead—out
the back door, and let it
The sun cut through the pines.
I wished I was back in the woods with the bugs,

When I got back to the counter, Pernell had left.
“He took his pet with him,” Miz Boulden said.
“That boy’s not right. Now, where’s my eggs,
Up the hen’s butt, I thought.
I bit my tongue and cleared Pernell’s
cup. Underneath, crisp as an insect’s
wing, I found the new five.

:: Belle Waring, Refuge (1990)


Offerings to an Ulcerated God

Click here to read Martin Espada's poem in Ploughshares.


Typewriter Keys Pantoum

Typewriter keys dance to human fingers
Attached to hands searching for love
Amid a chorus of harmonious singers
Digging underground for a treasure trove

Attached to hands searching for love
Perfume of stargazers captivates the body whole
Digging underground for a treasure trove
Villages and cities alight in rapturous glow

Perfume of stargazers captivates the body whole
Moving in concert with the forces of labor
Villages and cities alight in rapturous glow
Workers’ councils gather neighbor to neighbor

Moving in concert with the forces of labor
Solving problems with cooperation and care
Workers’ councils gather neighbor to neighbor
With food and water and dwellings to share

Solving problems with cooperation and care
Indigenous people no longer asunder
With food and water and dwellings to share
Mountains and rivers but two of nature’s wonder
Indigenous people no longer asunder
Earth’s inhabitants strive to live side by side
Mountains and rivers but two of nature’s wonder
Expropriating property far and wide

Earth’s inhabitants strive to live side by side
Playing bamboo flutes both young and old
Expropriating property far and wide
Free to nourish children, humanity’s gold
Playing bamboo flutes both young and old
Amid the chorus of harmonious singers
Free to nourish children, humanity’s gold
Typewriter keys dance to human fingers

:: Nellie Wong (2003)


Kentucky Swami

My father cuts his fingers pulling off
rusty tin underpinning from the shed.
He hasn’t stopped to put on the gloves.
A strike with the claw hammer, a pull
with the bare hand, then a sizing up
of a new sheet of galvanized tin.

It’s always the same lesson, his Appalachian
childhood and mine: if we can’t make it,
we have to do without; if we can make it,
then we have to accept corners slightly
out of square and lines almost level.
His fingers leave streaks on bright metal.

:: Tim Skeen, Kentucky Swami (2001)


Old Man Pike

Old man Pike was a sawyer at the mill
over in Craftsbury.
He lived just down the road from here.
Every morning he walked six miles through the woods
over Dunn Hill saddle while the sun rose.
He took dinner and supper in the village
then walked home across the mountain in the dark.
Sally Tatro who used to live on my place
would hear him coming through the night, singing.
Sometimes he’d stop to gossip
but mostly she only saw him stride by the window
and disappear.

The old man could have stayed at home,
milked cows, like everybody else,
but he needed an excuse to go and come
through the mountains, every day,
all his life, alone.

Old man Pike didn’t believe in the local religion of work,
but out of deference, to his neighbors maybe,
he bowed to it,
placed its dullness at the center of his life,
but he was always sure, because of his excuse,
to wrap it at the edges of his days
in the dark and solitary amblings of his pleasure.

:: David Budbill, in Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life



The battered pickup’s bed
is a cornucopia
overflowing with sweet potatoes,
long tapered tubers
irregular and glorious as clouds
backlit by an orange sunset,
headed for roadside stand or market
or maybe back to Europe
where Spanish explorers, just home
from the New World, introduced them
half a millennium ago
as batatas, possessed (they insisted)
of aphrodisiacal powers,
which later inspired son-hungry Henry VIII
to import huge quantities
and gorge himself on sweet potatoes
baked into pie after pie
the way my father’s mother cooked them,
with light brown sugar
and cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves,
those spices teasing the warmth
out of the smooth meat
that had banked its glowing coal
underground all summer long,
waiting to feed the family
and every famished ancestor
with elemental sweetness,
filling our mouths
with temporary plenty
bite after bite.

:: Michael McFee, Shinemaster (2006)


Early Dark

The down on Glory Tucker’s jaw was blue,
and the wheel wells of his bumperless
Galaxy 500 were black enough to seem
violet when he parked beside his father’s
house. He held me gingerly about the waist
and gave me the imperceptible kiss
impossible to find on my side of town
where all the lips were wet and clumsy
with the embarrassment of good breeding.
Glory held two fingers to the bottom
of my spine and moved me to the door
circled in broken bowls, chains,
and the leaping, drooling dogs.
His father was parked in the damp
light of the TV, and the cans
around his chair rattled when he stood,
nodded somewhere beyond me and touched
my shoulder in that delicate way
I knew from his son, who offered me
then, a cold, white carnation dipped in blue.

When my mother said other side
of the tracks,
with that hard look,
I thought mostly of the ties I’d followed
along the river, the bridge I’d never
dared cross because there was only
space enough for one train. For every
good girl who dreamed of one day straddling
a Harley behind a boy from the other
side and peeling the stars out of the sky
like coins for the rest of her life,
there was one like me who knew
I’d have to go alone, slapping
those stars on like lights, shaking
the shadows out of the streets,
and holding the jailed faces of those
fathers up to mine, lest I forget
how much comfort I’d owe a man
who had nothing but a bottle, a chair,
blue light and the woman whose face
reminds him only of the last time

he was alive. Though I pretended
not to, I understood why my mother
asked what their fathers do, dear.
I did not tell her that Glory was
a father, that the photo of the red-haired
baby on the TV his father gazed into,
was his, that I had met his father
in a bar just outside the gates
to the glass factory, that I already knew
you couldn’t love a man into a better life,
but I wasn’t done pretending, would not
even now, give up that one night
we parked his silver car in a pool
of bruised moonlight on South River Road
and lay down head to head on the highway’s
cool white line, daring the future
to crest the next hill and marry us
to the steely path out of the valley.

:: Leslie Adrienne Miller, Ungodliness (Carnegie Mellon,1994)


The Boy

My older brother is walking down the sidewalk into the suburban summer night:
white T-shirt, blue jeans—to the field at the end of the street.

Hangers Hideout the boys called it, an undeveloped plot, a pit overgrown
with weeds, some old furniture thrown down there,

and some metal hangers clinking in the trees like wind chimes.
He’s running away from home because our father wants to cut his hair.

And in two more days our father will convince me to go to him—you know
where he is—and talk to him: No reprisals. He promised. A small parade of kids

in feet pajamas will accompany me, their voices like the first peepers in spring.
And my brother will walk ahead of us home, and my father

will shave his head bald, and my brother will not speak to anyone the next
month, not a word, not pass the milk, nothing.

What happened in our house taught my brothers how to leave, how to walk
down a sidewalk without looking back.

I was the girl. What happened taught me to follow him, whoever he was,
calling and calling his name.

:: Marie Howe, What the Living Do (Norton, 1998)


Cleaning the Basement

Click here to read Mary Rose O'Reilley's poem in Ploughshares.


From Emma's Scrapbook: 1944

Too many died in the world war
for Emma to save the obituaries,
instead she keeps the clippings
about the deserter gunned down
on Liberty Street, right beside
her and Dale’s house in Clarion.
Dale says, Enough is enough,

swear that when he retires
they will move to the forty acres
on Scotch Hill. Any excuse to leave
town, Emma thinks. She’s of two
minds about moving back to a farm
—half of her likes being away
from the work she’s always known.

The Clarion News says the man
claimed to be a veteran
of the Pacific campaign,
incapacitated by malaria,

that he traveled all over,
always keeping a full tank,
a shotgun in his trunk,
and a revolver on his person.

Where the man made his mistake
was in trying to settle down.
A man like him has to run,
Emma thinks, has to keep
his steps soft, his picture
out of sight, not take a job
driving dozer at the mines.
He should have gone out West

like her brother, and never
got found. Emma was startled
by the gunshots next door,
the police lights pinwheeling
and chasing the air ahead.
She wishes he had vanished,
had not reminded her that those
who are running might be right
beside you, might be somewhere
you are trying hard to live.

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


Net-Man Blues

Hell, I’ve half-hitched myself to death: this
Around and through, around and through.
I must have knotted my way across the universe
A hanging at a time, line after line,

And worked my way back by some circuitous route
Mending my way across a vast web of space
Stitching string rhomboids between those stars
On this slow-rocket mending needle hand-haul.

Ah, but those nets they made by hand
Must have diced their minds neater
Than the flesh of a fisherman
Rolled up tightly onto his own drum.

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


Vista Point

I dreamed Dori and the baby
were in the kitchen and it was so sunny
that the sky was all stiff and brittle.
Then the goldfish in the bowl on the table
went wild and jumped out of their water.
Dori ran with the baby into the park,
while the earth split up in chunks
and big palm trees sunk straight down
without swaying, just like phone poles
dropped into water.
Everyone was screaming.
The sky broke like windshield glass
and where the blue pieces fell away
there was the most brilliant white light
behind the sky: it was
so beautiful that I cried.

Lately I’ve been wondering a lot.
Not about anything in particular—
not looking for meaning in the cosmos
or anything like that, I’ve done enough
of that—but wondering about
little things that don’t amount to much.
And the wondering doesn’t go anywhere,
I just don’t know about it.
Sometimes I’m working
and my boss gets crazy about, say,
building the front to this or that
old wreck with wooden plugs and glue
instead of nails. Or sometimes
laying on top of Dori in bed—
once I just laid there for an hour,
watching my seed, in my mind,
seeing it in her,
like a small, eager river,
glowing white inside her—but
a river with a beginning and an end,
just a piece of a river.

I love her more than I can say—
there’s no one else’ll ever do—
but there’s something else
or things else
that I don’t even call by name
that come on me.
Sometimes in the truck after work
I park at the lookout
on the way back to the city and stare
at the sun going under the ledge of seawater.
And it’s like my body rebels and wants
to go after it. I’m like a seabird
whose leash is tied to it, who follows it
at night and pulls it up before dawn.
And I just punch the roof of the cab—
by now it’s got dents all over;
looks like a hail storm’s beaten it in.
I feel so caught
in the things that can be—
some dragonfly in amber—and called
also by the things that can’t be,
a man with feet
and no place for them.
If I didn’t have fists then,
I think I’d just die . . .
I don’t know, I love my wife,
love my son,
but there’s a plastic tether
maybe, made of time and place,
that I’m always stretching, pulling at.
I sometimes think if I went off
after the sun,
I’d not burn up there; I’d be
some kind of fire in my own right.

I have a private ambition:
to build a staircase in a Swiss town maybe
or in some southern church back home
where the miraculous still comes
home from the swamp—
a spiral staircase, much like a barber pole,
and one made without a single nail or joint,
inexplicably made so that no one piece
could have been done
without all the others first being finished.
A puzzle and a miracle I want it to be.
And then when it’s done, I plan to leave
the clapboard town by night,
like St. Joseph, on a mule maybe,
or just afoot with sandals,
never having spoken to anyone,
rector or wives,
leaving them each to wonder
what visitor it was who made this
and if, oh, if they dare to climb the stairs
and if the treads would make them holy.

I’d like to tell the baby about this,
but he’s like the fish sometimes,
steering around the chairs like he was
in corkscrew grass. If he could
he’d uproot it all, let it float: tight, white roots
all naked; chairs, rugs, me, lying sidelong
on the ceiling.
He likes the fish; I show them to him
all the time. I show him the lime tree
on the sill. I show him my picture
of the earth,
the lapis-like mix of the world
seen from above,
looking like an ear-jewel, a marble,
another eye, staring placidly back.
He kicks like a turtle at it.
I wanted to have him with me
at the lookout today after work.
There were a lot of picture-takers
there today, all squinting into a lens
for a picture of the seal herd on the rocks,
all shooting right into the sun.
They don’t bother me anymore. I know they come
and go home to long pants
and high position. They only travel
in order to go back and throw whale fins
up onto their walls for whatever neighbors
they have in their high-rises on the Loop.
To me they’re just little figures
against the sunset,
going down to L.A., going up to Eugene.
They never stay away from the motels
so near to dark.

I was thinking about the baby.
The sun turned a lemon color, then
almost colorless; and the cliffs
turned a brass color, the sky a bird-like gray.
The baby is eighteen months old;
he would have liked it.
When I was there alone,
a row of pelicans flew by. Seven of them.
Just above the horizon,
not touching the sun at all,
as if they’d been burnt by it.
And all at once, I just went wild—
a sort of cold wildness I’d never felt before—
that shook me as if I was freezing.
I was standing all alone
on the cliff edge, taking the peaches,
one by one, out of the crate
I had in the bed of the pickup,
and I was throwing them one at a time
at the sun,
cursing nonsense at it and crying
like a baby, the whole while
it sunk down,
down to Japan and China, to Rome
and all those places they take pictures of.

The fog came in.
I needed the headlights
it was so dark when I left,
the empty crate rattling in the truck.
Oh Dori, Dori,
woman, I love you best and forever,
but there’s ambition in me
which we all need to fear.

:: Richard Ronan, Narratives from America (Dragon Gate,1982)



Gaithersburg, Maryland

At Scot Gas, Darnestown Road,
the high school boys
pumping gas
would snicker at the rednecks.
Every Saturday night there was Earl,
puckering his liquor-smashed face
to announce that he was driving
across the bridge, a bridge spanning
only the whiskey river
that bubbled in his stomach.
Earl's car, one side crumpled like his nose,
would circle closely around the pumps,
turn signal winking relentlessly.

Another pickup truck morning,
and rednecks. Loitering
in our red uniforms, we watched
as a pickup rumbled through.
We expected: "Fill it with no-lead, boy,
and gimme a cash ticket."
We expected the farmer with sideburns
and a pompadour.
We, with new diplomas framed
at home, never expected the woman.
Her face was a purple rubber mask
melting off her head, scars rippling down
where the fire seared her freak face,
leaving her a carnival where high school boys
paid a quarter to look, and look away.

No one took the pump. The farmer saw us standing
in our red uniforms, a regiment of illiterate conscripts.
Still watching us, he leaned across the seat of the truck
and kissed her. He kissed her
all over her happy ruined face, kissed her
as I pumped the gas and scraped the windshield
and measured the oil, he kept kissing her.

Martin Espada, in Ploughshares