Click here to read Martin's poem in the spring 1995 isue of Ploughshares.


Signing Up for Unemployment Benefits

At the Lorain Bureau of Unemployment,
I show the clerks my army discharge papers
and fill out the forms they give me
which explain how I’ve been defending

the right to earn the minimum wage.
I move from one line to another
and wait to show my paperwork to people
with jobs who tell me about the opportunities

in Corrections for ex-MPs.
I fill out more color-coded forms
under the fluorescent lights.
Before I joined the army, this building

used to be a grocery store.
I examine each form as carefully as day-old bread,
sign my name exactly the same way each time.
Somebody behind me shakes

hands with a buddy in another line.
Ronald Reagan wears a hard hat and a flannel shirt
on TV. He promises to put us all to work.
Faithfully, I carry my blue record book

each week from one factory to another,
collecting signatures, stamps, and numbers
that explain everything
except why I do not have a job.

:: Tim Skeen, Kentucky Swami (2001)



From the scrap barrel at work I pilfered scraps—
rags, ends of bolts. Grandmomma jerked
thread through the cloth so hard the batting bulged.
We fought for those crude quilts, me and my brothers.
She yanked the stitches till they puckered, and slowly
the stolen scraps yielded a Drunkard’s Path.

Grandmomma’s ten years dead and her bad work
still keeps me hot at night, in Northern weather,
which she despised, just as she hated you
if you were Northern, rich, black, smart, or atheist.
I loved her because, like God, she loved me first,
ferociously. A love so close to hate
it’s taken decades just to say there is a difference.

I sat between her knees, head tilted back.
She thumbed the crusty threads. “There ain’t no call
paying some doctor to do this.” She snipped
the threads lacing my forehead, popped them out.
But first she studied them and said, “It’s sloppy—
those big loose stitches. I’d sew you tighter.” She grinned,
and with a lipless peck she kissed the stitches.

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


Little Elegy

Oh how he loved his cup
and now he’s dirt
under the pine trees

—Li Po

A moment of silence at Soup Kitchen
for our saint of the quick grip, faking
a side stitch to hide the bottle under his coat,

for his taped shoes and worm-eaten watch cap,
that clarifying fish pier scent, raw-grained
and terrifying smell of the skids,

how little it takes to wake up over a grate,
half-dissolved in shadow and mist—
half-dissolved, but still blissed out, bantering

with buddies, flailing on icy streets,
then catching hold of a lamppost and nodding
to it, to the sky, the glittery walk,

to a passing taillight, an old belief,
foolish or fearless, that everything’s sacred,
and now he’s gone.

:: Betsy Sholl, Late Psalm (Wisconsin, 2004)


Paper Mill Town

So we can have our fine and cherished texts
(those rocket-launched epiphanies emerge
when we scratch temples, eyes hazy in thought),

they went to work—noses upturned in that
nearly shriveled and rotted pulpy stench
tossed sideways into air like chimney smoke

on gray days with no contrast to offer,
every day the same, unyielding; they went to work,
lonely machinists gripped rusty lunch pails

and counted hours, and counted hours,
while the boys—pimply, cactus-stubble shaved—
pushed mops and daydreamed backseat adventures

with girls who’d never acknowledge them,
and counted hours, and counted hours,
while clippings weighted tile floors like snowstorms

piled high as our shelves flaunting those book spines
on a slight tilt—dominoes that won’t drop.
And we lose ourselves in the words, those words,

can’t speak the story inside the story,
of how they made thought, and counted hours,
and counted hours—so we can think it.

:: Mindi Kirchner, Song of the Rest of Us (2009)


Kingdoms of Laziness

There’s no charge for walking to the rail fence
where the ants have quit their jobs

and started a colony of good-for-nothings
who idle on their backs all day

singing show tunes.
Out here, yawns come loose

from your intentions
and go off on their own.

And the next thought
takes you like a dog in happy weather.

Nights are cool with a little wind.
Parked on either side of the street—

dusty, forgetful cars
that haven’t moved in days.

:: David Tucker, Late for Work (2006)


Furniture Factory

Upstairs the sanders
rubbed fingernails
thin, hands shiny
and soft as a barber’s—
men past forty
down on their luck.
Below, I worked in a haze
of fine dust
sifting down—
the lives of the sanders
sifting down, delicately
riding the cluttered
beams of light.
I pounded nails
on the line.
The wood swallowed hard
nailheads like coins
too thin to pick up.
Lunchtimes I read—
You gonna be
a lawyer, Ace?—
then forgot the alphabet
as I hammered
afternoons flat.
My father worked there too
breathing the sanding
room’s haze.
We ate quiet lunches together
in the car.
In July
he quit—hands
soft, thick fingernails
feathery at the tips.

:: Vern Rutsala, in Brother Songs: A Male Anthology of Poetry (1979)



Click here to read Maxine's poem in Ploughshares.


Friends Dropping By

Their faces seem dark,
for I have been lost in the work
and for a moment cannot find my way back:
my hands shake slightly
from gripping the tool.

Coming from a place where
talking is the order of the day,
they settle in,
ears and mouths glittery with expectation.

I can serve cold tea and almonds,
I can move between the rooms
and F. can smile at them—
the afternoon light lifts gold strips
across our faces—
we can form a slight but warming circle
around the floor

and they can leave,
laughing lightly and slamming car doors,
blowing off toward the dropped sun:

we stand back from the windows,
listening to the roses scratch against the house
and to the rustlings of the cat
far down the hall.

He moves first to start the rice.
I have found a new opening
in the wall,
the source perhaps of the faint ribbon of cold air
which drifted in all winter.

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


Following the Blueprints

To the open possibility
of steel against sky
we weld, bolt and strap

wide staircases of marble, arched
skylights, commanding views

serviced by windowless corridors
where ceilings hang low, as though
the ones who will push carts and carry trays
are unusually small or
prefer to scurry, like mice
in closed dark spaces

or as though
extra headroom might give them

:: Susan Eisenberg, Pioneering: Poems from the Construction Site (1998)


The First Rabbit

When Lou’s hand broke
the rabbit’s neck,
we studied our hands for lack
of calluses. Mike swung a buck

by the legs, said
good-bye before he raised
his mallet. His first swing failed,
the next one dazed.

I cleavered head from torso,
watched the muscles contort,
the blood flow.
I peeled the coat,

lopped the feet,
gutted and rinsed the meat.
Later, we soaped away the sweet
reek of recent

of flesh and fat, our profit
of memory and sorrow—our habit
since that first rabbit.

:: Carol Peters, in Asheville Poetry Review (15:1, 2008)


Five for the Roofer

He sits on the roof
at the peak of an A in the sky
and breathes.
It’s the sound of every hammer
he’s swung at this height,
each slow climb
up the extension ladder, shouldering
composition bundles,
their dead weight.

My mother in the kitchen below,
waiting for her mother to die.
The wind lifting the pheasants
away from our dog
in the yellowing fields.


Because he always climbs up
with rusty coffee cans
full of his father’s hand-forged nails,
the whittled stub of a pencil,
a chalk line, spirit level.
It’s as beautiful to him
as a pool of sparks,
as the lights
of the hardware store shining
all day on bins of screws—
those tiny spiral staircases
he collects by the handful.


I’ve been watching my father
all morning,
how he’s pushed rolls of tarpaper
across the slope,
running the dark edge
down a chalk line
so carefully
it looks like he’s been bending over
a star chart unrolled forever.


Only at night will she notice
the white crawling through his beard,
the sound of his knees like breaking twigs,
the old timbers of the house
settling on the foundation.

In bed, he thinks himself back to the roof.
Imagines working under the moon,
a glowing C-clamp of sky,
rain patch, metal-flashing.
He runs his hammer hand
along the peak of the roof,
the length of my mother’s back.

Jawline. Cheekbone.

He reaches out to her
with the five hearts of his hand.

:: Michael McGriff, Dismantling the Hills (Pittsburgh, 2008)



I sat with a dynamiter at supper in a German saloon
eating steak and onions.
And he laughed and told stories of his wife and children
and the cause of labor and the working class.
It was laughter of an unshakable man knowing life to be
a rich and red-blooded thing.
Yes, his laugh rang like the call of gray birds filled with
a glory of joy ramming their winged flight through
a rain storm.
His name was in many newspapers as an enemy of the
nation and few keepers of churches or schools would
open their doors to him.
Over the steak and onions not a word was said of his
deep days and nights as a dynamiter.
Only I always remember him as a lover of life, a lover
of children, a lover of all free, reckless laughter
everywhere—lover of red hearts and red blood the
world over.

:: Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems (1912)



I cut back my shriveled garden this November,
all fruits gone, leaves frost crunched but fragrant
with the last stores of water rising to the snipped stems.
In other yards, scarfed gardeners bundle stakes,
cast neat squares with winter rye,
are soundless but for movement, harvest
long plucked like the mills and jobs
that built these homes. They snug potatoes
for winter, firm the mounds over onions,
while I cut back the odd ornaments of roses,
lady’s mantle, thyme and lavender.

Through these softened Appalachians,
western Pennsylvania towns crouch half hollow,
Main Street a straight shot to foundries and old rails
bleeding rust into the gravel, scrub dead
grass and bent underbrush by the turnpike.
People here wrinkle against the cold. They still
can, put up food, cure meat, hunt and hold church
bake sales, dances, festivals, card games. They
keep shelves of pillowy pears, firmed apple butter,
cabbage pressed to glass and tomatoes
glistening with stymied sun.

On these coldest days, snow is like dust,
twisting glass ghosting along salt routed
pavement and stretches of potholes.
The windows of downtown darken with emptiness
so deep I see the back walls of former stores.
Farm fences mimic hillocks at sight’s edge,
where the sky is opaque milk crusted dry, and I see
only the slow steps of people in the fog,
grey as ghostly poplar trunks, hunched
shadows heavier than the cold’s
pale or the wind-worn stone of storefronts.

On those days, I understand their pantry shelves,
and why my wife wicks summer into a Ball jar.
We want to smell the work of summer’s
earth, our home when green and warm.
I crouched one day last August and pruned
the shrubby lavender stems pouched in blue,
stripped the stems and packed the buds
in a jar with alcohol gurgling deep. We left
the jar for months in our tight pantry,
among artichoke hearts and olives,
keeping it like food.

This winter, amid the buffeting brown and gray,
dulled by the dour churches and salt scud,
wrinkled truck drivers and breath smoked
with cold, I opened the jar, and the smell
spilled out, spicy-thick and vibrant
as the day I picked it, drenched in alcohol
that normally kills, preserving an essence
like light captured in silver, a photograph
of a smell. The foreign musk mingled with steel,
the rot of frost kill, canning steam and the whiff
of stored cabbage, all sharpened by cold.

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


Shelters for Refugees

Click here to read Olivia's poem in The Liberal.


Larry Levis Visits Easton, PA. During a November Freeze

I said “Dear Larry” as I put down his book, Elegy,
across the street from the Home Energy Center

and its two embellished secular Christmas trees
and its two red wreaths over red ribbon crosses

enshrining a thirty-inch stove in one of its windows
and a fifty-gallon water heater in the other,

knowing how wise he would have been with the parking lot
and the tree that refused against all odds and all

sane agreements and codicils to let its dead leaves
for God’s sake fall in some kind of trivial decency

and how he would have stopped with me always beside him
to watch a girl in a white fur parka and boots

build the first snowball on Northampton Street she collected
from the hood of a Ford Fairlane underneath that tree

and throw it she thought at a small speed-limit sign
although it landed with a fluff just shy of the twin

painted center lines inducing the three of us,
her lover, Larry, and me to make our own snowballs

from the hoods and fenders of our own Fairlanes although
she threw like none of us and to add to it

she was left-handed, so bless her, may she have
a good job and children and always be free of cancer

and may the two of us scrape some roofs before the
rain relieves us, and may we find gloves for our labor.

:: Gerald Stern, Last Blue (Knopf, 2000)


Farm Funeral

It is a great comfort
To pray to a Lord
Who can fill our every need

We gathered for our neighbor’s November
Funeral. She died at ninety-five years,
Falling at her son’s house, her
Hip breaking, sending her to the hospital
And complications and this:
Laid out in the farm house less than
Two miles from her birthplace.

All those years of driving horses into town
Of cooking for threshers each fall,
Of watching winter snows close the roads
For weeks at a time,
Those years show even as she lies silent,
Frail as kindling wood in the front parlor,
Surrounded by flowers too perfect for this house.

We are more together than at a loss.
Food piles up in the kitchen,
Granddaughters file in and out
Of the parlor, bored with latecomers’
Sympathies. The men
Sit in the kitchen and talk of picking
Corn and the young boy who lost his hand
In a husking bed two weeks ago.

The clock on the mantel chimes twice,
Starting a silence. The minister
Prays, we all pray.
The Twenty-Third Psalm is read
As the minister quiets the last
Of the sobbing with words of another
World. A sermon is read,
Heads drop into another prayer,
And it is over.

We are not alone under the grey sky,
The living turn to the living,
The sense of family, of the land
Suddenly seem very old. We are one.

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


Dennis Martin

Dennis Martin couldn’t wipe the smile off his face to save his life.
“You think this is funny?” the principal would ask,
fingering Dennis’ chest. “Look at me,”
he’d day, backing Dennis into a wall.
He was a big boy—six-two, 220, sophomore year.
A natural, coaches said, but he couldn’t keep

the foolish grin off his freckled face.
Shaking their heads, they’d send him home—
kicked off three teams by senior year.
One spring day he walked out of school and never came back.

You don’t need a diploma to clean the emergency room
of Boston City Hospital where he had access
to every pharmaceutical imaginable
and needed every one to keep the smile on his face,
while mopping up bloody remains.

“Dead man’s shift,” he joked with me, last time I saw him.
By then he was a spindly scarecrow, pale and shaking—
an ill-wind ululating within.
The freckles on his face stood out like scabs.
I bought him a beer. A month later he OD’d.
At the wake the casket was closed.
I’d like to think they couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.

:: Ed Meek, in Stickman Review (2:1)



That winter, dark came early.
I remember halfway home
the leaves that murmured

in a red glow in the gutter,
the cold

whirring of the tablesaw
in the garage, my father
bent over frozen lumber

While the sun rays slanted
like ramps of yellow glass
up to the roof,

I was on my knees
piling the shavings,
gathering nails

and marbles of pine sap.
When he was done, high
on his shoulder
I went flying,

my ear brushing
the fluorescent lamp

that hummed against the rafters.
Into the warm house,
into the bright kitchen we went

where the smell of doughnuts
hung from the ceiling.

:: Arthur Smith, in Brother Songs: A Male Anthology of Poetry (1979)


The Butter Factory

It was built of things that must not mix:
paint, cream, and water, fire and dusty oil.
You heard the water dreaming in its large
kneed pipes, up from the weir. And the cordwood
our fathers cut for the furnace stood in walls
like the sleeper-stacks of a continental railway.

The cream arrived in lorried tides; its procession
crossed a platform of workers' stagecraft: Come here
Friday-Legs! Or I'll feel your hernia--
Overalled in milk's colour, men moved the heart of milk,
separated into thousands, along a roller track--Trucks?
That one of mine, son, it pulls like a sixteen-year-old--
to the tester who broached the can lids, causing fat tears,
who tasted, dipped and did his thin stoppered chemistry
on our labour, as the empties chattered downstage and fumed.

Under the high roof, black-crusted and stainless steels
were walled apart: black romped with leather belts
but paddlewheels sailed the silvery vats where muscles
of the one deep cream were exercised to a bullion
to be blocked in paper. And between waves of delivery
the men trod on water, hosing the rainbows of a shift.

It was damp April even at Christmas round every
margin of the factory. Also it opened the mouth
to see tackles on glibbed gravel, and the mossed char louvres
of the ice-plant's timber tower streaming with
heavy rain all day, above the droughty paddocks
of the totem cows round whom our lives were dancing.

:: Les Murray


State Home

A mile down fields back of the farm
after scrubbing all day with the kids.
But there was the linen room.
I’d put a pail by the door,
kind of get in behind a big trunk
and pull blankets over. Not many called out;
between rounds I’d catch a few hours.
Nights weren’t too bad that way.
Bedpans and sponging, of course, and the doses
the nurse left instructions for,
and the women who’d scream and scream if they heard you
and the old men who wouldn’t swallow,
even if you took their hands away they never stopped sobbing.
But what no one liked was a laying-out
and that shift was when they’d die. One evening
the day staff all left laughing at me:
an old lady was going to go.
I had her with me all down the halls
the rattle was that loud.
About three it changed and I knew.
But I had whisky hidden for the cramps every month
or they’d get so I couldn’t work:
I slipped her some and she quieted.
I did that each time she choked.
They were wide-mouthed in the morning;
she hung on three days
and it wasn’t me when she finally went.

:: Amanda Powell, in Going for Coffee (1981)


The Miner's Wake

Click here to read Jay's poem in Ploughshares.


We want Bread and Roses Too

In January of 1912, 25,000 textile workers
in Lawrence, Massachusetts walked off their jobs.
The ten-week strike, “the strike that sang,”
focused attention on the condition of the unskilled,
foreign-born workers, among them young mill girls
who carried a banner, “We want bread and roses too.”

1. Plain Weave

Mixing bells and palls
and smoke you don’t even own.
In the short second month
the bricks are spoiled
and spoiled again in your eyes
on your way to work. You’ll be
the missing cog of wherewithal,
the saboteur of these industrious days.

You drop into each damp sack
of cloud the ash and raff
of promise and the promise
of beefsteak rare and the promise
of promise herself. You’ll get pie
in the sky when you die—
cold mince.
For bread
you take one length of the absolute
blue/black horror north of Boston.
This is the warp, the ends.
Through every other thread
you string yourself.
This is the weft, the shot,
the filling. This is the means
the ends are justifying.
For human good, for the good Lord,
the city’s motto says, for bread.

Dark as it is, we have our work,
ourselves. We bless the bread,
our scheduled death. We praise thee, O Lord . . .
We’re bored. We earn
our mess of pottage, two bits,
nine fingers.

2. A Thing Made

No one knows you’re in me
whole, thrumming. They think
I’ve swallowed the machine.
What a pity they can’t see
the sparrow in my throat.
What a pity that when they look,
they see the ceilings
with their perfect brass hooks.
They see a bolt of satin,
lace. A warrant for the concern.

It begins when it is finished,
when the bony imperatives
and the puns, the pranks
and statements of our common need
are done. And so we eat the crumbs.
And so it blooms. And you come
to me, then, with a lover’s knots
and grievances. So we want our bread
and roses too. Bread,
and roses too. And roses too.

:: Bruce Smith, The Common Wages (Sheep Meadow, 1983)


76 Tank Farm, Highway 101

They’re gone now,
yet I still want to know
who watched over those drums,
put an ear to their rusted

sides and waited
for the petroleum hush
and strict sound of mass,
for rivets ticking loose.

I want to return
to their inception,
to panel after curved panel
craned into place, the salt-

choked wind touching
every weld, steel flushed
to steel, each bolt and blaze,
and the day laborers’ hands

as they assembled
this town’s only
spiral staircases,
that storybook architecture,

a silver helix wound down
form the vats’ chrome-
lipped edges, the diamond-
hammered pattern

in each step carrying a possible,
beautiful descent.
After stairs, the valves,
hurricane fences, razor wire,

the loading bay and scales.
Someone on scaffolding
stenciled the orange
one-story 76,

the year I was fleshed
into this world. How slowly
they were filled,
and how quietly emptied.

:: Michael McGriff, Dismantling the Hills (Pittsburgh, 2008)


Rain to a Waterfall

The factory-girl black women she worked with
at Inland Manufacturing in Dayton, Ohio
too their breaks in the backseats of cars, had sex
in the afternoon and at dinner break. Which meant
they were whores, to hear my mother tell it. Divorced,
with kids, a woman alone in 1964, she had to earn
a living—this before the Women’s Movement
and anything like equal pay, when a job meant

a factory job, since it was the only sort of work
carried with it a wage you could live on, provided
you didn’t buy nice clothes or go out with men
who might or might not pick up a check without
expecting something from you. She tells me this
as if clearing her conscience for calling these women
anything but women with a hard road to walk
and guts to walk it. Which is to say she respects

now what they did then, these women whose men
had better things to do than raise kids and pay bills
and keep a house running and put food on the table.
It’s a truth made of practically all suffering, her truth,
and we could use more of this grudging acknowledgment
that what the rest of the world calls living should be
fine by us. It’s rain to a waterfall, that hate,
but it’s weighed on her and she wants rid of it.

:: Roy Bentley, Strange Privacies (2006)


Dancing After Work

It’s happy hour still,
the black and white
floor beneath you
like an impossible game of checkers
you can’t stop playing,
while shadow puppets
reflect biceps that gesture
and curl into something
like smiles split under
the burdens of twelve-hour
shifts spent loading
and unloading all these things
that could never be yours,
but you carried them anyway.
Now’s the time to let it go.
Tilt the brim of your hat
like a wink toward a beautiful
woman, just enough to
exude swagger, then bend
your arms, a little awkward
at first, and shake wildly into
a festive chicken cluck
of total disregard.
You need to sense this
deep in your workman’s marrow,
tear out the parts of yourself
that still feel, like your feet,
a black boot sidestep
quick enough to take flight.
You need to understand this motion;
the carefree strut of your grin,
or a full-bodied slant to a friend
extended to anyone worn threadbare
and beyond this, where the body serves
no other purpose
but to follow the rhythm,
follow the rhythm,
and dance.

:: Mindi Kirchner, Song of the Rest of Us (2009)


From Emma's Scrapbook: 1950

Nabbed the photograph caption says,
a smashed police car and a dead
deer lolling across the hood.

Police chief Volpe gave her
son Andy such a hard time when
he was young, once arresting him

when he and Brad Johnson cut down
parking meters with a hacksaw
and put them in Volpe’s cruiser

because he had given then parking
tickets—they were only high
spirited and Volpe couldn’t prove

a thing. Chief Volpe wasn’t hurt
in the accident, but his cruiser was
destroyed when the button buck leapt

through the windshield. He had
to get Lucius Lowry to tow him
into town, and everyone looked

at him, sitting in Lucius’ truck,
his precious Plymouth looking
like someone punched it in the face.

It was 1950 and Emma’s Andy
was serving in Korea, while Volpe
had avoided fighting in the last

war by declaring he was an only
son. Andy was Emma’s only child,
yet Chief Volpe got out of the fray.

As far as Emma is concerned, Joe Volpe
is a cowardly bastard, and the deer
was a slap in the face, a reproach

to those like him who claimed to serve
the law then stretched it to suit
themselves. She doesn’t forgive easily,

if at all, and the day she went down
to the jail to get Andy she all but
took Volpe’s head off right there.

Ever since, Emma swore if she saw him
crossing the street and she was driving,
she’d have him draped across her hood.

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


My Father

lies on the same couch that he used to
only sit on, straight up as if the newsmen
might ask him to spring into action.

He used to work twelve hours a day making
ice cream from scratch. Then home, charging
around the lawn. Grass that had been mashed
flat he brought to attention then cut it off
at the roots, snuffing it out,

He took one vacation, looking at the water in
Michigan with one eye, turning at every little
thing, each sound a customer. We dined at
roadside stands, covering six states in a week.
He ate standing, like a man on the run.

I saw him again last summer, four months past a
coronary. He rested in bed, gathering strength
for a nap, hands behind his head,
eyes full of ceilings.

:: Ron Koertge, The Father-Poems (1973)



Click here to read Paul's poem in Ploughshares.


Old Green

Old Green stops to say goodbye,
retiring after 43 years.
No green coveralls today.
Dressed in street clothes
hair slicked back
he even manages a shy smile
as I shake his hand.

The Company gave him an aerial photo
of the plant, and all the guys
sign their names around it
and Good luck.
All you can see is the roof
and the parking lots
and the tiny, tiny cars.
As hard as you look
you’ll never find him.

:: Jim Daniels, Punching Out