Hazard: Writing at Work

The corner of cardboard
torn from a carton
and safely tucked
in a back pocket
with your scribbled line

I regret to say
has been rinsed washed
spun and tumbled and
though warm and fluffed
is quite blank.

I have left it
folded with the laundry.
Perhaps its shape
will remind you
of your words.

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


Working Late

A light is on in my father's study.
"Still up?" he says, and we are silent,
looking at the harbor lights,
listening to the surf
and the creak of coconut boughs.

He is working late on cases.
No impassioned speech! He argues from evidence,
actually pacing out and measuring,
while the fans revolving on the ceiling
winnow the true from the false.

Once he passed a brass curtain rod
through a head made out of plaster
and showed the jury the angle of fire--
where the murderer must have stood.
For years, all through my childhood,
if I opened a closet . . . bang!
There would be the dead man's head
with a black hole in the forehead.

All the arguing in the world
will not stay the moon.
She has come all the way from Russia
to gaze for a while in a mango tree
and light the wall of a veranda,
before resuming her interrupted journey
beyond the harbor and the lighthouse
at Port Royal, turning away
from land to the open sea.

Yet, nothing in nature changes, from that day to this,
she is still the mother of us all.
I can see the drifting offshore lights,
black posts where the pelicans brood.

And the light that used to shine
at night in my father's study
now shines as late in mine.

:: Louis Simpson


The Picker

Bent from the waist,
sun beats yellow
into his shirt,
sears along his arms.

Through his legs
we see rows
of tomato seedlings,
dirt to the horizon
and blue sky,

and his hat round
with its black band
hangs in the sky
midway to heaven.

:: CB Follett, in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review #2 (1993)


That Winter

Click here to read David's poem in Ploughshares.


When I Was Dying

The dullest people I knew
gathered round my bed,
the ones who made me feel
stupid or ashamed when I
was living. My flustered
wife held my hand like a fish,
worried our children might
eat poorly at the neighbor lady’s.
Outside the door I heard
the nurse with massive arms
send off students who learned
nothing from me, but came
anyway for final grade changes.
And while my mother’s clergy-
man read aloud the governor’s
telegram I died. What did
I care, bobbing off in dark
blue sea, under light blue sky?

:: William Hathaway, The Gymnast of Inertia (Louisiana, 1982)



after the meeting the women go to lunch.
the waitress watches, awkward on her high heels
like some odd hoofed animal, while we decide.
a smile is stapled on her face like part
of the menu. small puckers of burns
are splattered part-way up one arm. she is
all of us, our first lurch into the working
world, learning to sell service, it is
where we begin, before we become
the women who go to meetings, the ones
who are never satisfied, we are pains
in the management ass, we're as tired of it
as they are, but still we keep asking,
saying, 64% is not enough, the waitress
is still who we are, coins rattle
their judgments in her pocket.
when she brings us our bill she asks
is there anything more that we want.

:: Leona Gom, in For a Living: The Poetry of Work
(Nicholas Coles & Peter Oresick, eds., 1995)


Rainy Season

Christmas Eve and the stacks of the paper mill slow for the
though the smell lingers stronger than salt or sea. Tanker
with their red metal containers float like rusted gifts through
the straits.
And we, like the trees, bend and snap against the season’s
short days.
The whole town is soaked: winter rains fill ditches, flood
blur the windows so next-door Christmas lights twinkle twice.
we’ll unwrap piles of paper, and then the factory will begin
pump the grime of cardboard and pine across the saturated
sound in
gray, sour clouds. That smell again. The pulp won’t dry till

:: Katherine Bode-Lang, Spring Melt (2009)


Mr. Robinson at the Airport

Here is the man who takes his suitcases.
They are friends, friendly. They smile, exchanging
bags and tip and thank you. Here is the woman

who takes his ticket. She scans the screens before her,
knows the names of the people at whom he will smile
when he confuses their seatbelts with his,

who will apologize when they squeeze past him
to use the lavatory. She knows his numbers,
price and flight, time and gate and seat.

She tells him where to go. She knows that he
is going somewhere, and that makes him happy.
The woman from whom he buys The New York Times

and lemon poppy seed muffin and Starbucks coffee
has everything he wants. She takes his money
and gives him just the change that is his due.

Soon, at a time over which he has no control,
he will walk onto the plane and find the seat
that is meant for him, and smiling people

will bring him food to eat and icy beverages
to drink. Until then, he will sip his coffee
and do the crossword and watch as ponderous,

hopelessly burdened things lift and dissolve
into this blue and cloudless sky, this empty, empty sky.

:: Christopher Cunningham, in West Branch #60 (2007)


Walking to Work at Dawn

I lifted my fist, sniffed the pig blood in my knuckles,
and wondered what crevice of my body
the pork would claim as home.
I once watched a curandera in an orchard of figs,
her skin like the bark of an ash, save my friend Jesse.
We washed windows at the car wash.
He felt pain, coughed up blood,
and thought years of ammonia fumes
had settled in the folds of his gut
that only magic could reach with its sticks of mystery.
A fire burned under a ceramic pot.
The curandera added pinches of mint and cat’s claw,
and then she stirred the water
the way branches sway until there is only wind:
a faith blue jays hold in their wings,
diving through the morning fog for fruit,
crying, “Squa, squa, squa, squa,”
just before the frozen ground slams home.

:: David Dominguez, Work Done Right (Arizona, 2003)



I was twenty-two, pretty maybe. It was a small twon
county fair: hot dogs, freak show, cotton candy,
and heavy wheels laden with light,
all tuned to the gaudy air.

The Octopus—remember that one? Eight
arms like extended girders, the thing was a metal
Shiva juggling worlds: a cup spun at the end
of each madly oscillating arm, every cup
overfull of squealing kids or lovers drunk
on the whip-sharp unexpected torque
toward the expected rapture.

He was maybe twenty-two, bare-chested, tanned
and gleaming in the southern September night,
a kind of summer in the lights that played
across him as he pulled levers set to arm
the bright contraption with speed and plunge,
with whirl and rise. His hair was almost red
in the lights’ translation. Not many
riders yet, when suddenly he leapt
onto one of the metal arms in its low sweep
and rose with it. And laughed.

I thought it might be for me, this showing
off. He jumped onto the next arm as it rose,
went up with it, then landed easy on the ground.
He vaulted the lowered ones as they went by,
stepped up again, and down again, then ducked
under so a steel arm grazed his cap. How long
ago it was.
How long did I stand and watch
that wild control before I turned
to find my husband and my child?

He’s likely dead now. Or deep asleep
in some wine-dark room, some ragged dream.
I think no golden years follow that life,
though I still see him shining new
against black sky and turning stars—
chancing it, taking on the monster,
winning, dancing it.

:: Betty Adcock, Slantwise (LSU, 2008)


You Must

You must have a hope
that will let you stomp and sing
at any cold dawn.
You must not wait
to love the student who loves you
and would like to kill you.
You must read the story again
and again to the child
who receives you with a bovine stare.
You must get up
every day to punch in
not dreaming on transcendence,
not desiring new heroes or gods,
not looking the other way,
but looking for the other way
and ready to talk to everyone on the line.
You must not wait
for official approval
nor general consensus
to rage. You must
come again to kneel
in shiny, rock-strewn soil
not to pray, but to plant.
Yes, even now
as ice caps melt and black top
goes soft in the sun
you must prepare for the harvest.

:: Jon Andersen, Stomp & Sing (Curbstone, 2005)



It was Mrs. Garvin, the doctor’s wife,
who told my mother, Well if you’re that broke
put the kids up for adoption.
Out under the porch light that summer
we slapped at mosquitoes and invented
our brave escape—luminous sheets
knotted out the window
were the lines of a highway down the house.
We would know the way,
like ingenious animals, to go
quietly toward the river,
but we could imagine no further
than the shacks on stilts
shivering in the water,
the Kentucky hills on the other side.
Denise, the youngest, took to sleepwalking,
wading room to room for the place
one of us—curled up in a bed’s corner—
might have left her. I’d wake
with her face pressed against my back,
her hands reining the edges of my nightgown.
I didn’t tuck her into my shoulder
but loosened her fingers and led her
back to her own bed, her fear
already seeping into me like water
or like the light spilling
from the milk truck
as it backfired down the street.

:: Michelle Boisseau, No Private Life (Vanderbilt, 1990)


Things My Grandfather Must Have Said

I want to die in the wintertime,
make the ground regret it,
make the backhoe sweat.

January. Blue Monday
after the holiday weekend.
I want it to be hard on everybody.

I want everyone to have a headache
and the traffic to be impossible.
Back it up for miles, Jesus.

I want steam under the hood, bad directions,
cousins lost, babies crying, and sleet.
I want a wind so heavy their umbrellas howl.

And give me some birds, pigeons even,
anything circling for at least half an hour,
and plastic tulips and a preacher who stutters

“Uh” before every word of Psalm 22.
I want to remind them just how bad things are.
Spell my name wrong on the stone, import

earthworms fat as Aunt Katie’s arms
and put them under the folding chairs.
And I want a glass coffin,

I want to be wearing the State of Missouri
string tie that no one else liked. . . . God,
I hope the straps break

and I fall in with a thud. I hope
the shovel slips out of my son’s hands.
I want them to remember I don’t feel anything.

I want the food served straight from my garden.
I want the head of the table set. I want
everyone to get a pennant that says,

“Gramps was the greatest,”
and a complete record of my mortgage payments
in every thank-you note.

And I want to keep receiving mail for thirteen years,
all the bills addressed to me,
old friends calling every other month

to wonder how I am.
Then I want an earthquake or rising water-table,
the painful exhumation of my remains.

I want to do it all again.

I want to die the day before something truly
important happens and have my grandson say:
What would he have thought of that.

I want you all to know how much I loved you.

:: Mark Cox, Smoulder (1989)


The International Athletes

At the car-wash you see them

under its marquee that flashes out $2.95
among giant blowers, brushes and suds
vacuum roar whirring of buffers

the line-up of boys: Carlos, Joaquin, Jesus

a bright Hollywood day, half of
Detroit will pass under their hands:
Cougar Caprice Cutlass
Mustang Pinto Impala
quick brown hands fly over the fins
of Firebird Falcon they polish
the fenders of Maverick, Squire, Ambassador

endless files of heavy metal, El
Camino, Silverado, Riviera
Camaro, Sapporo, Granada
ay chingado! el cacique El Dorado
with its chrome, its crest, its
appointments, its velvet upholstery

Julio, up from the rancho
his grandpa lost in Uruapan
Jorge, no work in the barrios of Puebla for a year
Pablo, whose children were starving in Tepic

electric with work
ecstatic with work
gleaming with sweat
their muscles ripple
under the dark skin of forearms
lean and lithe in T-shirts and
new tennis shoes, light-
footed they dance
around the sacred heavy metal
the little sparring dance
of soon-to-be champions
the car-wash their ring their workout
they are in training for the next job
better and yet to come

At dark, night school and English
Oscar jogs Alfonso lifts weights
Antonio writes his mama
Paco his vieja

una cerveza with the ritual washing of jeans
the shining boots by Radio Variedades

shared furnished rooms, cold
beans and tortillas, dreams
of a novia or a hard blonde gringa
or a neat little Colt
their hands had fondled at noon

:: Joan Lindgren, in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review #7 (1995)



Even at an early age,
she sensed her dependence on death—
how strokes had straightened her teeth

and suicides started her college fund.
So she felt duty bound
to pray for the dead—
slipping downstairs into the funeral home

her parents ran from the first
floor of their house—
her mother peddling floral displays
as her father effortlessly alternated

between sympathy and a soft-sell
of his top-of-the-line caskets.
At night, while they took inventory
and balanced their books,

she knelt beside marble slabs
in the basement and clasped the cold
hands of strangers—saying prayers
for the anonymous souls

stockpiled beneath her roof,
waiting to pay Charon’s fare.

:: Brett Hursey, in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review #7 (1995)


Down on the Strike Line with My Children

I'm down on the strike line with my children on a Sunday afternoon. The ten year old and his eight year old friend feel quite official as they take turns carryin a picket sign between them, marchin on the sidewalk in a ritual style.

Two women in their forties stop to take the leaflets and ask directions to another store. Another woman asks where she and her mother should go to buy a bike for her daughter's birthday.

Some people slow down to take leaflets before they turn into the store to shop for cassette tapes, men's thongs, mouthwash, or garden hose.

Most people look straight ahead at the doors of the store as they approach and pass our picket lines. The kids are confused and ask why these people walk past us, can't they read?

I tell them, maybe these people have a disease and we're invisible to them. You know, kinda like color blindness, only when you have class blindness you can't see workers, you can only see things like waffle irons and Winnebagos.

Or maybe they've had an operation so like is now like a game show where you compete for prizes against other workers. This operation is called a lobotomy.

After a half hour the thrill of marchin is gone so the kids now fight over who has to carry the sign. A man in his sixties pulls up [to] the curb in an old Pontiac. He wants to give each of the youngsters a quarter for a soda. He's a retired longshoreman.

Last spring I stood down on the docks with the longshore workers. I was sevn months pregnant on the first day of the strike. I stood with a picket sign in the cold bay breeze, my back to a parking space. A man from management in a blue Toyota pick-up drove toward me and rolled his truck into my back, bumping me forward off balance.

That day I thought about my woman friend Sandra who as six months was kicked into unconsciousness at a civil rights march. Her baby was stillborn.

But today the retired longshoreman is pullin out of his worn wallet a quarter for my ten year old, a quarter for the eight year old, and a quarter for my five month old in the stroller.

I'm down on the stirke line with my children and we are not invisible to each other, to those who won't cross our lines, or to those who pass by us.

:: Donna Langston, in Calling Home: Working Class Women's Writings (edited by Janet Zandy, 1990)


Cabinet Factory

Click here to read Jason's poem in the inaugural issue of Scythe.



Under the half-light of the toolshed
my father’s lost beneath the tractor,

the white-knuckled lover
of broken machines.

He packs the new bearings,
dark fingers smooth the grease bead.

I hold the light and hand down the tools.
The afternoon holds its dust by the collar,

pins it against the shed. Having the right tools,
he tells me, is having angels-of-fucking-mercy.

I hold the light and hand down the tools,
my father’s hands lifting to meet them.

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


For Money, at the Hotel

someone every morning pulled out this chair for Mr. K
so he could eat his bowl of berries and bran flakes;

someone polished fingerprints
from brass banisters;

someone removed brown leaves
from lobby bouquets;

a carpenter made a straight wall curved
to match an armoire’s turn;

me and John, we crawled a wire
through forty yards of spidernests
to re-switch the canopy lights

and from 10-foot ladders watched a black Buick
aim high-speed for the doorman
who stood still for the regular’s tip.

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


Always Here

My father talks between emphysema gasps
about his high school days, the shot he made
to beat Hohenwald one night sixty years ago, the arc of it
high and too sharp but in it went with a kiss
from the top of the backboard. Now, just as gracefully,
he nods into his nap, his hands upturned, a lifetime
of hard work and still open and ready for more work.
He says he always liked this little ragged
town by the Buffalo River and that it was
as big as ancient Greece to him with just as much
going on—he never wanted to go anywhere else.
Served in Alaska in the world war,
saw Seattle, saw Anchorage, stayed overnight
in St. Louis on the layover flight back home
in 1945 and that was enough. Almost dark. His snore
is even and calm. Through the open window,
in the heavy summer evening, a catbird lights
on the backyard fence and sings the song
it always sings, the song of staying
in the same town all your life.

:: David Tucker, Late for Work (2006)



Her mother is rolling cigars in the factory.
She is best of all, even perfect. She taps
the woody threads, immaculate, into the acrid
raw silk of the wrapping.
Best of all, she can do it without thinking or asking,
could do it while talking, but doesn’t, ever.
And so she could never be the cackling
floor-boss or the foreman who stands there
tethered to the watch. She’s in it, for good,
on the floor, for life, watching the strings
tucked into their casings, each brown bud
taut below her long white hands.
And just her one thought—this is my
machine—the shroud around the shadows.
You, genre painter, who finds in this beauty
and who, from this, would make an enduring thing,
or you who could build from this some plot strung
with ornaments, constructing a monument
at the site of its senselessness,
turn away, turn from the din and the dust,
and choose someone else—not her.

:: Susan Stewart, The Forest (Chicago, 1995)


The Girl Who Carved Jesus into Her Forearm

On that first morning she didn’t wear bandages,
I watched her tuck a loose strand of hair
behind her ear, her right sleeve
slipping to her elbow—the faint loop
of the final S curved around the edge
of her sweater, but the U sharp,
almost a V, the J distorted
as if she had trouble with the blade.
The night before I had been warned
not to stare, and don’t ask any questions
my mother’s voice low and firm like on those days
we went grocery shopping and she would yank
me away from Old Mr. Cummings
who stood on the corner of Main Street
yelling that Satan was in the five-n-dime again.

But it was hard not to watch
the star pupil in our Sunday School class
who now sat straight in front of me
in Friday homeroom, her fingers
twirling a No. 2 pencil like a thin baton.
It was hard not to think about
how the raw name turned red.
So instead, I focused on all my prayers
that God hadn’t answered—some things
all seventh graders must ask for, like an A
on a prealgebra pop quiz or perfect teeth
without the taste of braces,
and some things that had to be different
like more money on paydays,
so my parents would stop fighting.
I wondered if it worked—bleeding
in order to get God’s attention.

:: Karen Weyant, Stealing Dust (2009)


Job Site, 1967

Please click here to read Lucia's poem in Ploughshares.


Dirty Hands

Sitting under a cheap stamped early light fixture
he could imagine it was he who drove the Pontiac
all the way to Florida on only one quart of oil,
something it was impossible to explain to his new girlfriend
floating in her hot tub under a Niagara grape arbor.
He took a bite of sandwich and lived on the richness
of that dark wallpaper; he thought it was round fishes
and not just some green design made in Toledo,
the wallpaper capital of the world before the First War.
He wanted to tell her how worn out he used to be
at four in the morning crossing the empty highway
to start his second night and how he struggled
with the dirty stove so he could just move his fingers;
and he wanted to tell her what it was like luging eggs
in the Union Station in all that smoke, his lungs
turning to stone, his hands bleeding for years,
his eyes bloodshot, but that was when he touched
her face and the moon camethrough the grapes, the part
where the roof didn't shade the arbor, making a valley
not so different from what he knew, two clouds
breaking off like dogs breaking off, the rabbit silent
and running with his legs on fire, it was
a memory of the sun; he thought of their mouths
all open, the grapes were hard, the water was boiling
driving through West Virginia, the oil was smoking
under the hood, his eyes were closed, his hands were soaking.

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



All day long, side by side with the man, the iron forced
its torso against the flaming mud of the forge. In the end,
their twinned muscles unearthed the thin night of metal,
bursting free.

The man leaves his work in no rush. He plunges his arms
one last time into the stream’s darkened flank. Will he
know, at last, how to grasp the algae’s icy hum?

:: Rene Char, translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson in Asheville Poetry Review (15:1, 2008)


From Emma's Scrapbook: 1953

She had heard it happen,
heard the bone break
as it happened and did not
need to read the account.
Still she kept the clipping,
though God only knows why.
The strap snapped, the one
holding her son to the top
of the power pole.

Andy became a lineman,
climbing and wiring
after a hot summer
of scaling trees, trimming
the tops to let in light
so they could make a movie
starring Gary Cooper.
Andy was agile and fearless
like his father, and proud
of his job, of making more
than the boys who stayed
in town and worked,
safe at Western Auto
or Brown’s Boots and Shoes.

It snapped and he fell,
and she heard his fingers
scrape the cross arm
as he tried to hold onto
the 30 foot pole, heard him
curse all the way to the ground
hitting Bob McClain on the head
with his flailing arms, heard
him hit the ground and land on
his feet, bounce once and fall

again and break his wrist.
For years he woke in the night
with a shout, reliving
the moment he knew he was
going down, and she heard
that too, heard it
each and every time.

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


Cutting Wood: After a Family Photograph

The rickety steam engine clatters
in a frosted hollow of southern
Indiana hills. White puffs of steam
hang above a hedgerow of bare trees
in the background. You stand there,
grandfather, the ends of your moustache
curling about the corners of unsmiling
lips, grazing at the circular saw about
to bite into the green pulp of a log.
I feel in my blood your reverence
for the medium of wood, respect
your demand for the precise cut.

For twenty-five years your son
crafted processed wood into chairs.
He still stares at the grains
in wood. Now I, who remember touching
your hand only once before you died
in my third year, sit behind a desk
and daydream of the forests which
fed that saw. Soon after you lay
in the earth, your son led me into
the woods and cupped my ears to
the leafy murmurs of shagbark hickory,
wild cherry, oak and beech. He taught
me how to kill for food the animals
that ate on the fruits of those trees.

One short summer’s work in a wood
factory still has me running my finger-
tips over the finished grain of woods
your rough saw once cut into lumber.
With your love of the precise cut,
grandfather, you would understand my
need to carve with a pen a line smooth
and delicate as wild cherry, yet tough
and durable as hickory. I glide over
the sawdust toward you, with the shadow
of the photographer caught in his picture.

:: Norbert Krapf, Finding the Grain (1977)


The Benedictine Hand

“Now class,” she said, “we must be careful when
we push the glass tube through the stopper, thus.”
She slid it halfway through the rubber hole.
It stuck. She rammed it harder, twisted. It snapped,
and, snapping, drove the ragged end of glass
into her palm. Blood dribbled on the desk.

“Now that’s what you are not supposed to do,”
she said. She held two frozen fingers up,
as if to bless us. “I’ve cut the median nerve.
This is what’s called the Benedictine Hand.
It’s paralyzed.” She flexed her thumb and last
two fingers. The blessing fingers stayed erect.
Then, pale, she wrapped her red hand in a wad
of towels, left the room—quick, angry steps.

We boys, although it wasn’t accurate,
thereafter called her Mrs. Claw, not telling
each other how we squirmed that day or how,
Dear Mrs. Claw, we won’t forget the bright
blood, Benedictine Hand, or with what steel
you held before us your new deformity,
named it, explained it, and blessed us with your error.

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



Driving through the Monongahela Valley in winter
is like driving through the gray matter
of someone not too bright but conscientious,
a hard-working undergraduate who barely passes.
Everybody knows how hard he tries. I’m driving up
into gray mountains and there, it may be snowing
gray, little flecks like pigeon feathers, or what
used to sift down onto the now abandoned slag piles,
like what seems to sift across the faces
of the jobless in the gray afternoons.

At Johnstown I stop, look down the straight line
of the Incline, closed for repairs, to the gray heart
of the steel mills with For Sale signs on them. Behind me
is the last street of disease-free Dutch elms in America,
below me, a city rebuilt three times after flood.
Gray is a lesson in the poise of affliction. Disaster
by disaster, we learn insouciance, begin to wear
colors bright as the red and yellow sashes on
elephants, whose gray hides cover, like this sky,
an enormity none of us can fathom, though we try.

:: Maggie Anderson