Father, His Friend, and Another

Father’s friend Ray at the planing mill
worked wood the color of afternoon air,
curls of it clasping everything there—
like the legs of the saw that mumbled at first,
and then the white shriek through birch.

While the two talked I felt the boards,
yellow and smooth, and uncurled rolls
of handshaved pine, put them like rings
around my arm to wear them home.
My father said, “Sure, leave them on.”

As we started for home Father told me
that another man when they were all young
was close to them, and they sang in church.
When the other man died Ray ran out
to the country and hid, from grief—two days.

I remember that clutch, and I wave again
back through the sun at Father’s friend.

:: William Stafford, in Brother Songs: A Male Anthology of Poetry (1979)


Self-Inquiry Before the Job Interview

Did you sneeze?
Yes, I rid myself of the imposter inside me.

Did you iron your shirt?
Yes, I used the steam of mother's hate.

Did you wash your hands?
Yes, I learned my hygiene from a raccoon.

I prayed on my knees, and my knees answered with pain.
I gargled. I polished my shoes until I saw who I was.
I inflated my resume by employing my middle name.

I walked to my interview, early,
The sun like a ring on an electric stove.
I patted my hair when I entered the wind of a revolving door.
The guard said, For a guy like you, it's the 19th floor.

The economy was up. Flags whipped in every city plaza
In America. This I saw for myself as I rode the elevator,
Empty because everyone had a job but me.

Did you clean your ears?
Yes, I heard my fate in the drinking fountain's idiotic drivel.

Did you slice a banana into your daily mush?
I added a pinch of salt, two raisins to sweeten my breath.

Did you remember your pen?
I remembered my fingers when the elevator opened.

I shook hands that dripped like a dirty sea.
I found a chair and desk. My name tag said my name.
Through the glass ceiling, I saw the heavy rumps of CEOs.
Outside my window, the sun was a burning stove,
All of us pushing papers
To keep it going.

:: Gary Soto, in Poetry (July 2001)



Though it's a city job, Carlos isn't wearing
his orange vest and yellow hardhat,
but clomps around in tan ranchero hat
and washed-out denim shirt. The foreman
warns him once again, as he must, and Carlos
swears he won't forget again tomorrow.
He straps himself into the motor grader,
skims a glove across the black knobs,
and eases forth with a mule-driver's patience,
leveling truck-dumped piles of raw fill
smoother than the sea of Cortez.
Maybe it's a gift, such effortless grace,
such seamless union of man and machine,
and maybe it's a sign how every morning,
punctual as the lunch truck with its
shave-and-a-haircut horn, he kills the engine,
clambers down, struts up close to a massive
chevron-treaded tire and just starts peeing,
as though the whole site weren't naked
as a soccer field, boxed along three sides
by green glass towers. Not that it matters--
the soil he darkens will be asphalted over
soon enough, and even now, here comes
the water-tank truck, spewing like a fire plug
wrenched open in the mid-city heat.
Small hot-pink pennants still mark
the heavy conduit we sank just yesterday,
and we've got planks on edge, framing
where the walkway's going to be.
The cement mixer inches up, its great drum
putting like a clock hand teasing toward the hour.
And Hector levers the crusty sluice above
the ready beds, the newsprint-colored mortar
plopping like horseshit to the ground.
And Manny makes quick work of it, his trowel
and squeegee broom drawing it so tight,
a dropped dime would roll to a standing stop
and never topple over. There is a thin line
between miracle and mastery. Even
Carlos stands, hat off with the rest of us,
nodding as with subtle understanding.

:: Gabriel Spera, in Cimarron Review (summer 2007)


The Insomniac's Pet Shop

I have no use for cages.
They can copulate wherever
they want. By moonlight, I clean
the dead canary of the birdseed
it is lying in. Pluck the pretty
feathers--the azures and the yellow-
greens. I keep one sign facing
inward: Thank you ... Come Again ...

is rat and roach
for lovers of the scuttle
and the heavy gait. With Chopin
on the antique phonograph
I savor the skips and scratches;
waltz with the white toy poodle
who sleeps in the wire cell by the window.

In my pet-shop, the fish tank
is covered with a hairy-green
algae no one can see through.
To buy a goldfish from me
is an act of faith. And maybe,
like your own prayer for rest,
you'll hear the tiny diver
calling you from the bottom.

:: Peter Marcus, in Agni #37


On a Seven-Day Diary

Oh, I got up and went to work
and worked and came back home
and ate and talked and went to sleep.
Then I got up and went to work
and worked and came back home
from work and ate and slept.
Then I got up and went to work
and worked and came back home
and ate and watched a show and slept.
Then I got up and went to work
and worked and came back home
and worked and came back home
and ate steak and went to sleep.
Then I got up and went to work
and worked and came back home
and ate and fucked and went to sleep.
Then it was Saturday, Saturday, Saturday!
Love must be the reason for the week!
We went shopping! I saw clouds!
The children explained everything!
I could talk about the main thing!
What did I drink on Saturday night
that lost the first, best half of Sunday?
The last half wasn't worth this "word."
Then I got up and went to work
and worked and came back home
from work and ate and went to sleep,
refreshed but tired from the weekend.

:: Alan Dugan


From Up North Architecht William Strickland Designs the New Orleans Mint, 1832

After the Capitol, Naval Home

and a Mint in Philadelphia     another Mint

was a zipzap draw-it-in-your-sleep-
and-sign-your-name-er. New Orleans

fortunate      to be favored
with a Strickland plan     perfect

for the rocksoil of Philly where
it would have stood up straight.

For more than a century and a half
Delta tradesmen     had work.

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



Rumors are getting around,
you’ve heard them. Little things
in the hallway—
one too many jokes
about the company stock,
and the bosses whispering
at the water cooler.
Notice the secretaries,
how little they talk now,
they always know. And the offices upstairs
stay lit all night—and don’t tell me
it means nothing
that the junior executives
who hate each other
are going to lunch together.
It won’t be long. Some lucky bastard
is about to get fired.

:: David Tucker, Late for Work (2006)


Because They Are Not Eight

Ronnie gave up on his folks before
he was ten and signed on two days after
he graduated from high school. His mother
would pour the ashy, treacly scotch
until her head was swarming with rattles
and growls and recrimination. If she wasn’t

strapping Ronnie’s ass in a blind lather
she was trying to get some off him. His father,
Jerome, was gone most every night, cruising
parks, men’s rooms and adult movie houses.
Mornings Ronnie would hear him in the shower,
bathroom steamier than heaven, singing and gasping

sobs by turns. He just started talking to me when
they were shearing us in bunches, clumps
of sandy brown, black, and rusty hair
splotching dingy yellow linoleum. Heaping
in small drifts. Some trippy inane shit he said
made me laugh though I couldn’t tell you why.
My precious mane! My masculine fortitude!
Like some kind of eulogy for Caesar.

I never thought of it as mine anymore
after it was cut. And you always get more.
We bunked together. Closed the taverns in port.
They gave us watch duty on deck beginning
an hour before the next day. Creaming
night waves were ragged claps of wet
voltage teasing your mind into a graceful

stupor. It was steady and soothing and Ronnie
and me would unwind. Nothing mattered
to him I think. The way a lost balloon
meanders and bobs. Tangles and glides. Ronnie
asked me why sometimes sailors are called gobs.
I said he should ask the captain. He cradled
my neck, hooking his lips into mine.

I caught him with a rabbit punch and he yelped
and bayed. Shaking back to his feet with raucous
guffaws he kissed me again with blood in his
mouth. I spat into the hollow of his chest and cried
some, punching his shoulders and arms. I said,
“It’s okay for you first,” and he got in after three

fingers and rubbed my belly whispering, singing
Sinatra (Summer Wind) and I was frail and genuine
suddenly under hushy symphony of leaking light
thinking of my grandma’s riddle: Why are the seven
stars no more than seven? I don’t care if he wakes me

for a slip trip ‘cause I get my chance at bat as often
as I like. Ronnie can turn cook’s duty for three
hundred guys into a fucking privilege. Swabbing
toilets a jokey tango for the deranged. Sometimes
he just climbs into my bunk and tells me gags
‘til we fall asleep. I do not ask God why

He brought me Ronnie. Prince of tickles
in a kingdom of the damaged and ravenous.
Doctor for the annihilated bounce. I heard
once in church deserving has nothing
to do with grace. And I figure it’s better
not to raise the question.

:: Christopher Soden, in Still Blue: More Writing by (for or about) Working-Class Queers


Condition of the Working Classes: 1970

You United States, frightened by dreams of Guatemala,

building houses with eight-mile-long wings to imprison the Cubans,
eating a bread made of the sound of sunken buffalo bones,
drinking water turned dark by the shadow of Negroes.
You remember things seen when you were still able to speak—
white wings lying in a field.
And when you try to pass a bill,
long boards fly up, suddenly,
in Nevada,
in ghost towns.

You wave your insubstantial food timidly in the damp air.
You long to return to the shell.
Even at the start Chicago was a place where the cobblestones
got up and flew around at night,
and anarchists fainted as they read The Decline and Fall.
The ground is soaked with water they used to boil dogs.

Your sons dream they have been lost in kinky hair,
no one can find them,
neighbors walk shoulder to shoulder for three days,
but your sons are lost in the immense forest.

And the harsh deer drop,
the businessmen climb into their F-4s,
the chocks are knocked out,
the F-4 shoots off the deck,
          trailing smoke,
dipping slightly,
          as if haunted by the center of the ocean,
then pulling up again, as Locke said it would.

Our spirit is in the baseball rising into the light

So the crippled ships go out into the deep,
sexual orchids fly out to meet the rain,
          the singer sings from deep in his chest,
memory stops,
          black threads string out in the wind,
the eyes of the nation go blind.

The building across the street suddenly explodes,
wild horses run through the long hair on the ground floor.
Cripple Creek’s survivors peer out from an upper-story window,
          blood pours from their ears,
the Sioux dead sleep all night in the rain troughs on the Treasury

The moonlight crouches over the teenager’s body thrown from a car

The weeping child like a fish thrown from the herring block
the black-nosed Avenger leaping off the deck

Women who hear the cry of small animals in their furs
and drive their cars at a hundred miles an hour into trees

:: Robert Bly, in Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life


Condition of the Working Classes: 1960

There are bricks trapped in thousands of pale homes,

And pale children who in time will vote Republican,
Who sleep at night with black stones beneath their pillows;
I have seen cars ascending into the heavens,
Where their fenders turn slowly to drifting clouds;
Driving down the streets, we see the faces of children
Change suddenly into the doors of aircraft factories,
That are far off the street, behind grass, with a blue door;
And the doors change at night into small holes in paper
Behind which the blue sky is seen; and the sky changes
          to decks of cards
Thrown down on a cardtable at midnight, and locked
          away in boxes,
And the paper boxes change to chunks of pine standing
          beneath axles
In lazy garages where the wooden floors are stained with oil,
And the extricated axles change to missiles with warheads
Climbing up, and the stages changes into aisles of a church,
And the church-doors change into the faces of children
          standing beside the new trees.

:: Robert Bly, in Working Classics: Poems on Industrial Life


Right Now

you're out in a village in the Berkshires
and your waiter is serving your steak.
You're on your third Sombrero and
one of the engineers is telling a joke.

I'm home with the TV news on so everythin
will seem normal. I've invited Marcie over for a beer.
It already seems odd to have done it.

Now you're cutting the steak. It is thick and rare
and the boss is paying for it. You laugh.
This is the life! You're glad you smoked that joint.
You see two lovers in the corner
and try not to miss me and spoil it.

I drink Lites with Marcie; we talk about teaching.
She says how nice I'm still with my lover.
She goes home and I spread the newspaper out
on your side of the bed and drink cold tea.

You're going into the lounge for a brandy
with the detail man. The guys make jokes
about the location of your room.
I lay two pillows alongside me in bed.

:: Jane Barnes, Extremes (Blue Giant Press, 1981)



if she could use
her hands to fasten
a button twist a knob
scribble a letter
to tell me she dreams
about tailpipes
thirteen parts assembled
again and over
like a broken dance
of two palms
stroking rubbery backs
fingers bowing
to partners swollen
with gnarled collapse
snapping delicate cylinders
joints in place
for the socket and bend of it
as she dismantles her own
one occupation at a time
even before they tell her
with owing fists
to speed the quota
because flesh is thick
in a town that has no fire
just cold furnaces
and breadsinners
with lottery eyes or
bingo on their breath
so where can she go
if the work of her hands
is meant for reaching
the grasp of all things falling

:: Paola Corso, Death by Renaissance (Bottom Dog Press, 2004)


How Things Work

Today it's going to cost us twenty dollars
To live. Five for a softball. Four for a book,
A handful of ones for coffee and two sweet rolls,
Bus fare, rosin for your mother's violin.
We're completing our task. The tip I left
For the waitress filters down
Like rain, wetting the new roots of a child
Perhaps, a belligerent cat that won't let go
Of a balled sock until there's chicken to eat.
As far as I can tell, daughter, it works like this:
You buy bread from a grocery, a bag of apples
From a fruit stand, and what coins
are passed on help others buy pencils, glue,
Tickets to a movie in which laughter
Is thrown into their faces.
If we buy a goldfish, someone tries on a hat.
If we buy crayons, someone walks home with a broom.
A tip, a small purchase here and there,
And things just keep going. I guess.

:: Gary Soto, Black Hair (Pittsburgh, 1985)



The workmen over and above the fence

fit bricks, lift mortar, slap it accurately
in place. Guilty by sitting idle, I
imagine they envy my luxury
of doing nothing until I remember
the days I had my hands full of shovel,
the dragline plowing the ditch of a sewer
through a future subdivision and how
I pitied those who walked by our work
with no apparent occupation,
denied the pleasure of making something,
piece by piece—even if it would soon
be buried—they would depend upon.

:: Robert King, in Rattle 29, summer 2008


The Pig Roast

The afternoon wound down. The pool was calm.
Some childrem played around the emptied trough.
The small, low town was far enough away
behind the trees to look as though it were
a thread of road, some boxes, a toy steeple
propped upon a branch. The parents bustled in
to cocktails when the lightning bugs began.
The children had the country on their shoes.
Outside, they watched the greasy farmhand set
a tractor's broken axle in the half-light.
They trailed him with a hundred aimless questions
until an aunt corralled them in the house.
A wobbly mother volunteered to fight
the crusted shoes and knotted laces off.
Outside, the farmhand closed his day. He crouched
beside the rifle hanging from the fence
and scratched the pig's broad head, then slowly rose
as though he'd left a teacup balanced there.
After the shot, the farmhand turned to spit,
and, with a rag, wiped from his dirty hands
what must have been the day, being done with it,
and turned then to the night, and night's demands.

:: Joshua Mehigan, The Optimist (Ohio University Press, 2004)



What does it matter now, the Friday night
we finally beat Lake Catholic, 6-3?
September something, 1998,
the last-second field goal, and the fray
of students on the field after the game.
We had no chance, the local papers said,
which left us with our middle fingers aimed
at their stands, their sweatered parents, spoiled kids.
What else to do but tear the goal posts down?
What else to do but key the brand new Benz?
What difference then? They went to Yale and Brown,
and my friends stayed in Mentor for their sins.
Still, something to be said for character,
that night's bonfires, those warm, ecstatic beers.

:: Dave Lucas, in Pleiades 26:2, 2006


Midweek Extra: Good Money

Midweek Extra: Click here to read "Good Money," a story by Michelle Valois.


A Good Radio for Baseball

Not a poem, but well worth your time to read: Click here to read "A Good Radio for Baseball" by Michelle Valois.



Somehow, things turned for the worst.
She didn't get hired at Eastman,
Julliard or Berkeley; so she got a job playing piano
for the voice trainer at a little Bible school
in the Midwest, a dry town where they
manufactured preachers and preachers' wives.
Here she was sure she would die. And early this morning
before they turned on the heat, she went to play
alone in that dour hall, stopping to warm
her fingers in her armpits. (Rumor was,
when a man came in June to tune the piano,
and struck the first notes of Don Giovanni,
bees raged from under the strings
and punished him, punished him.)
Now these drab boys and girls--no, she wouldn't
say men and women--entered the room, and sat
watching her. A bit more time to play the Adagio Cantabile
from Pathetique, before yielding to "Give Me Oil in My Lamp."
A million piano players in the world;
and she, being that one too many,
gone to the mean prairie. Proof, come to
think of it: there must be a god.

:: Steven Huff, Proof (Two Rivers Review, 2004)


Housekeeping Articles

Living out of the World, the Brothers and Sisters,
By wide-awake industry, made and sold:

Baskets, sieves, brooms, whisks, butter prints,
Curles maple tubs, buckets and coolers,
Butter bowls and trays, rocking-chairs (spring-seat,
Rush bottom, and cane), sheep-skin mats and rugs,
Chair cushions, kitchen tables, step-ladders,
Clothes horses, clothes lines, clothes hampers
And baskets, washboards, wash stands and benches,
Lemon squeezers, wheelbarrows, rolling pins,
Pin boards, barrel covers, knife boxes, cradles,
Herbs, garden seeds, thread spools, carpet hammers,
Sugar hammers, diaper, and rocking horses.

:: Karl Patten, Touch: Poems


Between Men

We're scheduled for a local, deadheading back.
I check the straight-truck for blankets, rubbers,
reefer dollies, humpstraps and four-wheelers
while Bob checks the gas and oil. The load-on
is an hour away. This means breakfast first.

I order cheesecake. I ask for a hefty portion
but Dottie brings me a measly sliver. "Serves
you right," says Bob over his burnt bacon.
Bob, who's already pinched Dottie, asked her
to sit on his lap, and is sure not to leave a tip.

On the way to the shipper's, I sleep in the cab
to escape Bob's prison re-runs. He wakes me
when we get to Ojai. The job turns out to be
a three room, not a two. Lots of boxes, base
and stick. Another lowball. But Bob's in love.

The shipper's a beauty. Bob confides his lust
as we secure the first tier. Your typical square,
solid start: triple dresser, end tables, a fridge,
books and dishpacks. "She's so hot!" he cries.
Bob hasn't noticed her wrists, feet or ankles,

let alone her neck. I break it to him easy.
He eyeballs her again like he eyes a house
to guess the size truck it'll take. He returns,
a box in each arm. "Fuckin' A. Fuckin' A."
Doesn't say another word until the last tier

is tied off. "Would you ever have it done?"
is the best he comes up with. "No way," I say.
To which he has the balls to ask for first crack
if I change my mind. Says I'd be real pretty.
Which is sweet, but not sweet enough.

:: Ron Drummond, Why I Kick at Night (Portlandia, 2004)

[originally published in The Journal]


Work Song

This fastening, unfastening, and heaving--
this is our life. Whose life is it improving?
It topples some. Some others it will toughen.
Work is the safest way to fail, and often
the simplest way to love a son or daughter.
We come. We carp. We're fired. We worry later.

That man is strange. His calipers are shiny.
His hands are black. Forlunch he brings baloney,
and, offered coffee, answers, "Thank you, no."
That man, with nothing evil left to do
and two small skills to stir some interest up,
fits in the cornered curtain of a shop.

The best part of our life is disappearing
into the john to sneak a smoke, or staring
at screaming non-stop mills, our eyes unfocused,
or standing judging whose sick joke is sickest.
Yet nothing you could do could break our silence.
We are a check. Do not expect a balance.

That is a wrathful man becoming older,
a nobody like us, turned mortgage holder.
We stay until the bell. That man will stay
ten minutes more, so no one can complain.
Each day, by then, he's done exactly ten.
Ten what, exactly, no one here can say.

:: Joshua Mehigan, in Poetry (July/August 2008)


To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing

Now all the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat,
For how can you compete,
Being honor bred, with one
Who were it proved he lies
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbors' eyes;
Bred to a harder thing
Than Triumph, turn away
And like a laughing string
Whereon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known
That is most difficult.

:: William Butler Yeats


Cleaning the Outhouse

Click here to read Paul's poem in Ploughshares.


What Work Is

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is--if you're
old enough to read this you know
what work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting fromone foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it's someone else's brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
aman is waiting who will say, "No,
we're not hiring today," for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who'snot beside you or behind you or
ahead because he's home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You've never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you're too young or too dumb,
not because you're jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don't know what work is.

:: Philip Levine, What Work Is (Knopf, 1991)


Simone Weil: The Year of Factory Work (1934-1935)

A glass of red wine trembles on the table,
Untouched, and lamplight falls across her shoulders.

She looks down at the cabbage on her plate,
She stares at the broken bread. Proposition:

The irreducible slavery of workers. "To work
In order to eat, to eat in order to work."

She thinks of the punchclock in her chest,
Of night deepening in the bindweed and crabgrass,

In the vapors and atoms, in the factory
Where a steel vise presses against her temples

Ten hours per day. She doesn't eat.
She doesn't sleep. Shealmost doesn't think

Now that she has brushed against the bruised
Arm of oblivion and tasted the blood, now

That the furnace has labelled her skin
And branded her forehead like a Roman slave's.

Surely God comes to the clumsy and inefficient,
To welders in dark spectacles, and unskilled

Workers who spend their allotment of days
Pulling red-hot metal bobbinsfrom the flames.

Surely God appears to the shattered and anonymous,
To the humiliated and afflicted

Whose legs are married to perpetual motion
And whose hands are too small for their bodies.

Proposition: "Through work man turns himself
Into matter, as Christ does through the Eucharist.

Work is like a death. We have to pass
Through death. We have to be killed."

We have to wake in order to work, to labor
And count, to fail repeatedly, to submit

To the furious rhythm of machines, to suffer
The pandemonium and inhabit the repetitions,

To become the sacrificial beast: time entering
Into the body, the body entering into time.

She presses her forehead against the table:
To work in order to eat, to eat . . .

Outside, the moths are flaring into stars
And stars are strung like beads across the heavens.

Inside, a glass of red wine trembles
Next to the cold cabbage and broken bread.

Exhausted night, she is the brimming liquid
And untouched food. Come down to her.

:: Edward Hirsch, Earthly Measures (Knopf, 1994)


Sonnet for Her Labor

My Aunt Nita's kitchen was immaculate and dark,
and she was always bending to the sink
below the window where the shadows off the bulk
of Laurel Mountain rose up to the brink
of all the sky she saw from there. She clattered
pots on countertops wiped clean of coal dust,
fixed three meals a day, fried meat, mixed batter
for buckwheat cakes, hauled water, in what seemed lust
for labor. One March evening, after cleaning,
she lay down to rest and died. I can see Uncle Ed,
his fingers twined at his plate for the blessing;
my Uncle Craig leaning back, silent in red
galluses. No on esaid a word to her. All that food
and cleanliness. No one ever told her it was good.

:: Maggie Anderson, A Space Filled with Moving


Rush Hour

All day, the important things
leave. Behind the skyline,
the sun is a fast star.
Light seeps
into the city. The street lunges
on its silver belly, turns
back, gives up.
Up steel grids, the city's
last hot breath
pushes itself everywhere
like a stain. They start
to come out, the black suits, men
who can't wait
to loosen their ties. They brandish
briefcases like tense dreams that
just repeat and repeat. Women
exit buildings alone, their hands
shading their eyes, their hands cupped
like hats. Everyone is necessary.
At five o'clock, everyone
wants bourbon, or sleep. Sales
girls lilt past
with a smell of old gardenias, stiletto
heels clicking their song
like castanets. Nylon against flesh,
the swish of skirts. On streetcorners,
newspapers hide faces. Headlines
turn the world
into one small idea. The old drunk
propped on the corner
is asleep with a smile
on his face that could save
this city. Workers pass
him, think "misplaced brick."

:: Gillian Conoley, Some Gangster Pain (Carnegie Mellon, 1987)


Boarding a Bus

In a small-knit Iowa town I watched
a couple board the bus and take the seat
behind me. They'd waited till then to count
their cash. I could hear each of them whisper
fives and ones like vespers, and repeat, then declare
they couldn't afford to go. "But," she added,
"we haven't had a vacation in--" "That's
very true," he said. And they sighed into the rolling scene:
the sunset on a sea of corn,
a lonely red gas station, an old man changing a flat.
I don't want to scare anyone, but
this is your life too. Tell me how it's any different.

:: Steven Huff, Proof (Two Rivers Review, 2004)


Father and Son at the Mesilla Valley Drive-thru Bank

Click here to read Carrie Fountain's poem in AGNI Online.


The Noodle Maker's Shop

click here to read Karina Borowicz's poem at AGNI Online.



Down deep they dug, the men
of my family. Shovels & picks,
backs bent. Night on their grave
faces. Monday blues black
every bituminous day of the week.
Sex and scriptures, colliery talk.
Grubs, Smuts--Soot
of the earth. Uncles, cousins,
stripped, mined, blasted.
Saturday, jukebox, Schlitz.
Sunday, penance, blessed. Paychecks
already spent. Into the shaft,
lung by lung, down
a song sung went.

:: Jeff Walt, Soot


Incantations Over Alloys

for the carburetor gladiator

O spirit of alloys, valves and kin
I sacrifice to you my knuckle skin.
O floating butterfly choke and rotor
get the juice to the damn motor.
O spirit of alloys, valves and kin
I sacrifice to you my knuckle skin.
Spark, fire and suck up fuel,
grant me luck and work now, tool.
O spirit of alloys, valves and kin
I sacrifice to you my knuckle skin.
Choke it out easy, bleed out the glitch,
work now, tool, you son of a bitch!

:: Kaz Sussman, in qaartsiluni


Truck Song, You and I

The radio is hobbled in this mottled blue truck with its touches of cancerous rust,

the antenna a broken stub,

but the truck sings a 200,000 mile tune. Between muffler sputters and engine knocks,

who needs Elvis or Sheryl Crow?

The tires' rhythmic thrumming, the periodic squeak, keep us humming into the night.

Lying in bed at the hilltop,

we wonder who waits for the stars to burn out? The fuel gauge shows empty,

it always does,

and the odometer is unreliable. On the way home you start to worry

about how much farther we can go.

:: Gregory Stapp, in qaartsiluni



Mrs. Howison from the Highlands;
her heaven chime with Devon,
mine with midden.

Mrs. McCanna, no stranger to a fish supper,
skin clammy with salt'n'vinegar,
declared me out-of-order.

Mr. Beckham replaced his stroboscope
with a boy, propped on a box,
set to shout "flash" every five seonds.

Mrs. Cash balanced breasts and maths
on my shoulder until I keeled over
on first contact with her mouthwash.

These were my teachers
and I have spent my life unlearning
every lesson they taught me.

Today, in a grocery store, a stone's throw
from Turin's multi-ethnic centre,
a child barged into me at the fish-counter.

Scusa, I said, with enough sarcasm
to poison an ocean.
He didn't even look at me.

Foreigner of shit! he replied
in BBC vowels, and I wondered
who had taught him that one.

:: Rob A. Mackenzie, in qaartsiluni


Old Professions

POET: I told them to look for the right words in the bluest place. Some turned to the sky. Some observed an odd bruise on an old one. My star students closed their eyes. I knew even if they did not find words, they found sparkling black.

CARPENTER: There were no new nails. We burned dwn houses and sifted ashes to reclaim old nails. But the houses had been fixed with wooden pegs. So I told the boys to make nails of forks and spoons and wedding rings.

CLOCKSMITH: One was two and two was three. What's the difference? One hour was no better or worse than another. Only the shadow of a dying tree remained loyal to time. The girls were most stubborn. How do you make twenty-five out of twenty-four? They pouted.

COBBLER: If you run out of cowhide, there's always pigskin. Or the hides from dogs or goats or sheep. If it came down to it, you could peel your skin off your own thighs for shoes, but I wouldn't recommend it.

SINGER: It was easy to teach them to sing. It was less easy to teach them to sing with joy. How could I teach them something I didn't know? My melodies were suspected. We sang songs of frogs, of cranes, of bats.

COBBLER: The fact was, we didn't have anywhere to walk to anyway.

CLOCKSMITH: And since we didn't know what day it was, why track the hours?

CARPENTER: Our team built seventeen houses but there was nobody to live in even one of them.

POET: We gnawed on the words we did not forget. The words became smaller but never lost their flavour.

:: Tammy Ho Lai-ming & Reid Mitchell, in qaartsiluni


It Was My First Nursing Job

and I was stupid in it. I thought a doctor would not be unkind.
One wouldn't wait for a laboring woman to dilate to ten cm.

He'd brace one hand up his patient's vagina,
clamp the other on her pregnant belly, and force the fetus

through an eight-centimeter cervix.
She tore, of course. Bled.

Stellate lacerations extend from the cervix
like an asterisk. The staff nurses stormed and hissed

but the head nurse shrugged, He doesn't like to wait around.
No other doctor witnessed what he did. The man was an elder

in his church. He chattered and smiled broadly as he worked.
He wore the biggest gloves we could stock.

It was my first real job and I was scared in it.
One night a patient of his was admitted

bleeding. The charge nurse said, He won't rip her.
You take this one.

So I took her.
She quickly delivered a dead baby boy.

Not long dead--you could tell by the skin, intact.
But long enough.

When I wrapped him in a blanket, the doctor flipped open the cover
to let the mother view the body, according to custom.

The baby lay beside her.
He lay stretched out and still.

What a pity, the doctor said.
He seized the baby's penis between his own forefinger and thumb.

It was the first time I had ever seen a male not circumcised
and I was taken aback by the beauty of it.

Look, said the doctor. A little boy. Just what we wanted.
His hand, huge on the child,held the penis as if he'd found

a lovecharm hidden in his grandmother's linen.
And then he dropped it.

The mother didn't make a sound.
When the doctor left, she said to me in a flat voice

I called and told him I was bleeding bad.
He told me not to worry.

I don't remember what I said. Just that
when I escorted her husband from the lobby

the doctor had already gone home. The new father followed me
with a joyful strut. I thought Sweet Jesus Christ

--Did the doctor speak to you?
--No ma'am, the father said.

I said quick-as-I-could-so-I-wouldn't-have-to-think--
The baby didn't make it.

The man doubled over. I told him all wrong.
I would do it all over again.

Please, sir. Sit down. I'm so very sorry to tell you--

No. It's been sixteen years.
I would say, I am your witness.

No. I have never told the whole truth.
Forgive me.

It was my first job
and I was lost in it.

:: Belle Waring, Dark Blonde (Sarabande, 1997)


Green and Red, Verde y Rojo

for Jacobo Mena

At night, when Beacon Hill
is a private army
of antique gas lamps
glowing in single file,
Jacobo vacuum-cleans
the law office of Adams and Blinn,
established 1856, with the founder's
wire-rimmed Protestant face
still supervising the labor,
a restored photograph in the window.

Jacobo's face
is indio-guatemalteco,
bored as the work,
round as worry,
heavy as waiting.
Guatemala is green and red,
green volcanoes, red birds,
green like rivers in rain,
red like coffee beans at harvest,
the river-green and quetzal bird-red
of his paintings,
perfiles del silencio.

Testimony of death-squad threats
by telephone, shrilled in the dark,
the flash of fear's adrenaline,
and family stolen with the military's greed
for bodies, all recorded by stenographers,
then dismissed:
Guatemala leaves no proof,
and immigration judges are suspicious
only of the witnesses, who stagger and crawl
through America. Asylum denied,
appeal pending.

As he waits, Jacobo paints
in green and red, verde y rojo,
and at night he cleans the office
of Adams and Blinn,
where Guatemala cannot be felt
by the arrogrant handshake of lawyers,
where there is no green or red,
only his shadow blending
with the other shadows in the room,
and all the hours of the night
to picture the executioners.

:: Martin Espada, Trumpets from the Islands of Their Eviction


Swing Low

My sister, wearing a white turban,
sang Swing Low
as we picked up sticks
in early August
in a field my father wanted to plow
for the planting of soy
that would attract quail,
which he would shoot.

My sister and I imagined
trying to eat dead birds
at our father’s table, watching
for the crunch of shot
between our teeth.

We could never stomach
murdered food, food
that had been trapped
on a hot day, like us.
So my sister sang slave songs
even though we knew
it was wrong.

We are not black in my family.
My father is the whitest
among us.

:: Faulkner Fox, in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review #7 (1995)


Cry Room, St. Mark's Church

In the back behind smudged glass we sat
with three other mothers and their kids.
No one was in fact crying. Or reciting
prayers. We could have been looking in

the window of the A & P or K-Mart. I was old
enough not to consider crying an option.
My little sister crawled beneath the kneeler
and fell asleep. I crouched awkward in the pew.

To be caught in the cry room—I wouldn’t hear
the end of it. Everyone stared down the usher
when he came in to shake his collection basket

under our noses. 1963. I’d made my first
communion and begun saving my best lies
for the confessional booth. A room for sins.
A room to cry in. I watched my mother’s head

loll back, snap forward. Why were we there?
Was someone going to bring us yet another
baby to take home? One woman entered late
and sat in the last of the four pews, wedging

herself into the corner to sob uncontrollably.
Other mothers stared out the window
at the muffled mass as if waiting for the good parts.
Mine sighed and yanked us up and out

of there. We walked home in a fluster of spring wind.
I was hungry for a doughnut or two. Glazed,
sticky in the flimsy cardboard box with the see-through
plastic window. Did we stay long enough for it to count?
I asked. My mother carried my sister in one arm

and puffed on a cigarette with the fervor
of the newly-converted. We passed the Powder
Puff hair salon and the boarded up Dairy Queen
and the ill-fated slot-car track and the ditch

they found Larry Jarman in. I didn’t cry then
and I’m not crying now. God—you had to love
the dude. God, not Larry. It might’ve been Larry’s
mother crying in the back. Or Mary Magdalene’s

distant niece. Or the victim of another immaculate
conception. All I know is that I bugged my mother
into a frenzy till she bought the doughnuts
at Oaza bakery near the drive-thru car wash

and threw the box at me and told me to shut up.
My older brothers had lied about going to early
mass. I don’t know where they went, but they wouldn’t
take me with them. My mother believed in miracles

and my sleeping father believed in the almighty dollar
and the nearly almighty cents. I at e two doughnuts
before we got home. The sweet glaze stuck to my lips
and face. I confess to a smile and a taunting boogaloo

on the sidewalk as my brothers raced out the door
to snatch the box. My mother dropped my sister
onto the stoop, then fell to the dead brown grass
and smiled her own wistful boogaloo. You had to love him

or hate him or pretend or believe he didn’t exist. The cry
room stunk with soiled diapers and sweat. The hymnals
had pages ripped out, drooled and doodled on. The truth
was elusive. Why would he want criers in a separate room?

What about a room for laughers? No one laughed
in church. Even when the priest—any priest—tried out
a joke. Are there any good jokes that don’t have a cruelty
to them? Cigarettes weren’t as good as I imagined.

We haunted ourselves in the reflection of the cry room glass.
My tiny grandmother in her tiny room watched “Mass
for Shut-ins” on her tiny TV. She might have been crying,
depending on the pain. She was my second death after Larry.

Nobody explained about Larry till I was old enough
to understand. The church stretched yellow police tape
around our lives like those in fancy stores where you couldn’t
touch a thing. Usually, some kid started bawling, but not that day.

Oh, the sweetness of the glaze,
and how the greed made my mother smile.

:: Jim Daniels, in Green Mountains Review (18:2, 2005)


Emma Waits Out a Spring Snow

We sure had some snow.
So many wrecks, all over
the road, down ditches
and spun out in fields
like cars which had gotten
loose without their drivers.

Didn’t go out ourselves,
only for the mail or to feed
the horses, and Will does that.
All I do is crochet and cook.
Will goes out to feed the cats,
two nice black females. One
meets him right at the door.

Before the snow Will had onions
and lettuce up, and some peas.
Also have tomato plants but
we kept them indoors. Now
the Easter flowers are coming
through. I wonder why I quit
going to church. Been all
of forty years now. Everything

might be froze—it’s all snowed
over. My mother would say that
early planting was like trying
to get ahead of God.

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


Death of an Iowa Farmer

click here to read Elaine Sexton's poem in Bloom.


Three by Ai


Hailstones puncture the ground,
as I sit at the table, rubbing a fork.
My woman slides a knife across her lips,
then lays it beside a cup of water.
Each day she bites another notch in her thumb
and I pretend relief is coming
as the smooth black tire, Earth,
wheels around the sun without its patch of topsoil
and my mouth speaks: wheat, barley, red cabbage,
roll on home to Jesus,
it's too late now you're dead.



Rain, tobacco juice, spit from the sky
shatters against your body,
as you push the pane of glass through the mud.
The white oak frame of the house shakes
when I slam the door and stand on the porch,
fanning myself with a piece of cardboard
cut in the shape of a ham.

There's a pot of air on the stove.
You drove seventy miles, paid for that glass
and I can't remember the last good meal I had,
but bring it up here. I'll help you. I'm not angry.
We'll paint the sun on it from the inside,
so if we die some night, a light will still be on.
It's hell to starve in the dark.
I don't know why. I'm just your woman,
like you, crazy to lose all I've got.
It's rotten, you know, rotten.
The table's set. What time is it?
Wash your hands first. You're late.



Beside the river, I stop the wagon
loaded with the plague dead
and have a drink.
I fill my mouth to swallow slowly,
then climb back into my seat.
The old horse drops one turd, another.
Corpses, I give you these flowers.

:: Ai, Cruelty (1973)


Visiting My Father in Florida

Forty years, every working day he drove
through the roiling haze of Cleveland streets
to the Harshaw Chemical Co., past Union Carbide,
Rockwell International, Bethlehem Steel, all the
barbed-wire, bricked-window plants, sulfur
rising from their stacks to rain on playgrounds
and reservoirs, the states downwind. He knew

the neighborhoods of Italians and Poles, Greeks
and Slovenes, Slovaks and Croats before they moved
their kitchen tables, photo albums and ceramic jockeys
to the suburbs. He couldn't understand the girls
in platform heels and slit skirts who'd whisper
"Hey Mister" from bleak doorways. "Go home to
your mother," he told one. "Your white ass,"

she answered. He persisted so long even he changed.
Now we drive through his new "planned community,"
banks and K Marts garish as modern churches,
acres of offices of oncologists, proctologists,
urologists, ancient women pedaling tricycles,
Lincoln and Cadillac dealers, the old in bunches
raising blouses and shirts to show their latest scars.

Later we fish his new canal. Caloosahatchee mullet
leap stiffly toward the sky. He lifts his rod
and a whiskered, flat-headed catfish the color
of sludge lands between us, writhing. I've never
seen a thing so old, so ugly. It leaves a trail
of slime on the new dock, lost in so much sudden light,
blind. Its mouth gapes the precious, useless air.

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


Spring Plowing

God knows it’s slow work, especially
when March streams like a broken faucet,
or gluttonous snows fall through February.

You batter the gates till you can’t stand it,
then you try . . . Next thing you know,
you’re axle deep in a dead furrow

or your rig sinks like a big green boat
above some broken drain tile. You can bury
yourself in any square foot that lies low.

But you can only gnaw the stall door so long.
My dead father would curse the weather
for days or weeks at a time, hovering

inside the kitchen like a dark gray cloud,
having changed the oil in every engine
and greased each conceivable part,

waiting, waiting, good God, for better weather.
And that, gentle reader, is why I left
the goddamn farm.

But there were other days, magazine-cover,
tractor-ad days, when the ground turned itself
over, the way a woman unpeels her robe,

anxious to be loved. The very wind
smelled of apple flowers and diesel smoke,
and you believed you were born for a reason.

:: William Jolliff, in West Branch #60 (2007)


Any and All

You draw nearer to see her more closely
the blind woman by the bronze doors

of the old Merchants Bank, her mouth
wide open as if in a silent roar,

several dollars stuffed in the pockets
of her mink coat. She is easy to forget

a few days later when you think of her
—not long. The phone is ringing.

You put Byrdman on hold. Polen
wants you in his office immediately.

The lawyers from Mars and the bankers
from Switzerland have arrived to close the deal,

the money in their heads articulated
to the debt of the state of Bolivia.

How much later the Croatian woman
who empties the wastebaskets laughs

when you answer you’ve been better
and you’ve been worse. How much sooner

you’re told not to tell anyone Byrdman’s
grandfather was a Jew. How much No. 54

Wall Street, emblematic reality of extreme
speculations and final effects.

The other evening at a party in the West Sixties
you say as much. None of them knows

what any of it is worth, you say to yourself
later, spitting into an unexpected breeze.

Yellow moons of street lamps on Ninth Avenue
obscured by atmospheric soot and fog,

in the Twenties empty windows of butcher shops,
factories and warehouses without names,

no taxis, the green light behind the window
of a corner bar. A young man sporting muscles,

a woman he might own on his arm, clearly
doesn’t like the way you look or look at him,

lets his leash out enough for his wolfdog
to just nip your leg. Another day

you contemplate your strategy:
think about how they think about you

thinking about them and the look on your face
to prove you have the proper attitude.

Let no laughter reveal moods. Let
Charlotte Stone reveal that her father

over the weekend purchased a peninsula in Rhode Island
for Harry and her, let her teeth

be too large and too gray: there is blood
and there is blood-letting; this is not your blood.

Shut the door and wait. Someone else’s father
forgives you when you know not what you do,

reminds you, “He’s a weasel but he’s my friend.”
You’re a monkey and you work for him,

decide for him whether his clauses should be restrictive,
whether to replace every “any” with “all.”

:: Lawrence Joseph, Curriculum Vitae (Pittsburgh, 1988)


Santiago: Five Men in the Street

Four fellows in orange uniforms
and a fifth in a dismal suit play
pick up soccer in the street. It's their

lunch break, and the ball, a kid's beach ball,
might not make it trough this half hour
of pleasure, as the men leap and kick

this flimsy target of blue plastic.
The guy in the suit is a clerk who
gets yelled at. The ones in orange sweep

out a garage for a boss who thinks
a uniform looks sharp. The hours
they travel by bus to get to work,

the pennies they get paid, the verbal
abuse of those who need to prove they're
cut from better cloth--all disappear

in this thirty minutes in the street.
It's the end of winter and the tightly
folded leaves of the plane trees begin

to release their delicate green plumes.
The clerk lunges for a kick that shoots
the ball smack against a metal gate.

Goal! shout the others. The clerk raises
his hands above his head as his pals
whack him on the back. Take this moment

and freeze it--five guys grinning, showing off
their lousy teeth. Not one will ever
find an easy death and each will know

a hundred forms of grief. Having gone
splat, the ball deflates on the pavement.
The five men collapse beneath a tree

and the clerk hands rounds his cigarettes.
They light up, sigh, and watch the leaves
unfurl their little flags of green.

:: Stephen Dobyns, in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review #2 (1993)



They are from everywhere
the quiet Indians in the stalls
of the Santa Fe market
and they watch the Anglos
bending over the pots and the rugs
and holding up the jewelry
to find the maker's name.

Just off the plaza
a woman of the Sac and Fox
honored for her quillwork
plays an old game of chance
tossing pieces of bone
in a shallow wooden bowl.

:: Walter Edens, in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review #6 (1995)


The Dead Guy and the Evangelist

A guy wearing a tie and a soaking shirt
was handing out religious pamphlets
today at the truckstop, asking everybody
have they been saved from eternal damnation by Christ
our personal lord and savior. I’d just picked up
four deads that were three days gone
from the heat down at Shafer Brothers Feedlot.
My mind was on air conditioning and fueling up
so I could get my load back to the plant.
He came over, wearing enough cologne
to keep a dog away from a dead wagon,
and asked me if I knew where I’m going
when I die. A rancher who called me once
to carry off a palomino asked
how I liked the resurrection business,
and so I told that preacher I wasn’t sure,
but I work in resurrection too,
and had to get a load to Wauneta before it spoiled.

Who is he to ask me where I’m going
when I die? Me and that preacher and a millionaire
will end up drained and pickled and dressed
in suits, and that’s all any of us knows.
What’s left is just a carcass the undertaker
powders and buries instead of hauling off
to the rendering plant. We both keep
the dead from piling up. People would know
if somebody wasn’t there to keep those cows
from laying around getting ripe when they died.

I don’t need to imagine more of a heaven
than the light inside of Five Springs Canyon
afternoons when cutthroats pop the surface
and bite on anything you throw in the water,
or watching pheasants break from a field of cornstalks,
or even having Rhonda call me Darlin’
when I stop for lunch at the Conestoga Grill.
I won’t say I’m ready. But if I got run over
by a sugar beet truck tonight, I could die knowing
I did some good in life, that I was willing
to do a job not many people would do.

:: William Notter, Holding Everything Down (2009)


Midnight Ramble

This is the middle class, lower. The tree in the yard.
Bushes in front of the house. Flowers in the yard. Lawn
mowers growling. Dogs barking. Lots of dogs. Every-
body has one, for safety, and they keep them locked up
in their yards where they bark and bark behind their
fences because no one ever takes them for a walk. Ice
cream men. Lawn chairs. And beer and beer bellies and
white paint on trim and brick and a hose at the side of
the house. Squares, everything squares. Sidewalks and
lawns and porches and houses and brains. TV sets. Gar-
age sales and telephone poles. Kids sell kool-aid in sum-
mer, shovel snow in winter. Till they’re old enough to
smoke and drink and raise hell. They get a couple years
of that, then it’s factory time. Always one lawn mower
going. Because everyone on this street works in a fac-
tory and they’re all on different shifts. Maybe they
communicate through their lawns, waking me here in
the dark, damp basement. The young guys in the fac-
tory say they’re not going to work there the rest of
their lives. Just ‘temporary.’ The old guys laugh at that.
They say Temporary my ass.

:: Jim Daniels, Punching Out


January: Unloading Feed

Godamitey it’s cold
that dam wind don’t help a thing
I think I may be loosing
another finger and two toes
and that ain’t the coldest part

I hear spit freezes
about fifty below
so hold it in I don’t want no holes
in the side of the barn
when it’s that cold
pee stacks up
my daddy sed oncet
he’s in Montana with a woman
had to chop her loost
from the ground

hurry up and get that other sack
out the truck
let’s go in and warm up
before the rest of us freezes
and falls off

:: David Lee, Day’s Work (1990)


Advice for Women on the Graveyard Shift

Click here to read Karen Weyant's poem online at Broadsided.