At the Office Holiday Party

I can now confirm that I am not just fatter

than everyone I work with, but I’m also fatter
than all their spouses. Even the heavily bearded
bear in accounting has a little otter-like boyfriend.

When my co-workers brightly introduce me
as “the funny one in the office,” their spouses
give them a look which translates to, Well, duh,
then they both wait for me to say something funny.

A gaggle of models comes shrieking into the bar
to further punctuate why I sometimes hate living
in this city. They glitter, a shiny gang of scissors.
I don’t know how to look like I’m not struggling.

Sometimes on the subway back to Queens,
I can tell who’s staying on past the Lexington stop
because I have bought their shoes before at Payless.
They are shoes that fool absolutely no one.

Everyone wore their special holiday party outfits.
It wasn’t until I arrived at the bar that I realized
my special holiday party outfit was exactly the same
as the outfits worn by the restaurant’s busboys.

While I’m standing in line for the bathroom,
another patron asks if I’m there to clean it.

:: Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz, Everything Is Everything (Write Bloody, 2010)


About Cleaning Bathrooms

It seems I'm always barging in
on somebody who's caught in a
compromising position. Right off,
they accuse me of spying.
What can I say?
How can I deny it?
I reply, muttering something
foolish about having to polish
the white porcelain or lay out
a fresh supply of paper towels.
But the embarrassed eyes follow me
out the squeaking black door,
they don't believe me.
For god's sake, why should I care
about the size of his dick or
whether or not she's been sitting
on the pot reading Vogue for
twenty minutes or who hurriedly
shoved a Playboy behind the stall?
And why would I take note of the
men who spray themselves with
cologne or the woman who plugs up
the john with tampons every single
month? No, it's pretty dull stuff.
But still they accuse me.
You Don't Look Like a Janitor.
The words accost me,
I ignore them.
I lay the toilet paper out gingerly.
I spray the air with just the right
amount of deodorizer, I whistle a lot.
As far as I'm concerned if you've seen
one ass, you've seen them all.

:: Kathryn Eberly, in If I Had a Hammer: Women's Work in Poetry, Fiction, and Photographs


My Granddad's Last Career

Not one of his wristwatches

ever kept time after he’d fixed it,
although he eventually did get one to tick,

its flat hands jerking like nerve
damage, like delirium tremens,
around its white, innocent face.

:: Joseph Green, in The Threepenny Review


The Barber

1. His Day

In his chair he sleeps,
Narcissus of scissors,
infinitely framed
in the tall shop mirrors.

Arranged in his shelf:
Wild Root, Vitalis
where talcum hints
rigor corporalis.

The tools of his craft
lie still where he snores,
sharp as a quill
or Ockham's razor.

2. The Barber at Twilight

The shop is closed
the lights are down
the chair he sat in
like a burnished throne
stands empty now,
and avenue crowds
slowly appear
in evening air
as the barber stares
from his upstate room
as night descends.

3. The Barber in Ecstasy

The magazine drops
by the bedside stand.
His hand, pensive,
strays across his thigh.
You're lovely, lovely,
the barber's voice whispers.
He tucks the naked
pillow to his side.

4. His Dream

Emerging from the tunnel, he enters
the garden where the goddess of wine,
raven-haired Siduri, pours him a tall one:
Day and night, day and night, feast and rejoice . . .
The barber lies down in the tall flowers
of heaven, as if there were no going home.

:: Daniel Tobin, in Cumberland Poetry Review, spring 1994


City Moon

Perfect disc of moon, huge

and simmering
low on the capital’s filthy horizon— ¡Ay,
qué luna más hermosa! she says
pushing the stroller slowly down Atocha.
And gorgeous too the firm-thighed

boys from Lisbon
a block away, who work
Kilometer Zero’s sidewalk, the neon
shoestore they lean against
cupping the flames
of passing strangers.

The sky above Puerta del Sol turns
a darker shade of blue. Who says
it doesn’t become night’s
one eye
as it scales the heavens, paling
and shrinking before it moves

across a late June sky? And below,
men persist and circle
the plaza, twin fountains brimming
over their brilliant waters. Hours
from now with the heat
waning, the same moon will spot

the figure of him
making past Neptune, the Ritz
the orange jumpsuits
hopping off trucks to sweep
and spray, hosing
down those electric streets.

:: Francisco Aragon, Puerta del Sol (Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingue, 2005)


Sweating Copper

My father taught me the hard way:
dusty coveralls in the crawl space

with the water off, and no matter what,
we were stuck there until we finished up.

Cobwebs strung the floor joists
where I had to aim the trouble light

and hold it still so he could see
just what the hell was going on.

If I let it slip, he grabbed my wrist
and dragged the light back where he wanted it

above the tubing cutter and the emery cloth
and the little metal-handled flux brush

in the jar of flux. The solder wire
coiled around itself the way I wrapped

my thoughts on their hollow core.
Then the quiet hiss of bottled gas,

flint-scratch of the spark lighter,
the blue tongue licking through the flame

along the copper pipe to make the solder run
bright as mercury into the fitted seam.

Smell of cool dirt. Smell of coffined air.
Smell of gas and flux and solder vapor

piercing it all like my father’s whisper:
Can’t you pay attention, maybe, just for once?

:: Joseph Green, in Nimrod


Glove / Hand

The hands have trouble being naked.

The hand has trouble with the pen.

In the gloves the fingers do not feel
hot or cold or sharp.
The gloves make the hands
part of a machine.

The gloved hand is a paw,
an awkward, swiping thing.

Without claws.
The glove gets the job done.
The hand has little to say.

:: Jim Daniels, Punching Out



She drew the dimensions, but did not set the bounds.
Her rooms were white lines on blue papers:
some days she saw in them lovers, other days, dying men.
She would have liked to have painted them,
a Van Gogh violet for the master bedroom,
Matisse yellow for the kitchen, a trompe l'oeil
in the dining room to disorient the guests.
To the powder room, she would send flocks
of paper nightingales, lavender, silent for now,
but ready to tell all later:   the songs sung
between the satin sheets, the coos that came
with conceptions, the promises that ran,
like a prodigy's black ink, down her walls,
always white-lined on blue paper.

:: Holly Hildebrand, in If I Had a Hammer: Women's Work in Poetry, Fiction, and Photographs


Syrian Light and the Leisure of Moths

This must have been how it was
to look down from the orchard hills of Ghota at dawn,
and see Damascus shining far below
and for the last time.

In that light, it must have looked fragile and clean
like acres of card houses.
He had what he could walk with--
the piastres for his ticket,
flat bread for the slow passage, a folded
name and address.

But this isn't the honeyed light of memory; it's coal dust
from the number three shaft mine in Clearview, West Virginia,
drifting through the windows and doors,
mapping the palms of his small, brown hands,
following him into the house where his wife
is raising nine children and living at the stove
with her ginger root fingers and her cabbage heart
             the leaves of which she gives away.

She was a cool round washing machine
             wearing a feedsack apron.
He was a lunch pail and beard full of coal
             gone to the mine with the night's last shadows.

Weaving ruined nylons into rugs,
hunting dandelions in spring,
scraping the bones of dinner
into the black dirt of the garden,
they never owned a car, or flew on a plane,
or tasted store-bought eggs.

What was he thinking, the night
I found him watching the listless way
the gypsy moths kept flopping their wings against
the screen, a dozen opiated concubines,
each of them yawning and waving a fan?

The Syria that was left for him was in his fig and apricot trees.
Hauntng no one in the paid-for house,
settled, but half-homeless
until the breath in his black and clouded lungs
refused to move.

:: Eliot Khalil Wilson, The Saint of Letting Small Fish Go (Cleveland, 2003)


In Praise of My Bed

At last I can be with you!

The grinding hours
since I left your side!
The labor of being fully human,
working my opposable thumb,
talking, and walking upright.
Now I have unclasped
unzipped, stepped out of.
Husked, soft, a be-er only,
I do nothing, but point
my bare feet into your
clean smoothness
feel your quiet strength
the whole length of my body.
I close my eyes, hear myself
moan, so grateful to be held this way.

:: Meredith Holmes, Shubad's Crown (Pond Road Pr, 2003)


The Tomato Packing Plant Line

Bumped and rolling jovially
down the conveyor the tomatoes
dance in       a press of faces
the shine on their skins like smiles
the stem ends chipper as cowlicks.

Young women remove the mistakes--
harelips       two-headed ones       gashed ones
with papery crosshatched scars.
Tiny ones too are removed
to be juiced with the freaks.

At the far end hemmed in by boxes
the old women sort the tomatoes
the largest and the perfect ones first.
Their hands       like their eyes
know the swell before ripeness.
It is something they flaunted
on Fridays            a gust that inflated
box-pleated skirts into bells
as they stepped into dusk
hands washed white of tomatoes
which did not survive
their ripeness.

:: Enid Shomer, in If I Had a Hammer: Women's Work in Poetry, Fiction, and Photographs


Traveling Salesman

He finds himself stepping off the bus in some burg he’s already bored with. Picking
his teeth for 200 miles—here’s where he spits the toothpick out. Past Holiday Inn
the neighborhoods get dark. All-night laundromats where women with circles under
their eyes press laundered underwear, warm as bread, against their sinuses. Finally,
he’s signing the register at a funeral home where he knows no one, but is mistaken
for a long-lost friend of the deceased, for someone who has dislocated his life to
make the hazardous journey on a night when the dead man’s own children have
avoided him. Once again instinct has taken him where he’s needed; where the
unexpected transforms routine into celebration. He kneels before the corpse,
striking his forehead against the casket.

:: Stuart Dybek, Brass Knuckles (Pittsburgh, 1979)



That Lucia broke the machine twice in one week was evidence enough. He also offered
this—she’s no longer automatic, her stitches are crooked and once another seamstress
found Lucia’s “lost” sewing patterns in the trash. The security guard half listened as
Lucia gathered her things. Then the manager turned directly to her—what is it with
you? We give you work, put money in your pocket. She put on her best disappointed
face as they escorted her past rows of itchy throats, bowed heads, the refrain of needle
through fabric.

Every day Elena counts pig. A pageant of molded plastic rolling down the conveyor belt.
The task: grab Miss Piggy, pull gown over snout, fasten two tiny buttons, grab another.
With each doll Elena’s hands grow stiffer. Her feet grow heavy as the concrete below.
Dolls spit at her, or maybe this is imagined, but the ache in her legs might be real. The
supervisor brushes against her back when he patrols the floor. After standing for
hours, the room begins to blur. Her mouth opens like an empty wallet as naked dolls
march on.

What will settle in, what will rise from the lungs of girls who still burn weeks after
detox treatment at a local clinic. Speak of headaches, blurred vision, diarrhea. How
they suck air thick with sulfuric acid. Acetone working past unfiltered exhaust systems
and through their livers. Most return to work despite doctors’ orders. Back inside, the
tin roof and their steady perspiration remind them they’re still alive—together one
breathing, burning machine.

Like Celia’s pockets, there’s nothing but lint here. Lint & dead machines. The sound of
layoffs & profit margins. Yesterday this department droned an unsynchronized rhythm
of coughing girls tethered to well-lubed motors. Row after row of pre-asthmatic lungs.
Black hair buried under perpetual white. The decision was made across the border, he
tells them. Nothing I can do about it. Sometimes Celia would imagine the whole place
caught inside a tiny globe. Something she could pick up. Shake.

A perpetual conveyor, he patrols her mouth. The sound of unfiltered white. Breathing
margins. The task: grab Elena’s hands. Pull. Fasten. He also offered crooked patterns.
Put money in her hair. That Lucia broke. Was evidence enough? Molded vision as a
refrain. An empty wallet will rise. Speak. How they exhaust systems. Despite the
blurred other, the ache might be real. Something she could pick up. Across the border,
nothing I can imagine.

:: Paul Martinez Pompa, My Kill Adore Him (Notre Dame, 2009)


Calling Him Back from Layoff

I called a man today. After he said

hello and I said hello came a pause
during which it would have been

confusing to say hello again so I said
how are you doing and guess what, he said
fine and wondered aloud how I was

and it turns out I’m OK. He
was on the couch watching cars
painted with ads for Budweiser follow cars

painted with ads for Tide around an oval
that’s a metaphor for life because
most of us run out of gas and settle

for getting drunk in the stands
and shouting at someone in a t-shirt
we want kraut on our dog. I said

he could have his job back and during
the pause that followed his whiskers
scrubbed the mouthpiece clean

and his breath passed in and out
in the tidal fashion popular
with mammals until he broke through

with the words how soon thank you
ohmyGod which crossed his lips and drove
through the wires on the backs of ions

as one long word as one hard prayer
of relief meant to be heard
by the sky. When he began to cry I tried

with the shape of my silence to say
I understood but each confession
of fear and poverty was more awkward

than what you learn in the shower.
After he hung up I went outside and sat
with one hand in the bower of the other

and thought if I turn my head to the left
it changes the song of the oriole
and if I give a job to one stomach other

forks are naked and if tonight a steak
sizzles in his kitchen do the seven
other people staring at their phones


:: Bob Hicok, Insomnia Diary (Pittsburgh, 2004)


The Radium Girls

She doesn't mind talking about hers
the slow kind       bruises and swellings
an epidemic of tumors       more photos
nubile girls in cloche hats
wall-eyed boas       grinning at the camera

Radium dial factory girls       deft of hand
each proud to be a woman       earning a man's paycheck
painting numbers       that glow in the dark
on our bedroom clocks       a the time clock ticks
their tractable faces       white and luminous
as calla lilies       bending bobbed heads
over their handiwork       licking the pearly tips
to stub their brushes       to a fine point

In this new element       distilled from deep underground
in the moist rich earth       promising miracle cures
and healing waters       each one unaware
she offers       a share of her body       a note to come due
in five years or ten       down the line

In the X-ray room       she crouches on an iron table
in the government study       the Army needs to see
her shining ribs       her spine like organ keys

More photos       boarded-up factories
steel coffins       barely muffle
the radiant ticking below       negative numbers
half-lives poisoned       an empty clock face
its nights and days       burned away

Sixty years later       this Midwestern grave
of the last of the red-hot mommas
still too hot to handle

:: Barbara Unger, in If I Had a Hammer: Women's Work in Poetry, Fiction, and Photographs


January in Detroit or Search for Tomorrow Starring Ken and Ann

I think it is interesting

though not exactly amusing
how we go from day to day
with no money. How do we
do it, friends ask, suspecting
we really have some stash
stacked away somewhere.
But we certainly do not
and we also do not know
how we do it either.
You are so lucky,
some of our friends say. I am
none too sure of that though,
as I wait for the winning
lottery numbers to be announced
on CKLW. Thursday in Detroit
is the day of dreams. We have
been dreaming of a place
in the country lately and I’m
none too sure that is very healthy.
And speaking of health that’s
also been a problem that probably
has something to do with no money,
since we’ve all been sick lately,
taking turns politely of course.
Could you bring me some more
tea one of us will ask,
and the other will.
In between the coughing and
worrying our thoughts
have often turned to crime.
We seriously wonder how we can
get away with a bundle with
as little risk as possible.
Last week we took our last
$12 out of the bank
and noticed how much more
they had there though
we had none. Of course
we wouldn’t rob that bank,
they know us there
as the ones who bring
the rolls of pennies in.
And just yesterday they
fish-eyed us for trying
to cash our son’s xmas bond
from his grandparents
after only one month.
So we wouldn’t try to rob that bank,
but I do know of one up north
that may be possible. . .
I know this just seems like
romantic dreaming
but I practically make a career
of reading detective stories,
and God knows, I have no other.
Anyway if the right opportunity
comes along, we are more
than ready to meet it.
But this is a time of waiting,
the I Ching says, though it does
not say how we are to eat
while waiting. And soon
we will have another mouth to feed—
Ann now in her seventh month,
and that is often in our thoughts.
Besides all that we are both
over thirty, artist and poet,
still waiting to cross the great water.
Meanwhile, day after day,
there is still Detroit
to be dealt with – a small pond
says our friend Snee.
Big fish we used to answer him,
but that was a while back.
Now we think maybe Lake Erie
is the great water referred to
in the I Ching, and if we wait
long enough we can
walk across – to Buffalo
or Cleveland. In a healthy person,
says the philosopher, self-pity
can be a forerunner to action:
once the problem is seen clearly,
a solution may be found at hand.
And as I said, I think it is interesting
though not exactly amusing.

:: Ken Mikolowski, Big Enigmas (Past Tents, 1991)


Class of '77

A decade since I last saw
my college best buddy,
Chuck, mechanical engineer
and doper who graduated
to building nuclear reactors
in Southwestern badlands.
We were smoking in his truck--
I was passing through town--
when I asked how was work,
so he spun the steering wheel
to show off the site, drove
the fifty miles of Utah
nowhere backcountry blacktop
past canyon after canyon
to the spot where monoliths
rose as mutant cauliflowers
and parsnips, where the hardhat
and lunchpail begot super-uranium
and heat, where we listened
in stupendously crucial silence
to an old Grateful Dead tape
until Chuck said: My job, pal.

:: Ken Waldman, in Bordlerlands: Texas Poetry Review #6 (1995)


Company Property

When the buzzer sounds
for our break, Vargas emerges
from the trucks he's loaded
on the graveyard shift
for more than five years,
shoving clear a section
of the resting conveyor belt,
the heavy boxes falling
and bursting all over
the docks around him.
He gets on the belt,
lying face up and squirming,
then stopping and listening
for the crinkripplesnapsigh
that throws his spine back into
alignment. A new man,
he walks with me
to the lunch truck, talking
on the way about school. He says
he's now the top Biochem
student at the local
community college, got the award
at a banquet last night to prove it.
As I dig through the ice pack
looking for a Gatorade, I ask
if he's heard from U.S.C. yet
and as he pays for his daily
Coke and bearclaw, Vargas
tells me that he's on some
waiting list, but after two letters
of appeal, he hasn't heard
a thing. While I wait for my change
he sits down with a bunch
of the old timers on our crew,
bullshitting about the properties
of donuts and enzymes,
his break ticking away.

:: M. Jayme, in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review #6 (1995)


The Circle of Chairs

In her dry-goods store a haphazard
collection of chairs circled
the coal stove: peeling wicker
from the sun parlor, a blurred
needlepoint beyond its prime,
an oak rocker with a broken arm
and a kitchen pine of many Joseph coats
that served faithfully six days a week.

Miss Clara climbed the ladder, her thin
arms pulling muslin and gingham
from rainbow shelves. As women rocked
and gossiped, flannel thumped
across the counter, and tatting shuttles
flew like tongues. Apron patterns were
traced on tissue, while wool, harsh
as a scratchy throat, was folded
into brown bags. Daisy chains were looped
and linked, bluebirds opened wings
on baby bibs. In spring, satin whispered
across the measuring plank and from
the island of linens a bride's gift
of sunbonnet pillows was chosen.

A recipe for jonquil cake traveled
the circle as buffalo nickels roamed
from the cash register to children's
pockets, quarters turned up in
birthday hems, until the chairs
emptied, and Miss Clara leaned the
CLOSED sign against the pale mannequin.
Hunched over her books at the desk
she tried to balance, always
came up short. Pushing worrisome
wisps of grey hair into the net
she'd order more yardage and thread
knowing they'd soon need Easter clothes.

:: Bernice Rendrick, in If I Had a Hammer: Women's Work in Poetry, Fiction, and Photographs


Cannery Town in August

All night it humps the air.
Speechless, the steam rises
from the cannery columns. I hear
the night bird rave about work
or lunch, or sing the swing shift
home. I listen, while bodyless
uniforms and spinach specked shoes
drift in monochrome down the dark
moon-possessed streets. Women
who smell of whiskey and tomatoes,
peach fuzz reddening their lips and eyes--
I imagine them not speaking, dumbed
by the cans' clamor and drop
to the trucks that wait, grunting
in their headlights below.
They spotlight those who walk
like a dream, with no one
waiting in the shadows
to palm them back to living.

:: Lorna Dee Cervantes


Window Washer

One hand slops suds on, one

hustles them down like a blind.
Brusque noon glare, filtered thus,
loosens and glows. For five or
six minutes he owns the place,
dismal coffee bar, and us, its
huddled underemployed. A blade,
black line against the topmost glass,

begins, slices off the outer lather,
flings it away, works inward,
corrals the frothy middle, and carves,
with quick cuts, the stuff down,
not looking for anything, beneath
or inside. Homes to the last,
cleans its edges, grooms it for
the end, then shaves it off

and flings it away. Which is
splendid, and merciless. And all
in the wrist. Then, he looks at us.
We makers of filth, we splashers
and spitters. We sitters and watchers.
Who like to see him work.
Who love it when he leaves
and gives it back: our grim hideout,
half spoiled by clarity.

:: Christopher Todd Matthews, in Field # 82, 2010.


Sutliffe Bridge

You wouldn't know about the bridge, bar and store
unless you were local, but now that the flood-
waters are down, everyone is coming to stand
and stare at the empty space: half a bridge gone,
grabbed in the river's fist, twisted and dragged
downstream to where its dark skeletal tips break
the gentle surface, pointing awry at the sky
like rusty hindsight exclamations of distress.

People murmur that the lost half should be brought back.
It could be retrieved, restored--just a matter
of allocating the money and equipment.
But will the county ante up? It was an old
bridge with scabrous cement piers, wooden planks
that roared like thunder when you drove
over them, and diminutive spans shedding
flakes at every vibration--the puce metallic bits
freckling the roadway until the wind blew
them away. There's a newer bridge upstream--
it survived this flood and looks good for a few more.

The Sutliffe store used to sell everything from seeds
to paraffin to aspirin to boots. But it's been fifty
years and now the high tin-ceilinged room--with its
bounty of varnished shelves and drawers and marble
countertops, its glass display cases a remote
emphasis of emptiness and dust, its spindle
of parcel string still hanging at shoulder height
near the silent brass register--serves only as a way
to pass from the original bar to the recent dining
addition out back, so new that its exterior
still reads, KEVLAR KEVLAR KEVLAR, from every angle.

They do a booming business in Old Milwaukee pencil-
necks, fried bluegill baskets, and chili dogs. You can
eat inside while the jukebox skips and mingles
with talk of tractor parts and DVDs, or go
out to the riverbank where a few guys
have their lines in, casting for trout or bass
around the weeds under the bridge.

Imagine, after the flood with what newly brilliantined
suddenness the sunlight must have struck through
the water where there had been the shade of the bridge
for more than a hundred years--weeds and fish shocked
in an aqueous net of umber turning to neon green,
skated upon by the movements of clouds.

Visitors in the know write their names on dollar bills
and tape them to the low ceiling and walls of the bar--
a glaze of long-forgotten singles ambered by age
and grease and smoke. The old ladies like it here,
parking their walkers along the wall, and the farmers
wanting lunch and conversation, and the Harley
riders who come through the screen door in groups
with dust from the gravel road blunting the shine
on their leather. Since the bridge went out, bar business
has been better than usual. No one needs strong
black thread or lampwicks anymore, but they still
want potatoes piping hot out of the oil and a place
to congregate, and this small destruction--no human
deaths involved--mean nature's power affirmed,
the satisfaction of fretting over an impersonal loss,
and a blank in the air that looks like change.

:: Anne Pierson Wiese, in The Southern Review (Summer, 2010)


High and Low

She never complained of the indignity,
the way, still crouched on the floor,
she had to gather up the boxes,
listen to the mocking of the tissue paper
rattling beneath her fingertips,
face the last whiffs of the rebels
whose owners had rejected her, saying things like,
"They pinch," or "My toe rubs at the front,"
or, worst of all, because she never knew why,
"No, I don't think they're right."
Sometimes, remembering the state of their nails,
or noticing that their socks hadn't matched,
or that they had, out of vanity,
worn a size too small for too long,
she would feel superior, vindicated,
when they walked away, their feet
carrying the same weight as before,
because their wallets were no lighter,
and their hearts had not been touched.
In these moments, she would remember her own feet,
tiny like those of a Japanese princess,
so slender she needed the elusive Slim,
and she would bury her hatred of them
in the shoe boxes, like coffins,
that lined the shelves of her sanctum,
the place where they were never allowed,
the room where she would disappear,
keeping them in her power for a few minutes,
checking on whether she had it,
the sequined pump, the black spike heel,
the Italian loafer, the ruby-red slippers
that would work their charms, cast their spells,
whisk them from lowly earth to the highest clouds,
if only she could produce it, in 8 1/2 AAA.
Sometimes, she would keep them in suspense,
pretending she had overlooked it, bringing out
boxes of others, unsuitable to their dreams:
navy-blue walking shoes, heavy-soled wing tips,
solid Oxfords when they asked for pastel sandals.
Sometimes she even convinced them that these were what
they wanted--she dropped words like cushioned impact
and fallen arches--and they nodded, worried,
frowning a bit as they agreed to take them.
But these were the ones she despised the most,
they were too easy, pushovers in their fallen nylons,
and when she retired, after thirty-eight years,
she spent most of her time barefoot in her garden,
all the shoe boxes in her house dusty except one,
which contained the only thing she had ever wanted:
cerise patent leathers with satin bows,
still one size too large for their owner.

:: Holly Hildebrand, in If I Had a Hammer: Women's Work in Poems, Stories, and Photographs


Calling Out the Days

Click here to read Lois Williams' poem (and a fiction excerpt) at the Gist Street online archives.


Love of Lines: Notes for an Apprentice Shingler

The injuries are small ones,
the blade slips from the cedar
slat to the kneeling knee,
or the plane slides
off the shingle's edge
and shaves the thumb's knuckle.
Splinters are surprisingly
rare, but when the hands
are cold, the hammer glances
the galvanized nail
and slams the horny one,
pinching and blistering
the pellicle. This
is the worst.

What we labor over,
a swayback beach house,
rests on a rheumatic wharf,
our task to pluck
the worn wood scales,
add new bridgework, a shield
of George Washington teeth,
clamped against adversity.
We begin with the shingle iron
slipping it all along the virgin
backside of loose dentures,
and pull so sjakes fly off
in our faces, crack and splinter,
the sharp dry notes narrating
fifteen-plus years of weather.
Like dog years, this is ancient
beyond thinning and brittleness.
Where we find rot, we chisel out
the grainy porridge and fill
the gap with new pine,
thick wedges for warmth.

Wood chips in our eyes
make us cry a little,
but mostly we keep right on
through the small disasters
to batten down before nightfall,
our eyes on the suture--
horizon stitching low
grey sky to our dark Atlantic.
Tar paper (or a new slick
synthetic stock that doesn't rip
and bears a name too New Age
for song) is whack-stapled
to weary ship-salvage boards,
top layer always over bottom
to keep rain water from seeping
back to wood. Then the sweet
new cedar shields we extract
from fresh bundles and fit,
side flush to side
and hammer in twice, milk
oozing from glat four-penny
heads, the soft white fur
of mold, like premature infant
fuzz, rising from wet wood
into the crisp autumn
turn of air.

Chalk lines are best
when workers hold each end,
on ereaching to the center
to snap, the blue powder
mapping a million points
along a line so straight
the day's doubts are deleted
in its sure direction.
But a course of shingles
followed by another and another
parading up the house--these
hands saluting, soles of tree,
puerile soldiers sweet
as puberty, pressed side to side
so no one stands taller,
though some are fatter,
"hippos," and some are "weasel"--
thin, their bodies set
like brickwork so no two seams
meet--all the bathos of the week
is buried here. Lines
link lines to what we love
in these long hours, the wood
wine of it, the weighted plunge
and smack of hammer and nail,
the hard grip, hammer handle
to palm, the knock knock knock
answering back from neighboring
houses and street, wood and nail
and wood, even the smeared blood
marking the rough facade.
We swing and drum the day.


And when we finish, the lines,
stacks of horizons, paths to
an exacting place, meeting at trim
and window, foundation and roof,
are what we've made. Lines
where cold, rain, wind,
sleet, sun and snow end. Lines
we step across the street
to judge, and when they're fine
they're fine, and when they fail
they haunt. Order is easy to
plan for, hard to achieve. This
is what houses are about--
planes that meet along degrees
we trust. Lines that say,
The weather is up to you.

We unfasten our nail aprons
as the sun sends its light
into China's day. Toss
into the toolbox tape measure,
plane and knife,
hammer, chalkline and coping
saw, and head home to husband
or girlfriend or dog, or house--
house, bless it, though it
doesn't save us from ourselves.
And when we sleep, it is
the sleep of lines well made,
or lines that are not well,
marginally mis-measured,
but in our dreams slanting
earthward or rising toward
some inevitable convergence,
the confusion of infinite touch,
and so we return to the house
and remove by glance alone,
five fresh courses
to correct our quarter-inch mistake.

When we wake, the error
dissolves into morning,
compulsion keeling into
the undefined plane of day
and its incorrigible knots.
In a year the high wheat
of the wood will fade to blue-grey,
the seams will open a crack,
for the wood has dried and shrunk.
The smell, once fecund as forests,
will be salted, and somewhere else
staging assembled, a house
stripped, a dog amused
at what trouble humans go to,
dangling their booted feet
at the face of a house
as the hammers hound the quiet
of day, as the afternoon arcs
around our deep imperfections,
and we measure with expectation
another course, another line.

:: Sara London, The Tyranny of Milk


Kitchen Sink

Today she would change nothing,
not even the walpaper peeling
like dead bark. Nor, outside, the shadows
approaching the yard where ants
toil like women in their houses of sand.
Never mind that the sun will be setting.

When she was young she felt afraid
of hard wind and the rain that unsettled the creek.
But the earth never left her,
not once did the floods reach her feet.
The reward of a long life is faith

in what's left. Dishes stacked on a strong table.
Jars of dried beans. Scraps of cloth.
And the ten thousand things of her own thoughts,
incessant as creek water. She has been able

to lay up her treasures on earth,
as if heaven were here, worth believing.
In the water her hands reach
like roots accustomed to living,

the roots of the cat-briar that hold to the hillside
and can never be torn free of this earth completely.

:: Kathryn Stripling Byer, The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest


I'm Standing in Line

I'm standing in line
for unemployment compensation
a long line that ropes around the room
waiting my turn
and hating it
because the clerk
who stands at the window hour after hour
or works at a desk squeezed between desks
in a mustard-colored room
with low ceilings and fluorescent lights
and no windows
the clerk makes it feel like a handout.

I go home and do laundry
and pick tomatoes for a salad
and when the children come home from school
late as usual and with long explanations
I sit and listen
and have a cup of tea while they have milk
and we talk about what they did today
and watch the cardinal
the one with the short flat crest
eat the stale bread in the driveway.

And next day I clean the fridge
and mop the kitchen floor
and when I get tired then or later
or fed up with housework
I sit by the window with a cup of tea
and watch the trees beginning to change
and the light with them
and tell myself that what you do
is not as important as how you live.
I could be that clerk
working in a mustard-colored box
making people feel like dirt.

:: Rina Ferrarelli, in If I Had a Hammer: Women's Work in Poetry, Fiction, and Photographs


"U.S. Unemployed Jumps to 12 Million"

Colocamos em caixas

     Convertidos en cajas
          We have become boxes

empilhadas uma a outra
     una encima de otra
          stacked on top of each other

esperando serem abertas.
     esperando que nos abran.
          waiting to be opened.

Nos preguntamos se o Free
     Preguntamos si el Free
          We ask if the Free

Grand slam inclui
     Grand Slam incluye
          Grand Slam includes

suco. Despertamos durante a noite
     jugo. Despertamos en la noche
          juice. We awake in the night

adicionando e subtraindo
     sumando y restando
          adding and subtracting

os cabelos nas nossas cabeças.
     los pelos de nuestras cabezas.
          the hairs on our heads.

Somos cardacos
     Somos cordones
          We are shoelaces

amarrado duas vezes,
     atados dos veces,
          double knotted,

esperando não quebrar.
     esperando que no nos rompamos.
          hoping not to break.

:: Abigail Templeton, in Rattle #33, Summer 2010


Tobacco Men

Late fall finishes the season for marketing:
Auctioneers babble to growers and buyers.
Pickups convoy on half-flat tires, tobacco
Piled in burlap sheets, like heaped-up bedding
When sharecropper families move on in November,
No one remembers the casualties
Of July's fighting against tim ein the sun.
Boys bent double for sand lugs, bowed
Like worshippers before the fertilized stalks.
The rubber-plant leaves glared savagely as idols.

It is I, who fled such fields, who must
Reckon up losses: Walter fallen out from heat,
Bud Powell nimble along rows as a scatback
But too light by September, L. G. who hoisted up a tractor
To prove he was better, while mud his his feet--
I've lost them in a shimmer that makes the rows move crooked.

Wainwright welded the wagons, weighed three
Hundred pounds, and is dead. Rabbit was mechanic
When not drunk, and Arthur best ever at curing.
Good old boys together--maybe all three still there,
Drinking in a barn, their moonshine clearer than air
Under fall sky impenetrable as a stone named for azure.

I search for your faces in relation
To a tobacco stalk I can see,
One fountain of up-rounding leaf.
It looms, expanding, like an oak.
Your faces form fruit where branches are forking.
Like the slow-motion explosion of a thunderhead,
It is sucking the horizon to a bruise.

A cloud's high forehead wears ice.

:: James Applewhite, Following Gravity


Contemporary Announcement

Ring the big bells,
cook the cow,
put on your silver locket.
The landlord is knocking at the door
and I've got the rent in my pocket.

Douse the lights,
hold your breath,
take my heart in your hand.
I lost my job two weeks ago
and rent day's here again.

:: May Angelou, Shaker, Why Don't You Sing?



My mother had a black Singer

sewing machine when I was very young.

It chugged along, making straight seams
like a stationary train engine spitting out track

or if I squinted just right I felt like I was
riding in a car, looking out the back window,

watching telephone wires swoop away
pole to pole along the shoulder of the road.

Once, entranced by the way it pumped,
I reached my finger up to touch

the thin bright shaft,
the part I loved best,

and now I can’t look
a needle in the eye

without thinking of that thread
still connecting us.

:: Joseph Green, in Crab Creek Review


The Clerk's Lunch

The clerk will run blocks
to return a borrowed nickel
but she is always the last one
helped at the counter
where she can only afford
a cup of soup (split pea)
and a hard roll with a little butter,
which she tears apart,
one hill from the other,
not caring where the poppy seeds
fall, her hunger is so great.

:: Anya Achtenberg, in If I Had a Hammer: Women's Work in Poetry, Fiction, and Photographs



There are many ways to kneel

and kiss the earth
– Rumi

At his workbench, my Catholic husband
becomes a Buddhist practicing mindfulness.
As if entranced, he attends the hammer’s
rhythmic up-and-down. He feeds the planer
a plank of cedar. Beside a Folger’s coffee
can of nails on the windowsill, the clock
ticks the present tense: is, is, is. When he
walks to the table saw, he moves deliberately
like an egret stepping into its own watery
reflection. There he contemplates the sawness
of saw. He doesn’t brush off the sawdust
film falling all over him like a coat of serenity.
Sometimes he makes a rocking cradle,
sometimes a porch swing for us to sit in.

:: Judith Tate O'Brien, in Rattle #22, Winter 2004



The girl on the bench in the Laundromat is barely eleven, the kind of girl with no hint of
a figure—no future cup waiting to overflow, all soft baby curves. She’ll stay that way
until she’s fifty-five, except then she’ll no longer be cute, she’ll be a statistic which
typifies her State. But now, the boy comes in with his dad to fill up the gumball
machine—and the empty container next to it with toys and surprises: cheap rings with
fake gems that glow like candy, tiny ball caps, miniature purple aliens that ride
permanent skateboards, plastic stretch frogs that stick to the ceiling. The boy’s hat is
tipped back and she is in the grip of his smile which is directed at everything and
nothing. He is older, wiser. She can tell by the way his father lets him handle change
that this is a boy going places. A merchant, a magician of the middle school set. And all
of a sudden, you can see her whole damn high school career: standing by the wall at a
dance, not being asked, holding back, pulling her dress down over the tummy fat,
wincing as this boy moves (always out of reach), marrying that other boy down the
street with the dimples but no brains, who starts drinking too much and stays out too
late, and gives her three kids and a mortgage and a part-time job at the Rent-a-Skate.
That’s her, too, in the Laundromat, over there talking to the neighbor, her hair in a
scarf, no make-up, saying, “Lawd, you wouldna believe the ironing I’ve had to do for the
lot,” but dropping the “o” in ironing because it’s just too hard to enunciate in East Texas.
It’s too hard to live like this, with your dreams dying all the time—or dead. And you can
tell all this when she bows her head, then glances up at the boy, who goes through the
doors, into the air, into the car, into the highway, traveling far away. A half an hour
later, you can still hear the plunk plunk plunking of those tiny plastic objects, those multi-
colored spheres, those minute wheels churning through her heart.

:: Christine Butterworth-McDermott, in Rattle #31, Summer 2009



In the days when I was training
on the Griggio in Blaise's shop,
all metric and fabulous, with dials and rings
and a brake, electromagnetic, meant
to simplify setup (it didn't), I was always
wrangling against the power feeder, trying
to keep straight what was cope and what
was stick, how to run cock bead with the face
on the fence, whether to bolt the tenon clamp
on the ball-bearing table before or after
I pinned the miter gauge in place.

It was crazymaking. I loathed the machine
as I had loved Thorn's simple, elegant
Powermatic of Delphine Avenue, Waynesboro.
I'd get all shaky and gun-shy and couldn't stand
to have to fix the shaper steel between
the lock-knife collars and tweak them
into their perfect little circles of scotia, bolection,
astragal. But what I did like--this

is the thing of it, finally--was that the cutterhead
was so big, and the column of air it started moving
so massive, that simply by opening one's mouth
and moving the lips in and out in larger or smaller shapes
of "O," one sang with a voice not one's own, and whistled.
Like blowing across the neck of a bottle, but weirder.
It was as though a harmonic existed in the back of the throat
along a string drawn tight by the work of the shaper:
to remove whatever is not the thing desired of it,
the carbide cutter, after all, formed in the shape of matter
one can do without. In the end familiarity
bred contempt, and my fear, which was vast,
gave way to convenience: nothing bad kept happening.
We turned out acres and acres of frame-and-panel,
and I got paid my wage. Still always played
the mouth-game, even after the wonder of it,
and the oddity, blew away like so much swarf
through the dust-pipe, down the cyclone, to the drop-box,
filling bins and bins and bins and bins and bins.

:: John Casteen, in Ploughshares 29:4 (Winter 2003-04)


Shifting Piles

I place a pile of credits to my left
and a pile of debits to my right.
After I type the numbers from the debits
onto the credits
I pile the debits on top of the credits.
Then I pull the carbons from the credits
and separate the copies into piles.
I interfile the piles
and bring them over to the files
where I file the piles and pull the files
making a new file of piles.
Then I make files
for the pile that has no files
and put them into a new file pile.
I take the new file pile down the aisle
over to the table where Mabel
makes labels for April to staple.
I take the new labeled stapled file pile
back down the aisle over to the file
to be interfiled with the pile of filed files.
After I file April's piles
I get new debits from Debby
and new credits from Kerry.
I carry Kerry's credits and Debby's debits
back to my desk
and place a pile of credits to my left
and a pile of debits to my right.

:: Leslea Newman, in If I Had a Hammer: Women's Work in Poetry, Fiction, and Photographs


Everything I Learned from Start-Ups

Senior management does not care about you.
Customer service is another axiom for following the Golden Rule.
There are never enough hours in the day to do your job properly.
Management will never hire enough quality people.
Document, document, document.
C.Y.A. (Cover Your Ass).
You can't do your work and go to meetings.
If you are in meetings for more than half your day, quit.
Quit when you are required to wear shoes.
Quit when the free stuff isn't.
Quit when you do the job and your boss takes the credit.
Quit when your boss is fired for politics.
Quit when management hires a consulting agency to optimize the process.
Quit when you get the feeling it's time.
Quit and management will finally offer you what you are worth,
offer you the job that you really want.
Stock options are just options.
Golden handcuffs are only handcuffs if you let them be.
The promise of money is just a word.
Not given in earnest.
Go back to school with the stocks and bonuses.
Take something you enjoy.
Leave the industry and never look back.

:: Laura Lehew, in Work


Day Labor

Every Saturday when I come to work
my dirty windows look out on the street
where very short men wait for jobs
to offer themselves up.
At eight in the morning they are standing
on the sidewalk, their bicycles
Huffy and Mongoose
chained to a speed limit sign.
They wear baseball caps
and have silver-capped
front teeth.
By ten they are sitting in a line.
On the narrow sidewalk, they wait.
When their jobs drive up in late model trucks
the scramble begins--
knocking on windows, whistling,
and fingers in the air.
Only one or two will get it
out of the fifteen men who do this every morning.
The rest disperse.
The hot coffee burns my tongue.

:: Ileanna Portillo, in Work


The Needle Trade

The tailor--
hunched over cutting tables--
sketched designs,
chalked fabrics

and the finisher--
her needle tracing the Polish alphabet--
basted, hemmed the fine linen,
and sewed you together.

Then, in our days of loose threads,
just as your father sewed
buttons on suits to tighten
those hanging loose,

just as your mother patched
worn fabric and mended ripped
seams where thread frayed
or came undone, you

chose the proper needle,
the strength of thread
and with such skill
stitched the two of us

And we, in turn, shape
patterns of our sons until
they grasp the chalk
to craft their own designs.

:: Ruth Daigon, Between One Future and the Next (Papier-Mache Press, 1995)


Reasonable Facsimile

The ghost of me walk these halls
shadowing in and out
of my fluorescent cube.
Elusive fingers reaching at me
leave only traces of my mind
to function here.
The work performs itself;
the words are spoken without me;
and even those who call me friend
do not know
that I was never here.

:: Bonnie Michael Pratt, in If I Had a Hammer: Women's Work in Poetry, Fiction, and Photographs


The A & P

She rolled a tomato in her hand, pink rubber
ball engineered to fit a machine. The motion
recalled Florida, toward the Glades, Pahokee,
Belle Glade, Miccosukee, fields crawling
with tomato plants, and the proportion all wrong
between the rows: wide enough for a truck to drive
through. A truckload of migrant workers, Cuban,
Haitian, Jamaican, perhaps Creek, Seminole,
turning, rolling to a spot on the horizon, stopping
somewhere, the next unpicked spot the same,
on the row, assembly line.

                                             A voice from somewhere
                  urban, in her ear: We have forgotten where
                  our food comes from.

                                                         But she remembered exactly.
      Between the rows of manufactured produce she remembered
      Lib Martin's bucket of tomatoes: green, red,
      irregular skin cracked like red dirt, drought,
      rain. The acid juice gushed against thirst.

Not forgetting. Learning certain things, like these sweet
potatoes, knobbed roots broken to yellow clay,
eating them baked as some ate clay, hot
from the sun, comfort. Sweet potatoes twenty cents a pound.

A man in Nash County died digging them last fall,
forty cents a bucket, seventy buckets a day, take out
a hundred fifty bucks a month for beans and rice.

                  Pull wild salad, fish the Tar River, drink
                  cheap wine, a dollar a pint. Can't escape,
                  beaten with tree limbs, the woods full of snakes. Be
                  so hot. Fall into dirt from your own digging, and die.

Not about forgetting. Never being told.

        Eating the lives of others like a child, unconscious,
        sucking the breast. Herself as a girl sucking
        sugar cane by the gas heater, hot, sweet,
        knowing nothing of the cold field, the knives of cane,
        the women and the men, rounding the mill like mules.

But it was about forgetting. Every day she wanted to
forget something she'd learned about the house, the fields,
the lopped cedar posts propping up the scuppernong arbor,
the fallen grapes fermenting on the ground. If she could have,
just tonight, a little white wine. The amnesiac sugar,
liquor, how good it tastes. It used to be whiskey,
or a little rum-and-coke.

                                            How drunk she got
         that night, her and the two men, drunk, standing up
         in the boat between two rivers of stars, between
         the muddy banks of the Black Warrior.
                                                                          They sang
         until the boat sank, then waded out as if
         free in another country. She'd washed the black muck
         off her feet, clinging weight, erosion, lives
         she knew, lives she did not know. She had walked
         up the bank, stagger, not like her father. Just like
         her father. What did he know?

                                                                Too much, her mother said,
                 he knows too much to be happy.

                                                                            Drinking to forget
         what he did, or what he should have done? At the river,
         the river bottom land.

                                                      Maybe the grapefruit in her hand,
          yellow globe, pink flesh, came from there, prison farm
          in the bottoms. Hot boxes. Boxes of fruit. Each piece
          wrapped like a jewel in green tissue paper.

She had learned about grapefruit, lemons, oranges.
In the store, workers unpack them like presents. Pesticide
spreads skin to skin, and your hands begin to die,
go numb, skin falls off, membrane of a peeled orange.

                   Stay conscious, a voice said. Can't do nothing if you don't
                   stay conscious. Right foot should know what the left foot is doing.

But every time, every damn time, she walked
into this A & P to get groceries, she had to decide
not to be like her father. Decide like tonight.
No grapefruit, no tomatoes, none of that Iowa honey,
bees that never saw a flower, their universe a warehouse.
Ask where the sweet potatoes came from. Then a few
in a paper sack, thudding like lumps of dirt.

Then her feet up and down the aisles twice as wide
as a row should be hoed, making her feet take her
past, her hand not reach down a bottle, not even
the scuppernong that could give her back herself
innocent, under the arbor, sucking grapes down
to the skin, the familiar taste, numbness, a long
slow spiral down the river, oblivion's boat,
her feet never stepping out on either side of land.

She made herself walk past the wine, to check-out,
to figure up how much this food would cost her.
She could dig up the backyard again this spring,
some rows of tomatoes, some cane poles spiraling
bean vines. Some squash, three seeds and a fish head
at the bottom of each hole.
                                               The dead silver eye
would look at her again. Again she would ask herself
the use of what she was doing, and again as she hoed,
barefoot in blackjack clay, and as the tomatoes came in
to be picked, eaten, given to friends, canned for winter.
Again as the blisters came, and then the calluses on her hands.

:: Minnie Bruce Pratt, Walking Back Up Depot Street (Pittsburgh, 1999)


The Talk

In the dark square wooden room at noon
the mother had a talk with her daughter.
The rudeness could not go on, the meanness
to her little brother, the selfishness.
The 8-year-old sat on her bed
in the corner of the room, her irises dark as
the last drops of something, her firm
face melting, reddening,
silver flashes in her eyes like distant
bodies of water glimpsed through woods.
She took it and took it and broke, crying out
I hate being a person! diving
into the mother
as if
a deep pond--and the child cannot swim,
the child cannot swim.

:: Sharon Olds, Satan Says (Pittsburgh, 1990)


Working While Others Sleep

I love with a secret joy to watch
over the sick as they sleep--the
halls tunneling into darkness, the doctors
banished at last to their beds, the
night opening like a desert before me.

I enter the room, flashlight
dead in my hand, and there the moon dances
on four silent faces.
How beautiful you all are.
Even you Mr. Willoughby, face divided
in day by bitterness, a mind unforgiving
of its body, even you
can't help yourself fall
like an infant angel into the
lap of the mother.
Your face on the pillow, a
flower, can no longer hide the
tenderness you've denied ever having.

And you McPhee, your creased hand crooked
in the corner of your neck,
fingers curled like a fiddlehead around
some forest shadow. I want
to slip my hand in yours and
feel the river of dreams returning.

But Henry, you are my favorite,
in sleep you fall so far that
every time I hear you take in the night
and then give it back
I leave the room brimming
with the mystery of sleeping life.

:: Alicia Priest, in Paperwork: Contemporary Poems from the Job (Harbour, 1991)



night at the taco house
he came in to rob the place
the waitresses were flush with fear and tears
the guys sat around yammering
what he was doing caused some kind of disruption
he beckoned. i went over to his corner
he put the gun to my head, said
"empty the register"
the kiss deep hard cold against my temple
there was a click sound
if i move sudden i'm dead, i thought
and if i hesitate this clown might off me
nd so i said, "shoot motherfucka or quit wasting my time"
there was surprised silence
then everyone broke into strained laughter
"it's a joke," he said, "you didn't cry like the other girls"
and there were slaps on the back and
cracks about my ice cool
and from that day till the day i quit
everybody kept their distance

:: Wanda Coleman, African Sleeping Sickness (Black Sparrow, 1990)



After the gentle click of the latch behind him
the house readjusts to a new order,
its details trembling on a string of lists:
walk to market, walk to cleaners, start stew.
She is testing a life as readymade for her
as love, how the shape of someone's
shoulders suddenly comes to mean this much;
this far and no farther. With utter
certainty she crushes the iced slush underfoot
in a morning as wide-open and delicate as
the mouth of a teacup: she must have
12 small white onions, she must have
bleeding cubes of stewing beef, and cream
of tartar for biscuits. The summer night they met
she said, I can't cook, I don't cook.
Now in winter the blade makes neat work
of her lie, quartering potatoes
glistening in their nudity, filling the simmering
pot to its fragrant hissing lip.

:: Suzanne Matson, Durable Goods (Alice James, 1993)


Jean and Jules Work at the Queen of Peace Nursing Home

They never had more in common
in all their forty years.
Now they both take care of people
just a little older than themselves,
fry their eggs, wash their dishes.
My mother's wide peasant feet
tramp up and down that huge industrial kitchen
run by nuns. She is amazed
by her own power, the enormity
of the breakfasts she produces--
125 eggs cracked and fried
and stacks of pancakes towering over her.
She has to use a stool to reach
the shiny aluminum stove with its beaming burners.
My father's engineer's hands
slosh it up in the dishroom
once or twice a week where he
craftily slides plates
from soapy water to dryer
patiently explaining to his dishroom partner, Sonny,
there is a method.
On Christmas eve
they take us on a tour of the kitchen,
and introduce us to the nuns
who are stunned Jean and Jules
have such grown up children.
And then they introduce us to the old people
who fall asleep standing up
or drool staring at us.
It's a strange parade up and down
the antiseptic halls,
my mother leading, the brisk short walk
of a short woman determined not to finish last,
my father bringing up the rear,
the stern assertion
of a man who has triumphed.

:: Julia Lisella, in For a Living: The Poetry of Work


Cow Song

My sleep rolls through the hust of crickets' purr
to find split girth, birth's note stalking my dark room.
Father slips on boots as her sound consumes
our squarish house. I am getting older.
I do as I'm told. The cow's tongue slurs,
one blue slack leg dangling from her womb.
He steps through the springer's black perfume
and palm to belly, checks for breath, the stir.
The hooked moon shifts through redwoods as danger
lodges, sifts in his hand. Tight lips spill
stifled goddamns while dark hooves scrape their lists.
He goes in arm-length with slip-noosed hanger
to loosen young shoulder from hip. Cow song fills
the silver pail. The shotgun sits and sits.

:: Susan B.A. Somers-Willett, in Crab Orchard Review (2006)


12:02 p.m.

under armpits
hold lunches
instead of briefs

squashed egg salad
two cookies
a hundred caolorie apiece

fine leathers
they look so couth
brown paper bags

they look so un

:: Doris Vanderlipp Manley, in If I Had a Hammer: Women's Work in Poetry, Fiction, and Photographs


Found Money

Almost every day I find
a penny on the street.
And if the penny faces up
I call it luck.
And if it's down
I call it money.

When I was young
I helped my mom clean a store at night
after her regular job.
I'd spray counters with ammonia
that went up my nose and stung my eyes
then rub away the fingerprints
with a soft cloth.
I'd scrape gum from the floors
and hold the pan as she swept
in dust and black dirt.

Sometimes I'd find coins in the dressing room.
I even found a dollar
behind a row of gowns.
No matter if I found a dollar or a dime
Mom made me leave it with a note
on the big wooden register.

Once I found a wallet
on the floor of a movie theater.
No name. No pictures. Only money.
Even in the dark I could see
it was red, smooth plastic red.
I looked at my mother
and she looked away.

Almost every day I find
a penny on the street.
And if the penny faces up
I call it luck.
And if it's down
I call it money.

:: Patti Tana, in If I Had a Hammer: Women's Work in Poetry, Fiction, and Photographs (1990, Papier-Mache Press)



Are these the same trees or the children of the trees that used to be
here? Nothing changes space more than trees. They rest us. At dusk,
exhausted & streaked with dirt, we sit beneath trees with slices of
melon. We joke. We sing. I never knew the farmer liked to sing till I
got old & he told me. Why would you hide this from a child? Singing
was his hope. In my family when people did not get what they
wanted, they walked out a door & stared at the horizon. They sang
too. My mother sang in English & my father sang in Arabic. They
disappeared for awhile or trimmed a tree with long clippers. Better
than hitting. Better than cursing or drinking I guess. I sat in the cool
den under the pine trees between my house & Barbara's house. The
farmer's grandfather used to own our street too. Our street was once
part of this farm. When I find Barbara this trip she says, "I don't
remember you so much. I remember your brother." In the old days
while everybody was secretly singing I hiked to the farm. Talked to
trees along the way. Told them our troubles. Purchased lima beans
for my mother. Asked for okra & Caroline folded the top of the bag
so neatly. As if she didn't have thousands of things to do.

:: Naomi Shihab Nye, in Five Points 3:2, Winter 1999


Industrial League Bowling

Treva's husband throws a strike
every time he's up. She quit school
at fourteen, but Treva does the numbers
like a mathematician: ten plus ten plus
ten plus ten to three hundred at the last frame.
She works first shift sewing machine

at Stedman's. He sands for Dixie Furniture,
but Dixie couldn't make a team, so he's on
with Stedman's by marriage, the ringer.
Their two kids come to Tuesday league night.
They'll know the ball like their own bones
long before they start at the mill.

When Treva's up, she wipes hands on her skirt,
tugs her blue-striped bowling shirt
--the company logo printed on the back--
vees petite fingers in her six-pounder,
and throws. Seven down. Three more for a spare.
Tonight Klopman's eases ahead after the first game.

Steadman's a strong second. Bossong's best
was called in early for a machine repair,
and they're a weak third without him.
Then it's Harrelson Rubber, Acme-McCrary,
Pinehurst, in that order. When your day
is the up-down-up-down arm of a needle

in cloth, a twenty minute lunch,
when you're bad to slip stitches or tangle thread,
and your boss lives in the white house
so big your cousins drive to town just to see it,
you own the ball or you die. This
will save you: the necessary roar of the roll

down the alley, wild scatter of the hit,
a boy setting pins and sending balls
back to hands that can spin, slide, knuckle, toss,
that can make split pins fall, hands
with grease in their creases, grease under nails,
sewer's hands with thread burns scarred into palms.

:: Barbara Presnell, Piece Work (Cleveland State, 2007)