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