In the Library Reading Room

Three nights after Christmas a man in a down jacket
comes to rake the fire. The eyes of the drowsy
unemployed are on his back like winter flies. A woman
hangs newspapers like hides. Rain lashes the eaves
like another fearful economic trend. Dogs are moving outside;
a policeman drives watching for their backs
ridged with moon like stones.
The library lights are white as bed linen.
Three men in new Christmas shirts share the Times.
Feet shuffle behind a barrier in Local History.
Fashion monthlies open their arms.

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


The Battle of Austerlitz

Wakened by a dissonant drop
drip, worked in the bathroom late,
adjusting the ball to give the rusty tank
its proper level, then
because the blanket was too thin,

he pulled on a pair of socks
and read about African termites
in their mounds, and then
about the Battle of Austerlitz,
a novelist's account, turned out

the light and fell into a slumber.
At nine the doorbell rang,
he rushed downstairs. One of the
weekly students with her mom,
each with a violin,

but his teacher-wife was gone. . .
shopping, he guessed, annoyed.
Dialed her cell phone number.
She answered the second ring
and when he heard

her smiling at his voice
his fierce heart melted,
but she murmured, "Dear,
you need to come get me,"
her weak voice sinking at

the end.And dizzy with sense of
creeping age, of something
gone spectacularly wrong, groans
of the dying, woke up
to this rainy winter's day.

:: John Morgan, in Field #73 (Fall 2005)


Mi Historia

My red pickup choked on burnt oil

as I drove down Highway 99.
In wind-tattered garbage bags
I had packed my whole life:
two pairs of jeans, a few T-shirts,
an a pair of work boots.
My truck needed work, and through
the blue smoke rising from under the hood,
I saw almond orchards, plums,
and raisins spread out on paper trays,
and acres of Mendota cotton my mother picked as a child.

My mother crawled through the furrows
and plucked cotton balls that filled
the burlap sack she dragged,
shoulder-slung, through dried-up bolls,
husks, weevils, dirt clods,
and dust that filled the air with thirst.
But when she grew tired,
she slept on her mother’s burlap,
stuffed thick as a mattress,
and Grandma dragged her over the land
where time was told by the setting sun. . . .

History cried out to me from the earth,
in the scream of starling flight,
and pounded at the hulls of seeds to be set free.
History licked the asphalt with rubber,
sighed in the windows of abandoned barns,
slumped in the wind-blasted palms,
groaned in the heat, and whispered its soft curses.
I wanted my own history—not the earth’s,
nor the history of blood, nor of memory,
and not the job founded for me at Galdini Sausage.
I sought my own—a new bruise to throb hard
as the asphalt that pounded the chassis of my truck.

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


Garbage Truck

After it lifts the army-green, stuffed

dumpster over its head and the trash
falls to the receptacle, it hulks
backward with a cadenced beep as if
to say, get out the fucking way, please.

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



Half-way to work and Merriman already  has told me
What he thinks about the balanced budget, the Mets'
Lack of starting pitching, the dangers of displaced
Soviet nuclear engineers, soy products, and diesel cars.

I look out the window and hope I'll see a swan.
I hear they're nasty but I love their necks
And how they glide along so regally.
I never take the time to go to a pond

And spend an hour watching swans. What
Would happen if I heeded the admonitions of beauty?
When I look over at Merriman, he's telling Driscoll
That the President doesn't know what he's doing
With China. "China," I say out loud but softly.
I go back to the window. It's started snowing.

:: Baron Wormser, in Green Mountains Review (2002)


Anatomy of Melancholy

Lucy Doolin, first day on the job, stroked his goatee

and informed the seven of us in his charge
his name was short for Lucifer, and that his father, a man
he never knew, had been possessed,
as his mother had told him, of both an odd sense of humor
and a deep and immitigable bitterness. Also
that the same man had named Lucy’s twin brother,
born dead, Jesus Christ. These facts, he said,
along with his tattoos and Mohawked black hair,
we should, in our toils on his behalf, remember.

As we should also always remember to call him

only by that otherwise most womanly diminutive,
and never, he warned, by his given nor surname,
least of all with the title “Mister” attached,
which would remind him of that same most hated father
and plunge him therefore into a mood
he could not promise he would, he said, “behave
appropriately within.” Fortunately, our job,
unlike the social difficulties attached thereto,
was simple: collect the trash from the county’s back roads.

Although, given Lucy’s insistence on thoroughness,

this meant not only beer cans and bottles,
all manner of cast-off paper and plastics, but also
the occasional condom too, as well as the festering
roadkill fresh and ridden with maggotry,
or desiccate and liftable only from the hot summer tar
with a square-bladed shovel, all of which was to be tossed
into the bed of the township flatbed truck we ourselves
rode to and from the job in. By fifty-yard increments
then we traveled. He was never not smoking a cigarette.

Late every afternoon, at the dump, while we unloaded

our tonnage of trash, he sat with Stump McCarriston,
sexton of the dump and the dump’s constant resident,
in the shade, next to a green, decrepit trailer
we marveled at and strangely envied, since every inch
of wall we could see through the open door
was plastered with fold-outs and pages
from every Stump-salvaged Playboy and nudie magazine
he had ever found among the wreckage there.
Stump, we understood, was the ugliest man on earth.

Even had Lucy not told us so, we would have known,

by the olfactory rudeness within twenty yards
of his hovel, that he never bathed. And once,
while we shoveled and scraped, he took up the .22
from the rack beside his door and popped
with amazing accuracy three rats not fifty feet from us,
then walked to their carcasses, skinned them out,
and hung their hides on a scavenged grocery store rack
to dry. He was making, Lucy explained, a rat hide
coat we could see, come the fall, except for school.
As for school, it was a concept Stump could not fathom
and Lucy had no use for, on the truck’s dash
all that summer Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy,
a tome he said he’d read already eleven times,
this summer being the twelfth. We thought, in some way,
it might have had to do with something like the gallery
Stump’s trailer contained, the first word of its title
meaning something to us, the last nothing at all.
There were things about men we might be
unable ever to know, which we somehow knew was lucky.

And Lucky, incidentally, was the name of the cat,

fat and mangy, that, once Stump was back in the shade
with Lucy, began, one by one, to consume the hideless rats.
The town we came from was sinking into the emptiness
of a thousand abandoned coal mine shafts beneath it,
and rats were more common than hares
and universally despised. They shamed us, it seemed,
as we were shamed by ignorance and curiosity—
the bodies of those women on the walls, the provenance
of rats the very earth offered up like a plague,

the burden of a name like Lucifer or Stump,

whose name, as it was scrawled on his mailbox,
seemed to be Stumplin Reilly McCarriston, Esquire.
Of the seven of us, one would die in Vietnam,
one, after medical school, would hang himself
from a beam in his parents’ basement, the others
merely gone, vanished in actuality if not in memory.
Leaving me, alone, to tell this story. How Stump
would spend his last twenty years in prison,
having shot Lucy—one slender, flattening .22 slug

through the forehead—as he stood fifty feet away,

balanced atop the tub of an ancient wringer washer,
arms extended, like Jesus Christ, said Stump,
whose trailer was bulldozed into the dump itself
even before the trial, and who, no doubt, by some
court-appointed lawyer if not the appalled sheriff himself,
was forced to bathe and shave, to step into the unknown country
of a scentless white shirt and black businessman’s trousers,
in order to offer his only yet most sincere defense,
that Lucifer—Mr. Doolin, as the court insisted—had told him to.

:: Robert Wrigley, in Poetry, September 2011


Through a Glass, Darkly

Most nights my father keeps the gas station
open late, downstairs in the service bay
the clank of wrenches on concrete, the grind
of casters sends him rolling under cars.
Behind glass, on the second story, I can hear
the engines idle and come back to life,
see the horse on high with wings that light up
Mobilgas in neon's ad nauseam.
Its color thrown against walls reminds me
of blood, of my mother driven from here.
Her volatility matched only by his.
In spite of the rain drifting sideways, I spy him
in uniform standing beside the pumps,
downing beer. He is gauging how long
the storm should last. And when it stops, his opera
will come right through the floor, the wind outside
grow so still even his smoke rings hold their shape.

:: Marcus Cafagna, in Crab Orchard Review


American Zen

is sitting for twelve, or twenty-four, or thirty-six hours
in the cab of an 18-foot Ryder rental truck
until our buttocks begin to rot.

We move and meditate
behind the wheel at the same time.

My friend is leaving Flagstaff for Chicago
where streets and basements flooded
for the second time this summer.

He’s searching for the place
to make his family happy.

Some things I can’t figure out:
how, at 5 a.m.,
desert roadsides in New Mexico look like water

in the distance as sunlight slants off
candy wrappers and crushed beer cans,

or road signs in Oklahoma: for instance,
Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Inmates
and Don’t Drive Into Smoke.

Of two fatigues I can feel,
this morning I feel both.

I mistake the prison for a motel.
There are few rooms anywhere else.

But the foldaway’s springs and foam mattress feel so sweet,
I know why the Villa in El Reno is
The Friendliest Motel in Town.

When we stop to fill up the truck’s tank,
I eat shrink-wrapped beef jerky
and watch the moon rise

out of barbed-wire fences,
remembering Han Shan

who left all his possessions behind,
moved to Cold Mountain
and took its name as his own.

“The poor travel light,” I mutter
to the attendant pumping gas.

He stares me into the need to pee.
Walking around back
to the one working rest room,

I see the license plates on wrecked cars claim
Oklahoma is OK.

An Indian leaning against the urinal turns
and asks me if I want to buy some hubcaps.
For a moment, he looks like Han Shan.

I shake my head, thinking, “Poor bastard,
we’ve all but forgotten you.”

Like any man, he shakes himself dry, zips up
and begins to disappear
in the roadside smoke,

holding his thumb out like a mark of punctuation,
exclamation point or half of a parenthesis,

hoping to hook up
with anyone who’ll take a chance, stop
and offer him a ride.

:: Antonio Vallone, at GistStreet online


Apollo over Texas

It was 1969 and Apollo was on its way to the moon,
but we were down in the Texas panhandle, working the pipeline.
We got up before dawn and drove across the pampas and into the scrub fields
where cactus and briars were kings, drinking coffee
and staring out at the blue light coming up over the silos.
Old men on sagging porches, beginning a long, hot day of doing
nothing with a vengeance, spat tobacco juice into their dirt yards as we passed.
I followed the line through Oklahoma and Texas with my father
that summer, grading roads and cutting fences for the pipe trucks. It
was life near the bottom of the labor chain, where rednecks
worked twelve-hour days, seven days a week, drank themselves
into a mumbling stagger every night, and arrived in stupors
the next morning, thick-tongued and guzzling water
until the numbness burned off. They drove shiny red macho trucks
with gun racks in the back window and Confederate flags
crossed on the bumper. At midday when the rocket
was almost there, the radio was out of breath
with the momentum of it all, the pipelines jigged around the sand dunes, cracking
jokes about the moon, about the man in the moon,
about moonings under red lights. That night I slept
with my face on the windowsill just to get some breeze
in a dust-bucket apartment that had no air conditioning
and that I shared with my mother and father.
The next morning my mother woke us a half-hour early, saying
“Y’all get up! That thing is landing!” and we sat around
yawning at a half-broken television with foil-enhanced rabbit ears
and reception saturated with static and snow and hog prices
breaking in from another channel. “Hot-damn! Something, ain’t it?”
my father said as he put on his work boots.
“Yeah, and what will they be doing next?” my mother said
as the astronaut stepped out onto the moon,
and it was the same moon you could see if you looked out the window
and up into the sky above that Texas town.

:: David Tucker, Late for Work (2006)


The Farmer

Each day I go into the fields

to see what is growing
and what remains to be done.
It is always the same thing: nothing
is growing, everything needs to be done.
Plow, harrow, disc, water, pray
till my bones ache and hands rub
blood-raw with honest labor—
all that grows is the slow
intransigent intensity of need.
I have sown my seed on soil
guaranteed by poverty to fail.
But I don’t complain—except
to passersby who ask me why
I work such barren earth.
They would not understand me
if I stooped to lift a rock
and hold it like a child, or laughed,
or told them it is their poverty
I labor to relieve. For them,
I complain. A farmer of dreams
knows how to pretend. A farmer of dreams
knows what it means to be patient.
Each day I go into the fields.
:: W.D. Ehrhart, Beautiful Wreckage (Adastra 1999)


The Brothers on the Trash Truck and My Near Death Experience

Having just been left for good by you--your tongue
flicking over your lips like a thirsty newt, your cheeks plush with screwery--
having been left so, I walked into the backing-up path of a trash truck.

Its ding-reverse bell must have been defunct.
It was the side-rider's YO! that halted it.
Don't hurt her baby, don't hurt her! the side-rider called in a franticky chant.

The driver leapt out.
MISS, MISS! cried the side-rider, MISS! 
You were nowhere in sight. There I lay in my neighbor's hedge,

outlandishly unhurt. I looked up. The driver had
green eyes, a tall tan black man with those farfetched
feline eyes, like say maybe

one of his foremothers volunteered for a shot at the Nordic gene pool,
or, on the other hand, consider that one etymology of motherfucker 
cites masters raping female slaves, the children forced to watch. . .

but is this my business how the man got green eyes?
I'm glad I had this thought because I don't know what to do with it.
Forgive me, I said. My boyfriend dumped me, I wasn't looking . . .

We were shook--me, driver, side-rider
by the divine simplicity of the Near Miss.
So they took me home. The brothers escorted me back--

two blocks cruising high in the cab
like the Empress of Metropolis.
Don't even worry 'bout it, the driver said.

If he don't come back, go on and catch you a bigger fish.
And the side-rider meanwhile balletically leapt
and landed and kept on leaping,

on and off the rolling truck, heaving those garbage bins
light as confetti, light as burned billet-doux,
the sweet spent tickets to my heart.

:: Belle Waring, in Green Mountains Review 8:2 (1995)


Class Analysis

If I were to write s.th. about Paul
I would write about
using abbreviations
to stand in for the failures of intention
or what went by too quickly for the human eye to follow.

I’d have to say s.th. about
suppers together
searing peppers over the gas flame
herbs I’d never tasted
and the sign painted along an entire kitchen wall
between the goldfish bowl and the Azalea:

I wouldn’t fail to mention
the red wreck of a car
bench seats
and the first ride I took in it
Paul driving
looking small and efficient behind the wheel.

There’d be a part that talked about the long walk
to the cranked-up neighborhood candyman
willing to sell us his last two hits of acid
b/c he thought Paul might still one day give in;
and the 8 hrs on the floor afterward, a world,
holding on holding on and watching
the ceiling turn into cirrus shapes
160 mi. above our sprawled out, blissed out
shit-talking bodies that held on held on held on
like they expected to float down finally and find themselves

How the word “love” was never spoken
or maybe once, at the end of a phone call,
a Freudian slip,
but present ever after in the hidden language;
goodbye meant it
so did wanna do s.th. thursday
so did yes.

I’d write about the butt fur
the chest fur
the sweat-sticky buffalo fur
(the time we did it on a friend’s rug)
clinging to the backs of Paul’s
thin arms;
the blunt-fingered hands at the ends of them
work-rough and cut-up and always one nail hammered black;
the dark spot on the dick head
like a second, more reticent piss slit;
the lazy tongue the drawl the spit-
sweet kisses
the throat cored out special for me to park
my cock in
while Paul sang songs on it
about being




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


Let Nothing Lie Dormant

At the farmer’s market in Rosarito, Mexico,

a man touched my arm.
He sat on a stool at a wooden table,
and in the center,
a blue pitcher of water beaded under the sun.
Hunkered over his lap,
he worked with a gouge on a block of walnut,
and he blew at the dust,
and the dust swirled in the breeze.

Done stripping the sapwood vulnerable to rot,
the man held the heart of the wood,
a purple wood hard against
the chisel’s cutting edge.
He looked up from his work,
and his gray eyes told me I must listen.
“This wood must be strong
or the heart cracks before the real work is done.
See this?” he asked softly,
and he lifted a mallet carved
from a branch of apple, “Strong wood,” he said.
“It wanted to be more than a tree.”
He rubbed fresh walnut dust between his palms.
We drank glasses of ice water,
talked about life in general,
and he used the pitcher,
billowed and wet like the sail of a boat,
to cool his neck.

Later, through the soft meat of an avocado,
I felt the pit longing to be free.
:: David Dominguez, Work Done Right (Arizona, 2003)


Pauline on the Bar Tacker

Bill put me on bar tacking
once he saw I could do most anything.
It was piece work then.
I think we started off at $1.90
per hundred dozen. Seemed
like easy money at the time.
We finally got up to $2.90 per 100.
I was doing about 500 to 550 a shift.
One day Bill had a mean spell on, said,
"Pauline, I'll bet money you can do 600."
I said, "You are dreaming big now."
But I did get 604 dozen two days in a row.
As far as I know no one else has ever got that many.
In eight hours. It liked to a killed me.

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


First Day

Still astonished to be starting
     Work at twelve o'clock at night,
I passed through the dark streets
     By the river, that first Sunday
In another life, carrying my lunch-
     Box and steel-toed shoes toward
Those enormous ovens I'd be
     Laboring beneath till morning.
Left alone below the mill floor,
     I shoveled shale into the waters
Rushing beyond me like an opened
     Main, and could hear above me
The shear and clamor of metals,
     Crane whistles, ingots thundering
Along their beds to be rolled
     Through a series of presses.
I learned that day how time ran
     In the gears and drive trains
Of machinery, how time burned
     Inside furnaces in the great fires
Of creation and spread out evenly
     In sheets of steel. That night,
For the first time, I counted
     The hours coming on, one by one,
And passed through them without
     Sleep. Finally, that morning,
I watched the sun bloom in a sky
     Filled with mill smoke and
Sparrows rising from their baths
     Of dust, the blue fuse of ozone
From the wires above the trolleys.
     I learned how each new day
Was a promise light made to dust
     Before breaking, which the river
Took with it and emptied downstream.
     How the streets were a promise,
And the surge of current through
     The line--a song that the blood,
The humming wires, would take up
     Again with each new morning,
Just as though it were the first.

:: Robert Gibb, The Origins of Evening (Norton, 1998)


Farmworker as Existential Quantifier

That one waters
his mortgaged field

& becomes the water.
Another drinks the water

dissolving into drills.
The quickest one coffins

into the trench with his wife.
They are there so long

a plow gives them last rites.
A child is born on that

hottest day in mid-strike.
He swallows the crop

& waddles away a god.
Without any fuel workers

sell their own steam.
Their labors are packed

into a papoose & carried
off. One of them pours

the water onto his rags.
The rest of them catch

the wringed water
in their mouths.

:: Rodney Gomez, in Devil's Lake (Spring 2012)


The Retired Welder Turns to Gardening

He's gentler now. His swollen hands that worked
on almost every dam in Alabama,
bending steel to fit the concrete seams,
now cradle seeds. His fingers poke the holes
in dirt made rich with cow manure; they drop
the seeds and bury them snug; they pull the weeds;
they pinch tobacco worms from ripe tomatoes.
In younger days his fingers knew the tricks
of prying bottle caps and winding tight
his belt around his fist as the boy stood by,
waiting for his licks. His pitching arm
could lob a whiskey bottle eighty feet,
and he loved the laughing sound of shattered glass
almost as much as his torch's private hum.
Now he no longer loves those things.
The garden, sloping down a hundred feet
to overlook the K-Mart and Dairy Queen,
is mostly meant to fill his table: peas,
zucchini, crookneck squash, collard greens,
a fig tree, okra tapering like knives.
He's generous with what he grows, although
his son looks bemused at the sacks of greens,
and rolls his eyes at boiling them with hamhocks.
The boy (he cannot help but think of him
as still a boy) prefers his fig preserves.
The old man brings collards anyway.

While he loves his garden's fruits, still more
he loves the oddities. He keeps a patch
of scrubby cotton to show his granddaughters,
plucking bolls and guiding their fingertips
through fibrous clouds to the sticky seeds within.
His sunflowers turn their showy heads and nod,
obedient to the bruised and jet-streaked dusk.
The gourds he hangs from twine, stretching out
their necks, twisting them around poles,
bending not with fire now but time.
As he walks between the rows, the stray cats
he feeds all gather at his heels and follow,
their greedy purrs subdued to background murmur.
The children, the boy and his girls, don't come as much
as he would like, but every time he shows
them how to feel the cotton seeds, and gives
each one a dried-out gourd with a corkscrew neck.
He's gentler now, more patient. The things he loves
will bend to him no more with fire, but time.

:: Juliana Gray Vice, History in Bones (Kent State, 2001)



After parking my car in the East Lot, I head past the
guard post, past the security cameras, past the sign list-
ing the number of days since the last work-loss accident,
stuck at 29 for weeks. Then into the locker room, with
its large round sinks, and the hand cleaner that looks and
feels like sawdust, and the old battered lockers, and the
first whiff of the dark smell of grease.

The plant has its own hospital, its own store, its own
railroad, its own streets, a main cafeteria and five satel-
lites. I got lost the first few times just trying to find my
way out at shift change. Once I ended up at the wrong
doors, the ones that go from noise and grit and darkness
to clean, bright, quiet offices where people dress nice
and talk to each other in normal voices. Heads turned.
I turned, back into the black noise. Lost.

:: Jim Daniels, Punching Out


Scar Tissue

Forty-ninth and Chester, cheap light-blue fluorescent lights,
dusty ceiling fans swimming up more dust, cracked flood-
worn floor, musty mop top in the washboard sink, Lou
working graveyard shift for my father's father, then my father.
Let me show you, as Lou did, the long skinny corridor behind
the dryers, the thick rusty-looking gas pipes that run the floor
every three feet. Give me your hand and let me show you how
easy it is to trip, to burn your arms and hands on the pipes
in front of us. Now, lie down like I am, next to me, look over
me at how Lou's inside one like a mechanic, half-in, half-out:
boot, sock, shin, pant, how he seems to ignore us. . . Do you see
the twin scars on his shin,dark pink rings inches apart, shiny
and smooth skin held in place, no nerves glowing where hair
refuses to come back? Take my hand. I want you to circle the
numb wounds, I need you to feel the nothing inside too.

:: Alexander Long, Light Here, Light There (2009)



In this visitation your silent h's
soften the palate to mother-of-pearl. You are
as quiet as my grandfather. As fate

would have it, you're Portuguese and mutter
the Latin mass in your sleep, through your nose. As you would
your twenty acres of alfalfa after the first fall rain

you smell the ocean or its headless
abundance stranded, not-quite-dead. The sweet marisque blows

miles inland at night with the fog, over Pacheco Pass
to the hot valley, the brackish irrigation canals. Smells come easier

than sounds--the kelp bladders pop
under your Red Wings, the sea lions bark
their hauled-out positions. It's once again

a minus tide in a month with an r. You crowbar
off a red nine-incher and plop it into a galvanized bucket
of salt water. A single foot to be pounded

to astonished edibility, the green guts going
to the farm cats, the shell to grow a garden

of hens-and-chickens, nailed to the dream
of a loquat tree.

:: B. Long, in Alaska Quarterly Review
(V 10, No 3 & 4, Spring/Summer 1992)


The Unwearing: A Benediction

Then, at last, when machines shut down,
the crank and clatter of their work
quiet at this long shift's end,
when the bobbins are empty,

whistles have stopped blowing,
freight has been loaded on its beds
and is gone, when sore backs
and burly afternoons behind

concrete walls have gone,
when all the plants
have closed their doors,
there will be nothing left

but the spinning earth,
its tight weave of water and root,
soft fabric of morning,
each imperfection counted one

by one, nothing left but the world's
rhythm, the manufacture of its seasons,
nothing but the voices of our ancestors
talking above the roar,

and then we will take off the cloth
and there will be only thread
and then not even thread
or the need for thread

and we will bless each day's creation,
the sweat and rip that wove it,
the oily grace that gave it to us,
how it feels against our skin.

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



I wanted to be like the other Boston Market girls,

and maybe that’s why I kissed the Vietnamese boy
who worked in the kitchen. He tugged me into the walk-in freezer,
calling me baby, and I kissed him without thinking,
the way I did my job—quick, efficient, automatic.
He went back to the oven and I headed to the counter,
and whenever I saw him bringing out fresh mashed potatoes,
I was suddenly busy stacking plastic forks. I didn’t
kiss boys at work after that, not even the sandwich guy
who told me I was cute. I watched the other girls, and listened.
Before the dinner rush, we’d gather around the register to swap
details from the weekend, munching stolen cornbread
and pretending to scrub something, while whoever
had the latest news whispered it, bold: Leslie was dating
the chicken cutter when I started my job, then Vicki dated him,
Leslie again, then Jenn. Missy sucked the dishwasher’s dick
in the back office after closing. Nikki and our married manager
had a seven-month affair. I couldn’t get enough of their gossip.
This was before I’d touched a penis, so I asked them
questions that seemed sensible: Wouldn’t that feel weird?
Why would you want that in your mouth? You don’t remember
your first time? They looked at me blankly, surprised maybe
that they didn’t know. Then our boss sauntered up front
and we scattered to stir the creamed spinach,
empty the trash cans, or check the bathrooms, flirting
with kitchen boys and customers the way teenage girls do,
and with our bitten-off fingernails, tight jeans, and shiny hair,
we looked like the girl next door, we all looked the same.

:: Roxanne Halpine Ward, This Electric Glow (Seven Kitchens Press, 2012)


Bowling Alley

There were six lanes
and a bar next door.

We worked two lanes
at a time. "Jumping"

it was called. Two
maybe three leagues

a night @ 13 cents a line
plus tips. It added up.

It was even kind of fun--
like being on a ship

and dodging broadsides
from the enemy. Look

lively lads! Right on.
You had to pay attention.

Otherwise a freak ricochet
could knock your teeth out.

And it was hot back there
concussive, sweat-slippery

a place I'd dream about
for years--an atmosphere

whistling with bombs
as I remember it

grapeshot, cannonballs
all the furious shrapnel

transposed and manifest
of beleaguered adolescence ...

No wonder we got tired.
There was so much smoke

by the end of the night
we could hardly breathe--

we needed air back there
stars in the open hatchway

an icy, offshore gale
crashing on the gun deck ...

until BANG we were done
the last pin racked

and we found ourselves
taking a leak in fact

out beside the Dumpster
in the literal alley

where it sometimes snowed.
One of us, I remember

had a tattoo. One of us
was missing some teeth.

:: Michael Van Walleghen, Blue Tango (Illinois 1989)


How It Will Always Seem

Last night in Fall River in Lafayette Park,
Near a dilapidated tin tot-slide, and after
He'd snorted angel dust, my friend wanted to swing
At me with a two-by-four. Both of us sweating

Like crazy. For one brief moment, on that glass-
Wracked playground asphalt, a transitory
Instant, it seemed something--pure, engaging--
Which he despised on sight and wanted to smash,

Had revealed itself. But, look, it was really
Just two girls in cut-offs and halter tops.
They'd drunk and flirted with us all night.
Not visions, holy or demonic, even with other-worldly

And soulful tans. They had those bleached
Shag-cuts easy to make fun of, easy for me anyway.
Who knows what I said. But they took off,
And he got pissed. I don't care what he saw.

I down my cornflakes this morning, stare
At puffy red roses on the kitchen wallpaper.
Can't find my gloves, and meanwhile I'm late
For punch-in at the dye plant. So, outside,

I pretend at first I don't hear my father call
From his pickup. Road grit, bugs on the windshield.
On the dash, a crumpled race form: what's left
Of win-or-else shouts as three-year-olds hit

The wire at Suffolk Downs: a scream to be lifted clear,
Now. Nothing, I tell him, leaning on the truck door,
When he asks what I did last night. When what
He means is what are you trying to prove, pal?

And smarten-up. This is how it will always seem to me.
As if a father always knows when his son lies,
And the son lies because he's sure of nothing
But the fact he's headed toward a factory,

Not even noticing why work is noisy and lonely
As the inside of a skull, or what drifts down
Into your blood from convoluted piping
Around fabric vats, or why that river flows

Past the plant, until, reaching the sea twenty miles
Down, near a sand bar, it loses itself,
Now, while the beach haze starts to burn off.
While the day, swallow-delighting, already

Humid, shimmers like a smudged, heavy coin.

:: David Rivard, Torque (Pittsburgh, 1988)


Instrument Factory, Brazil

It's simple enough to give away the coins in your heart, when dust
settles over a pool filled with mineral water and the dogs, those sleek
guards, raise their inky noses to a silver saxophone moon. Beyond Sao
Paulo, down a dirt road, men make French horns, flutes, and cymbals
with the delicate precision of angels. Blue-suited, they sit at tables: one
tests a saxophone, another welds the key of a flute. And each has tools
on the table, a candle, a blue welding flame. Stacks and stacks of half-
finished instruments crowd the factory aisles: bells of horns, all sizes,
rows of French horns hung on a green metal rack, pyramids of tam-
bourines and drums.I love to watch their mouths emerge, but I have
closed my own against the men with their suit coats hung over their
shoulders. Our guide runs his finger across my cheek, then down the
elegant neck of a flute. And the slim scraps of brass, shaved off, curl
like hair when they sweep the floors. Here, they use plastic for clarinets;
even the good wood, when they can get it, rots in the sun. Behind us,
a young boy plays scales in a testing room while vats for nickel and
brass plating steam behind windows. And the workers walk with horns
slung over their shoulders, the almost obscene curves shining in their
closed hands.

:: Kathleen McGookey, Whatever Shines (White Pine Press, 2001)


Steelworkers' Lockers, Pittsburgh History Center

The Forlonrnness of Metal they might just as well
Be titled, these salvaged relics, props from a set
Long struck--the lap-welds and louvers
And green latch-locked doors bolted in line
In assembly, each the width of a man crammed in
Or hung in parts as in effigy. The bench hard
As a pew. Beyond, the mills were medieval,
Rows of stoves set four to the furnace, chimneys
In groves, hoists where they elevated the stock.

In the locker room, at the start of each shift,
Shucked aluminum suits got lowered on pulleys
From their ceiling roosts. We changed into
Forge-proof shoes, the hardhat's Day-Glo halo,
And stepped among flames, out into the annealing,
Where the world was turned to steel.

:: Robert Gibb, World Over Water (Arkansas 2007)


Children's Unit Blues

It ends with Louis Armstrong banned from the children's ward.
The Armstrong tape I left behind banned from the children's ward.
The newest memo protects our children from "It's a Wonderful World."

It begins with Hector Baptiste, nine-year-old from New Orleans,
The music wars begin with Hector, black kid from New Orleans,
Quickmarched to time-out when his taunts get too obscene.

He says his therapist hates him,, he swears that I'm a queer.
He promises he'll kill us both if it takes a hundred years.
Then he's calling his mother, the bitch who dumped him here.

The supervisor wants Vistaril to silence Hector's shouts.
Wants Vistaril to drug him up, she's sick of all the shouts.
I put on Coltrane's "Alabama," see if that'll drown him out.

At first it's just more noise, the horn and Hector's screech,
Tenor sax is clashing with the boy's shrill screech,
Then a violent sort of beauty wobbles just out of reach.

A moment comes when screams & sax both rise up together.
A moment when the shouts & horn both lament together.
Then a whole grief world glides above this corridor.

John Coltrane's got it all down, hopeless and shining.
Somehow Coltrane's got it down, all the pain one dark shining.
Trane's talking soft, Hector shuts up, listening.

Hector's in the time-out room pretending he's got a horn,
Leaning on the padded walls he's wailing on a phantom horn,
He's playing out each rotten year he's known since he was born.

Surprised to see him settle down, I put on a tape of Armstrong.
Coltrane's done, try one more tape, sweet raasps of Louis Armstrong.
What else can I give him? His stay here won't be long.

Oh, let the unit director have her senseless final word.
She thinks she's going to help by censoring songs and words.
Hector, blues come like a thief, hold fast to what you heard.

:: Theodore Deppe, in Nebraska Review (2000)



In this part of Pennsylvania, roads run along
streambeds, or beside the narrow tributaries
the highest ridges conceal when they turn
their faces to the north or south--creases

marked the length of their long necks, ravines
as beautiful as the shadowed space at the base
of a woman's throat. In these little-traveled
places, the men who have been without work

for weeks and weeks take their trucks out
into the dark to find deer, to capture them
in the gaze of their highbeams, so they might
kill, come back to their homes with more

than the defeated faces they wear as they pay
for milk and bread with food stamps, their few
real dollars laid down for a pack of Camels
they'll smoke as they gut the animal in the barn,

taking what they can, dumping the rest along
the river where winter snows bury the arcs
of the deer's slender white ribs.

::Todd Davis, Some Heaven (Michigan State, 2007)


A '49 Merc

Someone dumped it here one night, locked
the wheel and watched it tumble into goldenrod and tansy,
ragweed grown over one door flung outward
in disgust. They did a good job, too: fenders split, winsield
veined with an intricate pattern of cracks
and fretwork. They felt, perhaps, a rare satisfaction
as the chassis crunched against rock and the rear window
buckled with its small view of the past. But the tires
are gone, and a shattered tail light shields a swarm
of hornets making home of the wreckage. How much
is enough? Years add up, placing one small burden on another
until the back yaws, shoulders slump. Whoever it was
just stood here as the hood plunged over and some branches snapped,
a smell of gasoline suffusing the air, reminding us
of the exact moment of capitulation when the life
we planned can no longer be pin-pointed on any map
and the way we had of getting there knocks and rattles to a halt
above a dark ravine and we go off relieved--
no, happy to be rid of the weight of all that effort and desire.

:: Kurt Brown, More Things in Heaven and Earth



Back of the Navy housing project
the women hang the laundry.
Under a thin morning sun, braced
against a keening wind, my mother lifts
wet towels out of the wicker basket
heaves them to the curving clothesline
higher than the top of her head
and a late setting sickle moon.
I hand up the wooden pegs one by one
adrift in a cotton trance.

The back yards are a harbor of sails
rippling in the icy breeze.
Freezing stiff, cotton diapers
are lined up in ranks on review.
My brother and I play hide and seek
among the swaying sheets, or crouch
between two lines as in a bivouacked
tent, telling stories of heroes and feasts.
Rows of back doors, scuffed dirt,
a red tricycle.

Family uniforms come off the line
in a fading yellow afternoon. We
slide the pegs back into their cloth bag,
stack frozen diapers in the basket.
Red chapped hands wrapped
around mugs of hot chocolate thaw
in the cramped steamy apartment.
Clean clothes relax into tenderness
throwing off a fresh cold scent,
silver notes from a Celtic harp.

My mother's life, the story of a day:
gathering, washing, hanging, drying,
sorting and folding, putting away.

:: Pamela Annas, Mud Season (Cervena Barva Press, 2011)


Letter to Dad from New Danville, 1998

When I can no longer stand to read
or write in any chair in the house,
I bank the fire and head out
into the night, slither
between electric fence lines
and climb a ridge where you can see lights
from Lancaster city all the way
to the black Susquehanna.
I lie down there under Orion's belt
until snow melts through my hair
to the back of my neck. This is the best
thing you ever taught me: to stop
and stretch out under tree limbs or clouds.
I almost forgot how good a pasture feels
beneath a sore back. And these evil days
when you can't say who'll sign your check
or for how long, as friends of thirty years
get canned or quit or just turn silent,
you must walk out onto that smooth swath
of Westinghouse lawn and lie down. Think
how the sky will open above you. Think
how the ground will hold you as it
always has, as it certainly will until
it takes you once and for all.

:: Julia Kasdorf, in Witness 12:2, 1998


Water Story

I love the living sound of my plant when I water it,
the hiss and suck of agua
pulled through the soil by gravity,
the sweat that appears on the clay pot,
the unwrinkling of the leaves.
I had a patient once, pregnant mother
morning sick and evening sick, who arrived
hauling her children, carrying her bucket.
We slipped a needle in her vein,
dripped saline into her body's dry core
and, right before me, the woman
plumped up. My ivy overflows--
a thread of water and fertilizer returns to earth
through the sink mouth. I am happy
that all life is circular. Seven months later,
the woman's chubby boy popped out, head first.
Blood and water flooded the catch basin, spilled over.
I carry this story on my white shoes.

:: Cortney Davis, in Prairie Schooner (1999)


The Seamstress

When she thinks of what is the one constant
   in her life, she thinks of the stitch. The way
the needle punctures the cloth and sets

the thread. She remembers, when she saw
   the Singer machine at her grandmother's
house, the woman with the cloudy eyes,

the black gap in her mouth, the woman who
   told stories of the witches by the bridge,
of the specters by the side of country roads

who suckled on the blood of humans, of serpents
   who swallowed whole sugar cane cutters asleep
under the shade of the framboyans and mameys,

the woman whose face appears in the wrinkles
   of the material she now sews together. She
loves the hum and vibrations of the machine's

motor, making the stitching the constant clatter
   much like the sound of the women of her childhood
beating and cleaning the rice in the hot morning

sun. She is alone now, the mother of a child
   grown and gone from home, married with
children of his own. She is here in Hialeah,

alone in the three-bedroom apartment her late
   husband, three months in the grave, worked
alongside her, so hard for. They came to Los

Angeles in 1974, and from that beginning
   the constant she depended on was the sound
of an overlap machine stitching zippers to denim

pants, piecemeal, piecemeal--the pay never
   going higher than ten cents per piece. What comfort
is the sound of this machine her husband bought

for her. He knew what sewing means to her,
   the kind of disappearance involved into her
childhood. Here she is, a widow, far from her

country of birth, far from her sisters and brothers.
   Her father still alive, her mother in the ground,
and quite suddenly she feels the urge to laugh,

laugh at how time weaves itself into the intricacies
   of the spirit, of the heart--she is planning a return
to the island of her birth, but first she will finish

this dress for her oldest granddaughter, a child
   born in this country, speaking no other language
than the language of her birth place. What joy

the fabric, the lace as it moves under her fingers, 
   the dress almost finished, she will wear it, become
the child in the photos, travel back to her country,

go through the empty rooms of an empty house,
   feel the heat of her birth place, hear the cries
of a child about to be born in 1938, San Pablo, Cuba.

:: Virgil Suarez, in Witness 12:2, 1998


Counting Tips

My mother came home from work,
sat down at the kitchen table
and counted her tips, nickel by nickel,
quarter by quarter, dime by dime.
I sat across from her reading Yeats.
No moonlight graced our window
and it wasn't Pre-Raphaelite pallor
that bleached my mother's cheeks.
I've never been able to forget
the moment she said--
interrupting The Lake Isle of Innisfree—
"I told him to go to hell."
A Back Bay businessman
had held back the tip, asking,
"How much do you think you're worth?"
And she'd said, "You can go to hell!"
All evening at the Winthrop Room she fed
stockbrokers, politicians, mafioso capos.
I was eighteen, a commuter student at BU,
riding the MTA to classes every day
and she was forty-one in her frilly cap,
pink uniform, and white waitress shoes.
"He just laughed but his wife was there
and she complained and the boss fired me."
Later, after a highball, she cried
and asked me not to tell my father
(at least not yet) and Ben Franklin
stared up from his quarter,
looking as if he thought she deserved it,
and Roosevelt, from his dime, reminded her
that she was twenty years shy of Social Security.
But the buffalo on the nickel, he—
he seemed to understand.

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


Friends, 1956

We were pure energy without wisdom.
We were the embarrassment of short pants
and short hair. We were dust
creased in the neck, fingers around a baseball bat.
We were the lovers of lost time,
and we spent much of it ourselves.
We were smokers in hiding,
stalled cars miles from home.
We were white socks with a brown suit.
We were all sweat in our coats,
always a nickel short,
ten steps ahead.
We could have swum in clear rivers.
We could have swum in deep lakes.
We could have sung songs to the trees.
We had green knees forever.
We sulked ten steps behind.
We ran our dogs to the bone.

:: Ken Fontenot, in Prairie Schooner (Fall 2009)



A single man's on the corner
waiting for the express bus
to come. It's cold out. He
dips down deeper into
his coat, the huge green
overcoat he bought used for
$10 from a Polish bouncer
down on his luck. I called
him a man, but he's 17,
working evenings and weekends
in a surplus store on Linwood
watching the tough guys stealing
whatever they want and giving him
the stare that says, Open your
mouth and you will be sorry.
What's he care if they get
a couple pairs of rusted pliers,
socket wrenches in metric
sizes? Boss drives a pre-war
Packard Twelve and has three
different businesses all making
money faster than he can
spend it buying drive shafts stolen
from the old Hudson assembly plant
on East Grand. Our man is on
his way to his mother's
for an overdone roast with
his two older brothers, both in
college, both aiming at bigger
things, both married to the wrong
women, as they won't discover
for twenty more years when
it's almost too late. Twenty years
from now he'll remember
none of this. Not because
he smokes too much or drinks
too much or because he'll step
out in the path of a semi.
No, because he doesn't see how
important the day is, not even
when the bus comes and he climbs
on, his glasses fogging over,
and drops his dime in the box,
not even when the hazel-eyed
girl from Sacred Heart smiles
up at him and slides over
closer to her sister to make
room for him, and he sits
beside her, tucking the skirts
of the green coat under his
suddenly sweating legs as he
turns to the girl to thank her
and feels something like lightning
strike between the hurried beats
of his heart as he studies
the two wide-opened eyes studying
him, the delicate nose, the perfect
mouth which in her entire lifetime
has never uttered a single sentence
you or I or he would ever care to hear.
When she rises at last to leave
he doesn't stop her or even try,
though she waits. Instead he waits
for his own stop and walks
the familiar blocks to where
people expect him. At last
the snow that's held itself
inside the gray clouds begins to
fall, a curtain separating every
living thing between the Seven
Mile Road and the Outer Drive
from every other living thing.

:: Philip Levine, in Five Points 3:2, Winter 1999


School Nurse's Journal

Outside the school the kids swat about;
their swings jabber with them.
Just off the morning yellow bus,
being back to the books of no import,
hatted, coated, their bright-colored
wings see-sawing now on the sunlight.
Be prepared for anything
reads the motto on my office wall,
for scrapes, nosebleeds,
poison ivy, geenstick
fractures, chipped front teeth,
torn britches, wet clothes,
have something for those
who forget their lunch,
be watchful of bruises and sprains.
I check my cabinets again--
ice bags, bandages, sanitary pads,
peanut butter, and bread--
and draw up lists:
TD shots for tots at 10,
sports physicals at two,
dental hygiene, grade four,
conference with special ed.
Wheezing, chickenpox, name it,
get it. I don't mind the head lice
anymore, not since the mouse
last year, found fast asleep
and nesting in the upsweep
of Megan's hair, a cute farm critter,
just cut loose; Lord, so alive
and breathing. Let things drone,
this first school autumn day,
just a few larky flies coming in,
lured perhaps out of dung by
a whiff from the teachers' room.
As I listen for the first school bell
kids outdoors still buzz the yard,
their swings whirring with them:
higher and higher to pump at dreams,
airy as fifty snowflakes.

:: Celia Brown, in American Journal of Nursing (2000)


Small Talk at an Academic Conference on the Working Class

I've been cornered by another conference
attendee who wants to tell me about his working
class experience: how he once wrote twelve pages
deconstructing the binary oppositions

within the Greatest Hits of Bruce Springsteen.
I let indifference register on my face
as I read him like a bad poem.
A collar the color of photocopy paper.

Metaphors as obvious as dead-end streets.
His language is always in Word Perfect.
No spelling errors or fragments
or Final Notice stamps. We shake hands

and I note how clean his fingernails are.
No dirt in the ridges of his fingerprints.
Nothing that could leave a stain
on our handshake or a smudge on his resume.

:: Andrew Rihn, The Rust Belt MRI (Pudding House, 2010)