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)