Cost and Use

Velvet slippers, one on the sidewalk, the other, debris
in a yard. A vanished woman, split in two by mesh fence.
At midnight, she walked barefoot. At midday, a man
faces the Latin Chef window. He reads the menu, his eyes

eat each item. His hands spread the wallet, his eyes
count each dollar. In one history, this is the end.
In another, a beginning. Along the block, people tend
their yards. Beatrice can see who remembers the country, crammed

into buckets of dirt, cantilevered on old boards, farmed
with okra, basil, tomatoes, aloe, cilantro, blue corn,
bitter melon. Twine takes bean vines up into a crown,
a shawl of shade. How frightened she was when she moved

into the four rooms, no yard, no way to grow her food.
To eat she always has to sell something. Her deft hands,
like women who paint roses by the hour, fancy designs
flowering on the edges of plates they can't afford to buy.

Or words that she strings together, ideas of things, dry
fertile seeds made by the sunflowers now turning their heads
in an arc of light in the yard beside her:

                                                             Between thought and deed,
she is rife with words, enough and not worth a penny a pound.

But they answer a need sharp as hunger and thirst. They feed the doubt
that gnaws on habit and the past. They pay for the act that breaks free.

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



One winter the basement flooded
and mice invaded the kitchen, so I laid

baited traps in the lower cabinets
and waited. Back then, I worked all day

stringing rafters, framing the roofs
of houses I couldn’t imagine buying,

then stopped on the way home to drink
a pitcher or two with friends at the tavern

and pick up a six-pack to finish after dinner.
I liked cooking, but I wasn’t so big

on washing dishes. Usually I just left them
stacked up in the sink. I’d been reading

The Brothers Karamazov, pushing a little farther
into it each night—feet on the hearth, a blanket

around my shoulders, the house cold as Moscow—
and when the first mouse found the cheese

I was half asleep. I might have missed the sound
of the wire snapping down on his neck

if the kill had been clean, but it wasn’t.
In fact, it took that mouse a good ten minutes

to die. I don’t remember where I was
in The Brothers Karamazov, but the mouse

was in the empty cereal drawer,
flopping around, rattling the platform

of his trap against the walls and floor
of the dark, little room he had crept into,

looking, I guess, for something better than what he had,
something he might use to improve his situation.

:: Joseph Green, in Vox Populi


Abandoned Farmhouse

Why did they walk away,
leaving their house
alive as a dog
and desperate here on its own?

Maybe the Bank turned them out
and the panicky house had to hear them
pacing, pacing across its mind
till the key pinned a meaning in place
and left it there to go feral
the garden tendril by tendril slipping
into the woods.

Or maybe the man couldn't take
his wife's windows descrying,
refusing communion,
letting his soul's skin be the price
for dragging his boots through a room.
The fan of glass
over the door
shamed him, he had to head out.

The house has no will this winter
to cover her face from the wind.
So bent on collapsing
into the cellar,
resolving at last
her agony there:
the incomprehensible plumbing,
the foot on the stair.

:: Mary Rose O'Reilley, Half Wild (2006)


Abandoned Schoolhouse on Long Branch

The final scholar scrawls his long
Black name in aisle dust, licks the air
With his tendril double tongue,
Coils up in shadow of a busted chair

And dozes like the farmer boys
Who never got straight the capital
Of Idaho, found out the joys
Of long division, or learned what all

Those books were all about. Most panes
Are gone now and the web-milky windows
Are open to the world. Gold dust-grains
Swirl up, and show which way the wind blows.

K.B. + R.J., cut deep
In a darkened heart on the cloakroom wall.
Now Katherine Johnson and Roger sleep
Quite past the summons of the morning bell.

The teacher sleeps narrow too, on yonder
Side of Sterling Mountain, as stern
With her grave as with a loutish blunder
In the Bible verse she set them to learn.

Sunset washes the blackboard. Bees
Return to the rich attic nest
Where much is stored. Their vocalese
Entrances the native tranquil dust.

:: Fred Chappell, Source (1985)


A Hunger

(Tuam, County Galway) 

The farmer comes home late from the pub
his one evening free from work,
and finds what he feared, the heifer sick,
one hoof jutting from the straining rump,
the other turned back inside the womb--
as if the calf had lost its way,
nature itself unsure of the path.

It's no miracle, as he rolls his sleeve,
then plunges his arm, elbow deep, into the cow,
shifts the limb, a difficult gear, into place.
Now, he tightens the knotted rope around both,
and pulls until the shocked face emerges,
then spreads the opening wider, his hands
bristling with blood and water,
while the beast drones its low, unhuman cry.

Mastery is nothing but perfection of habit,
years on an unwanted farm, nursing cows,
nursing the mother who begged him to stay,
sentencing him to his blank inheritance,
until what tumbles into straw is an afterthought,
the moment spilling into absence--
What I do is not done out of love;
in such loneliness I carry my dead.

Later, after the mother licks the new calf clean,
and it starts to hobble on its spindly legs,
he will guide it to the tit, the dumb mouth
sucking anything, even the bloody sac
that hangs deceptively behind the tail
and, if eaten, could kill.

:: Daniel Tobin, Where the World Is Made (1999)



The edges of another's work
were all the space
she had for her story.
With grease and lamp black,
a fine point, she set down
her worth  in small letters
that she might abide.
Perhaps you will glimpse her.

:: Isabel Zuber, in The American Voice #29 (1992)



The hose man is a shy one,
hands dug into pockets
and hat making shadows
on his all-weather radial tire face.
His Lincoln is a golfcart with a pick-up bed
tack-welded over the engine.
He wants to make things green.

Some mornings he starts
a half hour before the shift,
hose upon hose, mist upon mist.
As the sun climbs tiny rainbows appear.
He is smiling. On some days he canticles.
Every now and then he looks at the sky.
It seems dry up there.

:: Barrett Warner, in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review #6 (1995)